BAM—You Have an Idea!
It’s usually something small. A character starts speaking to you in the back of your head, wanting to tell their story. Or you’re sitting on the bus one day, daydreaming, and a movie starts to play out in your head. Just a single scene first, but you want to know more. Or maybe it’s a concept. A What If. What if a comet hit the Earth right now? What if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct at all and still roamed around in our modern world? What if, what if, what if…?
I’ve heard of writers who sit down one day with the intention of coming up with a new story idea. There are plenty of brainstorming techniques for this. (James Scott Bell lists some great ones in his craft guide Plot & Structure.) But I, personally, have never done this. Every story idea I’ve ever had popped into my head when I wasn’t expecting it.
With Cinder, the idea of Cinderella turned into a cyborg came into my head as I was falling asleep one night and bam—head instantly full of possibilities.
With Heartless, it came in the middle of a conversation with my agent. We were talking about villains and fairy tale retellings and I off-handedly mentioned that I wanted to read a book that told the back story of the Queen of Hearts and—bam. Idea.
With the superhero series that I hope to start drafting this winter, I was on my way to a book signing and caught a construction sign out of the corner of my eye—one of those “Coming Soon to this Site: Another Strip Mall!” signs. But with my quick, disinterested glance, I thought the sign said something about superheroes. It didn’t, upon closer inspection, but . . . no matter. Bam—a light bulb went off.
So that’s where ideas come from. Anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I never know when they’ll hit, but I’m always ready to jot them down and explore them when they do.
Probably 80% of my ideas are written off as dumb, cliché, or overdone within the first day or two of having it. Those ideas get relegated to the back pages of my idea folder. Another 10% or 15% might hang on for months, even years, always one of those “I would like to write this someday” ideas that somehow always gets surpassed by something brighter and shinier and more of-the-moment. Maybe I’ll write them someday, maybe I won’t. I think of them as my back-up ideas—the ones I’ll write if the idea file otherwise runs dry.
And then there are the diamonds. The ideas that take hold and hang on. They keep coming back up in my imagination, again and again. Somewhere in the back of my thoughts, they start to percolate.
Eventually I know that this idea is going to be my next project. Then the fun begins.
Once I have my heart set on turning an idea into a story, I start to dig a little deeper.
I ask a lot of questions: Who is the protagonist and what do they want? What other characters are needed for the story? Who is the love interest and how do they factor into the plot? What is the main conflict? What is the world like that the story takes place in?
There are no right or wrong answers. I write everything down, knowing that 75% of what I come up with at this point will probably be scrapped later when I come up with something better. I’m just exploring, poking at the idea to see what it does.
Those what if questions start to creep up, too. (The What If questions factor significantly into my whole process, so be prepared for a lot of them!)
- What if this cyborg Cinderella wasn’t a house servant, but a talented mechanic forced to earn money for her stepmother?
- What if her best friend wasn’t a mouse (Disney) or a bird (Grimm), but a robot?
- What if being cyborg was considered a bad thing, and the prince didn’t know what she was?
- What if there was an evil queen who wanted the prince for herself?
- What if, what if, what if . . .
Brainstorming notes for Cinder.
Research Part I: Inspirational / Market Research
I’ll have to keep looking things up until the day I turn a book over to my editor, but the bulk of my research happens right up front, in these first planning stages. While I’m asking all those What If questions in my head, I’m also actively gathering ideas from elsewhere in the world.
If the story is inspired by an existing story, I’ll go back to the source material. I’m reading it with a different eye than a reader wanting to be entertained. Now I’m on the hunt for inspiration.
With The Lunar Chronicles, I not only went back and read the Grimm versions of the stories, but I also read a few versions of the tales across times and cultures, along with modern adaptations. A lot of writers refuse to read anything similar to their WIP because they don’t want to be influenced by it. I get that, but I tend to take the opposite approach. I like to see what’s out there. What’s already been done, what might be veering toward the cliché, so I can see start thinking about what I want to do differently.
