The Elusive Nature of Inspiration

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question I often get when I’m discussing the nature of my latest story, usually with a person who does not write. Any writer knows that writers don’t know where their ideas come from. In his writing book/memoir “On Writing,” Stephen King said, “There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

It’s true. We have no idea. However, we often remember our line of thinking when we’ve come up with some of our ideas. So where have some of mine come from? How different are their origins? Do some story elements come from different places? Let’s talk.

I’ve had stories arise from concepts I wanted to explore. The Order of the Key was about me trying to create a strong female hero from a geek who has been raised loving superhero media. Lucy Dies in the End was really solely about that concept–I literally just thought about the title and how cool it would be if Lucy herself was the one to say it. I’ve always been drawn to Greek mythology and Aphrodite in particular, which led to Never Say Never. My interest in past lives played into my ideas for the mystery behind Living in the Past.

I’ve had stories arise from dreams. Often when I have these, they play out before me like movies. Legally Insane was about a dream I had about a hidden relationship in a workplace. The present day tale in Living in the Past comes from a very vivid dream I had about a woman strongly connecting with a man and coming home with him, only to stumble into a mystery involving his son.

I’ve had stories arise from mundane reality. Like the lead character in The Order of the Key and Legally Insane, I am a geek. Legally Insane is largely about work in a law firm, which happens to be my day job. The concept of Lucy as Lady Justice in Lucy Dies in the End came from staring at Lady Justice during various court case searches at my job. My parents’ divorce heavily inspires some of the debates on long term relationships in Never Say Never. Dating experiences of my friends helped inspire other portions. And the characters work in an ice cream shop. My first job was at a Carvel. Choosing to Stand Still was a sort of wish fulfillment, regarding a pair of best friends I knew that I thought belonged together–if you’ve read that one, writing it made me realized they were right never to pursue that route.

17760096_1325475264199099_8399109544035762431_nI’ve had stories arise from conversations. The backbone of Legally Insane involves the main character visualizing a character from her favorite television series prodding her to be strong in the face of a major life change. This came from a joke that was made when chatting with fandom friends about Jack O’Neill, a wise-cracking character from Stargate SG-1. My friend said, “I wish I could take him around in my pocket to smack some sense into me.” From there, the idea was born.

I’ve had stories arise from fears. Without spoilers, the fear of losing a child played into The Keys & Guardians series plan heavily. Things You Can Create arose from the fear of the kinds of torture I could carelessly visit upon my characters. It is, unsurprisingly, my first short story.

I’ve had stories that arise from past trauma. One Percent is an exploration of my descent into anxiety prior to spinal surgery. One Headlight was born of the death of a friend, one who died in a car accident on the way to college. Tunneling dealt with my experiences with dealing with alcoholics. The Peace of Completion and Release dealt with some wish fulfillment regarding the aftermath of my sexual assault. Blue Ice dealt with the issue of domestic violence, handled by a third party, looking in.

What does this tell you? Stories come from so many different places. Some of the things on this list were planned. Some were things that spilled out of me once I began to write. But all of it were things I drew upon to create stories that meant a lot to me.

What does this mean for you? It means inspiration can come from anything. It can be a mix of many things. So collect writing prompts. Collect interesting factoids. File away tidbits about the people you meet. But most of all, experience. Live your life with a keen, attentive eye and look at all you see around you. Every bit of your life experience, even the bad things can be weaved into the fabric of a story.

So how do you find the elusive creature known as inspiration? The answer is simple. Live.

Rock Star

unnamedEveryone should have a self-motivation story – one moment in their life where they did the thing nobody thought they could do, where they figured something out that nobody else could, where they triumphed in a bad situation. If you haven’t, then your moment will come. Be patient.  Or, make one for yourself. Because it means something.

That moment can be a powerful reminder of what you are capable of.  Here’s my moment and everything that lead me there. 

I graduated high school at 17 years old and went straight to Lehman College to start my theater degree, because those were the days when I wanted to be an actor. I worked my butt off for one year, going to school full time in the morning and working part time at a video rental store in the evening.  And then I made a very silly mistake.  I got married.

