Brainstorming, Spitballing, and Other Creativity Boosters

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I’ve probably mentioned before how much I love brainstorming. My creative streak is like a bouncy ball – give it a little push in any direction and it will fly.

I’ve been neck-deep in work the last few weeks and the creativity has taken a hit. The creative voice, however, never truly stops. When I watch a movie and see the trailer or read the blurb before the film starts, my brain starts working. What would I do with this plot? Where would I take the characters? Who would I make the good guy or the bad guy? It never fails. I compare what I would do with what the writer does. And yes, I judge. I hate a lazy ending.

There are several methods I use when trying to figure out what to do with a storyline. The most obvious is brainstorming, tossing around ideas with a partner. I like it even more if they are someone who writes differently than I do. They will think in a new way.

Spitballing is very similar to this. It’s a technique I read about in a book on conflict and I’m sorry to say I can’t recall where I read this so I can’t give credit to the author. But the idea was to list anything and everything that could happen at a point in the story. If someone shows up at the door, write down every conceivable option, both practical and impractical, for who could be there. Ed McMahon with the Publisher’s Clearing House check. Long lost father. Aliens. Terrorists.

A new technique I’m using is intended to help me flesh out my scenes, to give them texture. If the setting of my scene is the parking lot, I’ll take a sheet of paper and divide it into the five senses. Then fill in things that could conceivably be experienced in such a place. Is there a playground nearby that would contribute sounds of children playing and laughing? Cars thumping over a speed bump. Engines roaring.  Or is it a high rise parking structure? Would elevator doors swish open and close? Horns echo against the cement walls. The smell of exhaust.

I do this for every scene in some way. Texture is important, it adds dimension to your scene and characters. It also helps me with body language and action sequences when I need to create dialogue tags beyond “he said” or “she said.”

These are just a few of the tools I use to kickstart my brain if it’s been quiet for a bit. All of them can be done solo but also work well with a partner, even a non-writing partner. Sometimes it helps just to say things out loud.

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Building Readership

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I tend to talk about the mechanics of writing. Honestly, it’s the part of writing that I’m comfortable with. I can discuss characterization and plot and POV. It’s not that I think I know it all; I just have solid opinions based on experience that I’m happy to share.

When it comes to finding new readers and enticing them to pick up my books? My experience is rather pathetic. This extends to my professional life as well. I’m not a salesperson. Even when I was a kid and we were tasked with selling M&Ms for the band or trying to get pledges for the swim-a-thon, I didn’t know how to approach a potential customer and convince them they needed my product or wanted to support my cause. And who can say no to melt-in-your-mouth goodness!

Part of me feels that if my product is good enough, enticing enough, buyers will find me. I know now that’s BS. There is literally a sea of books out there and you’re asking a reader to swim into the ocean and find your book.

Here are some things I want to focus on to keep my name out there.

Write! My goal is to publish short stories or novellas when I’m not publishing full length novels. And if I don’t have any of that going on, I want to guest blog with other writers in my genre so their readers get to know me.

Utilize my website. My website is my calling card. I have multiple domain names linked back to the same primary page so wherever the reader is coming from they’ll find me and my other pseudonyms. Even my professional writing leads a potential customer back to these pages. Who knows where the next reader will come from?

Social media. This is one I’m not utilizing enough but it moves almost too fast for me. I haven’t carved out enough time in my day to post the multiple tweets or TikToks or whatever that readers use to connect with an author. I need to work on this more. I do have a Facebook page. I even have a Twitter account, but both are rather dormant.

Newsletters. I think to build a readership you have to talk to them, and a newsletter is a start. Short and sweet seems to be the key to success in this avenue of marketing. But newsletters are the way to talk about your new release in more details than social media allows. There are also chapter newsletters if you’re involved in a professional group like Sisters in Crime or RWA. Local chapters may offer marketing opportunities so use those to your advantage.

C.A.S.E. Copy and Steal Everything. Watch what other successful author do and take your lead from them. They’ve already walked the path so following in their footsteps isn’t a bad way to go.