For example, as I was planning out Cinder, I went back and re-read (or re-watched? I can’t remember now) Ella Enchanted, one of my all-time favorite Cinderella retellings, and I discovered that some of the plot twists I had in mind were veering dangerously close to those in Ella Enchanted—and not just in a “they’re both Cinderella retellings” sort of way. So those plot twists got scrapped and I started looking for different directions I could go with it.
With Heartless, one of my first steps was to re-read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, looking for every tiny little detail about the “before” so that I could apply it to my Queen of Hearts-based prequel.
With my Superhero story, I’ve been watching all manner of superhero movies and marathoning the TV show Heroes. Always asking: What do I like about this? What don’t I like? What is it about superheroes that grabs me? What can I do differently? What would I have done if this was my story? What’s been done to death?
I take notes. Lots and lots and lots of notes. I make lists, too. Right now I have a list in my journal of “Superhero tropes I love” and “Superhero tropes I hate.” I’ll reference this list often as I start outlining to make sure I’m writing a story that I would also want to read.
Research Part II: Factual Research
And then there’s the type of research where I’m not looking so much for ideas, but authenticity. I start reading non-fiction books and articles and watching documentaries in an effort to populate my story with as many real-world details as possible.
For The Lunar Chronicles, I read many issues of Scientific American magazine to start building a foundation for the technological advancement in my futuristic world (which led to a lot of ideas about Cinder’s cybernetic parts!). I also read a book on the bubonic plague to inspire letumosis, and pored over China tourism guides, and walked the streets of Paris via Google Maps Streetview, and on and on.
For Heartless, I began with researching the Victorian era—from fashions to social etiquette to common foods—along with some of the historical people and events that supposedly inspired Lewis Carroll’s story.
My goal during this phase is to gather ideas (see a theme? More ideas and more ideas and more ideas . . .) until they start coming together to form a story. Often, this early research will lead to fascinating discoveries that will influence the entire plot.
For example, many of the hardships that Cress faces were directly inspired by the initial research I did on the Sahara Desert and survival tactics. Before that, all I’d known was that part of the book would take place in the desert, but it wasn’t until I started researching that part of the world that I could begin to fill in this gaping hole in the plot.
Some early research notes for Scarlet.
The Idea File
Though I do my most of my brainstorming on paper, during this stage I’m frequently updating my idea file. (For me, this is a basic word document.) I start to organize my ideas into things like “Character Concepts” and “Worldbuilding Details” and “Potential Scenes?”
The file starts to grow, and the pieces slowly start to come together and overlap, and then—hooray! I can see a vague story emerging from this overload of ideas.
Then it’s time to start outlining.
Stay tuned to learn more about my outlining techniques next week!
A few months ago I asked what types of blog posts you guys would like to see more of, and there was an overwhelming response for craft-based posts. And I’m right there with you. There is a lot to say on the craft of writing—entire shelves are dedicated to it in most bookstores!—but no matter how much has been written before, it seems we’re always discovering or rediscovering new techniques to apply to our work. I love reading new craft guides and am constantly flipping through writing magazines or checking my favorite writers’ blogs to see what new information they may have to share.
By far my favorite craft-related articles, books, and posts are those in which a writer talks about their process.
Do you outline, or do you wing it? Are you a speedy first-drafter, or do you take days to perfect each page before moving on? How long do you let sit in between drafts? Do you work with critique partners, and how many, and when do they see it?
I’m fascinated by other authors’ processes, because no two are the same. I’ll often hear an author talk about an element of their process and think, I could NEVER write like that! Other times I might think, Oh, that’s a great idea! I’m going to give that a shot. It may stick and it may not, but we are changing and growing creatures, and I think it’s smart to try new things once in a while. You just never know.
My writing process continues to change and adapt as I grow more confident in my ability to actually write an entire novel. (Three published novels in the world and some days I still can’t believe it!) I’m learning to trust my writer instincts. I’ve become more familiar with my own creative needs and am learning to recognize, for example, the difference between letting an idea simmer for a while longer vs. straight-up procrastination.
Each book comes with unique challenges that can change how I approach it. But the basic structure of my process, from that first spark of an idea to turning in a completed manuscript, doesn’t seem to vary a whole lot.
