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.

The Long and Short of It

Inspiration is a strange thing. Sometimes, it comes you to in a word. A phrase. A sentence. Sometimes, you have a dream. Sometimes, it’s a what if. In my next blog post, I’ll probably go further into ways I’ve been inspired to write the stories I’ve composed in my life. I’m not sure how inspiration works with other writers, but with me, it always seems to show up in a way where I can tell what the final piece will become. Short Story? Novel length? I usually know how far I can pull each thread when it appears. And so, I tend to find my planning so very different for each. On this blog, I once discussed the difference between a pantser and a plotter, and I very firmly stood on the plotter side, but with some flexibility. But as I’ve begun working on new short stories, the first I’ve written since truly completing my first novel, I’ve realized something odd.

I’m not a pantser or a plotter. I’m both.

When it comes to working on a novel, I am an obsessive planner. I write forty page long outlines with clips of scenes and setting and history and descriptions, etc. I like to be ready, so when I sit down to work on the story, I know all the details and I can create without being stopped by questions about where I’m going or what role certain things will play in the story. That being said, I still surprise myself, and I try to stay open to changes when they occur, and reshape my outline every few chapters to make sure my direction still makes sense.

When I’m working on a short story, it’s very different. Sometimes, I come up with a concept I want to play with. Sometimes, it’s just a word. Sometimes I get a story prompt. Sometimes, the idea pops out of my head fully formed, like Athena emerging from Zeus’ axe-split noggin. Sometimes, the idea comes out in dribs and drabs. I’ll write a paragraph at a time, when the mood strikes. I’ll revisit it and write a few lines of dialogue. I’ll find another story prompt that will revitalize it and I’ll start writing it full time again. Often, I’ll just write with no idea where I’m headed, and see what happens. Then I’ll go back and re-read it all and add and subtract as needed, once I’m sure I have something that might vaguely resemble an actual story.

I am currently working on one of those piecemeal short stories, and it made me think about how different the processes are. Short stories are a short, frozen moment in time. You have to say so much more with so much less, and for some stories, it’s impossible. Some are just too big for that. In short stories, every word must count to explain the situation, to create the mood, to give us enough of the character that we care for them in a few short pages.

In longer stories, you have time to grow the character, to slowly reveal the plot, the setting. You can go into much more detail, have so many more words to work with. Perhaps this is why the outlining for a long story is so intense for me. Perhaps with short stories, I’m telling a story frame by frame and worrying less about the background, about who these people were beforehand and will be later. Because all that matters is this moment in time, and what they do with it. And the only thing that needs to inform that is their actions in that moment.

Or maybe the writing brain is magical and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

For all my writers out there, what methods do you employ when outlining a short story? A novel? Let’s chat!

“The Peace of Completion and Release” is now available! 

Hi all!

My flash fiction story, “The Peace of Completion and Release” is available at Twisted Sister Literary here. This one is very creepy and potentially triggery, so please read at your own risk.

Thanks again for all of your love and support on this incredibly packed and amazing week!

-Justine

One Headlight Has Been Published…and more!

Cover of Best New Writing 2017It has been a strangely wonderful week, and we’re only on Tuesday. 

Today, Hopewell Publications released Best New Writing 2017 for purchase on Amazon. A collection of short fiction, Best New Writing features finalists for the Gover Prize for Short Fiction. Though I didn’t  win that award, my short story, “One Headlight”, was awarded The Editor’s Choice award. 

“One Headlight” is the story of a group of high school friends coping with the loss of one of their own. You can read it and many other wonderful short stories, here.  The collection is on sale for a limited time at 99 cents. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Thanks again for your support! 

Justine

Spring Into These Writing Links!

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted something brand new that hasn’t been a rehash or a blog hop, but I’ve been a happily busy girl.  Between two publication notifications last month, the release of Volume 3 of Sucker Literary, entering contests and revising my novel, there has been a whole lot going on.

For today, here’s another link collection entry, complete with some that are very personal to my work.

– If you haven’t already, please check out my flash fiction, “Tunneling”.

– Sucker Literary, Volume 3 is out now!  For where to buy and behind the scenes info, check out Sucker’s website!

– I’ve decided to share my playlists for the books I’m working on with you.  So, here is The Order of The Key Playlist.  Feel free to check it out.  Some are songs whose messages inspire, some are perfect for the characters, some inspired random story ideas for no real reasons.  Some contain similar themes.  All are songs I listen to while brainstorming.  Enjoy.

