Need Writing Ideas? Let Me Help

People often ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?”

The answer is simple but rarely satisfying to the questioner: “Everywhere.”

Let me provide a little background information that will prove useful later on … I work full-time as a high school English teacher, and with that comes constant planning, educating, and assessing.  I have a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, and they are involved in many, many … many activities.  I’m married to a wonderful woman with endless responsibilities who also works full time.  We have a house and all the needs a house requires.  In other words, we’re busy …  I’m busy.

Yet, I write.  Regularly.

At the moment, I specialize in flash fiction, because that’s about all I can muster amidst a chaotic life that I love dearly.  However, I think I’m pretty good at these little five page stories, and I’m even better at conceiving, executing, and publishing within the span of a few days.  (If interested, you can find them all HERE.)

Novels still hold great appeal, and I have a few in the works, but those require prolonged, sustained effort, meticulous planning, and the willingness to invest years (if not decades).

The point is, with over 50 short stories, two books, and three novels in progress, I’m still finding things to write about — the ideas keep coming.

Here are four pieces of advice I’d like to offer to help you on your journey.  Follow these pointers, and I know new ideas will always be within reach.

  • Mind Wide Open
    Always be on the lookout for ideas.  No matter what you’re doing, keep that little writer in your mind awake and hungry.  Everything can be a story.  Inspiration is everywhere, but it’s not always easy to see.  When you see something that piques your curiosity, ask yourself why it may be happening.  Then, make up your own answer.  There’s your story.  This requires a certain willingness to observe, a bit of compulsive inquisitiveness, and an imaginative mind that never shuts down.
  • Take Note!
    Here’s where a lot of people get in trouble — they come up with an amazing idea in the shower, while driving, on the toilet, etc., tell themselves they will write about it later, and then completely forget about it.  Believe me, I’ve learned this lesson the hard way more times than I’d like to admit.  Always, always, always, ALWAYS have some tool at your disposal that allows you to take note.  Maybe it’s a text to yourself; maybe it’s using the note app on your phone; maybe it’s keeping a pen on you so that you can write on a receipt, a napkin, your hand; maybe it’s moving a ring to the wrong finger so that you’ll ask yourself later why that ring is on the wrong finger which reminds you that you put your ring on the wrong finger in order to remember that amazing idea!  I’ve slept with a notepad next to my bed for over ten years now.  I’m glad I got in the habit of doing this because what may turn out to be my greatest story — Dr. Nekros — literally came to me in a dream.  I woke up, took a few notes, drew a quick sketch, and then went back to sleep.  Imagine my surprise when I awakened the next morning!
  • Act Like a Worm
    The greatest piece of advice I read by Stephen King told writers that if they want to write prolifically, they must read voraciously.  It’s true.  If you are always on the lookout for ideas, and you read as much as humanly possible, new ideas will always be within reach.  For example, ever read a line in a book that got you thinking about a topic you never before considered?  There’s your idea.  I once read an article in Smithsonian Magazine about advances in artificial limbs.  This got my gears turning, and before too long “Thumb War” appeared.  Reading does so much for writers beyond providing creative inspiration.  It also exposes us to new vocabulary, helps us to experience various styles and mechanics, and generally educates.  There is no downside to being a bookworm.
  • Don’t Use the Force
    Finally, don’t force it.  Yes, always keep an open mind, but don’t try so hard to come up with an idea that you implode.  Forcing it leads to frustration, which leads to writer’s block.  I don’t know about you, but I can barely remember my own name when I get super frustrated.  If the ideas aren’t coming, accept it.  Go for a walk.  Read a little.  See a movie.  Play with your kids.  Take your loved one to dinner.  In other words — relax!  Take a break, get refreshed, and then come back and try again.

Believe me, if you commit to these four simple practices, you’ll have plenty of writing ideas in no time at all.  Thanks for reading, best of luck, and keep writing!

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

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What’s In a Name?

I’ve noticed that authors have a great deal of difficulty doing something rather necessary — naming characters.  Names have such power that this endeavor should never be taken lightly.  After all, the name an author assigns a character will likely outlast the author him or herself, especially if the piece catches on.  Can you imagine Hannibal Lecter  by any other name?  Or Hermoine Granger?

On a personal note, I have struggled with this venture as well.  Here are four strategies I’ve developed over the years that have always proven helpful.  This doesn’t have to be limited to naming literary characters, by the way.  Feel free to take advantage if looking to name a pet or child.