Not everything that I do will work for you, and that’s okay. It’s good to figure out what does and doesn’t work for us and to stay true to our creative selves. I hope these posts will bring comfort to those of you who share a similar process, and motivation to try something new to those of you who don’t. And I hope all readers will find it interesting—if not outright helpful—to see how I work through the stages of each book.
Most important, I hope this series of posts will inspire you to write, whatever your process might be.
Read the full series:
1. Brainstorming & Research
2. The Outline
3. The First Draft
4. Simmering Periods
5. The Second Draft
7. Beta Readers & Final Revisions
8. Tweaking & Polishing
9. The Publisher’s Editorial Process
The people have voted, the votes have been tallied, and I am pleased to announce the winners of the Lunar Chronicles Sticker Contest!
Thank you to EVERYONE who entered. It is always a delight to see the brilliant and beautiful things you guys come up with and I thoroughly enjoyed perusing through all of the entries. (Even though it is SO HARD to narrow them down to so few winners!)
You can see all of the entries here: http://www.pinterest.com/marissameyer22/design-a-tlc-sticker-contest/
Before we get on to the winners, I wanted to draw attention to some of my personal beloved designs.
There were many beautiful entries, but these three literally had my jaw dropping, because HOLY COW YOU PEOPLE ARE TALENTED.
And I adore-adored these two for absolute ADORABLENESS:
Prize: All honorable mentions will receive a swag pack of Lunar Chronicles goodies.
(See all six finalists here: http://www.marissameyer.com/blogtype/vote-for-your-favorite-sticker-design/.)
I would be proud to feature any of your work in my Lunar Chronicles swag and promotion! Well done, all of you!
Prize: All finalists will receive a swag pack of Lunar Chronicles goodies.
PEOPLE’S CHOICE WINNER
Though the competition was tough, the people have voted, and one finalist is our grand prize People’s Choice winner:
CONGRATULATIONS, Julia M.!
Which brings us to the final grand prize winner, for which . . .
I can’t decide.
I SERIOUSLY CAN’T, YOU GUYS.
So because it’s my contest, and my books, and MY GOSH DARN STICKERS… I’ve decided to have TWO Marissa’s Choice Winners.
CONGRATULATIONS, Veronica S. and Tereza!
I am crazy smitten with both of these designs. They are clever, eye-catching, and brilliantly executed. Bravo!
Prizes: The Reader’s Choice and both Marissa’s Choice Winners will each receive a signed book, a limited-edition messenger bag, and lots of fun swag! Plus, all three designs are going to be turned into swanky stickers. Yay!
IMPORTANT: Winner’s, Finalists, and Honorable Mentions, I will contact you LATER THIS WEEK with further details for how to claim your prizes. Like, probably Friday. Sorry for the delay, but I’m heading out of town for a couple of days.
WHERE CAN YOU GET ONE OF THESE AWESOME STICKERS?
Once they’re printed, I’ll have these stickers with me at future tour stops, book signings, and the FAIREST Launch Party. Other opportunities to score stickers and cool swag will be announced in the coming months!
You guys don’t make this easy on a girl, but I somehow managed to narrow the design submissions down to six finalists.
(My goal was to get it down to five but I simply COULD NOT cut any of these six – I love them all so much, and it had already broken my heart to have to cut some other beloved submissions. Because OMG you guys are AMAZING.)
In case anyone is wondering what my thought process was for choosing the finalists, I mostly imagined two scenarios:
1. If I were in high school and I saw this sticker on a classmate’s binder, would it pique my interest enough to ask about it?
2. As an author and promoter of my own books, how much do I want to stick this design EVERYWHERE?
Those two questions, plus a lot of back and forth and hard decisions, led me to our finalists…
And now, YOU guys have the toughest part of all. Voting for the grand prize winner!
I’ve been updating my Pinterest board for the “Design a Sticker Contest” all morning, and some of these entries literally made me gasp. From clever to adorable, stunning to hilarious, the entries are top-notch. You Lunartics have once again outdone yourselves.
All of the entries can be viewed here. Prepare yourself for awesome.
