Fear of Ideas

I’m on a productivity message board, and one of the topics that frequently comes up is “How do you store your ideas?”  Everyone pops up with Evernote or OneNote.  Someone says they put them on a task list like Omni Focus.


I don’t save them.

It’s always quite shocking to the others.  They all say the same thing: They don’t get many ideas, so they have to save ALL of them.  Because they are all important.

I understand that.  I was there on my first novel.  I had this great idea for a mystery, start writing it…and then I got stuck.

I couldn’t figure out why I was stuck, so I figured that the problem was in the beginning and I began to rewrite the story.  Got stuck in the same place.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice kept saying that I should toss the story and start a different one.

But I didn’t have any other ideas.

Or, actually, I didn’t know how to come up with more ideas on demand.

When cowriter and I were close to breaking up, we were talking about a next project and got into a big disagreement about ideas.  I was coming up with some, and he kept shooting them down, saying “That won’t sell.”  Since we hadn’t written anything, how would he know?

But that’s the nature of the elusive idea to those who struggle to come up with them.  Everything–their entire success–rests on that idea.  The idea is what will make the book get published (not the story, the craft skills…right).

In the early days of the internet, there was a guy who was trying to either copyright or trademark several of his ideas for novels.  He thought it was inspired to do this, like no one else had every thought of doing this for an idea before.  The ideas were quoted…and well, they weren’t that good.  They were the low-hanging fruit ideas.  You know, the one where you write it, and as you finish the book, you pick up a book at the bookstore and it’s the same story!

But coming up with them is a skill that we’re really not taught.  Once you go out of the flights of fantasy as childhood, that ability seems to disappear, possibly because it’s not something that can be measured or graded.  But it is a skill that can be learned.

Dean Wesley Smith and Joanna Penn both have posts up today on ideas.

The Myths of Write What You Know

Illustration of Marilyn Monroe in the famous subway wind scene
My mother loved watching Marilyn Monroe


I grew up in Los Angeles, and just devoured any books on Hollywood.  It was fascinating to read the behind the scenes of how John Chambers put the makeup on the actors for The Planet of the Apes.  I read Daily Variety every day at the college library, and the local gossip columns published in the newspapers.  The internet’s largely made some of it go away, but we had columns where people could write in and ask, “What happened to X?” and find out.

So I gravitated into what I’m working on now, a mystery set in Hollywood in 1947.  If you didn’t catch that, it was right after World War II, so I got veterans in there, too.  I’m mostly research fashion of the times, types of cars, popular colors.  I’ve had to do geography as well, since I only saw the mountains.  I didn’t know what they were called.  😦

And I still remember my high school short story about a serial killer who picked his victims by random choice.  Needless to say, that didn’t win any prizes.

“Write what you know” is one of those first “rules” that writers are taught when they think about writing a novel.  And everyone scratches their head and tries to figure out what it means.

But it’s also a piece of advice that I think has been way oversimplified. I’ve wondered if it originally came from a pro writer and somehow got dumbed down over time.

I gravitated to the serial killer story because it was the idea (and this will date me, but the year that story popped up was when the Hillside Strangler in the news).   You get this idea, you write the idea as is and the idea is the story.  BIG myth.

Also a relative who shall be nameless suggested the random choice with pure INTP logic.

Okay, yeah.

Many people–not just writers–view ideas as rare and precious.  So you get one, you write it.  Even if it is way, way, way out your experience.

Like the writer who knew nothing at all about medicine and had to do research into how surgery was done for a book.  She was scandalized at the thought of a best selling writer saying he didn’t do a lot of research.  But maybe, maybe, she should have picked a different direction for the story that didn’t involve researching surgery.

One she was more familiar with.

That’s where write what you know comes into play.

It’s not about making your character head of HR because you’re head of HR.  It’s about finding an expertise that you already have because you’re interested in the topic.

Tamara Pierce said that she grew up reading about the knights in England.  Her books are about knights and people who live in the times of knights.

Michael Connelly was a crime reporter (and has a non-fiction book on those days).  He writes about a police detective who solves crimes in L.A.

