Tag Archives: writing

How Do Writers Get Ideas?

question-mark Every time I do an author visit, I get asked this question, and I always stumble as I try to answer it. Most writers I know dread this question. How do we explain what happens in our brains? How do we describe the way everything we see, read, hear, and do generates story ideas?

Interesting ideas are all around us and seem to hop into our heads all day long. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Maybe the key is not how we get ideas, but what we do with them. Perhaps taking a peek into an author’s brain might clarify this process.

Say we walk into the grocery store and see a scruffy-looking girl with a backpack struggling to reach for a box of cereal. Nonwriters might think, “Poor girl, she looks a mess. I’m surprised her parents let her out of the house looking like that.” Or maybe, “I wonder where her parents are.” Some might judge her choice: “I can’t believe she’s picking that sugary cereal. Kids her age should have healthy breakfasts.” Caring souls might ask, “Do you need help reaching that cereal box, honey?” Suspicious people might wonder: “She doesn’t look like she can afford that. I hope she’s not planning to shoplift.”

dogWriters may think those thoughts too, but then their brains start racing. Hmm…what if she’s a mess because her family’s homeless, and this is their only food for the day? Where might they be living? In a homeless shelter? In their car? What would it be like to live there, and how did they end up there? What would a little girl like that want or need if she were living in a car? And the writer is off, plotting a new story or maybe even two. Perhaps all those questions might lead to a story like Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, where a girl living in a car is lonely and wants a pet so badly she decides to steal one.

Or the writer might think: That girl looks sad. What if her mom left, and her dad doesn’t pay much attention to her? Maybe she’s lonely and needs a friend. What if a stray dog wandered into the grocery store, and the girl tried to save it? Maybe similar thoughts ran through Kate DiCamillo’s head as she plotted Because of Winn Dixie, the story of a girl who misses her mother and adopts a stray dog.winn-dixie

Perhaps the writer notices the girl looks neglected. Her next thought might be: What if she looks so scruffy because her parents are dead. Maybe she lives with mean relatives who don’t take good care of her. But what if the relatives don’t realize she has secret powers? Hmm… what if she goes to a magical school and… Oh, I wonder if it would be better if it were a boy, and he goes to wizard school. The plot could easily turn into Harry Potter.harry

Another writer might think, That girl’s all alone. What if that older lady choosing a carton of oatmeal befriends her? Maybe the two of them could form an unusual friendship. Or wait… What if the old lady is a kidnapper, and when she sees the girl alone, she pretends to help her and she invites the girl back to her house and…

Or maybe the girl’s only pretending to look at cereal, but she’s really been stalking the older lady… Why would she do that? What if she thinks the lady is the grandmother she’s never met? Is it really her relative? If so, why wouldn’t she have met her grandmother? Maybe her mother ran away from home as a teen? So how did the girl discover the grandmother’s whereabouts? Will the grandmother be overjoyed to discover she has a grandchild? How will the mother react when she finds out?

And once again, several story ideas have formed in the writer’s mind. He can’t wait to get home and jot them down. Or if he carries a small notebook, as most writers do, he’ll scribble some notes in it. The whole way home, his brain will be whirling with what-if questions.

A fantasy writer might look at the girl and think: What if she took that box of cereal home, and a fairy popped out when she was having breakfast? Maybe the fairy could grant her one wish. I wonder what she’d wish for. It looks like her family needs help. Oh, but what if she has a brother who’s deathly ill? Would she give up her wish to save him?

Or the writer’s thoughts might run in other directions. What if the fairy was bad at spells and messed up the wishes? Wouldn’t it be funny if… Or What if that isn’t a backpack, but a jet pack? She could fly off with that cereal. But where would she go? And how did she get that jetpack in the first place? Once again, the writer has the seeds of plot or two.

We could keep going with story ideas just from seeing one girl in a grocery store. Now imagine living inside a writer’s head. Everything sparks ideas for stories. We’re always asking questions about what could happen. Or wondering why people do things. And everyone we see or meet becomes a potential story. Yes, even you. So beware when you’re around a writer. You never know when they might make up a story about you.

But what about you? Can you think like a writer? As you go through your day, ask yourself: Who is this person really? Why is she doing what she’s doing? What would he be like if he lived in another country or on another planet? What if that person is only pretending to be a teacher? What if she’s a superhero in disguise or a kid (or animal) who switched bodies with an adult? What if something magical or unusual happened to her? What if this person got into trouble? Who would save him? What does that person dream of? How could I make her wish come true in a story? What does that person need? What’s the scariest idea I can come with about this person? The most unusual idea?

Ideas are all around us. You don’t need magic to create a story, only a little imagination, a lot of curiosity, and many, many questions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. To come up with ideas for her books, she people-watches and eavesdrops on conversations in public places, which starts her brain racing with questions. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.

Memories-Part 1

When I realized my MUF post fell on Veterans Day, I immediately thought I’d create a short blurb about the history of the day and provide a related booklist. Then two things happened. The first thing was that I sifted through MUF’s old posts. Jennifer Swanson beat me to my Veterans Day idea by three years. The second thing that happened was I thought about my grandpa.