ARTISTS: Please check the board to ensure that your entry is posted. If you don’t see it, contact me asap – either via a comment to this blog post or on Twitter. I know that at least one entry ended up in a spam folder, and I want to make sure I caught all the others.
Finalists should be chosen and posted for voting either tomorrow or Wednesday. How will I narrow it down?
…… I have no clue. *daunted*
Thank you to everyone who entered! I can’t wait to see two of these amazing designs turned into actual stickers!
One question that I’m asked over and over and over again is: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
At first, after Cinder had just released, I felt weird answering this question. I still felt like such an amateur myself! What did I know about anything?
But over the past few years I’ve come to realize that, yes, yes I do have advice to give, and a lot of these are things I wish I would have been told years ago. Because while every writer’s process and goals are going to be different, there are some things that I think apply to most of us across the board.
So here is my best advice, to take, or not, as you so choose.
1. First and foremost, write.
Oh, I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I want to be a writer, but I never have time to write!” Or, “I have all these ideas, but when I sit down, nothing comes out!” Or, “I’ve been researching my novel’s setting for fifteen years—I feel like I’ll be ready to start writing it any day now!”
I’m not going to say that all excuses are bad excuses—sometimes you legitimately don’t have time or you’re not ready to start on a particular project. But for the majority of excuses: Stop. Stop making them. Stop tell yourself that you’re not ready or you can’t or you will someday.
So today, now, determine what your writing goals are and when and how you’re going to make them happen, and if your plan doesn’t include actual words on paper within the near future, then rework your plan until it does.
2. Almost as important: Write what you love.
I do think it’s valuable to know what’s happening in the publishing world and what your audience is interested in, but if you’re writing a vampire/dystopian/realistic novel because that’s what editors want, then you have probably already missed that boat. Trends come and go and by the time most of us figure out that something is a trend, it’s already on its way out.
At the same time, who knows? Your novel might hit at the start of the next big trend, that no one has any idea is on the horizon.
My real-life example: When I started writing Cinder the “rule” in publishing was that YOU CANNOT SELL SCIENCE-FICTION TO TEENAGERS. Seriously, you could have asked anyone in the industry. Teens want magic and vampires, not all this techy mumbo-jumbo! But I had my heart set on a story about a cyborg Cinderella and a society of mind-controlling people from outer space trying to invade Earth and I was going to write it even if no one in the whole world would ever read it, because I was so smitten with the idea.
Moral: If you love something—whether it’s yesterday’s news or an up-and-coming genre, write it. Enjoy it. Have fun with it. And hope that the readers will find it when the time is right. That’s the best we can do.
3. Don’t worry about not being “very good.”
Think of your favorite writer. The one that constantly blows you away by their clever plot twists, their marvelous characterization, the way they make the words glow on the page.
And then imagine what that writer’s very first story was like. Or, heck, their first tenstories. Maybe even their first fifty stories.
If you are imagining works of genius, I can tell you that writer would laugh very, very hard.
No one starts out a brilliant writer, or even a decent writer, and I think few writers ever reach a point where we’re like, “By golly, I am amazing.” We are always learning. We are always striving to be better. We can always point out our own weaknesses and flaws, but we’re storytellers, so we keep writing and improving as much as we can.
So don’t quit because you think you suck or you’ll never be as good as So-and-So. We all have to start somewhere.
4. Read craft guides.
I love craft guides. I have read dozens and dozens over the years, and I learn something new with every guide I read. Some are full of general advice, while others focus on one specific craft element like setting or characterization. There are also books on living a writer’s life while maintaining your sanity, or setting goals for yourself, or how to market your work once it’s published.
Three of my personal favorites:
Now—I have heard published, talented, wonderful writers say that they refuse to read craft guides, usually because they worry it would impact their own style or voice. To which part of me thinks: We all have our own process and method and we should do what feels best for our own personal creative path.
But then another part of me thinks: Hogwash.
The thing about rules and tips and advice is that you can choose to ignore them. But at least then you’ll be making an informed decision. You’ll know why you’re ignoring that rule, and maybe—just maybe—your style and voice will be stronger because of it.