Elizabeth Moon was a Marine (ooh-rah).  She writes about characters who in some form of military, whether in fantasy or science fiction.

Makes the research a lot easier, too.  It’s one of the reasons I’m doing a Hollywood mystery.  But no serial killers are involved.


Writing is Hard, and Not. Depends

This week, there’s been a lot of discussion about writers essentially trying to take short cuts.  Sort of like the person who is always jumping from one thing to another, hoping to get rich quick.

Except it’s choosing the right genres, getting books out so fast they hire ghost writers to keep up with, making the right contact.  I just unfriended a writer on Facebook because all her posts turned into “I write all types of genres in fiction and scripts. Please give me the name of an agent who represents everything!”

We get fooled by the media who says “overnight success” for a new writer and leaves out the part that he or she wrote books for ten years.

Or reading Writer’s Digest and articles like “10 Things That Keep You From Being Published.”  The writer then proceeds to list trivial things that fall more in copy editing.  Makes it sound like you follow the checklist and the agent or editor will move your story to the top of the pile and buy it.

It doesn’t happen like that so the writer either blames publishing for not recognizing them or try to find a way to stick the foot in the door.

Like two other writers I knew.  Neither were particularly interested in improving their craft–you know, that part that makes readers want to buy the book.  With one, I co-wrote with him, and there was huge disconnect to the fact that if a reader is going to plunk down $$ and the cost of their time, the book has be pretty good.

No, it was about networking to find the right agent and getting the book in front of him.  It was–and I’m not making this up–figuring out the publishers’ secret to what made a best selling book.  I remember going to a writer’s conference with him.  We chatted with an agent for fifteen minutes.  She liked us.  She enjoyed talking to us.  And she still rejected the book.

And rightly so.  I look back on my writing then, which is now fifteen years ago (yikes!), and there was still a LOT more to learn.

The other writer didn’t want to learn at all.  Hated his day job.  Wanted to write full time to get out of his job.  Wanted people to tell him his stories were good.  Thought all he needed to do was produce as much as possible and marketing would magically get people to buy the books.

Somewhere in there, the reader got left out.  Or maybe seen as the person who goes to the huckster who comes into town and convinces everyone to buy his snake oil.

One of the problems is that there’s a huge learning curve, like that wall in American Ninja Warriors.  It’s hard to get up it, especially in the beginning.  You send out stories, get form rejections.  No idea why the stories are being rejected.  Everyone starts thinking it was this typo on page 10 or the editor wouldn’t recognize anything good.

It can take a long time to get over the top of that Ninja Wall (and if you’ve even seen the show, most people never got past it).  Learning is always a choice.  Checking off boxes is also a choice.

But both with different results.



Writing Phrase I Hate

There’s a phrase I keep seeing over and over again, and it’s one I really hate because of the implied put down.

Worse, I don’t think writers realize it is a put down.

The phrase is…

“Aspiring author.”

It means longs for, desires to be, aims for.

Yet, if you write, you’re already a writer.  So this is somehow managing to say that even if you write you’re not really a writer.  I just saw it on an article about a writer who wrote two books and was called aspiring.

Just walking away and trying not to cringe.  As Bob Meyer said to me, there are so many people ready to put you down.  There’s no need to do it to yourself.

Reading as a Reader, Not a Writer

Baby penguin in a life vest and holding a life preserver
Just because I liked the image.

I just finished a Harry Bosch book.  I really like most of his books, and especially how he describes Los Angeles.

And there’s a probably a writer out there reading it, but not enjoying the book….instead  searching for faults.

When I first got online, I was influenced by all the writers around me.  We all read books to see what NOT to do.  Particularly, we all read each sentence and picked at them.  That writer did too much showing and not enough telling.  This writer made a grammatical mistake.  That kind of stuff.

One day, I felt discouraged as a reader because all the books I was getting were terrible!

It was so bad I thought writing had gone downhill from when I was growing up.

So was out wandering around at work and someone had left a few copies of Mack Bolan or Nick Carter books.  These were men’s fiction, with a lot of action.  I’d read a number of them (yeah, I had a weird childhood.  Other girls read romances, and I read science fiction and action fiction).

