How to get story ideas

I’ve written several articles on ideas for stories. I believe ideas should be the easiest part, is the easiest part, but for a very many writers it is the first and biggest stumbling block.

The fact is, though, ideas are everywhere. Literally. You cannot open your eyes and avoid ideas. You cannot close your eyes and avoid ideas. You cannot wake nor sleep, eat nor drink, move or lie prostrate without encountering ideas. You can’t even breathe without bumping into ideas. They are, as I say, literally everywhere.

You can look at a floor and see ideas. How long has it been there? Does it squeak? Who has walked over it? What coverings has it had in its lifetime? Who changed them? Why did they change them? What has been spilled on it? Who has done what on it? Where have the feet been before that have stepped onto it? What steps will be taken to it and from it? Is there a door? Where does it go? Are there cupboards along it? What is in them and why?

You can look at an empty bench and see ideas. What is usually made, prepared, stacked, served, collated, sorted, fiddled with, opened, packed, crafted, played on it? Who does these things on it? Who has to clean it afterward? Has anyone ever slept on it? Who? When? Why? Who put it there in the first place? Why?

Or a blank wall; or a wall covered in marks, smudges, wallpaper, artwork, photographs, diagrams, appointments, reminders, newsletters. Again, there are a myriad questions and thoughts to be had about that wall – not to mention the windows in them.

One of the first writing exercises I did at college was to describe the room we were in. We were given 15 minutes, the lecturer then collected each piece and took them away. The following week in the same class she handed them back and we each read them out. I’m proud to say that out of only two that actually described the room, mine was one.

Mostly, the other students wrote about what they could see outside the window; what they were feeling; about travelling to class; how they felt about college; and about the other people in the room. They hardly described the room at all. Yet, it was a very interesting room with many things in it, an ambience and a history of its own. Since then, it is the first exercise I give to students, including some high school students who I took for remedial reading. It hones both the observation muscles as well as the ideas muscles. The two are and should be inextricably linked.

There is nothing wrong in writing this exercise and not writing the room. At least the ideas of started and from there, more ideas follow.

That’s the trick, really. Start with an idea, any idea, stream of consciousness, existentialism, plagiarism if it comes to that (don’t forget to remove that later) but start. Fresh ideas will follow, and following them are more ideas, and behind them yet more. you get the idea.

And never tell yourself you can’t get ideas. That’s a sure fire way to knock all those ideas down like a line of dominoes and you know what they say about ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

So, next time you can’t find an idea, just look on the end of your nose and follow its line of sight and start to question what you see. How’s that for an idea?

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Sense of personal place is a fascinating concept

This is a personal story, but if you’re characters in your stories have something like this type of link, you will go a long way to enriching your work and bringing your characters to life.

I offer my respects to the original owners of where I grew up, to the elders and the ancestors of the Wurundjeri People.

I regularly return to where I grew up, Warrandyte. It’s no arduous trek. I live a 25 minute drive away. I feel drawn to Warrandyte. It’s changed obviously over the years but some of the people I grew up with are still there. I don’t visit them and there are no family members living there. I visit the place itself. Much of my sense of self and personal identity is tied in to the small township that is Warrandyte.

My childhood was lonely and painful. I was abused at home and at school. I was a loner and despite living in a very small community, few made even the peripheral attempt to alter that. To those who did, I am increasingly grateful as I grow older and more sanguine.

The experiences I had growing up are painful and I learned to live only on the edges of my own life, cutting everything down into the ‘now’. That was all I could cope with. So, it would seem that the last place I would want to visit is where I grew up. Not true. My roots are buried deep in the shale and quartz, nestling among the towering gums, the brittle wattles, the ferns and brackens, deep down where the earth is cool and nourishing and flecks of gold still light the way. The Yarra River gives my roots rich waters and stories and knowledge. As I push through the hard clay above, I gather strength and energy to reach toward the sky where the sun greets me and the winds carry the songs of life to welcome me into the land of connected life.

Yes, I know. That’s a little poetic and very fanciful, purple prose if you will: yet, it is the truth. As a little girl, I withdrew from people to spend every moment I could in the bush that surrounded me and at the river and in the old gold mines, to run barefoot along the bush tracks, wade in the creeks and explore the (apparently) untravelled scrublands. I felt as though the trees were my siblings, the birds and animals my friends, and the river my mother.

