Author Archives: Greg R. Fishbone

Where do you get your ideas: a case study

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This is a great question that gets asked during every Q&A session with an author. It’s simple. It’s complex. The answer is different for everyone, but the short version is always some variant of, “Anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere.”

While wrapping up the third book of my Galaxy Games series, I found myself thinking about what comes next for me and my writing. It made me really stop to think about where my ideas come from. Because wherever that was, I desperately needed to go back for something new!

But the harder I hunted for a fresh idea, the more elusive they seemed to become.

Step #1: The Idea File

My computer is full of old projects, one-page treatments, and sample first chapters. A while back, when my daughter was developing her sense of humor, I had the idea to write about muses.

In classical Greek mythology, the muses were nine women who inspired all kinds of creativity in human beings. One is a muse of comedy, another is a muse of tragedy, another is a muse of music, another is a muse of dance… It seemed natural to have these supernatural beings still kicking around in the modern world, and competing for controlling interest over a budding young artist, author, or stand-up comedian.

So I wrote some chapters, and they were awful. They went nowhere, but I kept them in my idea file anyway.

And I made a note for the future: “There are some really fun characters in Greek mythology.”

Step #2: Stay Alert for Ideas

Probably a couple times a day I’ll find myself saying, “That would make a great story.” It may be in response to a news article, a conversation, a picture, or a song. Most of these great stories aren’t the ones I’d want to write, but I can imagine them as a book I’d want to read or a movie I’d want to watch.

I could put them all into my idea file, but mostly I don’t bother. 

Then one day, earlier this year, a tweet popped up in my feed from a local newspaper’s Twitter account. It linked to a story about a high school from a couple towns away from me whose track and field team having a particularly good season. Especially in the javelin event.

“That would make a great story,” I thought, and this time it was one I wanted to write as well!

Step #3: Apply Personal Experience

When I read about the javelin competition, it brought back a flood of memories. I was a member of my high school track team. I learned to throw the shotput and javelin, jump for distance, run for speed, and pass a baton. I had a lot of fun and have many great memories, and the one regret that I wasn’t quite fast enough to earn a letter.

Personal experience is the key to finding the story that only you can tell, which will hold your interest through the writing process, and which will resonate as truthful for your readers. I know how to throw a javelin, what muscles are used, what it feels like to launch it down the field, the smell of the grass, the roar of the crowd. And I know well what it was like to not come in first. Or second. Or third.

It wasn’t a story yet, but a feeling that could become the kernel of a story that would resonate with my personal experience.

Step #4: Take Something Ordinary and Make It Extraordinary.

I know some great writers who can take an ordinary experience, like my not quite lettering in track, and make it into a compelling story. I can’t do that. I don’t even try. For my first Galaxy Games book, I essentially told a story about how I used to shoot baskets at my friend’s driveway hoop when I was ten. Except that I added some space aliens and the President of the United States, and put the fate of the world in the balance.

Start with an ordinary story. Add something new. Take something away. Push something to the extreme.

So for my new project-in-development, I turned my personal story about track into one about a prodigious track star with precognitive abilities. Because what’s more fun than a psychic in running shoes?

Step #5: Create a Contrast Character.

Every main character needs a counterpart, foil, antagonist, partner, or all of the above.

When I took track and didn’t earn a letter, that wasn’t much of a story. If I’d been a prodigious track star with precognitive abilities, things would have been a little different, but still not much of a story.

So for contrast, I added a budding journalist who is suffering from retrograde amnesia after a near-death experience.

It sounded good in my head, but when I threw these characters into my computer, I ended up with a Chapter of Awful.

Step #6: Write a Chapter of Awful

This is important. Let yourself write something awful. I mean, don’t plan for it to be awful—just don’t get upset if it is.

Maybe my “precognitive track star meets amnesiac journalist” chapter wasn’t all bad, but it certainly was angsty. After spending so much time spent on light-hearted middle grade, angsty was a refreshing change, but it wasn’t the world I wanted to inhabit for the full length of a novel.

And if I didn’t want to live there, I certainly couldn’t expect a reader to want to live there.

Step #7: If your story isn’t working, try a riff on it

I kept with my Chapter of Awful but also started on something light and fun as an antidote to all the heaviness, planning to put it as an interlude between the first angsty chapter and the second.

Track and field and precognition in modern times made me think of the Olympic Games and oracular prophesy of Ancient Greece. It even fit a prime item in my idea file: “There are some really fun characters in Greek mythology!”

So my interlude featured Hercules getting his butt kicked in a javelin-throwing contest.

I had fun with it, and started to think more about the character of Hercules. I’d read about his twelve legendary labors back in grade school and hadn’t thought of them much since. But when I was a kid, I’d always seen Hercules as something of a villain. Sure, he does some good deeds—ridding the land of monsters, cleaning out some guy’s stables, picking fruit, and all that—but only because he’s being made to do it. He murders his entire family, successfully pleads an insanity defense, and gets off with community service. Because the “driven mad by Hera” excuse was the Twinkie Defense of the ancient world.

