How to Get Ideas: What If?

One of the most common questions a writer gets asked is how do you come up with your ideas? And one of the most common answers writers give is I don’t know.

For writers, ideas seem to come from anywhere and everywhere, and you might not always be conscious of where exactly an idea comes from. And sometimes ideas come to you when you’re not even trying. However, for those who are newer to writing or for those who don’t know what to write next, ideas can be hard to find and you sometimes have to force yourself to come up with them. So I wanted to start a new series on my blog about how to get ideas and about how to develop stories from those ideas.

The first method of getting ideas I want to write about are what if questions.

What if

What if questions are my favorite way to come up with ideas for stories. Writers are naturally curious, and they ask and attempt to answer questions about the world with their writing. Fictional words and stories allow writers to explore different questions and situations. What if is what writing fiction is all about.

My current work-in-progress came from a what if question—what if written language was taken away? This question popped into my head one day, probably prompted from a love of linguistics and written language, and I couldn’t forget it. I pondered the question for a while, and eventually a girl came into my mind. She wasn’t a writer, but an artist, and the story idea exploded from there to become a dystopian trilogy.

What are some what if questions you have about the world? What sorts of situations or possibilities could you explore by asking what if? For me, my question came from something I was interested in—linguistics. There could be a million what if questions about linguistics, just as there could be any number of questions you could ask of all topics.

When trying to come up with a story idea, look towards things and topics you’re interested in and ask your own what if questions. Interested in music? What if there was a magical world where the music you played were spells? Interested in art? What if a teenage girl’s drawings came to life?

What if questions don’t only work for science fiction and fantasy. Those are just the examples I came up with because those are my favorite kind of stories and you can be so imaginative with them. You can just as easily ask what if questions about the real world, whether contemporary or in the past.

Once you have your what if question, try to come up a character who would be involved with the question. I usually have to come up with stories this way—I take a general concept and then find a character to base the story around. After you have your character, let your creativity take over. Ask more what if questions to find out about your story, its world, and what could happen to your character.

Asking what if could unlock any number of story ideas. See for yourself what’s possible.

When I’m Not Writing: Crafting

I’ve told you about some of my favorite things to do when I’m not writing, like watching musicals. Today I wanted to tell you about what’s probably my favorite of all my hobbies—crafting.

I’m a pretty creative person. You need to be in order to write. I love to make up stories and create new characters and places. But I also feel the need to work with my hands and use my creativity in tangible and visual ways. That’s where crafting comes in.

My love of crafting started at a young age. My mom was my Girl Scout troop leader, taught children’s classes at the park district, and taught my church classes. All of these activities involved a lot of crafts. I loved making anything and everything. As an adult, I still love to create art and other projects.

Jewelry-Making

I’ve been making jewelry for over half of my life now. I still love buying beads in all different colors and creating beautiful patterns. Jewelry-making is so relaxing and lets me clear my head when I’m stuck on whatever I’m writing.

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Coloring

Another activity I do to relax and clear my head is to color. I only got into coloring in the last year or so, but it’s quickly become one of my favorite activities. And not only is coloring really relaxing, it’s also one of my favorite ways to dig into God’s word. I do this through scripture coloring books which allow me to draw closer to God while I’m relaxing.

Planners

Being a stay-at-home writer, I don’t have too much to schedule in my life, but I have fallen in love with the creative planners that have been trending lately. Every Friday, I spend an hour or so designing the next week’s pages. I fill in everything that needs to get done, and then I decorate the pages with stickers and lots of color. I include inspirational quotes, decorative flowers and washi tape, and a prayer list for each week. I love getting to look at my decorations and the inspirational quotes as I get ready for each day.

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Gift-Giving

Lastly, I love to craft when it comes to gift-giving. I have tons of card-making supplies so that I can make everyone a card that’s individual to them. I also love giving homemade gifts like fleece blankets. For my husband, I usually will make him something with pictures, like this picture wall I made him for Valentine’s Day last year.