I snatched those books up, looking forward to proving my point that writing had gone downhill.

Instead, I could see how the writing of books had evolved over time.  The problem wasn’t the books.

It was how I was reading them.

I made a decision then and there to read the next book without picking apart.  Just try to enjoy it.

That book was The Di Vinci Code.  That’s one of the books the writers on message boards really hate.  It was a runaway success and sold millions and millions of copies.  So the writers read it, pick at the sentences, and wonder how a book with so many “flaws” can be a best seller.

Also implying that the readers are stupid because they don’t see the flaws.

The readers don’t care.  As long as the story gives them whatever they’re looking for, that’s enough.  Doesn’t have to be perfect.  Perfect is boring anyway, and a book isn’t an English assignment, waiting to be graded.

The Importance of Critical Thinking in the Digital Age

The Thinking RobotI’ve been spending some time trying to clean out my digital ‘closet,’ in addition to the real closet.  I’m shocked at how many files I’ve accumulated, and moreover, how many files I downloaded and then never paid attention to again.

It’s all clutter that wears on me, so I’ve been zapping it into the recycle bin as I find it.

But it’s amazing the amount of information that is available to us.  We can go online and look up Eddie Mannix (a fixer for MGM in the 1940s) and even post something that we know for everyone else to read.

Which is also a problem.

There’s so much information available that we have to sharpen our critical thinking skills.  They’re more natural for me as an INTP, where logic is the first place I head, but even it’s hard for me.  It’s easy to get taken in, especially when the other person is saying what we want to hear.

When I was on writing message boards, this type of attitude ran rampant.  People actively said, “I can learn something from other beginners,” and dissed best-selling writers as not knowing what they were doing.

The result is not questioning enough of the right things, which I see everywhere.


The messages coming at us are so powerful that people actually question what should be common sense.  


It seems worse for writers.  They want validation or to have a best seller so they can quit the day job.

So it’s easy to listen to the emotional messages from people who are good at selling, but not skilled as writers.

Some examples:

Description is boring.  Get rid of it all.  It’s not important.

I’ve hard variations of this one in many places.   Common sense should be to head to a best seller like Michael Connelly and see if he’s left off the description.  BTW, he has wonderful descriptions of Los Angeles, all told from the opinion of Harry Bosch.  Michael Connelly has also got something 20+ books.

What’s bad is that when writers flock to other writers and get critiques, the comments are generally that their description is boring.  It probably is because they just tossed in obligatory description without a thought about what they could do with the characterization.  So everyone says get rid of it, not fix it.

I interact with a traditionally published mid-list writer.  She advises writers to keep the description to a minimum—and no one questions this (except me).  It all fits into the narrative that description is boring, not that it needs to be done well.

And that writer has a series set in a place I went frequently when I was growing up.  You wouldn’t know the place from any other generic place.  No description of it.  Kind of sad.

You must outline.  Pantsing doesn’t work.

Yeah, I had to get this one in here.  It is a hobby horse for me because I ran into so much of it.  The group think veers to outlining and pressures everyone to conform.

What’s bad is no one checks out the source of this particular piece of advice.  It nearly always comes from two sources: Other beginning writers recommending it to each other and developmental editors.

Other beginning writers haven’t worked out their process yet.  And they’re giving advice on how to write a book.  Hmm.

Developmental editors are likely to see only the messed up stories of first time writers who are still learning craft and attribute it incorrectly to not outlining.

Race through the first draft and don’t look back.  You can fix everything on the revision.

Honestly, this one really needs a critical thinking Gibbs head slap.  Think about this:

You write the story and do it stream of consciousness.  Just leave out all the punctuation.

Now you come to the revision and you now have to spend a lot of time fixing that–and chances are it will never be right.

If we don’t have enough time in the first place, why do it in such a way that it takes even more time?

It’s terribly easy to go on auto-pilot, especially with all the digital clutter of the world.  Critical thinking is also a difficult skill to master, not only because it rewires our brain…but because there are so many things that keep challenging it.

Writing with the Spiders

Blond woman holds out spider. Eew!