I felt safe and welcome. I knew I belonged. I was accepted openly, warmly and despite my failings and frailty, despite what happened to me in the human world and despite the fear and shame imposed on me by the human world. And when I was tired, I climbed a tall tree and squatted in forks and slept, just like the koalas and often alongside them. Even these often cantankerous and wild creatures accepted me.

Warrandyte is in a State Forest. It is the first place gold was found in Victoria, although it was not the first place registered, so its title is accepted but unofficial. It grew from the era of the gold mining rush but not as rampantly as many of the other goldfields. The taking of gold was hard and little more than flecks were found in the waterways, still it thrived as people came to find the end of their rainbows underground in tunnels blasted and dug from the rock. Some even found them.

I (was) moved there as a baby, 17th months old, and know no other place or time in which I grew. If my family had not moved there, I most probably wouldn’t have survived let alone thrived (in my own way). I might have, there is no knowing the answer to that, but I’m glad that I grew up in Warrandyte and that my link to it is powerful.

I’m sure there are many places I would be happy living. I’m happy living here at the base of the Dandenong Ranges and the gateway to the Yarra Valley. I was happy living in Sydney for six months but that was more about my son and his family than it was about the place. I’d be happy living down on the Bay with my daughter and her family, but only because they are there. I’m not a beach person. Rivers have that affect on people.

Some things I do require to aid in my homeostatic relevance: the bush, eucalypts, bellbirds, kookaburras, magpies and eagles, the Yarra – but only where it is surrounded by bushland and native animals. It is a stranger, a friendly one, but a stranger nonetheless in the city of Melbourne or where it flows through suburbs. I could not live for any length of time too far from these things, and from the ability to visit Warrandyte from time-to-time.

It is my strong and powerful link to this small township, to its natural environment, that gives me a sense of equilibrium and a personal knowing. It also gives me an understanding of refugees who flee their homelands to travel to the other side of the world seeking a new home. So many people, including the politicians, denigrate them and say they are just seeking a better life and only want to come here to change the way we live, to ruin it. I wish I could help these people understand the true link we all have to where we grew up, even when we don’t consciously realise it.

The irony is, of course, that many of these people, especially those who aren’t migrants or earlier refugees, have that link to this land and it fuels their fear of losing it to others – they just don’t realise it. And they don’t realise that anything that tore them from it, sent them into camps and leaky boats would be much more than a whim. Lack of empathy is a sad and limiting reality that probably deserves an article of its own.

Here is the Dreamtime story of the origins of Warrandyte:

The night the star was thrown

The Wurundjeri dreamtime story told how Bunjil, the great eagle, the all-powerful, ever-watchful creator of the world, had once gazed down upon his people from the star Altair and seen their wrongdoing. Awaiting their return, he, with a mighty crash of thunder, hurled down a star to destroy them. Where the star struck it created the gorge we see today. Bunjil’s Warrandyte, the place where Bunjil had hurled down the star to punish his people.

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Hobbies? Or Addictions?

I have many hobbies I suppose. I don’t necessarily think of them as hobbies but more as expressions of who I am. To think about what they are, I need to list them:

Music (playing and listening) and singing (loudly and sometimes even near a key)
Writing – anything and everything from to-do lists to novels
Learning stuff – as much stuff as possible
Reading – how do you stop reading in such a visual world anyway?
Craft – often wish I was more crafty by nature but…
Gardening – not weeding. Love mulch! And boiling water takes care of many weeds if you get out there quickly enough. Otherwise, they invade your land and corral you into a dank corner next to the compost.
Making a mess – if only I could get excited about cleaning it up

Hmm. Eclectic collection, not in any necessary order and interesting to stop a look at. I wonder if I should focus on just one or two. Fact is, whichever one I’m doing is probably my favourite at the time and therefore the one I can’t do without.

There is a bit of an order though. Music and singing, writing and reading and learning are probably, definitely the highest rated and are more expressions of who I am than just what I like to do.

The others are things I love to do, actually. I was going to say like, but no, love is the appropriate descriptor. I love them most when I’m doing them. Well, mess making, perhaps that is not meant to be in this list but head of the list of things I most need to change about me.