Crafting allows me to be creative with my hands, clear my head when I need to work out a writing problem, and even draw closer to God. There is nothing better than creating something, whether I’m writing stories or making a homemade gift.

Favorite Book Feature Leftovers, Part 1

On the last Friday of each month of 2017 I featured one of my favorite books. But because I have way more than only twelve favorites, I thought I’d do a couple posts on the leftovers with short features about each of the books left on my favorites shelf.

Lexicon by Max Barry

This thrilling novel combines science fiction and linguistics, which fascinates me. I’ve only read this book once, but it’s a smart novel that sticks with you. If you’re interested in linguistics you would love this book.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This eerie dystopian book is about books being banned in the future and being burned by firefighters. This book has had a huge influence on my writing, and it’s one of only a few of the classics that I enjoy. Fahrenheit 451 is also one of the stories that inspired my current work-in-progress.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This is one of those books that I keep coming back to because of how heartbreaking and honest it is. Charlie’s story about growing up resonates in so many ways and makes me laugh and cry every time I read it. I also absolutely love the film version.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is an incredibly original story about people living in a virtual world to avoid how terrible the real world has become. The world-building in this book is so detailed and inspiring to me as a writer. I can’t wait to see the movie version when it comes out this year.

Becoming Myself by Stasi Eldredge

This book is the only work of nonfiction on my shelf, and it’s a beautiful book about becoming who God intends you to be. I read through this book with a women’s group at my church, and it was amazing to share our stories and work on becoming ourselves together.

It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories by Erin Flanagan

This story collection is by my favorite college professor. I got to interview her on this collection for my university’s literary journal, and it’s a great book. The best part of this collection is the common theme of looking at how big events affect the characters’ everyday lives, my favorite of which is “Feather the Nest,” a story about 9/11.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

This was the only fantasy on my shelf until I recently added The Reader. I love fairy tales, and this is a fantastic adventure story. However, I do like the movie more than the book.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This popular book about cancer and love is as beautiful as it is sad. I just love how honest this book is. Green doesn’t shy away from the difficult topics, and the result is an incredible story. Another great read is This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl, which is a collection of work by and about the late Esther Earl, the girl to whom The Fault in Our Stars is dedicated.

Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Running Out of Time was my first favorite novel. This is the book that made me want to write. It’s a fascinating story about a girl who lives in a small town in the 1840s. But when the kids of the town start getting sick with diphtheria, she is sent outside only to find that it’s 1996 (the year the book was published). My favorite part about this book is the mix of past and present.

How it Feels to Fly by Kathryn Holmes

Holmes’ second novel solidified her as one of my absolute favorite authors. This is a book about a dancer with body image issues, but it’s not your typical ballerina with an eating disorder story. Instead, Holmes tells a incredible story about anxiety and overcoming insecurity.

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I have ten more books on my favorites shelf to tell you about, so look for part 2 soon!

My Writing Goals for 2018

I last wrote about how to define success as a writer and the importance of goals. Without goals, I feel completely lost as a writer. Because I work alone most of the time, I need goals to guide me. I need smaller things to work towards that add up to the big things.

To help guide me, I make weekly and daily to do lists. Having my tasks broken up into smaller chunks helps me to focus (my word for the year) on what needs to get done and only that. If I try to take on more than what’s on my list for just that day, I feel overwhelmed and usually come to a stop.

However, even though I need to focus on the daily tasks to get things done, it is important to take a step back at the beginning of the year and think about what you want to accomplish in the bigger picture. Once you’ve decided what you want, then you can dive in and break things up into smaller, more achievable tasks.

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So today I wanted to share my big picture goals for 2018. When I make these goals I make sure to push myself while still being realistic. If you make a goal too hard you might just end up frustrated by setting too high of a standard. But if you make a goal too easy then you never end up growing.