  1. Use Your Allusion
    Perhaps your character has something very much in common with another famous person or place.  For example, it’s rare to find a villain in popular culture named “Arthur.”  That name has become so synonymous with “good” and “noble” that the name alone can establish characterization.  “Paris” insinuates sophistication.  “Diana” connotes royalty.  Unfortunately, some previously established names are forever off-limits.  You’ll never get away with using “Einstein,” “Sherlock,” or “Beyonce.”
  2. With a Little Help From Your Friends
    Along the lines of the previous advice, look to your own circle of friends or social network for inspiration.  If you have a friend who is incredibly intelligent and you correlate that name with intellect, tack it onto your character.  The subconscious connection will round your character out and ground them to your mind’s reality.  Conversely, let’s say you have a friend of a friend who is a total jerk.  The name of that person alone may be all the push you need to set that character’s creative tone.  Of course, tread lightly with this strategy.  Friends will read perhaps too deeply into characters named after them.  What may have been a relatively simple decision by you could severely alter a relationship if they don’t care for their namesake.
  3. This Is Gibberish
    If writing science fiction or fantasy stories, nonsense words will likely prove very useful.  I remember a wonderful interview in which Neil Gaiman said “Coraline,” the name of his famous character, occurred simply due to a typo.  He meant to write “Caroline.”  This era has the distinct benefit of the internet, which provides countless “name generators” for every genre imaginable.  I also like to use the old school method of simply combining parts of words that describe the actual character.  Let’s say I have a science fiction character who is deceitful and murderous, yet also charming.  I may put together a name such as “Chare Itous.”  Be aware, though, that the more outlandish the name, the more likely you are to lose your reader.  Readers need names that standout and are easy to remember.  To this day, I can only recall a handful of the names from “The Lord Of the Rings.”
  4. The Randomness Of It All
    If you want to avoid friends and family making any kinds of associations, and if you desire for your characters to remain free of any preconceived notions as the byproduct of an allusion, then I suggest allowing fate to decide for you.  Put a phone book in front of you, close your eyes, open it, and point.  Use the first name of the person you’ve selected as your character’s first name.  Repeat this process for the last name.  By doing this, you will truly allow your writing to establish the characterization of your creations.  This method dodges any shortcuts, crutches, or flat-out plagiarism.  It’s pure.  It’s authentic.  It’s random.  Of course, the internet has generators for random names as well, but it’s nowhere near as fun.

Naming a character can sometimes become an overwhelming endeavor.  I hope these four strategies are useful so that you can get on to the most important thing — actually writing!

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Always On the Hunt For Something New To Read?

Are you always on the hunt for something new to read?  I publish short stories every week or two in a variety of genres.  Most of them are between five and ten pages long, and all of them are only ninety-nine cents on both the Nook and Kindle.

You never know what you’re going to get from me.  One story will be an inspirational tear-jerker, the next will keep you up at night in fear.  Some are hilarious, and others are so surreal that they don’t even make total sense to me.  I love to read in all genres–my writing reflects this preference.  I can’t be contained to one format, one style, or one genre.

If you’ll allow presumption on my part: I have certain authors that I adore.  Unfortunately, they are not exactly prolific.  They tend to write great novels … every three or four years.  If you decide you like my writing, you can always look forward to something new within a few weeks.

Visit my website’s homepage HERE for available titles with links to both Nook and Kindle downloads.

Thanks so much for your time.  I hope you’ll take joy in “discovering” me!

 

What I’m Currently Working On

I try to write and release a short story every few weeks through the Kindle and Nook publishing platforms. This helps me stay creative and satiate my need for playing in different genres. I’ll write horror one week, humor the next, and then inspirational after that. I love to read in all genres, so it makes sense that I enjoy writing in them, too.

Speaking of the Kindle, I’ve removed my 18-part Dr. Nekros serial from that platform and am currently shopping it around to literary agents as a collected epic edition. It’s a tough sell because it had already been published incrementally, but I know it will eventually find a home. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about a ghost hunter, a haunted car, a demon … and an ex-wife?

Finally, I just finished the first draft of a novel. It’s got a long way to go, but it feels good to lay the foundation. As mentioned earlier, I hate being stifled by genre, and this novel is a perfect example of that. Once it’s ready for literary agents, I’m not sure how I’m going to present it. It’s about love, self-realization, moving on, and ghosts communicating through the ether.

Combine all of that with full-time teaching and two small children, and you’ve got a busy guy!

