Mindful Details: Paying Attention to the World Around You

How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.

We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).

Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?

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While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.

The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)

Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.

One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

 

A Hero Worth Cheering On

Last month I had the privilege of speaking to sixth graders graduating from elementary school. Around this same time my debut novel was releasing. Writing this talk was a monumental task, as I had never given a commencement speech before. But my rambling thoughts turned out well enough that I want to share an abridged version with you. This is a more personal post than I typically contribute to Thinking Through Our Fingers, but much of what I said to those sixth graders applies to writers on the path to publication. The following is my revised speech.

Over my years of writing, I have learned that no matter what genre you read or write most components of storytelling stay the same. First, stories start with a main character. He or she has strengths and weaknesses as well as opinions and attitudes about life in general. The reader sympathizes with the main character and is interested in seeing what happens to them. He or she isn’t perfect. Main characters make mistakes and have fears, but they are someone readers care about and cheer on. Since art mimics life, for the time being, I’d like you to consider yourself a main character.

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The next story component is the main character’s goal. Their goal drives them forward and establishes to readers what is important in the story, not only to the main character but in their world. Every main character has something they want to accomplish, so I would like you to think of a goal for yourself. In the next year, what do you want to achieve more than anything? Roald Dahl said, “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Whatever your goal may be, think big. Don’t be afraid to believe in a little magic.

Now that you have your goal, hold onto it. Because we’re about to meet the next story component: the inciting event.

The inciting event propels the main character forward on a path they cannot turn back down. It’s when Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts or Percy Jackson sets out to find his mother. Think of the inciting incident as a door that locks behind you. The key to the inciting incident is that no one can shove the main character through the door. No one can make he or she want to go out and save the world. The main character must take that step on his own. But the thing that pushes him through that door, the personal incentive that drives him to take that step, is his goal. Remember that goal I asked you to make? That is your reason to go through that door and start on your path.

Our next component comprises of the bulk of the story, the part that everyone wants to read about in books or watch on TV but never experience in real life—conflict. Conflict is any obstacle that seeks to prevent the main character from reaching his or her goal. Think of your goal again, the one you want more than anything. Again, conflict is what will prevent you from achieving it. We all have rough days. At some point or another, you may even have a really bad day. And then it may get even worse. The ultimate conflict happens at the climax, which is when the very hardest, very worst thing you can imagine tries to stop you. What do you do when life gets hard? Do you give up?

Reflect over your past year. Think of one thing you did that you are really proud of. Was it always easy to continue? I’m certain it wasn’t, but you kept trying. You did the work. You put in the time. You believed in yourself. Your conflict did not put an end to your story.

The thing about conflict is that the hero pushes onward. Notice I said “hero”, because the main character of the story starts off as someone the reader sort of knows, sympathizes with, and roots for. But as the main character goes through trials and triumphs, over the course of those challenges, they become more than a character the reader sort of likes. They become a hero we cheer on to beat opposing forces and win. JK Rowling said, “It is our choices that make us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Perseverance over obstacles makes a hero.

Let’s recap. The components we’ve talked about so far are: the main character, the goal, the inciting incident, the conflict, and what comes next? The resolution, or the happily ever after. This is the end of the story when the hero celebrates their triumph.

One year from now, your resolution will be this: Did you reach your goal? Did you stick it through no matter what?

I wrote for nearly ten years before I became published. I wrote thousands and thousands of words. I completed several manuscripts. I was rejected dozens of times by literary agents and editors. I had a lot of conflict, but I also had a goal to become a published author. This wasn’t a year-long goal. As I said, it took me much longer. Your goal may be the same or different. But whatever it may be, you are the hero of your story. You are likeable, other people sympathize with you and understand what you’re going through. You are someone your family and friends are rooting for. You are someone we want to see succeed and live happily ever after. You are worth cheering on. No one is saying you have be perfect or get everything right. Neither can others attain your goal for you. You must go through that threshold by choice, travel down that path, and push onward. But you’ve already proven you have the courage to aspire to more, and your story isn’t finished so long as you keep trying.

Dr. Suess said, “You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!” I’d like to end by extending a challenge: Dream big. Think of a goal you want to achieve. Fight for it. Believe you can persevere. And don’t ever forget that you are worth cheering on.

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Emily R. King is a reader of everything and a writer of fantasy. Born in Canada and raised in the USA, she has perfected the use of “eh” and “y’all” and uses both interchangeably. Shark advocate, consumer of gummy bears, and islander at heart, Emily’s greatest interests are her four children. She’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and an active participant in her local writers’ community. She lives in Northern Utah with her family and their cantankerous cat. Visit Emily at emilyrking.com.