This week, the weather in Washington DC finally decided it wanted to be spring.  We started out in 60 on Monday, it went to 70 on Tuesday, 80 on Wednesday…and then we’re veering in what might be summer weather with the 90s.

But good for going outside at lunch and doing some writing.  I have a Surface with a keyboard, which is very good for something like this.  There’s a nice picnic table by a pond, so I get the sound of the water and the gorgeous blue sky.

And the spiders.

I think they must come from the trees.  They’re gray and small–smaller than my thumbnail. And they LOVE my Surface.  They’ll be on this otherwise empty picnic table, and the minute I sit down, one of the spiders will want to crawl all over the Surface.  If I see them coming and move, they make a beeline for the Surface.

Spider sabotage!

I started “The May Project,” a mystery on May 1 and have a total of about 3,000 words so far.  I did about 300 and 400 respectively at lunch and the rest in the evening, after work.

I thought I picked a good main character name, but into the first chapter, I was mixing him up with his father’s name.  Oh dear.  The father’s name clearly feels better than the main character’s name.  So I’m still writing with a placeholder name.  Have a last name though…saw it on a real estate sign.  Plucking the names out of empty air.

And there’s the usual chaos and panic of starting a new story.  I know zip when I start, and the idea for this one was: Private Eye> Hollywood > 1940s – Mystery.  New clue what the crime is yet.  No idea how it’s going to end.  No idea what happens next.

Elephant on a tightrope
This is what pantsing is sometimes like.

Sometimes it feels like walking across a tightrope.  It can be really scary.  So I’m trying to ignore the critical side that’s now panicking, going, “Ack!  I don’t know where this going!  How do you expect me to work with it?! Ack!”

Dave Farland had this tip out this week, which kind of spoke to me:

Others . . . well, maybe you just want to work on your writing. But guess what? That comfort zone includes writing. Are you comfortable writing only one kind of story, or writing in one style? The truth is that you’ll be more valuable as a writer if you learn to write in several genres and in various styles.

 I’ve got spiders.  He’s got hermit crabs.

On to lurk with the spiders again today.

The May Project and the Muse is Running in Circles

A man is chased by a giant ape!
Run for it!

I was stumbling around around trying to write a short story and suddenly reminded myself that my goal for 2018 was to do longer fiction.  Short stories don’t sell that well.  Cursed Planet, #3 in the GALCOM Universe series, is in with the copy editor.

I have ideas for at least two more GALCOM books.


I’m thinking maybe I need a bit of genre diversity.

I kept circling back to mystery, because I do like mysteries.  I read Nancy Drew and  Trixie Beldon when I was growing up.  Phyllis A. Whitney was one of my favorite writers then, too.  And I read Michael Connelly, J.K. Rowling, and Lee Child.  In fact, it’s hard to get science fiction or fantasy in Washington, DC.  The library tends to stock more mysteries.

Yet, when I wrote my first novel, it was a fantasy.  My second, third, and forth were science fiction.  I’ve only done two mystery short stories.

Muse is running in circles, a little panicked.  I’m actually not sure why.  It might be that my first novel, the Novel That Must Not Be Named, was a mystery.  I had a terrible time with it.  I hit that 1/3 point, got stuck, figured something was wrong with the beginning, and revised the beginning.  Then I would get stuck at the same point again.  Rinse, repeat.

It went on for years.  Coming up with ideas was hard then.  I didn’t have any other ideas that could be a novel, and besides (I told myself over and over), I already invested so much time in it.  So I wandered between the novel and short stories (see the pattern?  I fell into again. 😦 ).

Then there’s the second issue…

This  book is going to make use of a long neglected research area that I know very well:  Hollywood.


This is mainly because the 1940s-1970s in the time that interests me.  Today’s politicking celebrities and gritty productions–Pfff!

But 1940s is historical.

Historical is SCARY!

My association with research for fiction was writers who approached it from a position of fear.  Fear that they were being graded like in college.  Fear that a reader would call them out on an obscure fact.  I remember one writer bragging–actually bragging–that he researched the weather on a specific day 50 years ago.  I’m more of a big picture thinker and though I could never write at that level of detail.  Never mind it made Muse want to hide.  Just not creative friendly.