– While we’re doing playlists, here are the playlists I’ve created for my other works in progress:
The Broken Hearts Club
Soul Sight
Legally Insane

This blog post, written by badass YA writer and my friend, Zoraida Cordova, discusses diversity in YA literature and is both funny and incredibly wise. My family, my dearest friends, are pretty much every color, culture, and  sexual orientation that exists.  It is very sad to watch someone celebrate wholeheartedly because they actually got some representation in literature.  This should be routine, not shocking.

– This is a great list of what makes your short story fail with a lit mag.

– This is a great little set of tips for how to co-author a book series. Ismael and I had plans to try something like this at some point in our careers (although that may have fallen by the wayside), so I’ve done some research into the process and this is an interesting view of it.  It also doesn’t hurt that it involves my favorite author, Kelley Armstrong, and her sometimes writing partner Melissa Marr.

– Though I’m not always a gigantic fan of Cassandra Clare (I have a love/hate relationship with her, for sure), this is a fantastic (if maybe a little overly-defensive) response to a constant internal debate I have – how much should your personal beliefs get in the way of your ability to draft real, compelling characters and plotlines. I think Cassandra comes up with a great explanation of this here, although it may be difficult to really understand if you have never read either of her Shadowhunter series’.

– Avoiding Twitter?  Here are some great things you can do with Twitter as a writer. And here’s part two of that article with more great ideas.

We’ve all heard plenty of writing advice.  Here’s why some of the old favorite bits of advice aren’t really that great.

– This is a great blog post on the best ways to classify your story when searching for agents and publishers.

I think that little collection of links redeems me for my absence, what do you think?  Don’t forget to come back at the end of the month, so I can elevator pitch my novels to you.  See you then!

“One Percent” to be Published!

Hello all!

This is just a short little text announcement to let you know that my short story, “One Percent,” which was discussed extensively in the blog post “Too Close For Comfort”, has been selected for publication in a literary magazine!  I will have more details soon enough, but in the meantime I wanted to let my literary family know, so I’ve been blasting the news all over social media to the point where people are probably fairly sick of me and never want to see me post anything ever again.  Bear with me, guys!

Thank you all again for your constant support throughout this writing journey.  You have no idea how much this means.

Reject

A writer’s life is filled with rejection.  It takes a lot of hard work to become a J.K. Rowling or a Stephen King, and on their way there, even they received rejection after rejection before they became household names.

So when you decide to be a writer, you sign yourself up for the mother load of rejections.  You know it’s coming, no matter how hard you work.  No matter where on the scale the quality of your work falls, it may not match the vision of the places where you are submitting your work.

So, when that email pops up – the one that comes from the place you really wanted in on, it breaks your heart.

It happened to me.  In the middle of a normal work day. How do you concentrate on anything when something like that happens?

I read the rejection email.  I reread it because I just couldn’t have seen that right.  And then I went to the bathroom at my job and cried away half of my lunch break.  I swore the editors wouldn’t know a good piece of writing if it bit them on the ass (which was ridiculous, since I read and loved previous issues), and I swore I would never write again.

And then I took a deep breath and saw things as they really were.  My vision and the magazine’s vision of the story didn’t match up.  And that was okay.  There would be other magazines, there would be other stories.

The first cut is the deepest, as they say.  I opened up a chat window and reached out to my Allegra-shaped friend, one of my two dearest friends.  I said, “I can’t lose my mind over this.  This is what the rest of my life is going to be like.”  Clearly, I was a masochist when I chose this profession.

Did I want that?  Could I live a life where these children of mine, these tales birthed from my brain, personal emotions spun into art, could be rejected…often?

I wasn’t sure I could.  I got on the train to go home that night and there was a weight on my shoulders, a question on my mind.

And instead of thinking about it like I had sworn to myself I would do, I took out a pen and my notebook and I started writing.  A new short story, a rejection-gatherer of its own (it already has one!)

So why write?

Because I can’t not write.  Because a simple train ride home that was supposed to be spent in quiet contemplation became the seed of an idea.  Because when I try not to write, I write anyway.  Because nothing interests me the way telling a story does.

Because for every hundred rejections, there has got to be an acceptance.  And that acceptance feels incredible.  I know.  I lived that one too.  So I will keep dreaming and keep writing.  Because it’s not the publication I’m writing for.

It’s the feeling of creation I’m writing for.  And no discouraging moment can take that away.

What keeps you pursuing your dream despite the rejections?  Share below!