It wasn’t a mistake to get married.  My husband and I just celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary.  The mistake was that I didn’t realize what getting married would do to my need-based scholarship.  Ah, the ignorance of youth. With my mother’s income, my father’s income and my husband’s income now factoring in as well as mine (despite the fact that my parents were unable to contribute much further to my schooling) the financial aid program I was in tossed me right out on my behind. In the middle of August, I was left to discover that I no longer had any way of paying for college.

So I dropped out. I figured I would try getting acting roles for a little while, and I would save up money to go back. That didn’t really happen, and soon I was working a full time job at a law firm as a receptionist and trying my best to get some money into a savings account.

And that was when I learned about the rumors.

There were a ton of people in my life, friends and family, that truly believed I was never going back to college.  These were not the kind of people who stand close by and wish for bad things to happen to you.  These were people that wanted the best for me. But they figured that I had made some bad choices, that I would never get back to a place where school was a priority for me, that I had made it so that I was stuck in place, that maybe, I’d never had any intention of going back.  When I’d told these people I was leaving college, I had immediately followed it by saying that I would be returning, but those people didn’t believe in me.  Or rather, they didn’t believe in me enough to know that my word was good.

They were wrong.

If I had made the choice not to go back, that would be my choice. But that wasn’t what I had said, and these people didn’t have the faith in me I would have hoped.

It took a long time.  Lots of really hard work.  But in May 2009, almost ten years after my first day at Lehman College, I walked into Radio City Music Hall with the rest of the graduating class of Hunter College, and I walked out a graduate, Summa Cum Laude, with a double major in Creative Writing and Media Studies.  It was a long day to end a long journey, the culmination of five straight years attending school through the Fall and Spring Semesters, as well as both Summer sessions, full-time at night while I also worked full-time as a legal assistant during the day.  And I made it through that day, despite being six months pregnant with my son, at the time.  

So, what is this?  A big braggy post?  An ‘oh goody, I’m a smart person who works hard” humblebrag?  Yes.  But aren’t you…not supposed to do that on the internet?

You’re not.  

But this is more than that.  This is me remembering one of the most difficult periods of my life.  And when I think of it, I remember how long it felt.  How I felt like I would never make it out of the other end.  Like I would be going to school for the rest of my life.  And then I remember that despite being that tired, I made it through with flying colors.  I didn’t give in to discouraging things people were saying about me, or give up when things got a little too sticky.  I stuck it out and it paid off.

I need a reminder of this.  Because this is how I remind myself what I’m capable of when something gets me down.  And I think everyone needs something like this, something that makes you feel stronger.  So what’s your story?  Go ahead and share all about that moment where you took on the world and won.  I want to hear it!

Genre Choice

Leather boots

Being asked by a friend who only reads true literary fiction what I am writing used to feel like a pop quiz I was sure to fail. “Hi, my name is Justine and my current works in progress contain a computer virus alien race, a divorcee with an imaginary friend, and superheroes who fight monsters that come through inter-dimensional rifts. Please do not throw tomatoes or insults at me.” I would say it with shyness, with shame, as though what I was writing was any less valid than your normal everyday literary work. There’s literary fiction and there’s commercial fiction, and my muse just happens to like superheroes who fight monsters that come through inter-dimensional rifts.  So sue me.

But the truth is, this is where the muse takes me. It takes me to weird stuff, and, in this case it takes me to fantasy. When I came up with the idea for The Order of the Key, it only made sense that the main character, Jacklyn, would be young. She couldn’t be too young, for reasons I can’t really express without spoiling the plot for Book 1, but she had to be in that stage where she was figuring out who she was as a person. Initially, because some of the themes could run a little dark, I attempted to write Jacklyn as an adult, but it didn’t track well. The voice Jacklyn had placed in my head was plucky, young, and irreverent.