The Boy Who Lived and Changed my Life

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor Yamile Saied Méndez!

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling was published 20 years ago. I was eighteen, still living in Argentina, and although I’ve always been a reading addict, I wouldn’t find Harry Potter for a few more years.

Oh, how I would’ve loved to have read this magical story before I arrived at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, a long way from my home at the other end of the world, in Rosario, Argentina. I could’ve used Harry’s perspective at arriving at a new place that was all I’d always dreamed of. Like Harry, I met some of my very best friends to this day that first Spring/Summer. I didn’t have to fight giant spiders or the Dark Lord, although I faced loneliness and homesickness, and in the winter, the pervasive presence of an old familiar companion, depression, my real life dementors.

Although it might sound cliché, I kept the dementors at bay thanks to the love of my friends, a wonderful boy who’d become my husband a little later, and the support of my family. When I met Harry, the world was a-frenzy with the arrival of Goblet of Fire. It was the summer of 2000, and I was awaiting the arrival of my first baby, my son Julián.

My husband and I lived in North Carolina very close to his sister’s family. Her kids lent me the first three volumes of the series so I could catch up before Goblet’s release day. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the opening page changed my life. I didn’t stop reading, devouring each page until I reached the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. Happily, I joined the world as I waited for Goblet of Fire, which I devoured the night I bought it. My husband worked nights, and reading all night and sleeping during the day fit our lifestyle, even after our baby was born. There was an excruciating three year wait until Order of the Phoenix came out. During those three years, I read the four first volumes carefully, analyzing every word. I listened to Jim Dale’s audiobook adaptation, and to this day, I judge every audiobook by the Jim Dale standard. There are a few close seconds who are my favorite readers, but none like him.

I became involved in online forums like The Leaky Cauldron, and I loved discussing the books with strangers who loved Harry and gang as much as I did.

But during those three years I didn’t only read Harry Potter. I started reading for pleasure again. I fell in love with kidlit. I realized that because I grew up in another continent, my ignorance in terms of beloved American kids’ classics was abysmal. I set out to remedy this immediately. I’m still going strong at it. I found Max from Where the Wild Things Are, all the Margaret Brown books, Anne with an E, and everything else I could get my hands on. I took my baby to the library’s story time mainly for me. I needed my weekly haul of books. I started writing.

When Order of the Phoenix came out, we were living in Puerto Rico, out in the island (as the Puerto Ricans say), and I couldn’t go to the midnight release party. Amazon didn’t send me my pre-order copy until A WHOLE week had passed since the release day. I vowed that never again would I trust the postal service or online orders. For Half-Blood Prince, I already had three little potterheads to keep me company. I told them Harry’s story trying not to spoil it for them, especially for my son Julián who literally knew about Harry since he was in utero.

And for the release of Deathly Hallows, my dear, amazing, adoring husband took the family to London and Scotland, to wait for the book in “the” holy land. After touring the Balmoral hotel and different castles, we waited in line at the Waterstone in Edinburg. That night, my little Julián painstakingly read the book next to me, but he finally fell asleep, his pudy hand still holding a wand. A year later, when his reading skills were off the charts, he read Deathly Hallows in twenty hours. He was seven years old. He’s been re-reading Harry every year ever since. He’s also a voracious reader like me.

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Harry Potter is the reason I fell in love with kidlit. I read it; I write it nonstop. My stories are not like J. K Rowling’s, not at all, and that’s okay. Harry and his world have followed me all over the world throughout the years, and it’s not a coincidence that when I was at my MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (my real life Hogwarts, hands down), my class chose The Harried Plotters as the class name as it’s the tradition in the school. For our graduation, my classmates and I got Mischief Managed tattoos, and we raised our wands in victory (this is one of the perks of attending a writing for children program :p).

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Harry gave me magic, and I love the characters and this world because like Dumbledore told Harry, even if it’s all happening in my mind, it doesn’t mean it’s not real, right?

What book has changed your life?

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YamileMendezYamile (prounounced sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is an immigrant writer and reader, a dreamer and fighter, a Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, a 2014 New Visions Award Honor Winner, and one the 2015 Walter Dean Myers Inaugural Grant recipients. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina (cradle of fútbol), she now lives in Alpine, Utah with her husband, five children, and three dogs, but her heart is with her family scattered all over the world. Find her on twitter: @YamileSMendez and online: yamilesmendez.com.

Let’s Stop The Writerly Blame Game

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Settle down, my friends. Pull up a chair. Or a couch. Or a bed. Or sprawl on the floor, if that’s your preference. But get comfortable, because today we’re going to be talking about some hard truths.

