Input is Crucial for Writing Output

Where do ideas germinate from? Other ideas.

As a writer, it’s impossible to be original, but it’s crucial to be unique. What’s the difference? Being original means attempting something which has never been attempted. Under this definition, it’s difficult to find writing that is completely original because there have been thousands of writers and hundreds of thousands of stories and story-types which have proliferated over the years. There’s more out there today than there ever has been. A true original – someone who pushes undiscovered boundaries – is rare. But the key to writing is to find your own uniqueness. What is it about your perspective which brings a unique twist to that cozy murder mystery? What historical angle are you using to highlight an aspect of a historical event in a new way?

There are endless ways that a writer can be unique because no one has had your particular experiences. The key is to use what you have, use your own voice, and tell the story in an interesting way. Then you can stand out – even amongst the myriad great writers out there today.

Recently, I’ve been reminded that one of the most important aspects of writing which will help you stand out and show your uniqueness is receiving input from other sources. Whether through reading other books, listening to music, chatting with friends, or reading the news, input is crucial in building ideas and taking our writing to unique places we otherwise would not have gone if we hadn’t been actively listening to what’s feeding our mind.

Here’s my example. I’m currently reading MLB historian John Thorn’s fantastic book on the origins of baseball entitled Baseball in the Garden of Eden. I just so happen to be reading this as I’m also working on the sequel to my baseball novel which comes out March 23. Twice this week my novel has taken wonderfully unexpected turns because of something I read in the baseball history. I learned about a young ballplayer named James Creighton, who was baseball’s first martyr. He died at the young age of 21 after swinging too hard. As soon as I read his story, it coupled perfectly with a story strand in my novel and I was off, and amazed, at where the idea took me. I was also a little scared. What if I hadn’t been reading this history at the time? My novel would not have been as rich!

A few pages later in the same history, I came across the tragic story of a black ballplayer named Octavius Cotta, who was murdered for trying to vote in 1871 Philadelphia. It’s such a heart-breaking story and it spoke to me deeply. Within one day of first reading about him, I have already finished a one-act play based on the events surrounding his death. It is, in my opinion, one of the best plays I’ve written in a long time. I would not have written it without reading that book. In addition, this same tragic story will have great implications on my novel as well. There’s a terrific way to bring his story into mine and I’m thrilled.

Two days worth of reading netted me one new play and two new crucial story strands for the novel I’m working on. If I hadn’t been getting this input, my writing output would not have been as good.

Unique and engaging writing is a combination of using your unique experiences and knowledge and coupling them with a continual stream of new input. The mix of ideas will provide lots of fodder for many different writing projects. What kind of active input are you using for your writing?

A Storyline So Obvious that It Nearly Writes Itself

I abhor outlining when writing. I’ve seen the tutorials and how certain other professionals plan their stories, but that, to me, would feel like being forced to write state-sponsored propaganda under Stalin’s regime. Why would anyone want to lock themselves into a pre-conceived structure? I guess my brain just doesn’t work that way.

I’ve said it before that the joy in writing, for me, is discovery. It’s an adventure across an unknown landscape unsure what will be discovered around the next bend. It’s the thrill of the chase. Neil Gaiman described it as driving through fog with your headlights out (or something to that effect). I can get behind a metaphor like that.

But then there’s this: a storyline so obvious that it nearly writes itself. I had that revelation just two days ago while working on my sequel to my yet-to-be-released baseball novel.

Sequels are different in that the world-building has already happened. Now the writer has to live in that universe and is bound by the structure and actions of the first book. That can be constraining, but if the material is compelling enough, it’s still not a bore to write. I think that’s why it took me so long to actually write a series. I thought it would be a bore. My mind always wanted to move on to other endeavors, but I have now come to grips with the fact that writing sequels has its own challenges and benefits.

The challenge it to meet and exceed expectations from book 1. Not always easy to do.

The benefits, the story almost writes itself.

In my unnamed sequel to A DIAMOND FOR HER, it’s almost laughable how obvious the plot is, at least to me. I actually questioned myself about that fact: will the readers already know where this is going? Of course not. Nobody has such silly meandering thoughts as I do.

There is still much to be fleshed-out and a long summer of writing ahead to possibly have a finished draft, but it comes down to these simple tasks:

  • Complete the unfinished business of book 1. Check. I’m on it.
  • Introduce new and interesting characters who will help you do it. Check.
  • Find wonder, intrigue, and laughter in the minute details, even if they are constrained by what I’ve previously written.
  • Bring about a climax which will satisfy all participants in this crazy journey. Working on it.

Writing can be both discovery – when starting a new manuscript – and writing can be the rearranging of the final pieces of the puzzle left open in the previous installment. I’m now okay with both styles of writing even though one is, without a doubt, more enjoyable than others.