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Cast of Characters

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Would the Wizard of Oz be the same if Dorothy was a shy people-pleaser unwilling to take chances? What if Harry Potter had a loving aunt and uncle who raised him as their son instead of the “boy beneath the stairs?” Is Starr Carter’s dual life necessary to endear her to readers who don’t look like her?

The next time you are faced with an avid reader, ask them about their current book-of-interest. See if they give you a plot summary or a character summary. My guess is it will be a bit of both. 

“A girl desperate to save her beloved dog ends up in a fantastic world where she must battle an evil witch to find her way home.”

“A boy bridges the magical and non-magical worlds as he and two friends struggle to defeat a dark wizard before he destroys them all.”

“A girl devastated by the death of a friend faces peer pressure and criticism in a journey to do what’s right.”

However good the plot of a book, it’s the characters that drive it. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare has been remade over and over through the years, turning the characters into everything from NY gang members (West Side Story) to a zombie and a human survivor (Warm Bodies). The setting and execution of the plot are varied but the two protagonists remain driven by similar goals – people from different worlds fighting against family and societal pressure to be together. For the reader, it doesn’t matter where this happens – it matters to whom it happens. 

Experts list anywhere from three to 36 unique plot lines. Here’s a link to an article on this. It’s worth the read and I have several of the books. This is not to say that every book that falls into the category of “the Quest” will be the same but in general a quest story has certain characteristics that are identifiable. 

But the character bible for me is The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes coupled with Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, which I have mentioned in other blog posts. While it may seem limiting to narrow down all characters to 16 types, the nuances are as varied as fingerprints once you flesh out a character to fit your plot, setting, and conflict. Here’s a sample of my character chart for Chance Golden, hero in book 3 “Love and Miss Fortune.” 

Chance is a Chief with a strong helping of Professor. He’s strong-willed but not as bossy as many chiefs. He leads and if you’re smart you’ll follow him. He’s logical and intuitive about his business but also frustrated because his current role (consultant) puts him at the mercy of others’ decisions. As a Leo, he’s very protective and won’t abandon someone who needs him.  Sometimes he knows he’s right and will overrule the decisions of others, which can be aggravating to Pisces heroine, Harley.

This will be one source of conflict for Harley and Chance, of course, but it will also help them both broaden their perspectives and see what the other brings to the table.

Build your worlds. Bend and break and ignore the laws of physics, time, and space. Then fill them with people who will resonate with your reader and bring your story to life.

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Looking to the recycle bin

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Editing is tough. Editing means looking at your work in heartless ways. Does this character work? Does that action make sense? Does this part of the plot fit the overall story?

What’s tough for me is that each word is written with heart and soul. I agonize over the selection. I picture the scene in my head, walk the walk with my characters, talk the talk. Their pain is my pain. So when I have to cut words because they don’t work with the book, it’s a little like cutting out part of my soul.

But nothing is ever really deleted. I have a folder where I keep these odds and ends bits of text or scenes. I thought I’d share a few paragraphs and talk about why I deleted them. And in some instances, where I resurrected these carefully selected words.

When I was writing Sex and Insensibility my intent was to keep it light and humorous. Before that I’d written primarily romantic suspense and the more dead bodies the better. I tried to do both in this scene. To recap, my heroine Lara Haley discovers her soon-to-be-ex (Brian) after he died during the night. She also learns that he’d been having an affair with five women on the side.

“Brian’s disappeared.” Sheriff Brody announced, reluctance lifting the end of his statement to make it more of a question.

Lara’s jaw dropped, and the cool antiseptic taste of the hospital coated her throat. She licked her lips, tried to swallow the anger. “What do you mean Brian’s disappeared? It’s not like he has other plans for the weekend.”

Brody had the sense to look sheepish. “The coroner went to start the autopsy this morning and couldn’t find the body. We thought maybe he’d been sent to the funeral home by mistake, but they didn’t have him. We’re checking to see if maybe someone took him by mistake.”

