Category Archives: inspiration

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When all else fails…

So, it’s Tuesday night, you’ve totally blown past your deadline for posting to the blog, you’re completely blocked, and nothing on-line gives you any substantial ideas. What do you do?

 You do this:

2014-05-06-ColbyProcyk1

You’re welcome.

P.S. Now that you’ve wiped your eyes, get out another Kleenex and check out the accompanying article about how an animal rescue center has kids read to stray cats to help the cats get socialized for adoption, and how it helps kids become better readers, too. How warm is your heart now?

P.P.S. Interestingly, the program is based in Berks County, PA, which has a storied literary pedigree: John O’Hara, Wallace Stevens and John Updike all came from towns in Berks County. And it must be noted that the hub of Berks County is the city of Reading–okay, it’s pronounced “Redding,” but still…

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Inspiration/Perspiration

I have ideas for novels all the time. ALL THE TIME. And especially when I’m cruising around the internet over my morning cup of coffee. Like this article about a 13-year-old falconress in Mongolia – I instantly thought, she would make for an amazing YA heroine. Or this article about a summer job pulling a rickshaw (comedic coming-of-age, right?), or this one about an asteroid hitting earth (A dystopia, but set in the past, not the future!).

But have I written any of these (obviously brilliant) books? Heck no! Because writing a book takes more than an exciting story idea – it takes a great idea, and a basic understanding of grammar, and a talent for putting words together. But most importantly, it takes plain old fashioned discipline. You have to come back to your manuscript day after day, week after week, until you’ve told the whole story, and then you have to keep working on the pages you wrote until you’ve made every sentence as good as it can be. And then you share your book with other people, and you turn their criticism into another revision. And all that (hopefully) happens before it even gets to your agent and editor for their feedback.

So for every book you see on the shelf, that’s hours and hours of patient, focused labor happening between the this would make an amazing book! moment and the first copy going home from a bookstore. That’s hours spent writing instead of sleeping, writing on vacations, writing in between doctor’s appointments or graduate classes, writing in airports or parking lots or coffee shops. Writing through writer’s block and hand cramps and carpal tunnel syndrome!

So if you like books – and of course you do, otherwise why would you be reading this blog? – then hug a writer today! Or buy them a cup of coffee, because they can probably use the caffeine.

Where do you find inspiration? 

 

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The backstory

Backstory is important, you’ll agree.  It’s what gives depth and weight to a narrative, allowing us to understand motivations and giving us context.  A common error authors make is letting the backstory overwhelm the narrative.  Then, it’s pages and pages of genealogy or irrelevant details about, for instance, the hero’s years spent kayaking in the Pacific Northwest, even if the novel is a legal thriller set in DC and having nothing to do with water craft.  Well thought out and incorporated backstory, however, is a joy.

Always having been intrigued by the part of the iceberg that hides beneath the water (to mangle part of a Hemingway quote), I also like to know the interesting arcana about the books themselves.  I like to know what the author was thinking, why s/he made the choices s/he did, what weird circumstances were taking place in the author’s life during the writing of the book, etc.   Being on our side of the publishing biz, we know a lot of books’ backstories—some funny, some sad, some sexy, some…surprising—and I always feel that they add a dimension to the reading experience.

If you’re like me in this respect, check out this clever and informative Buzzfeed compilation of weird book factoids, creation tales, and trivia.  My favorite?  Nabokov, notecards and butterfly nets in hand while creating Lolita.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve learned about a book you love?

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Where book ideas are born

The story this last week of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane is everywhere and, as I write this blog, the mystery surrounding what happened is still very much a mystery.  In fact, right at the beginning of this sad occurrence I said to Miriam that it would be an incredible premise for a novel.  And then there were the other events of this week that were top of the news–the explosion in Harlem that destroyed two residential apartment buildings and the deaths at the South By Southwest Festival due do a car going out of control.  Those too, it occurred to me, as awful as they are, provide fuel for book ideas both fiction and non-fiction.

I often get my book ideas from the front pages of the newspaper; other ideas come from personal experiences or those of my friends and colleagues.  And then, of course, there are other sources as well like the Ted Talk by Steven Johnson which I ran across as I was considering all of this.

