The Idea Vat (A Post on Writing Process)

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One of the most frequent questions I get as an author is “Where do you get your ideas?”

As though there’s some central Idea Vat into which we writers dip in and pull out ideas.

I’m always puzzled when it comes from people who claim they want to write, but don’t know what to write about; most writers I know have far more ideas than they’ll ever be able to explore.

Non-writers are fascinated by the writing process (so are writers, but for different reasons). Writers tend to be fascinated by anyone’s process to do anything, because it’s all material.

There is no Magic Writing Bullet or Potion that will suddenly make one a creative genius churning out best-sellers and winning every award. Even the innately talented have to put in the work. I’ve had many talented writers in my workshops who were not willing to put in the necessary work. The ones who could outwork the more talented are the ones who usually end up sustaining a career.

I find the world an interesting place. Almost everything can be interesting, if approached from the right angle. Everyone has a unique story, which can be interesting, but too often is spewed out there for catharsis without being crafted. Catharsis is great, but sometimes it makes more sense to keep it in your private journal until you find the best way for that unique piece to be shared.

Where do I get my ideas?

From everywhere around me. A line in someone else’s story gets me thinking, “What if?” A fragment of an overheard conversation gets me thinking, “What if?” A news story or something heard on the radio or seen on social media gets the wheels turning. Visiting a new place inspires.

For me, setting is an additional character, and emotional geography is just as important as physical geography.

Paintings inspire me. If I’m stuck or feeling frustrated in my work, I go and look at paintings. A beautiful painting will inspire me to go back to the page — either because I’m no longer stuck or because the painting inspired a short story. Edward Hopper’s work, in particular, has inspired several short pieces.

Historical places and people inspire me. History is comprised of people and what they do. It’s not just events and dates — it’s the struggles, joys, and sorrows of those immersed in those events at those dates. Visiting an historical site often inspires me.

Soundtracks DO NOT inspire me. Soundtracks are created to support someone else’s creative vision. If I use a soundtrack when I’m writing fiction, unless that particular piece has relevance to the plot or character, it derails my work and bleeds into it.

I can always tell when my students have written something with a show or movie soundtrack on. I can usually tell what it is. Because it warps their writing.

If I have music on while I write, it’s instrumental, unless I’m listening to something specific to the plot or the character.

After the inspiration comes the work. Research, what I call “percolating.” I get an idea. I jot down notes.

I usually work from character first. Even if it’s inspired by a painting or an historical site or event, until I have my central character, I can’t do anything with it. Character, more characters, situation, then “what if?”

Then, I can work.

I usually write my way in to a new piece for about four chapters (if it’s a long work; if it’s short, I usually know within ten pages and can adjust). Four chapters (40-80 pages) gives me a good handle on whether or not this idea is viable.

Then I percolate for a bit, thinking about the idea while I’m doing other things. That negates the mindfulness in which we are supposed to do all things, but I often get my best ideas in the shower, or driving to the store, or cooking, or doing yard work.

Once I’ve percolated for a bit, I sit down and do my Writer’s Rough Outline.

For those blank-pagers (I loathe the term “pantser”) who are moaning — hey, do what works for you. This is my business, not my hobby. Writing is how I keep a roof over my head and food on the table. In order to do that, I have to juggle multiple projects. My time is as limited as anyone else’s. I don’t have the time to stare at a blank page or a blank computer screen. When I sit down in a work session, I need to be able to drop into whatever project I’m working on and produce my quota for that work session. Having a detailed Writer’s Rough allows me to do that.

It also allows me to move from project to project without losing the individual project rhythms, or having them bleed into each other.

Once I have my outline, I research what’s necessary and gather research materials to which I might need to refer as I write. I prefer to do that than put in a placeholder and look it up later for a different draft. Right now, I’m on too tight a deadline schedule for that to be viable.

I have X amount of time each day where I’m reading research for any number of projects, taking notes, making my bibliographical lists. This is separate from writing time.

Then I write. When a fiction or script project moves into “Primary” position, it means I do my first 1K/day of it first thing in the morning, at least six days a week. If I fall behind and have a deadline looming, I raise the quota to whatever it needs to be to get it done.

Once I have that first 1K done, I can move between whatever other projects are on contract and deadline and client work. If I can or need to have another fiction or script session later in the day (often on a different project), I add that in.

At the moment, I’m doing 2K/day on one novel, first thing in the morning, and then 1K/day later in the day on a different novel (with a slightly later deadline). And pulling together research for a play, while researching something that came up for one of the novels.

