Monthly Archives: October 2011

Put Your Ideas to the Test

It’s one of the topics you see most often on writers’ blogs and online forums: where do story ideas come from? Generating ideas that have the right stuff is one of the most vital aspects of fiction writing. I would submit, however, that this is the wrong question to ask. The bigger question is: does your story idea pass the test? Does your idea have enough substance and depth to generate a successful novel?

How do you find out? Put your idea to the test. When you come up with an idea, ask yourself:

  • How specific and original is the idea? “Boy meets girl” isn’t very original or specific. How about this: blind boy with a gift for music meets mute girl with a love for music. Their parents are very controlling and do not want to see them get into a relationship. In the right hands, there’s a good story there.
  • Does your idea lend itself to the development of an interesting cast of characters that grow organically out of the plot? Man trapped on a deserted island is a riveting (if over-used) idea, but you can’t create a cast of characters (at least human ones) if most of the action takes place on the island. Unless of course you have Tom Hanks to play the main character in the movie.
  • Does your idea pass the “who cares” test? Write down your idea and the outline for a few opening scenes and then ask, Can I get someone else to care about this story? How?
  • Can you take your idea and identify at least a dozen key scenes or turning points? Does the idea have the potential for rising action?
  • Is there enough (or any) inherent conflict and tension to sustain the story? Do you have characters with competing goals?
  • Does your idea lend itself to an interesting setting, or multiple settings?
  • Does your idea touch on larger themes?

Sometimes an idea can arise from something as seemingly minor as an emotional reaction to an event or a news story. My current work in progress was inspired by my disappointment over Christine O’Donnell’s victory over Mike Castle in the primary election for the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware in 2010. The story has nothing to do with those events. It’s not a story that espouses a Democratic or Republican philosophy. It’s my take on the rise of celebrity candidates, our broken political environment and what it means for our country.

There is no shortage of ideas. Keeping a list of story ideas is a sound practice. Not all of the ideas you come up with will have the potential for a full-blown novel. That’s why it’s helpful to put your ideas to the test.

How do you know when your idea for a novel has potential?



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What Are You Reading Now?

Writers benefit when they read widely, not only in the genre in which they write, but across all genres, and non-fiction as well as fiction. In addition to the inherent pleasure of reading a good book, writers gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for the craft of writing: how to structure a story, character development, use of dialogue, balancing narrative, dialogue and action, creating rising action, and much more.

Each year I set a goal to read 25 books. I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder. I’ve always been a big fan of Ann Patchett’s work and her new novel does not disappoint. Here are some books I’ve read recently:

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Where do I find out about books? I choose books mainly based on reviews in The New York Times, Goodreads, fiction writers’ blogs, or recommendations of friends.

I gravitate toward family sagas, because that’s the genre in which I write, but I also enjoy murder/mysteries, women’s literature, biographies and even the occasional sci-fi thriller. I read mostly for pleasure. Sometimes I am drawn to a  book because of similarities to what I am currently writing. At other times, I select books for research. I read Decoded because I am working on a novella where one of the major characters is a
rapper and I didn’t have a clue about how to write that kind of character. I like Jay-Z’s music and the book gave me some great insights into the psychology and sociology of rap music.

What are you reading now? How do you decide on a book you’re going to read?



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Should We Give Away Our Work?

The New York Times published an interview recently with Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, who pirated his own work by giving away free translations of his books until he was caught by his publisher. Radiohead achieved notoriety when they released their 2007 CD, In Rainbows, online and let fans name their own price. Author JA Konrath at one point was reportedly posting PDF copies of his novels on his website for readers to download for free on the theory they would pay the nominal fee for the convenience of reading his books on an e-reading device. What’s going on here?

Why would authors or artists give away their work for free? There are three reasons: to build an audience, to gain feedback for a work-in-progress, or out of a principled belief that artistic works and ideas should be accessible to all.

While this is great for consumers, I’m not a fan of the idea that artists or authors should give away their work. Artistic works are worth something. Although many authors toil for years writing novels with no expectation of being published or making money, we would like to think there is a financial reward for our achievements.

From a consumer’s perspective, it comes down to the “perception of value.” If you give away your work, the public perceives it as worth nothing. Wait a minute, you say. What about Amanda Hocking and John Locke, who amassed huge sales of their 99-cent e-books? They were practically giving them away. Correct, but there’s a big difference between 99 cents and zero.