Making Hercules into a villain is like making Superman into a villain, except that Hercules has no kryptonite. How can a mere mortal ever hope to take down a god? This was the story I want to tell!

So I tossed the Chapter of Awful and went to work on the riff instead.

Step #8: Explore the Backstory

My story is about an ordinary character in the world of Greek mythology who must take down the villainous Hercules. I feel really good about this except for one thing; I don’t know who this main character is, where she came from, or what motivates her.

So before I could write the story I originally planned to write, I needed to find the real beginning. That’s where I am now: the formative years of an ordinary character who aspires to do extraordinary things. Someone who can’t throw a javelin all that well and probably wouldn’t letter in track, but is destined to take one of the most powerful beings in all of mythology.

Where did this story come from? The short answer still applies: “Anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere.” But the long answer is still a work in progress.

“Don’t Squelch My Drive!” (And Other Thoughts of Mentoring a Young Writer)

My favorite new author has some upcoming projects I’m especially excited about. One is a book that details the imagined culture and holiday traditions of anthropomorphic leopards, with backmatter that includes games and recipes. The other book is a portal fantasy based on a popular fairy tale and which, the author confides, has series potential. And she is allowing me to break a scoop, exclusive to the Mixed Up Files blog, that she will soon be tackling the picture book format in a new and innovative way.

She’s my daughter, she’s nine years old, and she’s very enthusiastic. You may remember her from my blog post about President Julie. And she’s not just an aspiring author and part-time commander in chief. She also does her own illustration, layout, cover art, book design, and author bios.

I am enjoying her work very much, but my quandary as a writer-parent of a writer-child is how to provide age-appropriate guidance without squelching her drive and creativity.

(“Don’t squelch my drive!” is what she said just now, as she was reading over my shoulder, so I probably should go into another room.)

Technology

I can’t teach her to write using the same methods I learned. When I was nine, back in the day, cut-and-paste meant using a scissors and scotch tape to shuffle handwritten paragraphs into a different order. When I got a computer in the 8th grade, I brought this practice with me. I used to save individual letters and words, dragging them around the document instead of deleting them, because it seemed wasteful not to reuse them.

My spell-check was a twenty-pound monster of a dictionary, supplemented by a thematic thesaurus. Today, there’s an app for that.

I don’t have personal experience with being nine and learning to write using 21st century technology.

I don’t have personal experience with being nine and learning to write while simultaneously picking up keyboarding skills.

I don’t have experience being nine and learning to write while simultaneously mastering all the functions of a modern word processor.

As much as technology makes our lives easier in the long run, it first requires a juggling act of multiple overlapping learning curves.

So how can I be sure that the juggling of writing and technology isn’t what ends up squelching her drive? I don’t know but I’m trying to keep in mind at all times that today’s young writers are learning in a different world than the one I grew up in.

Although I may still attempt to introduce her to my old thesaurus.

Revision

Putting technology aside, I want to teach her is that writing and revision are two separate but equally important skills. She knows this from school, but her first draft still tends to look a lot like her second draft, which tends to look a whole lot like her final draft.

Writing is more fun for her than revision. Writing comes more easily than revision. When given the choice, she spends the bulk of her time drafting new material while her nascent revision skills suffer from a vicious cycle of neglect.

This is where I’m torn. I want her to have fun with what she’s doing, so my instinct is to let her explore her writing process in her own way and in her own time. But is it better for her to write a flood of first drafts and introduce editing and revision into the process down the road, or should I encourage her from the start to slow down and develop the habit of polishing the gems that she is creating?

The habits she is developing today, good or bad, will be with her for a long time. Bad habits can be especially hard to change. A young author who hates to revise can become an adult author who hates to revise, and who presents rough drafts as finished product.

Publishing is different today, again due to technology. As self-publishing tools have become easier to use, and as self-published books have proliferated and become destigmatized, we are seeing some great books that might not otherwise find their way into print. But we have also created a pathway for authors who never feel the need to develop revision skills, much to their own detriment.

The self-publishing pathway did not exist when I was learning to write and revise. But guiding young authors to view self-publishing as a potential outlet for polished work, and to ignore the siren song of publishing unrevised drafts, raises yet another specter for potentially squelching their drive.

Criticism

Another thing I want her to learn, because it took me so long to realize, is that constructive criticism can be helpful, but only if you develop the ability to accept it, process it, and apply it. Again, my young writer knows this from school already, but accepting criticism is not fun for her, so she’s opting out of it wherever possible.