Many, many times in the last few months, I’ve heard variations of the same two themes coming out of the mouths of aspiring writers. The first type of comment goes like this: It’s really no use querying an agent. Or querying this agent. Or trying to get traditionally published at all. After all, statistically only a tiny percentage of writers ever get an agent anyway. 

The second type of comment is similar: I’ve been querying, but I just keep getting rejected. I think it’s because agents only want the same old drivel. They don’t care about originality. This comment comes in an endless array of specifics and individualizations, but the heart of the justification is always the same: Those agents just don’t see what a good thing I’ve got going. They don’t recognize my genius. Often, the writer who makes comments like this is also resistant to the idea of revising or rewriting their book, feeling that that would be pandering to somebody else’s tastes in order to get an agent.

And you know what? I totally get it. Let me give you a little picture of my own query history.

Just over three years ago, I started querying a fairytale retelling. It was the third book I’d written but the first I’d queried, and I had stars in my eyes. I’d revised the book a bit, my critique partners had told me that it was Newbery Award material, and I was confident that I’d find an agent who wanted to snap that book up right away. Excitedly, I started live-pitching at conferences and sending out queries. I submitted to the Pitch Wars contest.

The crickets were deafening.

The sparse bits of feedback I got, from both agents and contest mentors, were all the same: It’s not original enough. There’s no place in the market for it. I was stung. I’d poured my heart and soul into that book! I’d given it my all! Couldn’t those agents recognize the genius that was in front of them? Of course, I comforted myself, the stats show that hardly anybody who queries actually lands an agent. The agents are all just too busy to see how big my book could go.

I’ve written before about the watershed moment that happened that autumn, the moment that gave me the courage to pick myself up by my bootstraps and keep working. Sadder but wiser, I turned my attention to my fourth novel. I spent months revising and polishing it, and then dove in again: live pitching, querying, contest entering. This time, things started out much more promisingly. I got lots of agent requests right off the bat, and for several months I was certain that that would be the book to get me an agent. When those requests turned into rejection after rejection after rejection, I found myself thinking again: It’s just because it’s not a Twilight or Hunger Games readalike. Can’t those agents recognize a good thing when they see it? 

Shelving that book was hard. It’s still the book of my heart, and saying a temporary goodbye to it was gut-wrenching. It was so, so easy to place the blame on anything else: the industry. The agents. The market.

This story has a happy ending: After going through a true dark night of the soul, I once again picked myself up, finished the manuscript I was drafting, and queried it. Within weeks, I had multiple agent offers for that book. I signed with my fantastic agent a month after sending my first query. Next year, that book will be my debut novel with HarperCollins Children’s.

What is my point in sharing this story? It’s because I get so frustrated, so saddened, to hear writer after writer utter self-defeating words before they’ve even really given querying and submission a college try. Querying is hard work. It is grueling, stressful, and involves a lot of rejection. But so, too, does writing as a career. No matter what path to publication you end up taking, there will be rejection, stress, and insecurity. As a traditionally-published debut author, I’m already beginning to feel the anxiety that comes from knowing that next summer, people will pick up my book… and some won’t like it. Some will give it bad reviews on Amazon. Even more terrifying, the vast majority of people will probably never be remotely interested in my book. And the stakes are high: How readers respond to my debut will, in large part, determine the path my future career takes.

Self-publishing is the same. While you get to skip the rejections from agents and editors, indie publishing is still rife with rejection and angst. The bottom line is this: If you want to be a writer, you cannot escape rejection.

And while shrouding yourself in an armor made of justifications is the natural response to the pain of being rejected, it’s also an ultimately unhelpful strategy. To be a writer is, by its very nature, to allow yourself to become vulnerable. What is more raw than the feeling of pouring your heart into words and then seeing somebody dislike (or—even worse—not care about) those words? That vulnerability is part and parcel of a writing career—and the sooner you can accept and lean into it, the more resilient and strong your writer heart will become.

Yes, it’s hard to be rejected. Yes, it’s hard to stomach the thought that the problem might lie with our book—those words that poured straight from our heart—and not with the agent, the publisher, the establishment. And yes, the statistics for the number of querying writers are grim. But you know what? In this industry, persistence, humility, and a willingness to start over and try again pay off. It took me three different books, more than 120 queries, and a whole lot of fresh starts and trying new things to land an agent and a book deal—but I did it. My agent has taken on a grand total of three clients in the last two years, including me. Based on the number of queries she generally receives, there was a .03% chance that I would have landed an offer. And yet I did.

