In this third episode of the new season of our podcast, The Library Foundation’s Writer-In-Residence, Kurt Dinan, continues talking writing, reading, and creativity. Kurt interviews fellow Young Adult author Mindy McGinnis. She is an Edgar Award-winning author (The Female of the Species, A Madness So Discreet, Not a Drop to Drink, etc.), blogger (Writer, Writer Pants on Fire), and assistant teen librarian who lives in Ohio. She graduated from Otterbein University with a degree in English Literature and Religion. Listen as Kurt and Mindy discuss writing, honing the craft, finding inspiration, learning from mistakes, and more. Subscribe and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts.
In my January writing workshop held down at the Main Branch, we did a lot of brainstorming exercises, which not only help with starting a novel, but with writer’s block. For those of you who couldn’t attend, here’s a link to my PowerPoint presentation and some of the tips shared with the group:
1. Brainstorm a Set Number.
We have to start here, because while this is pretty basic, before you brainstorm anything, set a number of acceptable responses. The number you set should hurt a little because the best ideas you come up with are usually the later ones. You know as well as I do what’ll happen if you set a time limit instead of a response limit–you’ll write down three responses, then sit and doodle for the next four and a half minutes until your time is up.
2. Brainstorm What You Know.
Common advice, yes, but not as limiting as some people say. I don’t think this is saying you HAVE to write about what you know, but that it’s a good idea to use what you know when you can. See the difference?
Here’s are ways to brainstorm ideas using what you know:
List things you’re an expert on.
List “worlds” you know. (For example, I know the high school world–its inhabitants, its routines, etc. I also know the parenting world, and having spent my teen years working at McDonald’s, the fast food world.)
List experiences you’ve had others likely have not.
List feelings you know well.
3. Brainstorm Things You Love.
Weird, but true, the ideas for my (failed) first novel, LUCKY TOWN, and DON’T GET CAUGHT, came from listing what things I like reading about or watching in movies. I mean, you should enjoy what you’re writing, right? So for LT, my brainstorm list that led to the novel included items like: cults, an enclosed setting, disappearances, people you think are dead but are not, etc. All of those things are in that novel in one way or another. With DGC, I wrote different list of things I like in books/movies such as: capers, an ensemble cast, sophomoric jokes, and pranks. All of those are in the book.
List books, movies, and TV shows you love.
Now, from each of those, list what you specifically love.
Look for commonalities. This may give you an idea of the type of book you might want to write.
4. Brainstorm Interesting People.
Most writing advice says you should start with character. And honestly, I’m terrible at this. But I’m trying to get better at it.
Here are some ways to brainstorm characters:
List interesting jobs.
List interesting hobbies.
List interesting quirks.
List favorite songs, then figure out what type of person would have each song as a theme song.
List people you know who are real characters, those 1 in a 100 people you know who really stand out for whatever reason.
5. Brainstorm Interesting Settings.
Since setting determines a person’s behavior, actions, attitudes, etc, sometimes you can start with a setting and build outward.
List places that have inherent conflict.
List places you’ve visited that you can picture clearly.
List places that make you uncomfortable.
6. Play the What If? Game.
Every novel is a What If? What if a boy discovered he was a wizard? What if a town was terrorized by a great white shark? What if a girl was forced to represent her town in a fight to the death? What if an elephant found an unhatched egg? You get the idea.
Start with a character and put him in a conflict-ready situation.
Okay, so you have a general idea, now what?
Once I have an idea I like (or am stuck in plotting), I do what I call Riffing. This is where I open a new document and just start typing ideas and questions and possibilities until an idea emerges that I’m interested in. Sometimes these riffs go on for a week and ten thousand words until I discover what I’m looking for, but usually it doesn’t take that long. Asking questions is what helps me the most. Here’s an example I use in my creative writing class:
Character: High school football player
Riff: Why does this kid like football? Or, does he like football at all? Is it something he does out of love or is he forced to do play? Why would a parent force a kid to play a sport he doesn’t want to play? How would a kid respond to something like that? Would he sabotage the team? Does he play at all? What if he was put in to play in an emergency situation? Would he actually try or would he fail on purpose out of spite? What about his character makes him choose this?
Hopefully some of these exercises will help you in your writing!
The next workshop will be Saturday, March 4th from 2-4. It’s called–
Plotting versus Pantsing: How to (Maybe) Outline a Novel
So you’ve got a great concept for a novel and a whole bunch of characters you’re ready to manipulate and torture…what’s next? In this workshop we’ll talk about plot construction, scene crafting, and other things to consider as you start writing.
See you there!
When I started writing back in 2006, I wrote horror short stories. I suppose that was mostly because of Stephen King. I’d devoured all of his collections and novels since high school, so it felt natural to try that. Over the course of a half-dozen years, I had some decent success selling short stories, and met a lot of other horror writers who became my friends and taught me a lot about the publishing world. Eventually though, I got tired of writing short stories and wanted to try a novel. The obvious progression was to continue what I’d been doing, so I spent three years (or four or five years, I can’t remember, but it was a long time) writing a young adult horror novel. LUCKY TOWN didn’t have traditional horror elements (i.e. no supernatural occurrences, no monsters, etc.), but was definitely dark–a kid’s father has a breakdown and relocates the family to the swamp where he is manipulated by a mysterious passerby into starting a cult that is headed for a Jonestown Massacre-like situation unless the kid can stop it. So yeah, pretty dark.