There was also a very specific theme that I wanted to explore, and that was this idea of dreams vs. reality. Jacklyn has this love for comic books, superheroes, and all things geeky. So, at first, when she is pulled into this world where she is the superhero, it seems like a dream come true, even if the circumstances surrounding it aren’t the best. But, as she struggles with the responsibilities of actually living that dream (risking those around her, putting herself on the line, being forced to do things she wouldn’t otherwise enjoy doing), she grows to understand that there is a big difference between imagining a situation and enduring it. And I think this is a hard won lesson for many—this idea that we’re going to grow up to be something amazing, just to have that amazing thing turn out to be…not so amazing. And it was important to tell that story in a YA framework, because I feel like that is a lesson worth teaching to kids who are about to head into college and out into the real world—to feel free to dream, but to inject a little practicality into it. Dream big, but dream smart.

In the end, I didn’t so much choose my genre as my genre chose me. What genres do you guys write? Read? Tell me a little about why in the comments!

Submissions – An Insiders (and Outsiders) View

It’s official. I’ve converted to the Dark Side. Once upon a time, I was just a lowly author.

A short time after signing my book deal with Fantasy Works Publishing, I was given a job there as well. After several back and forth conversations with owner, Jen Leigh, in which she would hand me a potential acquisition and ask me to evaluate it to see whether or not our interests lined up, I suddenly found myself working with her in acquisitions. Instead of the rejected, I have become the REJECTOR. And I feel the need to talk about it a bit, because it’s a huge difference, looking at it from the inside. And possibly because I need a little talk therapy.

Here’s what I’ve learned from working in acquisitions through two pitch sessions.

  1. It is a SLOG. I used to be very annoyed at how long it took agents and publishers to turn manuscripts around when you sent them in, but I was wrong. Reading through that many submissions can be a lot of work, especially when you consider the fact that we have other duties in acquisitions, like sending out contracts or rejections (more on both, later). And that isn’t even factoring in the fact that in small publishing you can wear many hats. Also, for me, specifically, I have a day job, a writing career, and a family. We try to keep your manuscripts for less than a month before we say something, and that’s mostly due to Jen, who reads so much faster than me. But in small publishing, all it takes is one minor business hiccup to mean we can’t read acquisitions for the rest of the day until we get it straightened out. Because putting out fires with the authors you have takes precedent.

  2. It is a JOY. People are creative. REALLY creative. And a whole lot of fun. Even if something doesn’t fit our particular vision for our company, we usually fall in love with something about every manuscript we read.

  3. It can be disappointing. There are few things that hurt worse than discovering a manuscript that you fall in love with, and having that author decide not to sign with your company. You invest a lot of time when you read a manuscript from cover to cover, and a lot of emotion as well. And when you fall in love, you fall hard. So it’s sad. But it’s also important that you are both on the same page, business-wise. So just like you have to make the best choice for your manuscript, we have to make the best choice for our company. The only thing I would suggest is that you only submit to a small publishing company if you would be interested in publishing with them. If you are relatively sure you are looking for an agent, it wastes everybody’s time for you to submit. It happens far more than you would think.

  4. We know, very quickly, if we want to sign you. Nobody wants to hear this, and nobody wants to say this, but it’s true. I often know by page 5 or 6 of whatever you send me, if I’m going to want to read further. If I fear a no, I’ll still read the entire packet you send, hoping you’ll prove me wrong, but I have yet to have that happen. Taste is subjective, and that doesn’t mean that the same will be true for the same writer any other place. By no means does this mean you have to be perfect, but when I pick up a manuscript, I have to be captivated by something (your writing style, a character, voice, plot) by the end of the first several pages, or you’ll be hard pressed to win me over.