I have certainly read my fair share of writing advice that I disagree with. “Don’t use a thesaurus,” says Stephen King, and I want to chuck my beloved thesaurus at his head. “Write what you know,” says Every Writing Instructor Ever, and I say, that’s dumb, I’m going to write what I’m curious about.
But I find most advice in these guides thoughtful and helpful, and I have yet to hear someone say, “You know, my writing really took a turn for the worst after I read that book on plot structure.”
So—don’t be afraid to learn and keep learning.
5. Be patient.
Yes, there are writers who were published when they were seventeen years old, but there are also writers who weren’t published until they were seventy. There are writers who hit the jackpot with their first manuscript, and there are some who have twenty rejected novels sitting on their computer. Getting published involves diligence, hard work, determination, and—yes—luck. The whims of the market cannot be ignored. There are a lot of factors outside of your control.
But one thing that is within your control is the work itself. So take the time you need to write The Best Book You Are Currently Capable of Writing.
By which I mean: Research. Read writing guides. Revise. Edit. Use critique partners and listen closely to their feedback. Do not rush through your revisions and edits just because you want to be published nooooooooowwww. Rather, take the time you need to bring your work to a quality that will set it apart from all the other writers in an agent or editor’s inbox. That might be a few extra months, or it might be a few extra years, but it will not be wasted time.
The work itself is the one thing you have control over, so don’t rush it.
6. Also… write. And keep writing.
Certainly I could come up with many more tips for this list: Read widely and often. Treat writing like a job. Strike the words “writer’s block” from your vocabulary. Do your best not to compare your career with someone else’s. And on and on.
But of all the writing advice in the whole entire world, this might be the only advice that really matters.
Good luck and much inspiration to you all!
Anyone wanting to impart their own wisdom is welcome to share in the comments.
Last year for Christmas I bought myself a treadmill desk—something that had been on my writer wish list for years. I put it off for a long time though, as I find that most exercise equipment gets used for a month, then gathers dust for a few years, until finally making its way into a garage sale.
But then I read A.J. Jacobs’s marvelously entertaining and informative Drop Dead Healthy, in which he talks at length about the benefits of a treadmill desk—so I decided to go for it.
Trying the desk for the first time.
Here we are, eight months later, and I can tell you that this remains one of my favorite purchases ever. (I am, in fact, writing this blog post on it!) So if you’ve been on the fence about getting yourself a treadmill desk, like I was, or maybe this is the first you’ve heard of such a thing, allow me to try and persuade you.
The Health Benefits
First, I think it’s important to point out that the treadmill desk does not act as a replacement for regular exercise. You are typically going to be walking so slowly on it that any aerobic effects are going to stay pretty mild.
Rather, the treadmill desk should be viewed as an antidote to sitting, which the experts are telling us is the biggest health problem facing our society today.
Turns out, sitting for 8+ hours a day is bad for us. Really, really bad.
And we writers, we sit. A LOT.
(Miranda Kenneally recently posted about her own sitting-related health issues on her blog, in case you weren’t aware of how horrible it can become: http://mirandakenneally.com/2014/07/30/psa-side-effects-of-spending-too-much-time-on-the-computer/)
By taking even just an hour or two every day and changing your routine from sitting to walking (or even standing if a treadmill isn’t in your budget), we can begin to counteract some of those awful effects.
Am I sounding like an infomercial yet? Oops. *tries to tone down the sales pitch*
Lots of studies have also found that our brains work better when we get regular exercise, and even better during that exercise. I’ve seen this firsthand in the amount of plot ideas I’ve gotten over the years while I was jogging or dancing or in the middle of a yoga class.
With my treadmill desk, I find that I rarely get those light bulb moments that I get during more strenuous exercise, but I do focus better. In fact, on days when I’m feeling distracted and can’t concentrate on a task, hopping on my treadmill desk is the best way for me to get back to work. I liken it to locking yourself in a room with nothing but a pen and pad of paper. You have nothing better to do—so you might as well get to work! Likewise with the treadmill, once I’m on it my brain seems to recognize that this is work time, and off we go.