To find out more about my upcoming release, check out the links below:

Time + Thinking = The Solution to All Writing Problems

It’s not always easy to know which way a story should go.

Should minor characters begin to play a more major role?

Should a character be killed off?

Should I change the setting?

Story threads are fragile. Each minor decision can send a story spiraling in a direction that may or may not be good.  As a writer, it’s impossible to explore every plausible avenue or nothing would ever get done.

I have found, however, that the right amount of time and a proper amount of thinking can solve even the trickiest writer’s problem.

My current issue revolves around part III of my new trilogy. Parts I and II flowed remarkably smooth. I finished part II in August 2017 and have been revising and editing it ever since, and it’s now about 6 weeks away from being released. Part III has proven to be more elusive. I know the ending. But the problem is how to get there.

My book has a rather large cast of main characters. The supporting cast is large and has played a significant role. In book two, I added a new main character to help support the story, but that has added additional challenges to an already unwieldy cast.

And so over these past few months, I’ve been trying out many different reiterations of what should happen in part III.

What I’ve come to realize is that if you put enough time into thinking through all the ramifications for each main idea, the path forward will slowly start to emerge. Just this morning, I reordered the first couple chapters, imagined a few new ideas and with some reworking, believe I now have a solid way forward which I didn’t have last week.

That’s progress.

It came through

1. TIME

Let the manuscript sit.  Don’t be too hasty to get it to the marketplace. Read it fresh after a month of not thinking about it. It will help bring clarity.

2. THINKING.

Sometimes you don’t need to write, you need to think.  Jot down a few ideas. Think. Jot down new idea. Think some more. How does it change things? Better? Worse? What are you overlooking?

And when you put proper TIME together with the right amount of THINKING, you’ll be on the road to solving your writing problem.

Don’t be afraid to slow it down.

BUT, once you figured it out, finish it! Without exception! Go! Go! Go!

Get it done and get it out in the marketplace.

Now on to the next.

 

 

You Should Tolerate Bad Writing

I’m not a perfectionist. As a writer, this can be a disadvantage. I’m confident there have been times when I could have improved a piece with one more revision or one more re-write. But I must admit, I become bored and just want it to be over so I can get on to my next creative idea.

On the other hand, not being a perfectionist as a writer has its distinct advantages. One of those has to do with the writing process and that enigmatic term we like to call writer’s block. I’m not completely convinced that writer’s block actually exists. Sure, there may be times of uncertainty where one needs to put in the requisite amount of thinking before it becomes clear where a plot should go or how a character should act. However, I do think that, perhaps, sometimes writer’s block is just not be willing to tolerate bad writing.

We have good days. We have bad days. Sometimes the words are clicking with clarity and ease, the phrasings are coherent and the descriptions vivid. Other times every single sentence is a chore and when you look back over your last paragraph, you realize that a second grader could have sounded so clever. When that happens, it’s precisely the moment that you need to be tolerant of bad writing.

In 2002, I started my first novel. The writing was so bad that I stopped on the second page. It took me 10 more years until I finally finished my first novel.

I couldn’t tolerate bad writing. Therefore, I paid for it, languishing away in non-writing pursuits.

Recently, I was working on a section of my new novel and that self-criticism reared its ugly head: this isn’t particularly good. But I made a decision to move on. I didn’t care if it wasn’t good, I told myself, it will eventually BE good.

That’s the key. Bad writing doesn’t necessarily need to remain bad writing. I’ve come across parts of my manuscripts in the past which are terrific and then I’ll reach a section which is quite less than great. I’ve learned to appreciate these sections. For one, I’m happy I can recognize bad writing when I see it. Two, I appreciate the fact that I motored through a bad writing session because it does help further the story. It’s much easier to rewrite and improve a poorly worded section than it is to come up with a completely new section.

Bad writing should be embraced. It’s one of the backbones for good writing. Don’t get discouraged when the words aren’t flowing. Keep moving forward, even if you have to use your 2nd grade vocabulary. On revision day, I’m sure you’ll be glad you have something to work with.

Writing a Trilogy, or is it a Three Part Story

I’ve mentioned before how I am working on my first trilogy. My first five novels were standalones and I’ve always felt that standalones are more interesting reads because, well, they have a tight arc and a thrilling finish. I’ve never been one for built-in cliffhangers (let alone the ridiculous extra scenes that Marvel Studios has become famous for. Please, no!). I’ve never wanted to tease the reader or string a reader along. I just wanted to write quality stories, encompassing one person’s whole worldview in one story. Sequels, series, trilogies were just not for me.