“By mistake?” Lara tested the words on her tongue and didn’t like the sarcasm. “A mistake as in, oops, I meant to get Aunt Janie but picked up Brian Haley by mistake. Or the kind of mistake that goes I have something to hide and don’t want anyone to find out what it is.”

Brody squared his shoulders, the leather utility belt creaking as he adjusted his posture. “That’s why we’re talking.”

The innuendo dawned on Lara. She crossed her arms and leaned against the nurse’s station. “Then why don’t you start with your deputy. She had access and motive. In fact, I know four other women in town that Brian was fooling around with. He was a busy guy. Maybe they didn’t like to share.” 

“I’ll need that information. You also realizes that gives you plenty of motive.”

“Motive to want to steal Brian from the coroner? Brody, I didn’t want to be with him when he was alive. Why would I steal him now that he’s dead?”

Ultimately I didn’t like the disrespect in the scene. I tried to make it sarcastic but that wasn’t working. Finding Brian’s dead body behind the wheels of her car was one thing, but I also didn’t want the reader to suspect Lara for an instant. Who wouldn’t want to kill their cheating ex? And the scene also pushed the book too much into the “mystery” category for me. This was not meant to be a mystery, cozy or otherwise. I haven’t used it elsewhere, yet. But I’m sure it will find it’s way in a book sooner or later.

So the scene went in the “saved for later” folder. Here’s another. It’s from The Saint and the Sinner, a finalist in the RS category of the Golden Heart. Here Jonas is running toward the heroine, not in anger at her specifically but the heroine doesn’t know that at the time.

Jonas skidded to a stop as Heather shrank away from him, her arms raised to protect her from the expected blows. Her body curled in on itself, the shoulders dropping forward. But it wasn’t the physical reaction that stopped him in his tracks. It was the lack of emotion that stilled him and drained the tension from his knotted fists and shoulders. 

Her sapphire eyes glassed over like chips of blue ice. She did not clench her hands in a defensive manner – Heather wasn’t ready to fight. Instead, they were held wide to provide the widest measure of protection. Jonas knew Heather had learned she couldn’t ward off the physical blows, but she could wrap herself in a cocoon of her own making and keep her heart from being any more wounded than necessary.

Jonas had learned to defend himself but he’d never been a man to strike out in anger. The anger had been much more useful turned in on himself. 

What kind of life had instilled such instinct in this woman?

“I would never hit you, Heather.”

She flinched at the sound of his voice and the trembling motion of her body was enough to break his heart. At this moment Jonas wanted nothing more than to wrap Heather in his arms and promise her anything. Anything to fill the emptiness he saw.

I deleted this much for the same reason as I did the earlier example. I didn’t want my readers to think of violence when they saw Jonas. I don’t know that even the mistaken impression could be erased and I also know for some women a scene like this could be a trigger. So the scene didn’t fit the characterization I wanted for Jonas.

As you can tell I still have these scenes and I’m sure I can rewrite them when the time comes and use them in another book.

Writing is creating and not everything works the first time. That doesn’t mean it’s not good stuff. Sometimes it’s just not good for the current work in progress.

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Happy New Year!

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I read a hilarious meme a few weeks back.

2019-12-16_9-32-30

How true it is! I refuse to do that math on this because I remember 1980 all too well!

Change-Is-Good-Right-06-04-2012

But you know what this means? New year, new year’s resolutions. I prefer goals – things I’m going to accomplish rather than things I’m going to change. It means I can create a checklist, post it over my work computer and check off the items as I get them done.

My 2019 goals included finishing book 2 and getting it published. I managed to do half of that. Two rejections later and I’m still working on the second half. I also managed to grow my freelance work by 25% which is both surprising and exciting.

So what are my goals this year? They are rather lofty and that scares me. Posting them here scares me even more because it creates accountability. But hey…I trust you my valued readers. If I succeed I know you’ll celebrate with me. And if I fail I know you’ll commiserate with me. (And hopefully offer chocolate or share an adult beverage)

Goal 1: Keep shopping around books 1 and 2 in my Lovers of Belle Terre series. Did I tell you I got the rights back to book 1? I didn’t! Oh yeah, when the publisher rejected book 2 I requested and early termination to the rights on book 1 and it was granted. I’m very grateful to own this book again. I hope to learn lots about rebranding it with book 2.