I prefer to edit in the afternoon. It needs a different approach. When editing/revising a novel, I do 3-5 chapters a day. And there is always more than one revision. before I turn it over to my editor. We usually have at least two rounds of revisions before it goes into production, and then as many rounds of galleys as needed or as can fit in to the schedule.

Because galleys are for copy edits and catching mistakes, NOT for major revisions. You have to train yourself to catch what needs to be caught in each phase of book production. Because it’s not just about YOU. It’s about the entire team working to make the book the best it can be.

Every book has its own rhythm and process, but the overall structure I talk about here is working for me right now. When it stops working, I’ll change it. Creativity is a process, and each piece you work on teaches something and makes it possible for the next to be better, artistically and in craft.

In a way, I suppose I do go to the Idea Vat, dip in a ladle, and pull out an idea. The Idea Vat is another name for the Creative Unconscious.

 

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Learn more about Devon’s books at www.devonellingtonwork.com

A Toe in the Surf: Introducing Emily Montgomery

I met Emily initially online during one of the National Novel Writing Months we both did. Can’t remember which one. But she stepped into the breech today, so to speak, stepped up to the plate, and all those clichés, so may I introduce someone I think is a terrific writer: Emily Montgomery.

Hello. My name is Emily Montgomery and I’m an introvert.

Not unusual for a writer, is it?

I love books and writing. I decided I wanted to write my own, because there were characters who kept telling me their stories and wouldn’t quiet down until I put them on paper. I don’t even have a website yet. I don’t blog (this is my first blog post ever); I hate Facebook, and Twitter overwhelms me. I do have an editor interested in my unfinished manuscript, which means now I have to finish it.

I was named after Emily Brontë, only I decided I wasn’t going to die young of consumption. It was a romantic idea when I was about thirteen, but life is much too interesting to leave it until I’m old and ready. I used to fantasize I was Emily of the New Moon series written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

I’m an unpublished writer without a website or a contract, so what am I doing on A Biblio Paradise?

Funny story, that.

I’m visiting Devon Ellington, who runs this blog. The person who was scheduled to post today backed out yesterday. I was here on the Cape visiting Devon, on an impulse.

I never do anything on impulse.

Devon and I met during National Novel Writing Month. A friend of mine got tired of listening to me say I wanted to write a book “someday” and signed me up. I saw, on one of the forums, that Devon had something called “30 Tips for 30 Days” where she emailed a tip every day during Nano. I asked to be on the list. It gave me motivation, especially on days when I thought I couldn’t face a blank page.

National Novel Writing Month demands that a writer create 50,000 words over 30 days, in November. I figured that would force me to write every day.

I wrote every day.

The problem is, I am a slow writer. I learned the most I can write is 500 words on any given day. It doesn’t matter if I write for one hour or eight hours. 500 words is it for me. I have a confession: there was one day where I wrote 497 words, and I added three adverbs to make 500.

I’ve cut them since, I promise.

But 500 words a day times 30 days equals 15,000 words. That’s 35,000 words short of the goal.

I figured Devon would never speak to me again, because, on a good day, it seems like she writes a bazillion words. I know her minimum is 1000 words. From there, it’s until she falls over from exhaustion. During Nano, it’s usually around 2500, because she likes to be done by Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, I struggled to hit 500 words for the day while stirring gravy.

But she did speak to me again. In fact, at a post-Nano event at a bar, when I was standing in the doorway wondering why I was there, someone smiled at me across the room, waved, and said, “Pull up a chair and join us.”

It was Devon.

I hardly spoke all night, but I listened a lot. We were an ever-growing table of writers, who wrote in different genres, read a lot, and had opinions. So many opinions! I felt I’d found home, even if I didn’t have a lot to contribute.

I love words. I love characters. I almost wrote that I love “people,” but that’s only true if I don’t have to deal with too many of them all at once. But words have power. I don’t believe “sticks and stone may hurt my bones, but words can never harm me.” I believe that words are more powerful than sticks and stones. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can tear my soul.

Nano taught me that I also love the writing. I don’t care about “having written” as much as I love to sit down, every day, and write out the stories that play in my head. I love the words themselves; I also love what’s between them, under them, around them. I love the writing.

Words can also help me create the world as I wish it would be. The better world I believe we are capable of creating, if we stop making the easiest choices and letting other people make decisions for us. We need to be engaged every minute of every day, even when it scares us. Especially when it scares us. We must both bear witness and become architects of a better history, not a repeated history.

Devon and I kept in touch. A few months ago, I asked if she would give me an opinion on a handful of chapters I’ve worked and reworked. She said yes. I spent the time from sending them to hearing from her in a state of constant nausea.