So many of my clients – especially those who write fiction come up with wonderful book ideas one right after the other and I so appreciate their creativity.  This has made me wonder more and more where all of these ideas come from.  And so, I ask you, dear reader, where do you get your book ideas—are they from unusual personal experiences or are they torn from the headlines of the news of the day?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Oh, and one more thing, it’s Miriam’s Birthday today so everyone please wish her a very happy  birthday!

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Writing your way to a better idea

One of the hardest things for writers is the process of coming up with an idea. And understandably so. Finding a topic doesn’t just happen, and so when I had to write creative papers for my college courses, each one started the same way: with a brainstorming session.

The mind is a funny thing. Our brains are capable of making some astounding—not to mention bizarre–associations, and when you let your thoughts run wild, that random stream of consciousness is likely to result in some pretty interesting ideas. There are a million and one different brainstorming techniques out there. In fact, brainstorming has evolved to become a bit of a science—seriously just type the word into Wikipedia and see—but I usually find the simplest methods to be the most effective.

Freewriting is one such method. Even if you can’t think of anything to write at first, the simple act of putting pen to paper can get those creative juices flowing. Clear your mind. Let go. Write. It may take a while to get going, and you may only end up writing “I have no idea what to write” for the first ten minutes of your freewriting session. But that’s encouraged. The ideas will come if you let them, if you keep churning out sentence after sentence.

If you’re having trouble, try doing some more in-depth research on freewriting and other brainstorming techniques. I find instructive tips such as this one to be very helpful. Not every thought you have during a brainstorming session will be gold. In fact, most will be absurd or downright nonsensical. Just remember, it only takes one good idea for the whole brainstorming session to be worth it. Be patient and have fun. It works. How do you think I came up with the idea for this post?

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Kickin’ It Old School

Over the past month we’ve had some scheduled upgrades and maintenance take place on our server. Sometimes this means that we haven’t had access to our email or –horrors!- the Internet for as much as three hours at a time! Work screeches to a halt, thumbs are twiddled, hair is pulled. How can we get any work done without WiFi?

Oh yeah. People used to work like this every single day. And I’m not even talking about prehistoric hunters and gatherers, or even hardy homesteaders proving out their land in the Ozarks. I’m thinking of the not-so-distant days before e-books and Kindles, before Outlook and Firefox, before Post-Its and Keurigs. The good old days of penciled manuscripts and ink-penned contracts! Ernest Hemingway scrawling in a Paris café, Margaret Mitchell pounding away on this typewriter and using her finished pages to prop up her wobbly couch (or so Wikipedia assures me).

I don’t know that the DGLM office will be investing in typewriters or quills any time soon, but we did find worthwhile ways to spend our analog time. Some of us caught up on reading submissions (on pre-loaded Kindles, natch). Some of us went through the ominous to-file stack that we’ve been ignoring since Thanksgiving. Some of us thought about blog posts we could write when the Internet returns…

What are your tips for non-digital productivity?

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The psychology of writing

I have a very strong interest in psychology that goes back to when I minored in it in college. My list has been peppered with titles over the years that explore various issues in this area and I am always interested in seeing new ideas with a psychological bend.

I enjoyed this article in authormagazine.org by published author Jennifer Paros about the psychology of writing. She used her son as a jumping off point, describing how as a young teenager he decided he had an interest in writing. He was then hampered by a fear of failure, essentially. My 8 year-old has recently expressed a similar interest, so I told her the only way to become a writer is to actually write but when I ask her if she wants to, the answer is usually no. I’m  not yet sure where her reluctance is coming from, but I’m going to keep an eye on it and try to encourage her to keep working on it.

Ms. Paros talked with her son about what was holding him back to get him past his stumbling blocks and the writing became easier and more natural. Eventually the process of writing outweighed the insecurity of worrying about a possible negative reaction in sharing his work.

This is likely a common stressor for writers and everyone else. We all worry, some more than others, about what people think of us or if they will react negatively to something we’ve said or done. It’s the people who use their mental strength to overcome these fears that will likely have the most success in writing or anything else they choose to do, a topic generating a great deal of interest following my client Amy Morin’s recent piece about mentally strong people and things they avoid.