Goal 2: Finish book 3. With this goal comes the decision of what to do with the 3 books. Do I self-publish or continue to shop? I know in theory how the marketing works but I’ve not had any success with it.

Goal 3: I want to have at least 25,000 words on the psychological thriller I told you about in a previous post. This one is coming together in my head more and more. One of my characters is going to be written in 2nd person POV and that has been a challenge to master.

There are other goals to consider but they are really dependent on things outside my influence right now. As soon as that gets written in stone I’ll share some big news with you in Q1.

Go forth, intrepid writers! Into the new year. New projects, new goals, new words!

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New year, new perspective

I have learned recently I am a NWL. A “nice white lady.” I cannot put in strong enough terms how much I hated that term when I first read it. You could practically hear the snarl in the universe’s voice.

If you’ve paid any attention to RWA lately you know what’s going on. The implosion of an organization I have supported, loved, respected, enjoyed, helped has been a knife in the gut for many reasons. That I have been so blind to the underlying problems of this organization is shameful and aggravating and frustrating. How did I not know this was going on?

And I guess the answer is because I’m a NWL. I didn’t mean to be. It wasn’t a conscious choice and therein lies the problem.

My assumptions are pretty basic. I assume people are like me – not because I’m special but because I’m quite average. I’ve had success and failure, love and heartache, good decisions and bad decisions. I am a product of my surroundings and I think other people are the same. I also think that these things ring true regardless of what the face in the mirror looks like. If my background was exactly the same and I was Asian-American or African-American or Mexican-American, I think I would be the same person.

I never questioned this belief before. I don’t know if that is a bias or ignorance or truth or fiction. I do know that I’m now questioning this. I hope that’s a good thing. I hope that it leads me to be a better writer – I want my books to be diverse and my characters to be three-dimensional and honest and fair.

Mostly I hope it leads me to be a better person.  I love the diversity of different perspectives. I love arguing and debating and learning and teaching. I hope this is me learning.

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The Book Under the Bed

Most of us have a book hidden somewhere – complete, incomplete, an alien time travel set during the Russian Revolution someone said would never sell.

So what do you do with such a book?  I could remind you of books like The Help (rejected 60 times), or Chicken Soup for the Soul (144 rejections) and you may have heard of Harry Potter (12 rejections). These were books that did not fit the mainstream at the time, and now the literary world could not imagine being without them.

What does that mean for you, writer of the alien time travel? It means you don’t give up the book of your heart. Publishing is as much about the right book as it is about the right time. Shortly after the tragic death of Princess Diana, I heard that an author had her book pulled from the publisher. It’s planned title? The Princess and the Paparazzi. The book was later rewritten and published under a new title.

Every book has someone standing behind it, someone who believes in it. That may only be you, the writer, but you are the most important advocate for your work. Finding an agent or editor that believes in the work may take effort but that doesn’t mean the right editor or agent doesn’t exist.

And of course, there’s the self-publishing route. Social media today makes it possible to build the hype, spread the word, and get sales that make writing and publishing doable, even without a publisher or agent.

The main point is never give up on your work, even if it’s hidden under your bed.

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If I could do it over again…

Along with a lot of craziness over the best present for great-aunt Winnifred or a suitable White Elephant gift to take the office holiday party, I think this time of year sparks a ton of reflection over past choices. In just two days we’ll start a “new” year and with that comes thoughts over the years flying past.

For me, this unevitably brings back the day I decided not to go to NY and pursue a career on Broadway. Not as an actress – I can’t stand being center-stage – but behind the curtains as a writer or director or stage manager. I love the theater. I have since junior high when I worked on a production of The Apple Tree in a small town theater group and the director, also my science and math teacher, put me – an awkward, shy, insecure almost-13yo – as the lighting assistant. I was given a headset and a walkie-talkie and you’d have thought I’d been handed the keys to the kingdom.