Hocking and Locke made conscious decisions on pricing. They bet that interesting, well-written books priced ridiculously low would sell, and they were right. First-time authors who publish on generally choose one of two price points: 99 cents (on the theory they can sell
more books, even though the royalty rate is just 35 percent) or $2.99 (the price point at which the higher royalty rate of 70 percent kicks in). It’s a
calculated decision. Self-published authors know they won’t sell many books unless they price them between 99 cents and $2.99.

I plan to publish my first novel, Small Change, through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. I plan to set the price initially at $2.99. Why? I put
three years of my life into writing and editing this book. I believe it’s worth the price of a coffee and a donut, but that will ultimately be up to the reader to decide.

And what about well-known authors who elect to make their work available at little or no cost? According to the Times story, Coelho “continues to give his work away free by linking to Web sites that have posted his books, asking only that if readers like the book, they buy a copy, ‘so we can tell to the industry that sharing contents is not life threatening to the book business,’ as he wrote in one post.”

One could criticize Coelho’s methods, but he must be doing something right. Coelho has sold 140 million copies of his books and he has actively engaged readers through social media. According to media reports, he has more Facebook followers than Madonna.

Should artists give away their work?


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The Who’s ‘Tommy:’ What It Can Teach Writers

I introduced my son recently to The Who’s classic  rock opera, ‘Tommy.’ I bought him the CD and took him to see Roger Daltrey  perform the album in concert. Something I read in the liner notes that came with the CD struck me as relevant for writers.

Band historian Richard Barnes, who wrote the liner notes, relates the story about Pete Townsend’s inviting an influential rock critic to hear a rough mix of the album. Knowing the critic was a sports fan, Townsend came up with the idea of having Tommy play a sport. He floated the idea of having Tommy play pinball and the critic liked it. Townsend went home and wrote “Pinball  Wizard.” In his words: “I knocked it off. I thought, ‘Oh my God this is awful,  the most clumsy piece of writing I’ve ever done…It was going to be a complete dud, but I carried on.’”

Despite his initial reservations, Townsend took the  song into the studio and the band loved it. Of course, “Pinball Wizard” became  a classic and a signature song for The Who. So what does this have to do with  fiction writing?

There are two important lessons from The Who’s  ‘Tommy.’ First, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Why would anybody in  his right mind have a deaf, dumb and blind boy play a sport? And pinball? What  was he thinking? The idea was completely counter-intuitive, but it worked. When  a character is not working, ask yourself, What kind of attribute can I give to this character that’s completely against type? Try it out and see if it works.

The second lesson has to do with Townsend’s vision.  What separated bands like the Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd from the pack was not just their estimable talent. It was the scope of  their ambitions. They weren’t looking to record snappy, three-minute pop songs.
They were bold in their ambitions, in their use of the studio and all of the  tools available to them to explore all of the dimensions of music.

And they explored big ideas: spirituality, enlightenment, our place in the universe. Critics were divided on the meaning of ‘Tommy’ but let’s hear what its composer, Townsend, had to say in an  interview with Rolling Stone magazine:

“One of the central themes of Tommy is the play between self and illusory  self. It’s expressed by Tommy (the real self) who can see nothing but his  reflection (illusory self) in the mirror -Townsend: “There had to be a loophole so  I could show this. The boy has closed himself up completely as a result of the murder and his parents’ pressures, and the only thing he can see is this reflection in the mirror. This reflection – his illusory self – turns out to be his eventual salvation.

“In general terms, man is regarded as living in an unreal world of illusory values that he’s imposed on himself. He’s feeling his way by evolution back to God-realization and the illusion is broken away, bit by bit. You need the illusions until you reach very pure saintly states. When you lose all contact with your illusory state, you become totally dead – but totally aware. You’ve died for the last time. You don’t incarnate again – you just blend. It’s the realization of what we all intellectually know – universal consciousness – but it’s no good to know until you can actually realize it.”

Talk about big ideas and ambitious themes. It’s the same with fiction writing. Early success can prevent writers from reaching higher. How many times have you read the first book by a famous author and then picked up another book by that author, only to be disappointed because he is
mining the same tired formula?

The point is this: writers can achieve great things when they reach higher. Writers can create more interesting characters when they stretch their imagination.

By the way, the Roger Daltrey concert was amazing.

How do your expand your imagination when you develop story ideas or characters?


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