A workshop on research for fiction writers helped a lot.  Though I need to get my feet wet…actually I need to bellyflop right in.

Then there’s the third issue…

Which is to finish the story in 30 days, starting May 1.

That’s got Muse in a panic, too.  I’ve never actually been able to finish a book in 30 days–and this is finishing with cyclical writing so that once I reach the end, it’s done.  I’ve said before that I would finish the story in 30 days and then I got stuck (that 1/3 point) and it took six months.  I got it down to three months.

So we’ll see what happens with The May Project.




The Pen That Can Write a Mile

Everything in the military is created with careful thought.  My battle dress uniform had buttons on the fly because, in the field, you could sew on a missing button.  If a zipper broke, you’d be in trouble.

And the pants themselves were designed to be turned inside out and worn that way…which I had to do when I was on a painting detail.

Similar careful thought went into the design of the Skillcraft pen which celebrates its 50th anniversary.  Every soldier I knew had a love-hate relationship with it.  If you had one, it was likely someone else would walk off with it.  One of my platoon sergeants reported that he had a class at one of his schools on “The Care and Accountability of the Skillcraft Pen.”

Some features you won’t find with your Bic:

  • Can write in a war zone (natch!)
  • Can write a linear mile before running out of ink.
  • Small enough to fit in a uniform pocket

Check out the history and specs of the Skillcraft pen.


Naming Names and Other Muse Misadventures

Computer sticking a tongue out
The muse be misbehaving

I confess.  I hate naming characters.


I’ve working on one short story this week (Story #2, about superheroes) and looking at doing two others.  The week started out trying to find names for Short Story #1 (a fantasy story).

The naming process involves looking at the setting and picking the names based on that.  So a secondary world fantasy is going to have names of a certain origin, and a contemporary story will have modern names.

Meaning?  Phht.

The INTP part of me has never understood writers who look for names based on meaning.

The reader me scratches her head.  How would the reader know the importance of it?  It’s not like I would see the name Mary and run to a baby book to look it up to see if I could figure out any hidden meaning that might lurk in the story.

But naming I must do, and even the muse concedes that they have to picked at some point…

Story #1 is a secondary world fantasy (which I optimistically thought I would write first, but muse had other ideas). I used to use a baby name book.  The problem is when people see me reading the book.

“When are you expecting?”

“Is it a boy or a girl?”


My process has always been to scan through the names and write down a handful of that I like until something clicks.

Muse nearly always tries to head for the Ks.  It really likes K names.  So it looks at some of the other names and goes, “I don’t like that name.”

So somehow the result of this is that I start the story without the name.  Muse is like “I don’t care,” so I wind up with XX for the main character–do you know how hard that it is to type?!

It won’t take very long before muse grudgingly realizes the character does need a name.  It does have an effect on how the character develops (the cool, nerdy stuff muse likes).

But muse wants to spend almost no time on it.

We both agree that surfing baby name sites is really annoying.  They usually have this tiny window where you scroll through the name while all these ads for baby products flash at me.  An ad with a cute baby pops up over my name searching, asking me if I want to sign up for a newsletter.

I’ve been known to hop over to the Navy website and grab last names from the admiral’s list.  It includes all the retirees, so it’s quite long and a diverse list.  First name?  If I’m at work and need a name, I open the newspaper and start looking through the writers.  This is hit or miss, given that most of the writers are men, so I’m missing out on half my characters.

So muse pops a placeholder name in the story, intending to change it later.

Sometimes that happens.

Sometimes the doesn’t.

And sometimes the placeholder name annoys muse, so it changes the name to another placeholder.  For the superhero story, I end up starting it in first person so I don’t have to deal with the name.

Except that I do.  The reader me always finds it annoying when a writer does first person and never mentions the character’s name.

Muse sighs and plops a nickname in it.

But that gets all manner of questions, like why the character has it.  And that’s not important to the story.

Muse sighs again and plops another name in.  Adds a last name from the newspaper.

I’ll probably change it again before the end of the story.

Or not.