How to Get Ideas for Stories

Here’s the lesson about reading: read inside your genre to perfect your style, outside of it for new ideas.

I told my wife a while back that I had finally hit the turning point in my second novel, Fracture, coming out at the end of this month. My first novel starts out with a whip-crack (the lead character falling out of an 8th floor window) and only slows down to take a breath in a few places. With Fracture, I wanted to work on a slower build that gradually increased in tempo like a lit fuse nearing the first stick of dynamite in a chain of explosions.

When I explained this to my wife, she said, “I wouldn’t know where to begin writing a novel.”
“It all starts with an idea,” I said, “usually a ‘what-if?’.”

That’s why de-cluttering your space, schedule, and mind is so important to an author. When you’re stuck in routines or harried by to-do lists, your mind doesn’t have time to wander.

  • You need time to read. Books are great. They shape your perception and your style as an author. Books aren’t the only places where authors get ideas, though. Pick up magazines, news articles, slip through an encyclopedia or a national geographic. Here’s the lesson about reading: read inside your genre to perfect your style, outside of it for new ideas. So if you’re looking for something fresh, get outside your genre for that brilliant “what-if?” that sets your pants on fire.
  • You need time to wander too. Set aside 30 minutes to go for a walk at the end of the day. Go alone if you can or with a friend who likes to talk about things outside of conventional conversation. Maybe just sitting on the same bench in the same park is what you need. Whatever it is, clear your mind of all the tasks you have to do and give yourself time to dream on whatever takes your interest.
  • People-watch. There is no better place to find drama than laundro-mats and all-night diners. Go places where people talk loudly. Bring a pen and paper or your phone and a note-taking app. Capture moments of dialogue that hook your attention, life’s ironic twists, physical descriptions and tics, and the multiple facets of the human psyche.

These are just a few ideas to get you going. How about you, though? How do you find your stories?

As I Lay Dying Review

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As I Lay Dying was, honestly, like wading through an ever changing current of words. Faulkner’s ear for dialect is as keenly tuned as a master violinist’s toward the reverberations of his instrument. That being said, however, Faulkner’s writing style, when expressed in the stream of consciousness ramblings that fill this book, is…well to say “confusing” would be an understatement. The book is well worth the read if you enjoy reading for the sound of a character’s voice. There are some unique voices here. If you’re not one for meandering monologues on life’s meanings and odd sentence composition, then I’d suggest you leave this one on the shelf. If you choose to read this book, opt for the audiobook as the various readers help to make better sense of the unbroken style of Faulkner’s prose.

An example of when Faulkner gets confusing: 

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”

An example of when Faulkner gets it right:

“He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like those others: just a shape to fill a lack that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear.”

and…

“I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as when he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping. And like he would be kind of proud of whatever come up to make the moving or the setting still look hard. He set there on the wagon hunched up, blinking, listening to us tell about how quick the bridge went and how high the water was, and I be durn if he didn’t act like he was proud of it, like he had made the river rise himself.”

Kirkus Calls Hindsight, “A high-stakes suspense novel with a breakneck pace and a strong voice.”

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Kirkus Reviews has published the review of Hindsight and it’s stunning. The good news doesn’t stop there. They’ve chosen Hindsight for the “Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection,” which you’ll be seeing mid-March.

“A debut novel about an Irish-American ex-con combines the appeal of the thriller and noir fiction genres in a style similar to that of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books… Featuring some insightful character development and pedal-to-the-metal pacing, this novel gets its real power from its gritty narrative voice, which is simultaneously jaded and principled… A high-stakes suspense novel with a breakneck pace and strong voice.” – Kirkus Reviews

Click here to purchase Hindsight on Kindle for the low price of $2.99. If you’re a part of the Amazon Lending Library, then you can pick it up for free.

Busting Writer’s Block

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There are plenty of tips to breaking up writer’s block. They are all good, but here’s my favorite. It’s my favorite because it makes me feel in control of the act of writing, lets me stop feeling satisfied and start with plenty of new ideas to bring to the page. You ready for it? Okay, here it is. Real simple: don’t finish.

When we’re writing–especially when we’ve struck a vein and the words are gushing–there is this drive to get it all out before that vein dries up. Number one, that mentality is a problem. By thinking you’ve got a limited supply of ideas and they only really come in spurts of inspiration, you lock yourself into a mindset of inspirational poverty. That’s not the case. The words are always in you. It’s just about your mind making connections between concepts. When you put a full stop on an idea with a period, you sever those connections. If, however, you stop writing in the middle of a sentence, you keep that connection open. What’s more, using the analogy of the vein, you let those words keep flowing when you walk away from the computer and soon you’ll be swimming in them. Your subconscious will keep making connections, and bursts of insight will hit you while you’re pulling the milk out of the fridge, the car out of the garage, or your head out of your ass after a fight with your spouse.

Number two, if you know how a sentence, or a scene is going to end, then you come back into the act of writing with at least half a tank of fuel to get you going. Writing out a full chapter till you can’t think of what comes next leaves you dry, with little motivation to sit back down and start, since you don’t have that enough juice to get things moving.