  5. We hate rejections. If Jen tells me she has grabbed a pint of ice cream, I know it’s time to send out rejections. We hate every single email we send, because we don’t want to crush anybody’s dream. We’d much rather say yes, because…

  6. We love to make a dream come true. Jen has said this to me time and again, but it wasn’t until just recently, when I was given the chance to make a call on a manuscript by myself, that I understood the power of selecting a novel for publication. That book became my baby. I’d worked on books in their nascent stages before – mine, my husband’s, my good friend, Louis’ – and you become emotionally invested in them. Their success becomes just as important as your own. But never, had I read the work of a complete stranger (though, thankfully, not anymore) and had that same magic happen to me. And then it did.

And this is why I wanted to do this. This is why I added Acquisitions Editor to the many pieces of my puzzle. Because the writers we have chosen deserve to have a voice, deserve to have their day. And I’m enjoying every chance I get to make that happen.

*Happy Dances* I have new promo art!

Hello everybody!

For anybody who was able to make it to the recent event I attended, it isn’t a surprise that I now have some Order of the Key promo art to show off. And I. AM. EXCITED. Check it out below.

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I can’t wait for you guys to understand the significance of every single one of these quotes. Stay tuned for more info!

Promoting #Pit2Pub, the newest Twitter Pitch Party!

Those of you who know my publishing story, know that it was a Twitter pitch party that led me to my publisher. Now that I have another book completed – a romantic comedy, which Fantasy Works just doesn’t publish – I am shopping for a publisher for that as well, and will be shopping it at the newest Twitter pitch party, #pit2pub, on July 15th. For more information, please read below!


The Intro: Who has fun spending hours creating that perfect 140-character pitch? Then bouncing that sentence or two off others to see if it’s fantastic? And finally having to create a couple more so you’re not posting the same one every few hours?

The Why: Kristin and Ann know what you’re going through. In fact, they both did quite a few Twitter Pitch Parties so they know your pain. Kristin remembers what it was like to see that little colored star and then checking and re-checking email to confirm that someone did in fact click on the pitch and favorite it. And Ann’s recalls her heart pounding and her palms sweaty, all the while hoping and praying that it wasn’t made by accident from a friend or some complete stranger who marked it and not re-tweeted it by mistake. They both trolled the feed all day long and didn’t work their day jobs (well, mostly this was Kristin).

So it’s because of those reasons Ann M. Noser and Kristin D. Van Risseghem wanted to help other authors. So why not pay it forward? They are fortunate enough to have a published book, and working on their second. But let’s face it, the best reason for them doing this? IT’S FUN! So let’s all have a blast, help each other out, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find that perfect relationship between author and publisher.

The When: Here’s the date for #Pit2PubJuly 15, 2015 starts at 8AM and ends at 8PM (CST or CDT, which is Chicago time).

The What: What is #Pit2Pub? A Twitter Pitch Party for writers to tweet a 140-character pitch for their completed manuscripts. Have several variations of your Twitter pitch available. The pitch must include the hashtag #Pit2Pub, the Age Group, and the Genre (#YA, #MG, #A, etc. see chart below) in the tweet. It’s important to include the hashtag(s).

Age Groups Hashtags:
#PB = Picture Book
#C = Children’s
#MG = Middle Grade
#YA = Young Adult
#NA = New Adult
#A = Adult
#WF = Woman’s Fiction

Genres Hashtags:
#CB = Chapter Book
#CL = Children’s Lit
#E = Erotica
#ER = Erotic Romance
#ES = Erotica Suspense
#HF = Historical Fiction
#HR = Historical Romance
#M = Mystery
#Mem = Memoir
#LGBT
#LF = Literary Fiction
#NF = Non-fiction
#R = Romance
#PNR = Paranormal Romance
#RS = Romantic Suspense
#SFF = SciFi & Fantasy
#S = Suspense
#T = Thriller
#W = Westerns

RULES:
Authors of all genres are welcome to pitch their completed and polished manuscripts. You can pitch more than one manuscript. Tweet your pitch throughout the day, but no more than twice per hour per manuscript. When you see an industry professional on the feed, tweet it once. Remember to include the hashtag #Pit2Pub and genre.

The publishers will tweet their submission preferences and favorite your tweet if they wish to see more. If you get a favorite from an agent or publisher, follow their submission directions on their website or look for them on this blog. Then send them their request as soon as you can. They may have tweeted what they want you to send, so check their twitter feed for that information.