The Joy Of Writing With Others

As you may know, I’m teaching a creative writing course this semester and I’m enjoying it more than I ever expected.  My students are amazing–a dream come true.  They are creative, have excellent attitudes, and don’t hesitate to get right to work on their writing.  I can’t imagine a better group to initiate this new chapter of my career.

Today we started on our first “official” genre–Realistic Fiction.  We’ve done a few warm-up activities, but this is the first story we plan to read to each other.  When it comes to reading and writing, I believe in sitting down and doing it with the students.  Luckily, I happen to love both of those things.

So, as my students started their first short story, I started one as well.  I fully intend to partake in each genre, to read my work to them just as they must read their work aloud to the group, and to basically experience the victories and frustrations as an active participant, not just an objective observer.

I’ve been writing regularly for a long, long time now, and virtually all of it has been by myself–mostly in a basement of some sort or another with the lights off and music playing.

Today I wrote in a classroom full of teenagers.  Some of them were sketching characters, some of them were developing plot in their journals, some were typing away.  I’ve always listened to music as I write, so I allow them to listen with their earbuds as well.  I would intermittently look up to see my students lost in their own creative endeavor.  I heard the tap-tap-tap of their keyboards.  I saw the words appearing on their screens, the characters taking shape in their journals, or the pencil gliding across their notebook paper.  I took all of this in and it brought me great happiness.

At the end of class I mentioned to them how fun it is to write with others.  I explained that writing can be such an isolated, lonely activity–to sit in a room and write with others … it felt so … nice!  (Excellent writing there, huh?)

Guiding these young people though the first steps of what I hope will be a lifelong writing journey has not only invigorated me as a teacher, but it’s also already provided a sense of community in regards to writing that I didn’t even realize I craved.

We Can Be Writers (Just For One Day?)

We live in amazing era in that we can all be writers.  If you want to write, the only thing stopping you is you.  Seriously.

I get asked quite often how one goes about getting published.  There are so many different avenues to getting published, it’s always difficult to answer the question succinctly.

The first thing you need to determine is your end goal.  If you seek traditional publishing, you really do need to go about things differently.  If you want only an audience for your writing and don’t necessarily care how you acquire one, the field is wide open.

Let’s talk about the traditional publishing world first.

Before I do, though, know that there is an exception to every rule.  I’m speaking in generalities.

Typically, in order to break into the traditional publishing world you do one of two things.  You research publishers who may want your work, you send a cover letter or query letter, you wait to hear back, and at that point they may reject you or ask for the actual work.  From that moment on, you may have an editor assigned to you, you make changes requested by the editor, and you negotiate terms.  That’s a simplified version, of course.

The second option is that you send a cover or query letter to a literary agent and wait to hear back.  They may reject you, or they may want to see more.  If they take you on, you negotiate terms and then they sell your book on your behalf.  Of course, they take a percentage of the sale.  Again, this is a very simplistic explanation, but basically the core of the matter.

There are several different kinds of terms you need to negotiate, but chief among them are copyright issues.  Do you still retain the right to your work, or are you selling the rights?  If you sell the rights outright, the work is no longer yours.  You may receive royalties, but you no longer have any claim to the work from a business standpoint.  What are your film option rights?  Is there an expectation for future books?

There are many ways to circumnavigate this process.  For example, some authors submit to small magazines and anthologies and eventually get noticed by a literary agent or publishing house and are wooed.  This is rare, but even if it doesn’t result in a  book deal, it’s also a great way to build an audience and build credibility in the publishing world.

The Writer’s Market is a fantastic way to figure out what publishers or literary agents may want your work.  Be aware though, that everyone uses this book, and so the houses and agents listed are probably overrun with material.

If you’re thinking to yourself that this all sounds incredibly time consuming, you’re absolutely right.  A single book or short story can take years to sell.  Many have given up due to impatience alone.  For the dedicated, though, that eventual approval from the traditional publishing world can be incredibly gratifying.

In the old days, this was about your only option.  Some self-published – Walt Whitman is a famous example, but this wasn’t necessarily an easy avenue to pursue, either.

But here we are, 2014, and if you want to share your writing, you can do so right now.  Seriously, like right now.  As in before the end of the day.

Let’s run through your possibilities.

If you want to self-publish, there are many companies to help you do just that.  Though similar to a vanity press, it’s not exactly the same.  Self-publishing companies are often print-on-demand and will take as much or as little money as you’re willing to pay.  For a hefty amount, you can get all kinds of services, the same services you get from a traditional publisher.  However, if you’re on a budget, you’ll get very basic services that are still quite nice, but leave a lot of room for error on the author’s part.  For example, editing cost extra.  If you’re confident you don’t need an editor, you don’t need to pay for the service, but let me tell you, everyone needs an editor.  Find one.