Writers need to develop a thick skin in order to accept criticism of our work without reframing it as criticism of ourselves, but we all start with a tender skin over our most vulnerable spots of insecurity and self-doubt. It takes time and practice before we can develop the callouses we need to protect ourselves.

While learning how to let brutally honest or mean-spirited criticism roll off our backs, writers also need to cultivate the ability to sort through a batch of well-intentioned criticism for the advice that is most helpful.

Inviting another person to share their advice and viewpoints can open a story up to exciting new ideas, approaches, and directions. A good thing, in general, but potentially overwhelming for a new writer who is struggling to hold onto the ownership of her own ideas, approaches, and directions. The vital skill that can take many years to develop is an ability to pick out just those bits of advice that push the story in a direction the author wants it to go.

My daughter can’t yet do this without feeling like she’s compromising her vision of what her story should be. So how soon and how quickly do I introduce these ideas without, again, squelching her drive?

Writing

For now we are focusing mainly on the mechanics of writing itself, where she’s more open to accepting my help. We had a great discussion the other day about the difference between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. I can’t believe they don’t teach basic punctuation like this in third grade anymore!

This will be my focus for now as I gradually raise her awareness that writers need a lot of tools in their toolbox and that there’s more to writing than just putting words on the page.

While I’ve created classroom programs on writing for school visits, I have no curriculum yet for mentoring a single young author through the challenges specific to writing in the modern world. I’m working on it though, and I’ll continue to share whatever insights I come up with for others facing similar challenges with the young writers in their lives.  

Let me know what you are doing to keep from squelching your young writer’s drive, and maybe we can be a support group for each other.

Life and Art and Patterns and Mess

I read an article I read on the Publishers Weekly website called “Why Life and Writing are Inseparable” by Amie Barrodale, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

The thing that struck me first and drew me in was that the article opens with a discussion of writing, drops a rambling sentence of personal bombshells into the narrative, and then picks up the writing topic again without missing a beat. The result is jarringly familiar to anyone who has ever tried to combine life and writing, or life and illustrating, or life and any other creative endeavor. And especially so as I write this toward the end of a school year, which combines the chaos of life with the artistry of teaching.

Barrodale conveys the life/art balance through the structure of her story more effectively than if she’d used words alone, and at the same time establishes the importance of structure and subtext in her writing.

The article goes on to describe Barrodale’s early writing as having a focus on craft, until she found herself shifting to stories from her own life for the larger part of her career. We then find ourselves shifting from this brief focus on craft to a story from Barrodale’s life that takes up most of the remaining bulk of the piece.

And once again, in an entirely different way, I was struck by the author’s remarkable use of structure to support her theme. Much like concrete poetry, in which a poem about a fish might be shaped like a fish, Barrodale’s story about her life was actually shaped like her life—and can there be any better way to show the inseparability of life and creativity?

The story part of the article tells of Barrodale’s experiences carrying bowls around a Tibetan cave during a meditation retreat. She focuses on rules and norms, and how it felt to be in disagreement or conflict with other practitioners of the bowl-carrying arts.

via GIPHY

Like most readers of the article, I’ve never been on a meditation retreat to a Tibetan cave, so I have no personal stake in the theory or politics Barrodale is describing. Readers can approach this story without the baggage we’d bring to a similar story about writing, or illustrating, or whatever creative endeavor we’re most experienced with and passionate about.

Which seems to be entirely the point.

A story about bowl-carrying techniques among cave-dwelling meditation practitioners can serve as an effective metaphor for any artists fumbling in the dark with the traditions and strictures of their craft. So what seems at first to be a tangent away from writing actually becomes the meat of Barrodale’s thesis about writing. Yet again, she uses structure rather than words to support the idea that writing and life are inseparable.

I thought the resulting essay was by far the most carefully, deliberately, and effectively structured article I’d ever read. But as a counterpoint, an irate reader in the comments section berated the author, editor, and publisher alike for releasing what she saw as an entirely unstructured article that “reads like someone journaling.”

Althrough we read all the same words, we read two very different articles.

From my perspective, the comment writer missed the most important aspects of the piece, as if looking at a fish-shaped poem and seeing only a random jumble of words. And from her perspective, she might say that I imposed an imagined structure on the article where none was actually intended.

Where I saw a pattern, the comment writer saw a mess.

Thinking about how the same article can be read and interpreted so differently by different people revealed the final puzzle piece in my quest to understand the connection between life and art.

Life is messy, but human beings are wired to extract patterns of meaning and importance from that mess. As creators, we seed our work with those same patterns and hope for the best. When a pattern resonates with a reader’s messy life experience, it feels true and a powerful connection is made. But a reader who does not connect with that pattern, no matter how artfully arranged, will only see the mess.

We may think we’re building stories with characters and plot, lines and color, structure and theme, but on the most basic level it’s all just patterns and mess.

Just like life.