Look at the world, and try not to look at yourself looking at the world. Your readers may well be interested in your description of the world—and they will learn plenty about you in the process—but they will not be all that interested in your descriptions of yourself directly, even though you may be using the outside world as the scenic backdrop for your junior high melodrama of a tortured and misunderstood soul.
A story’s plot is mostly determined by character. Think about Cinderella. In the original fairy take she’s sweet and kind. But suppose she’s a grouch and won’t do anything for anybody. How does the story change?
Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic
Amazingly, I often forget just how important a great character is. If you are having a hard time writing your story, or even coming up with an idea, forget about it for now and spend your time creating an awesome character. When you’ve done that, the story will just be a matter of tossing this fascinating, engaging, unique individual into one situation after another and watching what happens.
If you are struggling to discover your story, discover your character instead.
Here is a little habit that might lead to your first published book or next best-seller. It’s not entirely original. You have probably heard this kind of thing before. But if you have not, or if you are currently stuck, perhaps my take on it will help get you moving again. I most recently read about it on page 80 of Writing Children’s Books for Dummies by Lisa Rojany Buccieri and Peter Economy. I am calling it Story Storming.
- Find a quiet place where you can be free from distractions for at least 15 minutes.
- Get a big pad of paper, a timer, and a couple of pencils or pens.
- Set your timer for 15 minutes and start writing down every idea for a story you can think of.
- When your 15 minutes are up, stop writing and look at your ideas.
Although many of your ideas may not prove usable for stories in the long run, chances are you have a gem or two hidden in the (hopefully) many pages that are the result of your brainstorming session. Pull out these ideas and hold onto them.
If you want to read more about their take on brainstorming, get the book. I think it is worth having on the shelf if you are writing for children. I will write up a short summary review another time.
The takeaway here is this: set aside 15 minutes a day (or as often as you can) to Story Stormideas. Of course, this would apply to all kinds of genres and not just children’s stories. In my opinion, if you are really on a roll, you can let yourself write beyond the bell, but try not to. The idea here is to develop a habit, and to do this it is best to be as consistent as possible: each time do it at about the same time and for about the same amount of time. If you think you have more ideas in you, or if you get the urge again hour later, either consider starting a new timer, or tackle your ideas with another form of brainstorming — perhaps free-journaling or something. But try to keep at least this one Story Storming session special.
Think of this as your Daily 15-minute Story Storm. It is not the only time you can come up with ideas, it’s just a special time.
When you are done, keep everything. Get yourself a special binder or file drawer for your Story Storming pages. You might even consider scanning them or taking a picture and uploading them to your computer. Personally, I find Dropbox and Evernote perfect for this kind of thing. I have folders in Dropbox and Evernote just for Story Storm pages. Ya, it’s redundant, but I like to play it safe.
Finally, mark a regular day on your calendar to look back over your Story Storm pages. Seriously, mark the day! Most online calendars will even allow you to set notifications so that when it’s time to review your pages you will get a special email or text message. Take advantage of this little help. If you have scanned your pages into Evernote or Dropbox or something similar you can have access to them just about anywhere, which is great when you want to make the most of your time, wherever you are.
Just as you story stormed for only 15 minutes, don’t let yourself review for too long in one go. You don’t want to allow yourself to become discouraged or bored with your pages. Trust me. Give them a good once over and put them away. In the same way it only takes a few minutes to fill your car up with fuel, but that fuel will keep you driving for a long time, a few minutes with your pages is all you need to keep your mind racing with ideas the rest of the week.
Every time you review those pages there is a chance that they will spark a new idea. You may read the same lame idea time and time again, but a year from now you may read it slightly differently and end up with a best-seller!
One more great thing about story storming is that it is “writing active.” By that I mean it is something writing related to do when you just can’t get yourself to write otherwise. There are no expectations with story storming, and no restrictive directions. You just brain dump and see what happens. Writing time is precious for most of us in this busy world. So, the next time you sit down to write only to discover a massive block in your way, consider stepping aside with a pad and pen and story storming. It may be totally unrelated to your current project, but at least you are writing, and that’s the most important thing.
I don’t think in terms of a lesson in my work. I don’t look for role models or any of that. I tell story. I put bloody skins on my back and I dance around the fire and I tell what the hunt was like. I don’t pretend to do more than that.
- WCBFD: Any advice you can offer to new writers trying to come up with great ideas for children's books?
- Saltzberg: You have to start writing. Write from within yourself, as a child. It sounds corny to say, "Write from your inner child," but that's where the voice is. Don't set out to write an entire book. Just make short sentences, blurting out anything and everything. Eventually, something will pop out. Recess. Homework. Walking home from school. Playing in the yard. The neighbor next door. Something will trigger a flood of memories from which to start a story.
- * From Writing Children's Books for Dummies, 86.
- WCBFD: Is there such a thing as writer's block?
- Saltzberg: ...no, there is no such thing as writer's block. Only a writer who's avoiding writing. I guarantee that if you sit down and just write, things will happen for you! Will everything you write be great? Absolutely not. But you're writing.
- * From Writing Children's Books for Dummies, 86.
In order to deal with the fear of the unknown that accompanies us every time we take on a new activity, we often suit up. We muscle up a new self: Serious Writer Man. It’s really fake. And it always produces weak writing - writing that tries to please some bizarre-o notion of Posterity. When we try to sound like Serious Writers, we usually sound like goofy kids. Trying to hard.
…if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping an eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.
Just as children collect their books and lay out their gear the night before school to make the next day’s start a little easier, purposeful book authors also lay out their things, mentally and physically preparing for the next writing day.
This brings us to the matter of how we, as writers, tell the truth. A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.