Make sure to put “Pit2Pub Request: TITLE” in the subject line of your email when sending your request.

Don’t tweet agents and publishers directly unless they tweet you first.

Don’t favorite friends’ tweets. You can RT your friends to show your support. Save favoriting for publisher requests to avoid confusion.
Be sure you research each requesting publisher. Don’t submit if you don’t want to work with them.

Be nice and courteous to each other and to the industry professionals. If you do see abuse, please report it to Twitter or notify Ann or Kristin right away.

Check back on their blogs (http://www.kristinvanrisseghem.com/blog) or Ann’s Blog (http://annmnoser.com) as we post the list of comfirmed publishers who have signed up to monitor the feed on July 15, 2015!

Thank you! And let the fun begin!!!

Graduation Lessons

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This child and his silly faces

“We want to be a part of it! First Grade! First Grade!”

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Slide Show Picture

As I listened to my son and his classmates sing their graduation song, having just finished the adorable slideshow the school had put together to celebrate, I was surprised to find tears in my eyes. I’m not usually the kind of person that cries over happy things. Besides, it’s just a Kindergarten Graduation, right? His diploma has crayons on it!

But it’s about thinking back to where we were when we started Kindergarten.

Our entire lives have changed since September 2014. Seeing those pictures, taken on the first day of school, I could remember who we were when we dropped him off. I can remember still crossing my fingers, waiting to hear back regarding my manuscript. I can remember Ismael struggling to complete his. Our novels hadn’t been picked up for publication, then. We were just people chasing a dream. And Logan was a big part of that dream.

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This little heartbreaker.

Logan, himself, was different. He couldn’t read more than a few words. The other day, he casually picked up a book and read it to himself. It was a breeze. At his birthday party, just before school started, Logan cried about losing a game that cost him a trophy at his own birthday party (I never would have given it to him anyway! That was for the other kids!). CRIED. Hysterically. But I watched him lose a few rounds into the class spelling bee, last week, with little more than a short sniffle. He cried on the third day of school, after seemingly tricking us into believing he was going to be okay with going. By the last day, he was racing in without me, intent on hanging with his friends. He had a hard time leaving his stuffed bear behind on the first day, and though I snuck said bear into the graduation in my purse to make him laugh, it doesn’t take much work at all to convince him to leave the bear home when we’re heading out for the day.

We speak more. I’ve always spoken to Logan, but I can think of dozens of real, somewhat deep conversations we’ve had over the last school year. Perhaps, the most touching of those conversations was the one we had with him the day my Grandmother passed away. But there were others, about friendship, about family. About the bad things we don’t want to think about. About his favorite things and how to handle a bully. About siblings, and planning and all of the things he wants to be. About history, and how to be a good citizen. About keeping the Earth clean, and about guppies and earthworms and snails. About trees and flowers and how they grow. About what it’s like to start to see your dreams come true and how much hard work something like that takes. All on the walk to school.

Getting his crayon diploma.
Getting his crayon diploma.

Watching the slideshow, I stared at the pictures of him from his orientation, and remembered when he was clinging to me, eyeing the application paperwork over my shoulder and asking me what every word meant. But then, I saw my big boy getting his crayon diploma. My first grader, who had come out of his first year older and wiser. And I teared up a bit.

The next day, when Logan asked me how much school he had left, and I told him about college, and an advanced education, he sighed. “I’m going to be in school forever!”

So, I asked, “Logan, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be a scientist. And a writer. And a doctor. And an engineer. And a fixer. And a superhero,” he said, with all of the trademark excitement I expect from him.

“And you know, the best way to be any of those things?” I asked, mostly ignoring the superhero part, although there is more than one way to be a superhero. “Learn. Learn everything you can. Never stop learning.”

And as I said it, and he agreed, I realized how much more I have to learn, how much more I have to teach him.

I can’t wait to see where we go.

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