So, how do we put this into practice? Easy. If your goal is to write a chapter a day, write a chapter and a half, or just three-fourths of that chapter. I don’t typically stop conversations if they are really crackling, or a description that I have just the right words for. I do, however, stop right smack in the middle of a sentence if the point of the sentence is the character performing an action or moving from one place to another. I know where it’s going and it’s not critical to say it just right (not yet at least). To get into this practice, all you have to do is call off the voice of that asshole overlord in your head that tells you to finish the sentence and stop right in the-

How’s that? You’ve got that urge to finish the sentence, don’t you? Good. That’s what I’m talking about. Now try it out for yourself. But before you go, why not share some of your own ideas on busting writer’s block?

Review: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

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Le Carre sets the standard for the intellectual spy thriller. While this is a George Smiley novel, you only see him in the shadows. The lead character in this novel is Alec Leamas, an MI6 operative running things in Cold War Germany before he gets sacked for a failed operation. He’s sullen, sarcastic, cunning, and quite likable. You can read the book’s description if you want to find out about the story. I’m here to tell you why I liked it.

Le Carre’s strength is the intricate web of lies that his characters weave around each other. The entire novel, like most Le Carre tales, is a dance of spiders, each trying to catch the other in their trap. Playing perfectly into this dynamic are the high-stakes consequences that result from seemingly insignificant exchanges of dialogue. In Le Carre’s world, it is not laser pens or grappling hook brassieres that turn the tides of war, it is the ability to deceive and maintain deception until the end. Take this excerpt that epitomizes what I think is the theme of the novel:

“A man who lives a part, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself the practice of deception is not particularly exacting. It is a matter of experience, a professional expertise. It is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self defense. He must protect himself not only from without, but from within, and against the most natural of impulses. Though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor. Though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities. Though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must within all circumstances without himself from those with whom he should naturally confide. Aware of the overwhelming temptations which assail a man permanently isolated in his deceit, Leamas resorted to the course which armed him best. Even when he was alone, he compelled himself to live with the personality he had assumed. It is said that Balzac on his deathbed inquired anxiously after the health and prosperity of characters he had created. Similarly, Leamas, without relinquishing the power of invention, identified himself with what he had invented. The qualities he had exhibited to ****: the restless uncertainty, the protective arrogance concealing shame were not approximations, but extensions of qualities he actually possessed. Hence, also, the slight dragging of the feet, the aspect of personal neglect, the indifference to food, and an increasing reliance on alcohol and tobacco. When alone, he remained faithful to these habits. He would even exaggerate them a little, mumbling to himself about the iniquities of his service. Only very rarely, as now, going to bed that evening, did he allow himself the dangerous luxury of admitting the great lie that he lived.”

Conversations kill in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, so every word counts.

To Write Authentic Dialogue, Write Backstory First

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Last week I told you about a conversation my wife and I started having about writing.
“I wouldn’t know where to start writing a novel,” she said.
“It all starts with an idea, a ‘what if?’.” I answered. So, last week we talked about where you get your ideas. That wasn’t enough for my wife, though.
“Yeah, but all that dialogue,” she said, “where do you begin writing that?”
“Backstory, I guess,” I said. “I start by figuring out who my characters are. I don’t try to write anything until I’ve got that sorted.”
Backstory is, perhaps, the most critical step in the creation of a novel for me. To write a character, I have to feel like I know them well enough to invite them to a birthday party. That’s actually a great way to get to know your characters.

If you’re having trouble getting a handle on someone in your novel, imagine that you are out on a double date with them, or that you’ve invited them over to your house for a party. 

Ask them the typical questions that you get asked at a party. How would they respond? What questions would they ask you? Who would they get along with? If you want to make things interesting, imagine a crisis: a motorcycle drives through your fence, you find out your sister has been sleeping with that character, you ran out of dip. What does that character do?

After I nail down the backstory of my characters complete with at least a few childhood memories and the track of their life decisions, then I pen that down on an index card. From that point on, all I have to do is put that character in the room with another character and a subject to talk about. They do the rest.
“When you know your characters, you don’t have to worry about dialogue,” I told my wife. “You just let them talk. If you start hearing words come out of their mouths and thinking, ‘that doesn’t sound like Shirley,’ then you know that you’re taking over and putting those words in there.”
Sure, writing this way may lead to some rambling conversations about trivialities, but that’s often what makes the dialogue interesting. It’s the details that tell the story. And, if you’ve got twelve pages of blathering nonsense at the end of your writing, you know two things. First, you know a little more about your character. Second, you know that you can always tighten that dialogue up when editing time comes around.

How about you? What part does backstory play in your writing process? Are there any characters who have become immortalized in your mind because of the amount of detail that the author put into their backstory?

Catching Up on the Blog Tour

If you haven’t found the recent links to my blog tour online, I’ve posted them here for you. Enjoy, my friend.

What Inspires My Writing on Journeys Thru Books

An Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Hindsight on BookBlurbsJim

Villains and What I Learned from Writing Hindsight on Pastime with Books

To Outline or Not To Outline on Next Big Book Thing