And you, dear friend? I believe in you. I have faith in your ability to beat the odds. I have faith in your ability to adapt, to learn, and to use the tools available to you to bring your craft to the level that it needs to be in order to achieve your writerly dreams.

But trust me when I say that the first step to achieving those dreams is this: Take a deep breath. Let go of all the reasons you have for why agents or editors aren’t seeing what you see in your book. And get ready to work.

 

headshot1Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Trudging Through Sludge

It creeps under doorways, rises through vents, incorporating everything and everyone in its path, zapping them of energy, physical and mental. It’s a destroyer of focus and productivity, causing its victims to write at a snail’s pace, stare at blank screens, and abandon projects. I call it the Sludge, and I’ve been trying to wade through it for ages now.

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I briefly escaped it when I traveled across the country to write in a cabin with a bunch of other writers (several of whom were also traveling to escape the Sludge.) I hoped that maybe while I was away, the Sludge would get bored and move somewhere else. But no, it had waited patiently back at home, and was there to greet me again when I returned.

I tried to convince it to go with threats of Camp NaNoWriMo word counts, but it laughed in my face and gave me the flu. It knows I can’t write when I have the flu. Then the dreaded Spring Break arrived and the two teamed up. There’s no wading through a combo of Sludge and Spring Break—what was originally the thickness of molasses hardened into clay. I’ve written very, very little during the last three weeks.

There’s a trick to fighting the Sludge though, if you’re patient. You know how in old movies, the protagonist would fall into quick sand, and the more they struggled, the deeper they would sink? Eventually they would realize that if they stopped struggling, they’d float back up to the top where they could reach a vine or outstretched hand that would bring them back to safety. The Sludge is kind of like that. The more you stress about how little you’re writing, the harder it becomes to write, until eventually, you’re not writing at all.

I’ve found that I do better if I stop thinking about it much. If I just ride along on the surface of the Sludge and let it carry me to wherever it’s trying to go, it will eventually float me to a branch that I can use to pull myself out. I stop worrying about word counts, and just ask myself if I’ve written at all that day. Or heck, if I’ve even opened up my document and looked at it, if I’ve thought about it at all while showering or doing the dishes—if I haven’t abandoned it completely, that’s good enough for now. And eventually, if I keep at it in just such a way, the Sludge will slink away for a while and let me get back to work.

Have you ever been taken over by the Sludge? How did you handle it? Or, if you’re currently trudging through it, I hope this has helped you to know you’re not alone, and eventually, you’ll find your way back out.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The World is Wide Enough: Rethinking the “-er” and the “-est”

 

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We are all storytellers here, and today’s post is about my most recent experiences with one specific form of storytelling: live theater.

Due to ridiculous good fortune and a particularly skilled friend, I found myself in possession of a (reasonably priced!) ticket to see one of the very first performances of Hamilton in San Francisco. It’s still hard for me to put into words how perfect it was–the staging, the acting, the music, the story itself. I found myself thinking, “That may be the best performance I’ve seen. Of anything. Ever.”

What could possibly follow an experience like that? Would everything pale in comparison? Perhaps I should give up on theater, because what could ever hope to compete?

Luckily, my kids had already been cast in a children’s production of Once On This Island, and there was more theater in my immediate future. As I write this, we’re twenty-four hours from closing night, and I still haven’t made it through the final number without tearing up. It’s a beautiful show.

As I reflect on these two very different productions, I’ve also been thinking of a conversation I had recently with a wise grandmother. She told me of how she’s seeking to eliminate “the ‘-er’ and ‘-est'” from her conversations with her grandkids and even from her own thoughts. Rather than asking them, “What was the best part of the trip?” she asks, “What did you love about the trip?” Rather than evaluating her staff in terms of who is better at their job, she considers what strengths each of her employees brings to the workplace.

There is certainly a place for comparison and even ranking in certain facets of life, but ever since that conversation, I’ve been increasingly aware of how limited the need actually is. When anything is placed as superior, in terms of relationships or experiences or works of art, by necessity, something also becomes inferior.

Here’s what I propose:

What if we eliminate the comparison and ranking from our lives as much as we possibly can? Easier said than done, of course, but how powerful would it be to look at our experiences–and our work–in terms of what we love and what we learn? To approach our storytelling with a respect for and awareness of all the stories that have come before and all that will follow–but without worrying how ours will rank among them? To recognize that the world is truly wide enough for us all? Would we then tell our stories for more pure reasons, rather than for purposes of a bigger advance, a potential award that designates our work as “better”, a secret (or not-so-secret) desire to earn the rank of “bestsesller”?