Well, hey. What do they say? People change? So do writers, and that has led me to some unfamiliar territory. When I wrote my latest novel – still unreleased – the story, though quite tidy, didn’t feel over. There were unanswered questions and many new avenues to explore. I decided to thing about a sequel. It let me to a cool idea and then the story took off.

Well, no those two stories are becoming three. My first trilogy.

As I continue to punch away at the keys and discover all the crazy ways this story is taking on new life, I’ve realized that there is a difference between a sequel and a just a longer story. My goal now isn’t to write three related novels. My goal is to write one story, broken into manageable and gripping parts. A large arc over all three with individual arcs built into each section. It’s a challenging yet fascinating process, and it’s forcing me to approach writing in different ways from the past. This can only be good in a writer’s development. I’m excited about that aspect.

To make this work, I’ve dramatically slowed down the release of book 1 so I can finish book 2 and be well on my way in book 3 before the opening chapter ever sees the light of day. As my English colleague says, trilogies planned at one time are better than those with an added sequel. I agree. It’s all about coherence and allowing new ideas be applied to previous ideas. Lots of back editing is needed. Retroactive writing is tough to do once the first story is in print.

The plot of this novel is a challenge. It’s complex, with many characters. It has two main overarching stories which are connected. These stories have spawned subplots and minor characters and it’s a lot to keep straight. It’s a puzzle really. A puzzle I’m driving myself. A puzzle I get to create. I love that aspect of it.

So writers, push yourself. Try something new. Let your trilogies be standalones and your standalones be trilogies. It will be worth it in the long run.

The Germination of Creative Thought

I had one of those eureka creative moments this afternoon. They don’t come around too often, but I love them when they do unexpectedly overwhelm me.

I get creative thoughts all the time. Most of them develop slowing, typically while I’m working on something. One thought will lead to another and the creative process will takes it slow and winding time down the avenue of creativity in my mind.

But today, it wasn’t one  of those slow developing thoughts. It was a brilliant connection in my mind, which immediately led to a distinct image, and a specific plan of how I wanted to do something.

Why do these eureka moments happen? How can I replicate them more often?

I have no idea.

Here’s how this one worked. Yesterday, I was talking to a colleague and we made some production plans for next year. After that meeting, I knew I wanted to find an idea for writing a new short musical which would match with our goals. Nothing was coming to me.

I was in the middle of grading some papers, a mind-numbingly boring task, so I put in some music in the background. My thoughts wandered back and forth between the songs and the papers in front of me. I hadn’t given the musical any type of thought for the entire day.

One song came on and when I heard the chorus for the first time, my brain lit up and I saw this image in my mind and I knew what I had: I had discovered the idea for my musical. It was based on the song title. It was brilliant. I started drawing a picture of it, then I wrote done some associated words, and  before I knew it, I had written a couple lines of sample lyrics. It was a creative epiphany.

Why did it come at that moment? I have no idea. It’s not the first time I had heard this song. But it is the first time I heard this song under the circumstances of wanting to find an idea for a musical. I haven’t even listened to that album for a long time, but it struck an amazing, creative chord this time.

So are creative ideas like this completely random?  Or did I sow the seeds of this idea by what I was discussing yesterday?

There’s no real way to know the answer to those questions. But I wish I could, because I’d love to replicate the eureka creative moments as often as possible, because it is so cool when it becomes that clear.

Wide-Scale Writing

As a writer, I’m a big proponent of wide-scale writing, across genres, for different situations, with different people. For me, it’s challenging and interesting to have the proverbial fire full of various hot irons. With my play production coming to an end last weekend, I took a broad look at the various items I’m currently working on. Here they are:

  • Christmas story “Christmas in the Trenches, 1914” – This is a short story I’m putting together as a free ebook I’ll be publishing very soon, this week!
  • Novel #6 – “A Man too Old, for a Place too Far” – in revision stage. Very close to sending it out to some beta readers.
  • My new full-length play – “The Last Bastion” – working through another revision. Will be sending it to my cast soon, as we will be doing a staged reading of it @penangpac in January.
  • “The Folly of Progress” – a one-act play which is a mixture of 6 short plays. I really like this one. I’m putting it together as part of my May production.
  • Written dialogue narration for my musical revue show for May.
  • Just finished our first complete draft of a collaborative play I’ve written with three of my students.  Tentative name: “The Juggernaut Mystery.”
  • Musical idea – I’ve started a secretive musical idea with one  of my colleagues. Sample lyrics written. Long term, multi-year project here.

There’s probably some more ideas rattling around in my brain, but this is what I love. A variety of writing topics. I jump from one to another at will. It’s how I channel my creativity and keep my million-mile-per-hour brain in check.

If you typically don’t work this way, give it a try. I think you’ll find it invigorating. Or jarring. Either way, it can only help your writing.