Ultimately, LUCKY TOWN was read and rejected by nineteen agents, and after cycling through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, I was left wondering what to write next. The logical choice was to write another dark YA novel. I also knew the horror publishers and agents, and felt I had come really close with my failed novel. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized something that pretty much changed my writing life — I hated writing horror. Yes, I’d sold horror short stories and had been to a handful of horror writing conventions, but I realized I didn’t like who I was when I was writing in that genre. Because the thing is, I’m not a dark person. I have a very dark sense of humor, sure, and can be gross with the best of them, but my overall personality isn’t that dark. And as much as I liked the concept of LUCKY TOWN, I didn’t find any enjoyment in writing it. The people, the mood and tone, the plot–all were bleak, and that’s not me. Hell, I really don’t even like horror movies that much. More than anything, I like being funny, or at least trying to be so. That’s when I decided to write something more fitting of me and who I am–a schemer, a plotter, and a smart ass. And with that in mind, two years later I’d written, gotten representation for, and subsequently sold DON’T GET CAUGHT.
Why I Succeeded Where I’d Failed Before:
I have every belief that DON’T GET CAUGHT sold because I loved writing it. Was it hard work? Yes, but it was fun work. I loved those characters, their scheming, and the world they inhabited. I was myself when I wrote that book, and I think it translated onto the page. I’m pretty sure anyone who knows me and reads the novel would say, “Yeah, that’s Kurt.” It’s my sense of humor – sarcastic, smart ass-y, and somewhat (okay, definitely) juvenile. The novel also reads super fast, which is what I like my books to do. I like plot and dialogue and twists and ensemble casts. The novel has all of that. Being myself, writing the book I’d truly want to read, is what made DON’T GET CAUGHT marketable.
But once I sold that novel, I again struggled with what to write. For awhile I thought I needed to write like the most popular YA authors of the day, writing serious, issue-driven novels that get write-ups in magazines and get taught in high school classes. I figured that was the next step–writing something “bigger”, more important, really trying to establish myself as an up-and-coming YA author. (Man, that sounds so pretentious, right?) And for a couple of weeks, I played with ideas that might fit what I considered “important.” Ultimately though, none of them stuck. And why? Because, you have to be who you are. Like with trying to write horror, a serious, issue-driven book was not me. I could probably fake a novel like that, but I wouldn’t like doing it, and I have no doubt it would be terrible because–once again–it wouldn’t be me.
If you’re just starting to write, I strongly suggest writing as the person you are, not as someone you think you should be. If you don’t like a certain genre, don’t write in it. It sounds simple, but it’s definitely something I forget from time to time. So instead of trying to force yourself into some preconceived notion of what a successful author is, write what you like to and hope it finds an audience. It’s a massive leap of faith that anyone who embarks in the arts has to take, but I think it’s the best way to ensure that you enjoy the journey.
TL;DR: Write who you are.
I think every one out there who considers himself/herself a reader has a secret desire to write a book, or at least has entertained the idea at one point or another. Writing a book is an imposing project, sort of like standing at the bottom of Mount Everest and thinking, “I have to climb that?!” So below are five strategies/tips for starting (and continuing) to write.
1. Start today.
I started writing when I was thirty, and had my first novel published when I was forty-four. Do the math. Sorry to go all Grim Reaper on you, but that invisible mortality countdown timer over your head is decreasing, not increasing, by the second.
2. Give yourself permission to suck.
Look, here’s what going to happen– you’re going to be all excited to write, then after an hour or so will realize, Holy cow! This is terrible. Why doesn’t it sound like anything I read? and will want to give up. Like learning how to play a musical instrument or how to juggle flaming bowling balls , writing well takes patience and persistence (and flame-retardant gloves.) And that only comes if you give yourself permission to be bad at first, and don’t give up when frustration hits.
3. Get an early victory.
Young writers, or anyone in a new endeavor, who have success early tend to keep at it. So I suggest giving yourself an early victory to motivate yourself to continue writing. Here’s how to do that–Pick a favorite scene from the novel you have in your head regardless of chronology and write that. Or instead of starting at year one of your demented family’s history, write about your eccentric Aunt Helen and her collection of toilet paper rolls she’s decorated to resemble the Founding Fathers, or whoever else you think you could do a damn fine job at. Whatever gets you excited to write, that’s what you should starting writing
4. Eliminate distractions.
Writers are great at finding reasons not to write. Some days I’d rather start my taxes six months early or clean the rain gutters out with my tongue than write. And once I do start writing, that’s when I realize, hey, I should check my email/Twitter feed/fantasy football line-up/etc. So eliminating those distractions and daydreams is essential. If you can, find a place to write without a lot of foot traffic, noise pollution, and, if really possible, away from the damn Internet. For this last one, there are a handful of fantastic apps out there that will shutoff your internet for a predetermined time while you write. It’s sad that I have to rely on this, but hey, whatever it takes, I say.
5. Write today, tomorrow, and forever.
If you don’t commit to writing everyday, you’re dead before you get started. I’m not talking about setting aside two hours everyday to write (do people really have that?!) but you must get some writing finished everyday. Yes, you’ll miss a day every now and then–for example, I wouldn’t suggest writing on your anniversary, unless you want it to be your last–and six out of seven days will do just fine, but write, write, write. My life is busy, as I’m sure yours is, but I try to get at least 500 words down a day. It adds up fast, believe me.