Her response was, “I don’t know what the hell this is, but I really like it. Call it literary fiction and you’ll cover the bases.” Considering she didn’t like what I’d worked on that first Nano, I figured she meant it. With her encouragement, I submitted to a couple of editors who were willing to look at partials. Most said no, but one editor said she liked it, and now I have to finish it, within a reasonable time frame. If it goes under contract (there or elsewhere), I will have to write another book. Even at 15,000 words a month, I can write a book in a year, if I show up every day and write. Eventually, I’ll have to have things like a website and maybe even social media accounts.

Why put myself through it? Because I love my characters and my story. I love the “what if?” and then “if then.” I love the process of discovery. People are interesting. The world is interesting, even when it breaks your heart.

Virginia Woolf stated she understood the world by writing about it (I’m paraphrasing). That’s how I feel.

I’m spending a few days in Boston. I took the bus down to Cape Cod to visit Devon. We were sitting on the deck, enjoying a glass of wine and some snacks, talking about books, when an email came through; there was a problem with the post that was supposed to go up on this site today.

Devon said I should write it (once she finished swearing). So here I am.

Maybe there’s hope for me yet. This post is over a 1000 words, and it only took me a couple of hours. But, no matter what, I will show up at the page and do the best I can. Every day.

Bio:
Emily Montgomery is a writer. In the foreseeable future, she will have a website, and, with craft, persistence,and luck, a published novel.

DEATH SPARKLES ROUND TABLE INTERVIEW

Several of the DEATH SPARKLES contributors were able to take the time to answer some questions about the process. It’s always fun to see how these things evolve!

Devon Ellington: How did the story spark from the prompt and grow?

KT Wagner: I was googling related phrases, desperately searching for inspiration, when I came across a news story about a young man in New Zealand who had purchased a diamond ring, and then his girlfriend rejected his proposal. He set up a treasure hunt and gave the ring away, but not before he created some controversy by profiting from click-throughs – money he donated to charity.

Faith Dincolo: I found the process of visualizing a dead woman with diamonds dangling from her hand, to be fertile ground for creativity. In “Persephone’s Progeny”, the diamond necklace was a catalyst for Persephone to grow as a robot. The prompt really helped me to think outside of my usual story telling process. I would recommend a prompt to anyone struggling with writer’s block, as it opens up the creative flow.

Diana Holdsworth: When we got the prompt, I was rusty at short story. My first version came out like the compressed outline of a novella. The necklace was used as an example of greed over common sense, and the prompt line was stapled in near the end of the story. I brushed up on my short story skills and realized the first version wouldn’t do. Starting from scratch, I tried again, but nothing came. I didn’t think I could manage it. Then I reached back into my life and a tale came to mind that resonates for me on a deeply emotional level. The story poured out with ease. The necklace in “A Girl’s Best Friend” stands for something quite different from the one in the first version. As for the prompt line, no staples required.

PJ Friel: I’m not a fan of horror so when I read the prompt, I knew it was going to be a challenge for me. My solution for this was to discuss the prompt with a friend, Jessica. I find that my imagination really kicks into gear during lively conversations. Focusing on the necklace and the meaning behind it was key for me. What was so important about that necklace? Jessica and I threw around some ideas and then I went home to begin my research. With some facts and pictures in hand (visuals are very important to me), the story started to flow. Oddly enough, I really didn’t know where the protagonist was going to take me. I always know the ending of my stories, but not so with this one.

Killion Slade: As soon as I read the prompt, I immediately knew I didn’t want to write a simple murder scene. My horror muse truly wanted to be fed and pushed me out of my comfort zone. I wanted the piece to seem surreal, confusing, a bit disorientating, and downright uncomfortable. From initial beta readers, I was asked to take the story further, deeper, and then once I added sensory elements, it truly took off on a life of its own.

Nina Benneton: A day before the assignment was due, I’d listened to a conversation between two sisters and their dialogue was so rich, I went home and fictionalized the characters, taking advantage of the dialogue’s rhythm.

DE: What was the hardest thing about writing to the prompt?

NB: This particular prompt screamed mystery or thriller or horror to me, but my muse was not cooperating. She wanted humor instead, so I relented and let her be. After all, I had a deadline.

FD: How and where to place the prompt was a big issue for me. I wanted a seamless use of the prompt that didn’t jar the reader and make them say, “oh yeah, there is the prompt.” This was a challenge for me, because putting the prompt as the first, or last sentence, seemed very appealing. Make it obvious and blatant, then this little voice in me asked, “is the prompt more important than the story, or vice-versa?” When I wrote the story, the prompt fell naturally into place at the dark point of the story.