Once, exercise would have been high priority. These days I’m less able to exercise but I intend to get back as much as I can. I have a couple of autoimmune deficiency diseases which have made movement not as easy as it used to be. (Can’t have anything to do with the fact that I’m turning 61 in a few days! No, definitely not! Only as old as you feel…um, perhaps that isn’t a good bit of reasoning here. In regard to exercise, which is addictive and the more you do the more you want to do and the more you enjoy it, especially the challenge of doing more – see, I told you it’s addictive – I could easily list the types of exercise I like (love).

Walking and swimming – not at the same time, but I can chew gum when I walk
Horse riding (that’s out now unless I can take a portable hoist)
Ballet – should be No. 1 as I did it for 30 years. Love to do it but, at least I can still jiggle a bit
Running – for more than the bus, or my lost breath
Climbing (trees rather than mountains)
Pilates and Yoga
Strength training
And Tai Chi (which I’ve learned in a remedial setting).

I’ve played the guitar since I was 18, ah the good old days of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Now I add quite a bit of Leonard Cohen and a thousand others. I also thoroughly enjoy writing my own songs. I get the odd screech from my clarinet, can whistle a happy tune on my recorder, plunk a few chords on the piano but haven’t yet learned to master the neck muscles needed to play my blues harp. Still trying though.

Writing, well that goes without saying. In fact, it is a toss up for me which is the most important in my life, writing or music. I don’t think I can decide actually. I often write while listening to music, and I write my best poetry with a classical air abounding.

Singing, love it, need it, would have liked to have been a professional singer but definitely do my best singing in the shower. As it would automatically come with me to a deserted island, it isn’t usually on my list of three things I would take, or that ugly list of 1. Music or writing? By the time I decided, I’d be on that island without either of them.

Reading, that’s a given for a writer and I’ve done it since I was 4. Couldn’t get enough stories read to me so I learned to read using a favourite Enid Blyton book “The Little Grey Donkey” which I knew by heart. That way, I could read whatever, whenever. Only way to go and I’ve had my nose in a book ever since, even walking home from the school bus. Only trouble is, I can’t read just one at a time. I usually keep myself to one fiction and several non-fiction at a time.

Learning stuff. Well, what’s the point of being alive if you don’t continue learning? I don’t think I’m suited to finding the answers that suit me best and sitting under their umbrella. That only makes me feel insecure rather than the opposite. I have trouble understanding people who sit under such brollies – but I continue to try to learn to.

Craft. I enjoy all sorts of crafts but the one I am reasonably able to do is knitting. Thankfully I have grandsons who are still young enough to love picture jumpers and then there are footy knits and then it’ll be… Oh, Nan, I’m too old to wear that! A few good years to go yet. I can sew a bit, but nothing too intricate.

I enjoy decorating a room and drive my family mad because I’m always moving the furniture and changing the décor (and where everything lives in the kitchen cupboards). I don’t need expensive items or anything, in fact I’m too green to be a heavy consumer or materialist. I’m happy to reuse things I’ve had for years, found in second-hand shops or at markets or have made. One of my favourites is a piece of driftwood that my father gave me when I was a kid. There’s hardly a decor it doesn’t go with somewhere, often as part of a dry arrangement.

Drawing in charcoal or pastel (done badly, not fit for human consumption) is a sometime occupation. It’s not as important as some of the others but I get a buzz now and then and drag out all my stuff (making a mess of course).
I get fads as well. I’ve done a few cross stitch items, tapestry and collages over the years. Made the odd dream catcher, decorative cake and lacy soap holder – much to family and friends delight – right? Crotched a few berets, bootees and a granny square blanket or two. And during those empty years when my own children were ‘too old’ for home knits and the birth of grandsons, I met my knitting fetish-um-hobby by making baby clothes for charity.

But wait, there’s more…

No, thinking about it, my grandsons are getting older by the minute so I better get back to my needles. Plus, I’ve got some tomato seeds to sow. It’ll be spring here in a few weeks. And then there’s that dressing table I want to restore, the material I bought for a tablecloth and… she walks away mumbling to herself…

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I joined twitter :)

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Keeping a Writer’s Journal

Keeping a journal is a helpful tool which many successful writers use. It can include anything that stimulates you on any level:

cuttings from newspapers or magazines

things you’ve read

pictures you’ve seen and cut out or remembered or thought about

photos

ideas, snippets of thought about anything, especially one of your projects
overheard conversations

names

titles

funny, beautiful, ugly, sad, shocking, strange things

something, anything that you thought was unusual, interesting, made you cross,
taught you something, etc

observations of people, places, moods, sounds, smells, sights, weather, fashion,

interactions – people are everywhere! But don’t just keep it between people, think about animals, the environment, technology, politics, food, media, news…

research

Anything.