1943 US Marine-WWII VeteranMy Grandpa Jagger served in the United States Marines during WWII. He drove a tank and was injured on a battered and bloody beach during the invasion of Saipan in 1944, earning a Purple Heart. Over 60 years later, I sat beside his chair, rested my hand in his, and listened as he shared about his military service.

Up until that day, I hadn’t allowed myself to consider that my grandfather held memories I would lose when he was gone. The only memories that wouldn’t fade would be those held by others. In that moment, I realized I wanted more than my memories of him; I wanted his memories, too. But those memories would soon be grains of sand swept to sea by the tides of time.

Unless I allowed myself to slow down and engage. To listen. To be present.

So that’s what I did.

Today, Veterans Day is the tide that carries those memories back to me, and I find myself reflecting on how my need to engage in the present also applies to my efforts as a writer.

In my fiction, it’s easy to get caught up and swept away in the “reality” of my own creation. However, even a fictional world and characters and events must feel real. They must ring true. To achieve that, I can’t allow myself to get lost in my own mind and musings. I need to pull memories and details and emotions from the very real world around me. I must be a participant in the world and an observer. A giver of truths and a collector. A sharer of memories and a gatherer.

I must take the time to slow down and engage. To listen. To be present.

That’s what I learned from my grandpa.

I hope you come back on Monday to read Part 2 of this post—a booklist of middle-grade novels in which memories (shared, stored, hidden, and lost) play key roles. In the meantime, take this Veterans Day to remember and honor the millions of men and women who have served and continue to serve our nation. And take a moment for memories, too.

To share them.

To build them.

To be present.


T. P. Jagger The 3-Minute Writing TeacherAlong with his MUF posts, T. P. Jagger can be found at www.tpjagger.com, where he provides brief how-to writing-tip videos as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher plus original, free readers’ theater scripts for middle-grade teachers. He also has even more readers’ theater scripts available at Readers’ Theater Fast and Funny Fluency. For T. P.’s 10-lesson, video-based creative writing course, check him out on Curious.com.

Subtext in MG

(For study purposes and maybe a potential future post, I am putting together a list of middle grade books that excel in the use of subtext. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section that you feel belong on this list. Thanks!) 

We recently had a #MGLitChat on the topic of subtext. I signed up to co-host and was scared to death of this chat. My concern was embedded in the fact I felt I didn’t know enough about subtext and figured I needed to do a lot of research to be able to hold my own. Lo and behold, I harkened back to my own middle school days and didn’t study. Fortunately, I was able to play the comic relief to the intellect of my co-host for the night, Lee Gjertsen Malone. When the chat was over, not only did I feel a whole heckuva lot smarter, but I had a whole new appreciation for subtext, especially in middle-grade literature.

What exactly is subtext? The important part that is not there is what subtext is. The stuff which exists in space between what we perceive and is there without being told or shown it is there. I came across a cool quote from Ernest Hemingway about subtext:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of the movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

With the iceberg image painted firmly in our reader and writer mind, we get a solid idea of what subtext is. The words we read in a story are the part floating above the water. The tips of the story icebergs act as the guideposts, while the space in between the guideposts, Hemingway’s 7/8ths, becomes the meaning and character and flavor existing below the surface which makes for a richer narrative. Subtext gives us stories that are more than they appear to be on the surface. Subtext gives us satisfying stories with more of everything.

The four basic types of subtext.

  • Privilege – The reader has information the characters don’t.
  • Revelation – Reveals a certain truth over time.
  • Promise – The story goes the way a story supposed to go and the way the reader expects it to go.
  • Question – As a story advances, the reader begins to ask questions about where the story is going.

K.M. Weiland did a recent Helping Writers Become Authors post and podcast about subtext. It is an excellent resource to assist the writer or the reader through the literary dark forest that is subtext. She presents five steps to work subtext into your writing.  

(1) Story subtext arises from the space between to known, fixed points. The writer builds a framework of dots and lets the reader connect the dots as they read. When the reader connects all the dots, a rich and full story picture emerges. The writer should tell the reader what they need to know, not tell them everything single thing. That’s not very entertaining.

(2) Story subtext must exist below the surface and (3) remain existing under the surface. The writer needs to know the whole iceberg in order to design the tip that paints the picture of the whole iceberg in the reader’s mind with telling every single detail.

(4) Story subtext is created by the dichotomy between the interior and exterior behavior. Once something rises to the exterior, it can no longer be considered subtext. In practice, it’s simply, as K.M Weiland says,  “avoid presenting characters and situations for exactly what they are”.

(5) Subtext exists in the silent spaces. Use your character’s silence to leave out things in order to make sure they don’t tell each other every single thing.

Maybe the most important thing we can do when working on the skill of subtext is to trust the reader. The reader will be able to put together the shape and scope of the submerged story information iceberg. The reader will be able to connect the dots and then put these connections together to reveal the story picture to themselves. Even a middle-grade reader is deserving of this trust and can rock at the art of subtext, as long as the subtext relates to the reader while remaining appropriate for the characters and the story.

Experiment with subtext in your writing. Learn how to spot it being used in your reading. Most of all, learn to trust your reader to connect the dots you place and see the pictures you intended them to see.

That is reading and writing magic.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=730855

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=730855