Mystery Genre? Maybe.

I’ve been working on a side writing project with four of my students for, well, has it been all school year? Yes, I suppose it has. We would have met in August for the first time, and we’ve been taking our time on this one.

It’s a play, untitled, and mish-mashed togethered in a variety of ways, but I do believe it’s starting to take shape. It’s a mystery.

It didn’t really start out as a mystery. It was more like a strange super-hero fantasy, but it has morphed into a game of intrigue, recrimination, and good ‘ole “who dunnit?”

I must admit. I’m starting to get a little fond of this piece and of the mystery genre as a whole. I’ve dabbled in mysterious writing before, but never really did a full-fledged mystery. What I enjoy most about it is trying to piece together all the angles in the most clever and unexpected way possible. I suppose nobody thinks “the butler did it” anymore, so should we make him the ultimate villain? (No, just kidding, even though there is a butler.)

We hope to polish off the first draft of it over the next month, and if I give it my undivided attention (which completely no longer exists in this world) then I think we can do it.

But it also got me thinking: how about a novel in the mystery drama. I did write “Spy Blue” – my play turned novella which is no longer available. But it’s more of a thriller type. I do intend to get back to that story someday and re-write it. But how about an actual mystery. A classically based mystery? I wonder how creative I could get on that.

It’s another option to tuck away in my ever-bulging binder of ideas. Will the time ever arrive when I have nothing to write about?

Boy, I hope not.

 

Inspiration is Cheap. Just Open Your Eyes. (or Ears)

I’m amazed at the inspiration around me. I went for decades not seeing it. But it’s there. Everywhere – Invalidating our self-pitying claims of writer’s block.

Maybe we put blinders on and can’t see it.

Maybe we become so focused on the page that we forget that the page belongs in the world. That’s where it originated, and that’s where it will find it’s conclusion.

Every sight you see is a setting. Every person you watch is a character. Each of them need to be molded and shaped, manipulated and re-imagined on your page, but the spark is right in front of you. What’s keeping you from igniting it?

Even physical sight is not needed, and sometimes not preferred in order to be inspired by one’s surroundings. A breeze, a whistle, a bird’s persistent call, the shifting of the ocean, the honking of a horn, the laughter of friends, the confabulation of lovers, the braking of a car. All of these give depth and insight, we only need to listen. Hear the words, hear the sounds and allow the scenes to come alive in our minds.

And what of words themselves. These pre-arranged letters have a lot to offer on their own. How many of these single words or partial phrases have hidden meanings, unknown characters and plots hanging from them if we only prod them with our minds just a little.

“respectable” – Is it a son trying to please his father? Is it a girl looking for the right man? Is it the banker looking for a neighborhood to move into? Is it the drug addict with an unattainable label?

Stories are hidden behind each word.

Entire books can spring forth from a specific sound.

Trilogies have been erected upon a single panoramic scene.

Inspiration is everywhere, at each turn of every day. Don’t let it pass by.

Notice it and create.

Ideas for Indie Authors: A Novel is Chasing Me. I’m Losing. (and Winning)

When good ideas impregnate the mind, why fight them?

Over the past three weeks, I’ve had a novel idea, actually related to novel-writing, and I haven’t been able to shake it. Even in the midst of revising novel #5, which was supposed to be my priority, this new idea has consumed me every free moment that I’ve had.

When I go to the store, I’m thinking if the characters drink whole milk or skim. When I’m in my bedroom, I’m thinking about this little flying thing that annoys one of the characters and wonder what it would be like to have that happen. (Sorry, I can’t divulge what I’m talking about there.)

And the plot – it’s embarrassingly exposed – like I downloaded the novel’s Cliff Notes and have been cheating on my writing. It’s seemed so easy, so smooth – the dialogue, the characters, the setting – all laid bare in front of me.

This is the type of inspirational groove that I hope never leaves me.

So why am I losing? Because I’ve lost control of all other parts of my life because of this novel.

So why am I winning? Because I love writing this novel and have had so much fun putting it together.

Why has it been so easy so far?

Perhaps it’s an unimportant question that I shouldn’t try to answer. Just count it as a blessing and enjoy it while it lasts.

But I have to say that I might know what’s going on. In this novel, I’m starting from a premise that is completely unlike me. It dabbles in the supernatural and fantasy genres which, if you’ve read any of my writings, you know if not what excites me. I like real, down-to-earth human stories.

However, this unique premise has allowed me to tell a human story in a very different way. It has led to new discoveries and new ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of anyways. And while the end result will be different from much of my other works, the reader will undeniably see the same creative Sasse hand at the helm.

So if your inspiration is stuck firmly in a hole filled with quick-drying cement, shake things up a little. You might find yourself losing a lot of time on a winning idea.