You might keep a journal that is specific to something your are working on. It might include any or all of the above. Jotting down thoughts and ideas and research relative to the project, whether you use it or not is helpful. Writing down a sentence or title or plot point or piece of dialogue or a description might do no more than develop the actual writing project in your mind. That’s ideal for adding to the overall texture and richness of the end result.

I was struggling for an idea for a play some years ago so I went through my journal. I had two female characters I had wanted to write about for some time but couldn’t get anywhere with either of them. So, I tried putting them together and voila, I had two opposites in an isolated situation who just had to rely on each other. The finished work, Shedding, was performed at the Gasworks Theatre in Melbourne in 1994.

There is no right or wrong in keeping a writer’s journal but a couple of cautions. It isn’t a personal diary. When we write what happened to us, unless we can put it into fictional context and it works for the character we have made up, it won’t work as anything other than a piece of personal writing.

The main caution, however, is DON’T USE IT AS AN EXCUSE NOT TO GET ON WITH YOUR PROJECT!

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Write Right

or Overcoming Writer’s Block or Maintaining Motivation

What does write right mean? And how will it help you overcome writer’s block? First, it means write the right way for you. Every writer has to find their own best way of achieving what they want to achieve. However, there are steps all writers need to take to make it all work. Second, understanding your own best method of writing will help you get it down without so many ‘stand stills’.

The first point, the right way for you to write, needs to be done in the context of ‘There is no right way.’ Sounds like a contradiction, I know, but it isn’t. Of course, I’m not referring to understanding and following form and structure of both story telling, non-fiction construction or, especially, grammar. What I’m talking about is method.

It is surprising how many writers have no method or don’t know their method.

What do I mean by method? Quite simply, how do you go about writing in order to be successful at it? There are some basic questions behind that question:

1. What does successful writing mean to you?
2. How important is it to your life?
3. What are you prepared to give up or reduce in order to write?
4. How do you feel whilst you are writing?
5. How intensely are you inside your writing?

Answering these questions will help you recognise the part writing plays in your life, and how much your life allows for writing. I’m not referring to all the procrastinations and excuses you can come up with. We all know there are more than enough for ten lifetimes for all of us regardless of what our responsibilities, ambitions or goals are.

Question one is very important to know about yourself. Do you want to be a published writer, one who earns part or all of their income from writing, or is it purely for your own interest or the family’s interest, or for another reason altogether? Answering the second and third questions will help define the answer.

The other two questions are fairly self explanatory. For example, if you have no emotional investment in what you are writing, neither will anyone else and you will quickly become bored and find it hard to stay with. And, by intensity I’m referring to actually ‘being there’ in each scene as you write it. You need to hear, smell, feel, touch, see, interpret, colour, extrapolate, etc., and then put it into a word picture for your reader so they will be there too.

The mechanics of method is how you go about achieving these things. You need to create good practices about writing. This means when you do it, where you do it, what you bring to it, what you intend to achieve, how you do it, i.e. pen and paper, typewriter or computer. It doesn’t necessarily mean you must only do it that way, at the same time and the same amount. It is better to write one page a day than the usual ten if that is what you can manage that day because of other responsibilities. What you really need to avoid though, is deciding that because you can’t write the usual ten pages today, you won’t write any.

Writing a paragraph on a scrap of paper, or a few ideas on the back of an envelope is better than doing nothing. If you really want to write, then you will make time on a regular basis, and find time every time.

Most writers are driven to write, but we all need to find the discipline and tenacity. We also have to accept that it isn’t always fun and it definitely isn’t always easy, of even often. I’m sure the Olympic swimmer doesn’t find every lap of the pool fun, but if they don’t do it, they don’t have a chance of making selection to the team let alone hope for a medal.

We all know the truth of: The only way to success is through determination and hard work.

So, work out the answers to the questions I’ve posed, develop a method of writing, keep distractions to a minimum and really put yourself in the writing so you are describing what is actually happening around you and what you are sensing. Even if it takes some time to work out what all this means to and for you, take the time. It’s worth it.

And, remember, even though it isn’t always fun, if you never enjoy it, maybe you will be better off doing something else.