Dedicated Time to Do . . . Whatever Needs Doing
I know plenty of writers who use their treadmill desks for actual writing, and I can and have gotten writing done on mine, too. But I’ve found that for me the treadmill desk offers a perfect solution to separating “writing” from “everything else I’m supposed to do on a daily basis.”
Mostly, I love to use the treadmill for blog posts and answering emails, things that I will put off until the end of time if I allow myself. But now, I hop on my treadmill desk every morning, set the timer on my phone, and get to work. By the end of an hour I’ll have a completed blog post or a significantly reduced inbox, when I know that that same hour would have been full of other distractions if I’d tried to do it at my normal desk.
On top of that, just like being on the treadmill tells my brain “it’s time to work” (a.k.a. answer emails, write blog posts, respond to blogger interviews… whatever the current task is), stepping off the treadmill tells my brain “it’s time to sit down and write.” I’ve found the distinction between the two to be enormously helpful.
You Can Use It As a Reward, Too
Sometimes, when I know I’ve spent too much time sitting lately, I’ll use my treadmill in conjunction with a reward. “Finish this chapter and you can hop on the treadmill desk and read a few chapters of a book.” Or “Finish these copyedits and you can hop on the treadmill desk and watch the newest episode of Sailor Moon Crystal.” My brain thinks it’s getting a prize, while my body is grateful to get up and move.
* * *
Now that you’re ready to run out and buy one for yourself, here are some things to consider . . .
Type of Treadmill: Not all treadmills are created equal. Some, like those you see at the gym, are intended for short durations at faster speeds—you know, like jogging or sprinting. But there are treadmills specifically designed for longer periods at slower speeds. Walking treadmills. This is what you’ll want. You can jog on them, but they’ll generally max out at about 4 miles per hour. (The treadmill salesman likened it to a car—you wouldn’t drive on the freeway in first gear, would you? Then you wouldn’t want to continuously walk at 2-miles-an-hour on a running treadmill, either.)
Ergonomics and Set-Up: All you need in your set up is a flat surface that goes across your treadmill where you can set your computer, but for maximum health benefits, try to take ergonomics into account. The top of your computer screen should be at eye-level and your elbows should be at a ninety-degree angle when settled on your keyboard. A wrist pad is an excellent investment, too. I splurged and got a super fancy keyboard that splits down the middle so that my wrists can be in as neutral a position as possible—it took some getting used to at first, but now I LOVE this keyboard and use it at my regular desk, too.
Speed and Balance: Whenever I tell someone about my treadmill desk, the first response is usually: “I couldn’t do that—I would totally fall off!”
No. No, you wouldn’t. Trust me on this—it isn’t nearly as difficult to walk and type as it looks! Though it might take some getting used to, especially if you are not in the habit of touch-typing, I have never once felt off-balance or in danger of falling off the treadmill.
Partly I think that people are assuming they would walk fast—like you do at the gym. But I generally keep my speed around 2mph (a casual stroll for most people is about 3mph—so we’re talking very slow here!) Again, it isn’t a replacement for exercise, just an antidote to sitting.
* * *
If you’ve been debating a treadmill desk but weren’t sure, here is my hearty recommendation. I love mine and wish I’d gotten it much sooner.
Thoughts/questions? And if you already have a treadmill desk, let us know how you feel about it in the comments!
The upcoming Fierce Reads tour dates and cities are confirmed! I hope you can come join us for some shenanigans this fall.
*** See the dates and locations for the September leg of the tour, featuring Ann Aguirre, Caragh O’Brien, and Marie Rutkoski at http://fiercereads.com/tour/. ***
I will be on the October leg of the tour, along with Gennifer Albin, Nikki Kelly, and Jessica Brody.
(Event times to be determined. I always recommend checking with the bookstore or library to confirm final details.)
Geek Girl Con
Los Altos, CA
Linden Tree Books
The winner of the Fierce Reads Video Contest: http://fiercereads.com/contest/
New York, NY
Barnes & Noble, Tribeca
Don’t see your city on the list? Enter our video contest for your chance to win a Fierce Reads tour stop on October 13!