Most companies will provide a cover artist, a bar code, typesetting, and listing with all the major online retailers.  You should retain all rights to your work, and you can often buy your own book at a 40% (or better) discount.  The print-on-demand feature means that the book is published on an individual basis with each order.  This eliminates warehousing costs.  The print-on-demand self-publishing company will often pay royalties as well.  But here’s the thing – unless you pay exorbitant amounts of money, the advertising, the promotion, the book tour, etc. all falls squarely on your own shoulders.  You may have this beautifully written book, but if you don’t seek an audience, you will be a writer for only one day.  The topic of promotion is an entirely different conversation, and one I’m happy to have, but not in this post.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that traditional publishers often want first-time publishing rights.  This means that if your book has appeared anywhere in the market in any format, you’ve eliminated your chances with the traditional market.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, especially if a traditional publisher thinks there is money to be made, but more often than not it’s a deal-breaker.

Also, realize that there are many, many publishers out there posing as traditional publishing houses that subcontract your book through a print-on-demand company.  Do your research.  Don’t get caught off guard.  Protect yourself.

Let’s say you don’t want to pay any money at all – you just want to share your work.  Well, this is easier than ever before.

Both the Nook and the Kindle allow for digital self-publishing.  You typically get around twenty-five cents on the dollar, and, once more, you do all the editing, etc, but if you feel confident with this platform, it can be tremendously effective.  Be aware, though, that they will require a bank account and social security number.  This is purely for royalty purposes and I’ve never heard of any nefarious practices, but some aren’t comfortable with sharing this kind of information.  You can always open a separate checking account if you’re worried.

Another option are blogs.  Blogs allow you to publish for free online.  For example, my website is a blog.  I pay for a domain name (which costs less than $20 a year), but I don’t even have to do that.  I use WordPress.  Blogs are capable of doing more and more with each passing year.  I’m amazed at all the functions WordPress utilizes.  You could absolutely publish your story chapter by chapter or as a whole on a blog, and it would cost you nothing.  However, the editing, the promotion, etc. all falls on you.  Plus, once your work is out there for free, it’s out there.  Think long and hard before you publish online.

Maybe you don’t even want to go to that much trouble.  If you have a Facebook page, there is an option for “notes,” which is basically a blog feature.  It functions much the same and, because you can secure it, only your contacts can view it.

Finally, don’t discount your good old word processor.  Software provides you some amazing format and font choices, so you could create your book, print it, run copies, and hand it out by hand.  You could even email it as an attachment.  Worried about people stealing it if you send it electronically?  You probably don’t need to concern yourself with that, but some word processor programs such as Microsoft Word allows you to publish your document as a PDF, and this can restrict any sort of electronic edits (such as changing the author’s name).

There are so many more possibilities, but these are some of the major choices.  Just be aware, and I can’t emphasize it enough, once your work is out there, it’s out there, and when this happens the first-time publishing rights are exhausted.  If there is any part of you that thinks you want to seek traditional publishing, be patient, put in the time, and play the waiting game.  Traditional publishers want to maximize their profit, and that’s very hard to do if the work is already out there for free.

So for better or worse, we can be writers. Whether it’s just for one day is entirely up to you.

You Better Know the Score

I once read that Stephen King loves to listen to rock music while he writes.  Unfortunately, I can’t do that.  I get too distracted by lyrics and, well, words.

However, I do actually love to listen to music while I work.  For me, scores work well.

When I say “score,” I’m talking about movie music.  Not the soundtrack, those tend to have songs with words. I’m actually talking about the music you hear during the movie.  I guess you could call it the background music.

Oftentimes the score of a movie is filled with emotion and can really help with my pacing of a story.  The natural cadence of the film score correlates well with my own sense of rising and falling action.  Sometimes I’ll save an especially resonate song for an important scene, a scene that needs me in a heightened emotional state.

My scores of choice?  I currently adore the Cloud Atlas score.  It is fantastic.  I’m also a big fan of Last of the Mohicans, Tron: Legacy, Thor, The Fountain, any Doctor Who from 2008 on, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the last three seasons of Sherlock.

Scores allow me to remain engaged but not distracted, which is perfect for my writing style.

Even if you’re not a writer, do you have a favorite score?  Please do share!