Tomorrow night, I will watch from the wings as forty bright, beautiful children sing these words with strong voices and hopeful hearts:

Life is why
We tell the story
Pain is why
We tell the story
Love is why
We tell the story
Grief is why
We tell the story
Hope is why
We tell the story
Faith is why
We tell the story
You are why
We tell the story

~ “Why We Tell The Story”, Once On This Island

Nourish yourself and your story, then, my friends, without any worry of whether it is best or better in comparison to everything else out there or even than what you’ve written before. Put your whole self into your story, and when you’ve done that, again and again, let it be enough.

And it will be.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

 

Cultivating A Mindset Of Ideas

One of the top questions we as writers get is “but where do you get your ideas?” I don’t know about you, but this question always gives me pause. I usually launch into a long, rambling story about the specifics of how a particular idea came to me, but if somebody is truly wanting to know a method for how I consistently develop ideas that become books… I don’t have one.

The truth is, my ideas are almost always completely random. The idea for my debut novel came from a children’s song. The idea for the next book I wrote after that came because I was annoyed about my husband always leaving shaving cream and stubble in the sink. The idea for the book that’s next up on my drafting docket came, I kid you not, from a typo that tickled my funny bone and seemed too serendipitous to pass up.

So when people ask me where my ideas come from, I usually end up responding with something generic, like They come from everywhere. Because what I’ve come to believe after many years of writing practice is this:

The important thing isn’t where the ideas come from; it’s what you do with them after they come.

And, as a corollary to that, what you do to encourage more ideas to come. For me, at least, the answer is to cultivate a writing mindset in which ideas are honored, and in which they’re free to grow and flourish. When I’m in this sort of a mindset, it doesn’t actually matter that much whether or not one idea is really viable enough to make a novel; what matters is that I use the ideas that come as opportunities to flex my creative muscles and teach my brain how to be receptive to, and how to build upon, the ideas it finds.

How, exactly, do I do that?

  1. I write them all down. Usually not right at the beginning—the first part of my writing process is always just thinking, and sometimes that thinking goes on for months. But once the idea gets to a point where it could be summed up in a sentence—even if there’s still only the barest bones of a story in it—then I make a note on it. I’ve used lots of filing systems over the years; as a teenager, I kept my ideas in notebooks or index card holders; as an adult, I have a Scrivener file where I have a corkboard with one card per idea. These ideas come from everywhere—dreams, random thoughts, funny occurrences, questions. The important thing is just to get it down. For me, at least, the act of creating space for a new idea in and of itself activates the part of my brain that churns new ideas out. In times when I’m making notes on a new idea, I’m much more likely to discover still more ideas waiting to be written.
  2. Cultivate curiosity; always ask “what would that book be about?” When an idea strikes my fancy, I take some time to ask myself what would a book about that be like? Usually, I spend a few months—or a few years—daydreaming about what that story might be, until I eventually have enough of a ghost idea to make notes on it. Plenty of the books I make notes on won’t ever be written, but they’re all fun to think about.
  3. Write regularly. Inevitably, the times when I’m working the most on one book are the times when other book ideas beat down my veritable door. Partly because creativity begets creativity, partly because when I’m in the middle of drafting something I’d give almost anything to work on something that’s not that book, I am never so full of interesting new ideas as when I’m actively working on something else.
  4. Stop and notice. As I mentioned in my introduction, my ideas come from literally all over the place, and often come accidentally. Many are small things that might not stand out much—except that over the years, I’ve trained myself to notice them, to hold space in my mind to welcome new ideas and think about what kind of story they might turn out to be. Two years ago, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, where wild blackberry brambles cover everything in the summertime, my husband and I rented an apartment in a complex that had a strange abandoned shed, completely overtaken by blackberries. The day my toddler and I discovered it I was struck by what an odd sight it was, and found myself wondering for months what the story behind it could be. Eventually, a fully-fledged story idea—for a book I’m hoping to write someday soon—grew out of that scene. Stopping and noticing can mean a lot of things for me: sometimes, as in the case of the blackberry shed, it can mean literally stopping and looking at something that’s in front of me. Other times, it can mean allowing my imagination to run away with me while I’m reading books or watching movies, dreaming of how I might have crafted that story differently. Still others, it just means paying attention to my thoughts and the things I strike my fancy—like the funny typo I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Whatever the case, this sort of intentional noticing is key, for me, to finding ideas that inspire me to write.

I may never know exactly how to answer a question about where I get my ideas. The creative universe is, after all, a funny thing. Still, by focusing on the how of cultivation and not the where of finding, I feel confident that I won’t spend too much of my writing life lacking inspiration!

 

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.