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HOW TO STAY MOTIVATED

Well, staying motivated can be a challenge all right. It doesn’t matter what you do, have to do or want to do, motivation is often the elusive factor. Really, the only way to get motivated is to DO IT.

Whatever IT is.

I tell my children, and especially tell myself, ACTION LEADS TO MOTIVATION. Other things can, such as an idea, something that moves you emotionally, a goal. But how often do we have these motivations yet still never do or achieve? Too often. The world is littered with tired, bored, aborted and broken motivations. They lie around everywhere with every intention of tripping us up and stealing our edge, our purpose, our ability to reach whatever pinnacle we have placed in the distance.

There are many books written on motivation. Whether you want to finish a novel or a vegetable garden, or perhaps get out and exercise in the sunlight: whether want you want to achieve is lofty or just down here at grass roots level, it is all the same thing.

It goes without saying that success breeds motivation, and the confidence to act -which leads to motivation …

But, motivation has to come before success of any type, big or small, and therein lies the rub. So, as we are focusing primarily on writing, that’s where I’ll address this from my point of view. Please feel free to apply it to any area of your life if you find it works for you.

Whether you want to write a short story, a novel, an article or an essay for school makes no difference. The question I am asked most often, however, is how do you finish a novel without getting lost or bored or a hundred other reasons to stop. There are as many answers as there are questioners, and we each have to find what works for us individually, usually by trial and error.

That old adage grandmothers (in my day) used to give: we learn by our mistakes, is very true. All those failed drafts are errors you can learn from.

One of the most common reasons for not finishing a first draft, though, is that the writer doesn’t know what it is they are writing about or because they aren’t really interested either.

So, let’s break that down somewhat. You’ll often hear the advice: write what you know. I consider this both true and nonsense. How so, I hear you ask. I admit one is oppositional to the other, but it is, all the same, true.

The nonsense side of it comes from lack of knowledge on a subject, and making assumptions rather than learning how something works in real life. It also comes from not knowing how to create believable dialogue.

The truth side of it comes from the fact that we are all human and share a commonality of emotional reactions. This is where the universal element comes from which makes for good writing.

Let’s look at this more closely.

If you are writing a novel on being an international pilot, then you need to know something about piloting. If you are writing about a character, i.e. person who is an international pilot, then you need to know something about that character.

The truth of writing is in knowing your characters and making them believable, accessible and real. And you do this by knowing your own emotional reactions and understanding about others emotional reactions.

If you cast your story with a polyglot of characters who you want to spend time with in real life, or have known in real life, and some who drive you crazy to some degree or a large degree, then you are creating something which you will enjoy writing.

No one enjoys reading something which the writer doesn’t enjoy writing.

This is true of genre fiction as well. You might know the world of spies, or doctors, or forensic psychology, but if your characters aren’t real and interesting to you, then they won’t be to anyone else either.

Does this mean they have to be only likeable? Or have no annoying foibles? Be popular? Beautiful? Successful? Or a hundred other positive adjectives? No, definitely not. There is one thing they must be above anything else, and that’s human. We all have less than perfect personalities, often they are what make us interesting and welcome in others’ lives. Who wants to spend time with someone who is perfect? Who is perfect?

No, make your characters real, show us who they really are and what they are grappling with within themselves – often exposed and developed by what they are grappling with in the everyday or with those they must interact with – and you will not only stay interested in what you are writing but will then develop something others will be interested in.

All that said, don’t take your first draft as anything but a guideline for the real novel; and don’t think your first novel completed is the next big seller. It more likely is a practice novel to allow you to hone your skills towards writing the next big seller. It’s an achievement in itself and should prepare you to make a like achievement, and then another.

Remember, many successful writers would cringe if anyone saw their first novel or first several novels. Some destroy them. One very popular writer I know made a paper Mache ball for her desk out of her first draft of her first novel. Others keep them to remind them of the hard work of the writing apprenticeship, and sometimes to rewrite them in the future. Some even do rewrite and go on to sell them.

Forget about reviewing or editing anything in that first draft. You are just getting the bones down to be worked on. Complexities, development, scene expansion, consistency, dénouement aspects can be sorted out later.

Finally, find the time – and discipline – to write every day. Set a minimum, even if it is as little as 300 words, approximately a page, even scribble in a notebook if you can’t sit down to actually write. Focus on characters and how they feel in any given situation and imagine what they are thinking, will react, or what they do about it. To complete a novel, you must spend the mental time and energy to think about it every moment you can.

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