PJF: The hardest part about the prompt was that it didn’t come from within. It’s difficult for me to take someone else’s idea and build around it. This prompt was especially hard because it was drawing me into a genre that I avoid. I could have worked the sentence into a fantasy story, which is my chosen area, but I felt that the point of the prompt was to write something outside of the norm. I’m glad that I didn’t take the easy way out. I don’t think I would have been nearly as satisfied with the results.

DH: I knew the story I wanted to tell before I knew where to put the prompt line. The muse is a subtle creature: I believe my creative self understood where the prompt line was meant to go long before my conscious self did. During the writing process, my big worry was that the prompt sentence would stick up like a nail in the road. By the time the story was done, the prompt line slipped into place naturally.

KS: I would say the hardest thing about the prompt was the tense. Writing in first person created a challenge to meet the prompt. It also was the style of the death. Immediately, when I think of diamonds dangling from a dead woman’s hands, I think of her stealing them, getting caught, and being poisoned in some sort fashion. So trying to come up with a unique situation for this woman and why she was dead and had diamonds dangling that was not cliche’ in my mind was indeed a challenge.

KTW: Other than some terrible cliched ideas, I floundered around seeking inspiration for far too long. I remember one night lying in bed staring at the ceiling and playing word association games when I should have been sleeping.

DE: Do you see these characters in any other pieces besides this story?

DH: In a sense, yes. My recent Victorian Gothic short, “No Tongue Can Tell,” is similarly themed, with similar characters in parallel situations. Writing “A Girl’s Best Friend” allowed “No Tongue Can Tell” to pour out with ease, even though I’d never written a Victorian Gothic before. Creativity feeds on itself.

NB: Not until this question. Hmm. I think I might like to see Catarina and Nipolita showing up to help the priest at the orphanage in Guatemala.

KS: Devon Ellington taught us how we can use our short stories to ‘put the feelers out’ for new characters. Let them try on their story, so to speak. We also learned how to incorporate older characters into new situations where we normally wouldn’t see them in, to find out more about what drives them. I have not considered writing more for these two characters in “The Trophy Wife”, but it could becomes a twisted little mini-series of short stories based around the unique world built for them.

PJF: While the protagonist is certainly an interesting character, I don’t think I could spend an entire novel inside her head. It’s a rather scary place inside her noggin and I’m a big chicken.

KTW: The motivations and rationalizations of people like the main character fascinate me, but no, I won’t be writing about these particular characters again.

FD: I always see my stories as bigger pieces. Short stories really turn on the creative flow, and get me thinking about all the possibilities that I could do with that story. I find that it can be very difficult to write a short story, because the story wants to grow. I envy short story writers that can see their stories in a few pages.

Bios:

Nina Benneton always wanted to be a priest and save orphans in third-word countries, but ends up writing romantic comedies; for now. Visit her at www.NinaBenneton.com.

Faith Dincolo writes horror, sci-fi comedy, and creative non-fiction. She can be found at https://www.facebook.com/FYDincolo.

PJ Friel is a writer and artist, dwelling in the land of fantasy. Visit her online at http://www.amberstar.net.


Diana Holdsworth writes novels, novellas, short stories and memoir. Visit her at http://www.DianaHoldsworth.com.

Killion Slade comprises of a married writing team who met in the virtual realms of Second Life and virtually enjoy everything. Read More at http://www.killionslade.com.

KT Wagner writes science fiction, Gothic horror and steampunk, novels and short stories, with the occasional forays into other genres and her garden. Visit her on-line at http://www.northernlightsgothic.com

Purchase DEATH SPARKLES here.

Interview with Colin Galbraith, author of STELLA

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My good friend and trusted colleague, Colin Galbraith, has a completely unique novella out with Eternal Press called STELLA. It starts out as a straight-up political thriller and takes some fascinating twists and turns along the way. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and highly recommend it.

I interviewed Colin, curious about the origins of some of the twists and turns.

CG:Hi Devon and hello to all your readers! Its great to be on BIBLIO PARADISE again.

DE: The story takes a really fascinating turn from a straight-up political thriller into a supernatural political thriller with strong religious themes. How did that shift occur?

CG: Through the music of the album that inspired it. The original idea came to me through the album of the same name by the pop band, Yello. It involved a pure straight up Cold War theme with spies, mysterious characters in long coats hiding in East European shadows under a full moon. Yet when I began writing, I came to a point where my original idea for a twist at the end of the book wasn’t going to work. Through one of the songs I had a better idea—a paranormal idea—and thus I was moving in another direction.