What’s your biggest fear as a writer? Have you been able to overcome your insecurities to find a successful path? Share your stories. There are lessons to be learned for all of us.

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A book can change your life

The title of this post might be overly dramatic, but if you look hard enough you will find some pretty incredible stories about people whose lives were changed by books and reading.

One of those amazing stories comes from YA author Matt de la Peña, whose piece this week in NPR is well worth your time. He touches on so many moments in his own life that were altered by books, and then when he goes into talking about his dad and how his life was changed by reading, well, I was in tears by that point so that tells you what kind of piece this is. In simple prose, he taps into why words and books and reading matter, and how the power of the written word can literally change your life. And I believe almost always for the better.

A love of reading doesn’t have to start early, either. Matt’s life-changing moment came in his second year of college. And you know what else I love about this article? That teacher. That amazing teacher who saw something in this young man and knew he had potential and needed a nudge so she gave him a copy of The Color Purple and asked him to read it before he graduated and then come talk with her about it.

I’m sorry for the way things go for Joshua, a tough young kid profiled here with a secret writing habit, and I hope that de la Peña or someone else can help him find his way through his writing, and through books. When I read pieces like this, it’s so validating to think that the work that we are all doing can make a difference, and in some cases, all the difference.

Do you have any stories to share about how a book changed your life, or the life of someone you know? Please share. And pass this article on too. It’s a great read, and an inspiring one.

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Beginning to see the light

It’s been over a week now, but for me Lou Reed’s death has been lingering on like a pair of pale blue eyes. You know, man, when I was a young man in high school, I was a HUGE Lou Reed fan—not just the Velvet Underground, but the solo records, too. Even the bad ones–who remembers Mistrial? In fact, I first got the news about his death from a couple of high school friends, for whom my Lou fixation evidently made a bigger impression than I ever realized.

Anyway, I figured Lou would be a good subject for a blog post, since so much of his output had to do with books and writers. The literary connection got more explicit in his later years, culminating with The Raven and Lulu, both of which were based on other writers’ work. But from his earliest interviews, Lou talked about books and writers, claiming that he wanted to take what writers like William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby, and Delmore Schwartz were doing in print and translate that to rock and roll. I know a lot of readers found their way to these authors through other rock stars, but I never would have dug Last Exit to Brooklyn without Lou.

And the more I think about it, Lou’s celebration of writers had as much to do with my getting into publishing as any actual writers or books, too. It basically boiled down to a syllogism: Lou is cool, Lou likes books, therefore books must be cool—and so when my dreams of a rock star faded in college due to a serious lack of faith in my talent (or, more likely, a serious lack of talent), something about publishing spoke to my rock n’ roll heart. In particular, kids’ books, which at the time had a serious us-vs.-them relationship with adult books. It got even better once I started at S&S and discovered how many uptight parents, teachers and librarians were banning Judy Blume and other kids’ book authors who wrote about real life like a certain rock musician…

So, any Lou Reed fans out there in blogland? Anyone see his influence in their writing? I’d love to hear your stories–hey, maybe we can get a New York conversation going (and have a real good time together)…

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Thoughts from Ann Patchett

I’m a big Ann Patchett fan. Her books are always so good. She is a one-of-a-kind talent who writes nonfiction as well as fiction, a rare accomplishment. And she is also someone who has mindfully decided to refrain from social media and even television, making her success in this market that much more notable (although it’s also worth noting her success came long before social media).

So I’m always happy to discover an article by or about her. I came across this recent interview from denverpost.com where Patchett shares candid advice about her own reading and writing habits. It’s short but there are a few golden nuggets of takeaway in there. Like the fact that she doesn’t have a regular writing routine and it’s ok, her favorite book last year and one she learned about novel writing from was J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, and that she doesn’t care about how people read or what they read, only that they are reading. Her last line: “I’m all for trash” to illustrate her point made me laugh out loud.

Enjoy this piece, and hope it’s useful as you think about your own writing style and inspiration.