WRITING: Light Bulbs, Lightning Bolts and Counting Sheep


This post is dedicated to @IAlecDale from the Philippines, if you don’t already follow him on twitter you should, he’s a big Cassie Clare fan!

That being said, I’ve read a lot of boring books. I mean it, books with awesome writing that might keep you engaged for awhile, but books with a plot, characters and setting that were just drab and uninteresting. I’ve found myself yawning through books and skipping pages because it was so mind numbing I thought I’d fall asleep.

Chronicles of Narnia made me fall asleep, but that was for an entire other reason. Also, half the books I read when I was 17 made me want to fall asleep. I remember faking it through my English 1 class for this book about soldiers that had me slipping after ten words.

The point is, these days you can’t just write something and think it’s good. Your writing need to compete on a lot of levels. You might be able to throw together a satisfying story about witches, but does it compete with other stories about witches? What makes the story pop, what makes it stand out?

I have my own list of things that will often make me stop reading in the first few pages, things like third person omniscient, obscure fantasy world, unlikeable characters, unbelievable characters, too much dialogue, too many bodies, not seeing the main character in the first scene, etc. etc.

The real difficulty with writing is that it starts out as being only for you, something that only you are going to read and fall in love with. After that it becomes something you and your mom will like. Then something you and your friends will like, then something you and your other writer friends will love, then you and others in the book blogging scene will love. By the time you’ve really worked it into an aesthetic piece of work that’s worthy of the masses, it’s gone through a lot of changes.

The thing everyone needs though is that light bulb, that lightning bolt idea that wakes them up in the middle of the night and makes them grab for the first piece of pen and paper they see. For me, I have a journal on my headboard, and a pen. No need to get out of bed and rummage through drawers looking for something to write on. I’ve got it all right where I need it.

Most people do the counting sheep thing when it comes to finding inspiration for a book. They have some talent with writing, but they have nothing interesting to write about. Nothing that they think other people would want to read about. These people are often the ones that fall into the stereotypes and write about them.

I used to do it too though, I wrote a story about a rich boy falling for a poor girl and then running away from his parents to be with her.

Also wrote a horror story which was mostly gore and no real storyline.

My ideas weren’t very fleshed out, I wasn’t being very creative. What I was doing was just finding things to write about. In the beginning that’s how it has to be, and then as you explore life you’ll find things to write about. Sometimes you just need to grow up to find these things, other times you just need to find a slant.

A few ways to find an idea that’s useable:

1. Read what’s out there. It’s hard to come up with an idea and say it’s original when you don’t know what else people are writing. Sooner or later you’ll find out that your idea has already become a book. So read books to make sure you’re not overlapping. This is kind of a double edged sword too because no doubt what you read will also influence what you write and how you write. Still, reading is the way to become a writer. Only Beethoven could compose amazing music without ever hearing a single note.

2. Look at yourself, your life experiences, the people you know. I have a short story on the table based on a guy I actually met. Bloodletting is based on a guy from Arizona that was so awesome I HAD to write a story about him. Observe the people around you, everyone has a story to tell, you just need to figure out which story you want to tell. Finding a “bestselling” story is impossible, but finding a story that’s important to you is easy.

3. Begin with a basic idea and expand on it. This is where you start stereotypical, and then throw in twists and turns that even you’re not expecting.

4. Think. I know this sounds stupid, but after reading The Hunger Games I wanted to write a dystopian novel. I know, I sound like a cliche, but it’s true. What I did was I sifted through things in my mind that I had thought about before, Loch Ness Monsters, Pirates, The Soviet Union, Time Travel, Nuclear Bombing, etc. etc. I wrote some notes, wrote a prologue and then stopped. I hit a wall and didn’t like where my idea was going. I left it and then later I came back to it and turned it into something that became a short story.

5. Realize that not all your ideas need to be long stories. They can be short stories too. I wrote a contemporary short story about my Dad for instance. It’s one of my favorite pieces.

6. Create your own reality. A lot of people get lost in world building, but if they have a concept, they can go from there. Lauren Oliver’s concept was “what if love was a curable disease?” and Maggie Steifvater’s was, “what if a girl was in love with a boy that turned into a wolf in the winter?” it’s simple things like this that build on books. Mine was “what if a ferryman fell in love with a girl that was a weapon?”

7. Folklore. I know we all balk at J.R.R. Tolkien for taking things from Norse Mythology, but why not? A book my crit partner is writing is based on Japanese culture and she came up with a lot of interesting ideas because of it. I can’t wait to see it actually! Go back to your cultural roots, were there tales you were told as a child that you could work into a story?

8. Take something fairly stereotypical, but put a slant on the writing style. This is probably the hardest thing to do, but Moira Young and Nova Ren Suma managed it just fine. What this is is a literary style. So you take a ghost story about a reservoir and you shift the voice so that it’s creepy and interesting. Or in Moira’s case, take a journey to find a twin, and change the writing style so it’s more the way the characters speak, think and write. It’s a submersion technique, almost like method acting. In this case, you make your writing take on a new skin, kinda like Robert Downey Jr. in Tropical Thunder.

Either way, you need an idea that is unique, different and that gets YOU excited. It needs to be that light bulb going off, that lightning bolt through your skull, that idea that you HAVE to write about. You can’t sit around counting sheep and randomly pick sheep number 16 that’s white and fluffy and think it’s original. You need to wait for the black sheep or the neon green sheep to show up. *sigh* Plain white sheep aren’t good enough.

Either way Alec, I hope this is helpful and I hope you find an idea you can use. I personally think I have too many ideas and not enough time to write all of them.


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