Of course, at that point it meant not really knowing how it was all going to end up so I just had to trust my muse and go with it.

DE: How much plotting did you do before you started writing? Was there a point where you had to stop and go back to re-shape material because of where the rest of the story headed?

CG: Because I had the bulk of the plot already ingrained in my mind after 20 years of listening to the album, I didn’t have much plotting to do. The process all started with me writing down the main scenes to see how they would fit the general story line. Then I flushed out the rest of the plot by linking them all up and forming the whole thing into something that was appropriate to my original idea, and that would make a half decent book. It was by far the easiest book I’ve written.

DE: Did you do any research within particular mythologies or cultures as backdrop? If so, which ones?

CG: One of the main themes in the story involved three roses but I didn’t just want any rose, it had to be dark and mysterious. I had no idea there was such a thing as the Baccara—the black rose—until I started researching it. Other than that I just stuck to what I already knew as far as mythology was concerned. I don’t think I’ve delved too far into it, and where I have I mostly made it up. I got the confidence to do that from an interview I read by Michael Crichton. He said, “everyone knows that dinosaurs can’t be cloned from fossilized DNA, but if they could…”

I did most of my research around the locations where the action takes place in the book. I know Amsterdam very well having been there several times. The church, coffee shop, sex shop and the lanes etc. all exist and were easy to write about. Fes was a little harder as was San Francisco and New York City, so I had to rely on the Internet, books and people I knew who had been there. I’m not totally comfortable writing about places I hadn’t been to, but the plot and the characters dictated a wide variety of locations would be needed so I ran with it. Hopefully it came off, though maybe not as well as I probably think!

DE: Did you set out to write a novella, or did content dictate form? Do you feel we’re entering into a Renaissance for the novella format?

CG: The content more or less dictated the form. The first draft of the book was too short for anything and I wasn’t happy with it at all. The first re-write was far too long and crossed over from being a novella to being a novel, but it was far too strung out and boring—it lost all the tension and drama. The third re-write saw me cutting it right back to make it a tighter story, while making sure not to rush through it, although looking back I still feel it’s rushed in places. I’ve learnt a lot from that experience, above all to let it go now it’s out there.

I’ve written three full length novel stories now—one published, two not—and I greatly enjoy the challenge and the satisfaction from the novel. But the novella offers something quite different but equally as gratifying.

Ideas for stories come to me all the time. Sometimes they make great foundations for a novel, other times a poem, sometimes a short piece of fiction. STELLA was perfect for a novella length story and I still think that.

The thing I like about novellas is that they’re long enough to tell a complicated story, but short enough to be able to hold the entire thing in one’s mind and see everything in one go. I can’t “view” any of my novels in my head from start to finish, but I can with a novella, and that makes writing them that little bit easier to cope with if they are complicated and have several arcs.

DE: Do you find that it’s different marketing a cross-genre novella from a single-genre novel and how, or how not?

CG: I’ve never thought about it like that, although when people ask what STELLA is about I tend to veer toward the “spy story with a twist” line. Part of the reason is that I think people might be put off if they think it’s paranormal and partly because I don’t want to spoil the surprise if they should read it.

I think paranormal and any other form of genre fiction, whether it be crime or sci-fi or fantasy, suffer from the same prejudice in that it’s not seen as mainstream or “proper fiction” by the establishment. Crime fiction, for example, is huge in Scotland but is looked down upon by institutions like the Booker Prize. And there are plenty of writers who do both. Take Iain Banks, who writes outstanding books of literary fiction and is generally accepted as one of the top UK writers, yet he also writes as Iain M Banks and is one of the top sci-fi writers the UK has produced. Go figure!

DE: How do you feel this unique piece influenced the writing you’re doing now?

CG: The obvious answer is that it spawned a sequel, which I’m working on just now. I would never have had the idea for BACCARA BURNING if it hadn’t been for STELLA.

But the main thing is that showed me I shouldn’t write to be published, that I should write for me. STELLA was never meant to be published, it was a private project I always promised I would do one day, and to see it published before the other work I’ve been pitching around the globe is quite something. I’m very proud of STELLA because it was 20 years in the making and thus very close to my heart.

Thanks for such great questions and for having me here—it’s been great fun!

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Colin Galbraith has been publishing books, short stories, poems and non-fiction articles in print and online publications since 2004. He is a regular contributor to A-Listed, the News of the World’s Scottish music supplement, and is the Chief Editor of The Ranfurly Review.

Stella is his second book and was published by Eternal Press in June 2009.

His website can be found at: www.colingalbraith.co.uk