From then on I secretly wanted to join a theater group, travel town to town in the small theater groups that brought South Pacific and The Wizard of Oz to stages everywhere. I didn’t yet know of Broadway but the first time I realized it was there, my dream zeroed in.

Of course, that wasn’t the path I took. Practicality took over. I went the safe route but even today I get a giddy feeling when the curtain starts to rise and the first actors fill the stage, the spotlight finds its mark and I’m whisked away. Even if I know the story by heart, my pulse quickens and the slightest feeling of envy and awe washes over me.

As my own daughter starts to make her path in the world, I’m returned over and over to the decision not to pursue writing and the theater as a career. It’s not regret exactly – I have a good life. One that was created and funded by the decisions I made. I’m also secretly hoping that theories of a multiverse – you know, where every decision sparks two versions of you, one that chooses A and one that chooses B – are somehow true. And out there, in the ‘verse, I’m living the life I dreamed of that first time I shined a spotlight on a stage and helped bring it to life for the audience.

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“Where do you get your ideas?”

If you’ve ever told anyone you’re a writer, you’ve likely heard this question. It’s a stumper for me because I have no idea where these things come from. I’ll hear a phrase, or meet a person, or read a news headline. My first book, Sex and Insensibility, was born because I saw a news story about a woman who ran over her husband in the parking lot of a motel after catching him cheating. In fact, I think she ran over him twice.

I went with a slightly less blood-thirsty version. It was a romance, after all.

But I can’t really tell you where the idea first develops. It’s a voice in my head. Many of my books start with a name and, strangely enough, the birthday. The thing about the birthday is it gives me a profile using Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, both about the character as an individual and the two main characters as a couple. Along with the name, I generally know their occupation or the conflict that drives them.

I knew Lara in Sex and Insensibility had a secret (she was the ultimate goody-two-shoes and people pleaser) that would tarnish her image in the eyes of her family and town. She struggled with this secret and her desire not to disappoint anyone. The secret developed into a twofer that surprised me but it made sense with her character once it was revealed to me.

That’s probably the hardest part to explain to a non-writer. I don’t always know what’s going to happen. My characters take over, write their own story, let me know when I’m on the wrong path. Stubborn as they are (I don’t know where they get that from) they will not let me write a situation that doesn’t make sense for their characters. Because it’s not my story; it’s theirs.

That little voice in my head has been speaking to me about a new story but it’s not a romance. It’s not a young adult either, which is the other genre I write. This is a straight-up psychological suspense and it blossomed in my head almost fully formed. In what felt like a single breath, this book came to me with characters, birthdays, conflicts, twists, and an odd voice that would set one character apart.

It’s this last character that is speaking the loudest. So I guess I better list and get her story down.

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Tradition vs Revolution: Is Self-publishing for Me?

I remember when self-publishing first became “a thing.” After so many years of rejection letters and “not right for us,” I admit I was intrigued. It didn’t take long for that interest to turn cold. The immediate response from all sides seemed to be that to be self-published was to be unpublished, a cheaper version of a vanity press. Worse, it was labeled as the ultimate failure: no one else would publish the book so you were going to publish it yourself. There was no barrier between you and the reader – no editor, no agent, nothing and no one to say “this is good enough.” The writer was the beginning, middle, and end.

Egads! A writer in control. Surely a sign of the apocalypse.

But like with traditional publishing, self-publishing is neither easy nor for the faint-hearted. It’s work that doesn’t end. You don’t just write the book but now you have to edit, proof, design a cover, write a blurb, market, promote, manage sales, distribute, provide customer service…then start all over.

There are marketing companies that can help with promotion but like an agent, they usually take a percentage. Finding a good editor is both smart and can be costly. Then it comes down to getting your book into a reader’s hands. How do you get them to pick your book from the thousands – the tens of thousands – out there?

It’s dizzying.

As I start to learn more I’ll share my wonderful insights (joke!). Luckily there are others far wiser than me who’ve taken the journey and shared their experiences. I plan to absorb as much as they’re willing to tell me.

 

 

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