With that in mind, I have three main goals for 2018:

  • Write my secret work-in-progress. I am almost done with my outline for this series, and I want to write the first book this year.
  • Prepare a query letter for this work-in-progress. Query letters are very difficult to write and take a lot of time. So I want to have one finished by the end of this year so that in 2019 I can be looking for an agent.
  • Read at least 45 books. In 2017 I read 40 books—34 fiction and 6 nonfiction books—so I want to read a little bit more than that. I’d also like 10 of those books to be nonfiction because I’d like to read more nonfiction books.

What are your writing goals for this year? How do you go about setting goals?

How Do You Define Writing Success?

Do you define having achieved success with your writing as getting a book deal with a major publisher? As finishing a manuscript? As getting to share your writing with thousands of readers? As sharing it with just one person, or even just yourself?

When we think of successful writers we usually think of the big household names or number one bestsellers. We imagine contracts with big publishers, multi-book deals, and agents in New York City. And we have visions of hundreds of fans showing up for book signings.

The problem with this picture of success is that it doesn’t happen all that often. The reality is that very few people end up achieving this perfect image of a successful writer. It’s not that this version of success isn’t possible, it’s just that it’s extremely hard to attain and depends on many factors that have nothing to do with you and your writing. And if you are striving towards this because this is your only definition of success as a writer, you’re probably just going to end up disappointed in how things turn out.

Instead, think about how to define success for yourself, what it would mean to you to be successful. While success to some people might mean becoming a big time writer, to others success may be simply writing a little more than you did the day before. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what you achieve with your writing. Whether you end up with a contract from one of the big publishing houses or simply write 500 words one day, what matters is that you make a goal and work towards it.

Setting goals is so important when it comes to writing because writing is something you choose to do with yourself. No one is going to make sure you get your writing done—it’s all up to you. Writing is a lonely road most of the time, and without goals to guide you along the way, you’re probably going to end up lost.

I’ll be honest—I haven’t made any money yet off of my writing. But I have a college degree in creative writing, a published book, a wonderful marriage, and a pretty cute dog. I’m only 25 years old, I’m happy, and I’m going to keep working towards my next goal. And then I’ll work on the goal after that, until maybe one day I do get that book contract with a major publisher.

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One Word—My 2018 New Year’s Resolution

Last year I wrote about what I do instead of making traditional new year’s resolutions. I choose one word to guide me for the year, and I make an inspiration board that I can look at each day to remind me of my word. For my boards, I decorate a 12in by 12in piece of scrapbook paper with quotes, images, Bible verses, and song lyrics that relate to the word. I’ve done this for three years now, and my previous words have been Change, Grow, and Joy.

Only choosing one word seems like a small resolution, but I’ve noticed such a difference in my life by focusing on these words each year. Every day I see my word board next to my mirror and read something off of it, and then I feel ready for the day with my goals fresh in my mind. Last year especially, as I worked on Joy, I definitely learned to rely a lot more on God and find my joy in him. This is a great tool to increase your faith.

For 2018, I’ve felt God speaking one word on my heart for a while now: Focus.

I have a hard time focusing some of the time. I think part of that is because I work from home so I’m surrounded by distractions: my dog, housework, and all of the books I have out from the library. Another reason is because I have a tendency to feel overwhelmed, and when I see the long list of things that have to be done, I often end up sitting and staring at the list rather than doing something on the list.

But another big reason I have trouble focusing is that I always feel lost between book projects. Over the last six years I’ve written three manuscripts, usually spending one year working on it and one year staring at my computer, hating everything, and getting nothing done. 2017 was one of the off years, and I’ll be honest and say that I wrote almost nothing last year.

So that’s why Focus has become my word for 2018. But it isn’t just for my writing work. Throughout 2017 my husband and I became more and more involved in our church, and I definitely feel called by God to do even more. But I need to focus on him if I’m going to do anything important.

So this year I’m gong to Focus on my writing work, on my kingdom work, and on God. Here’s my board for 2018:

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Favorite Book Feature: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The last Friday of every month this year I’ve featured one of my favorite books and shared why I love it. In case you missed them, here’s the books I’ve featured:

January—A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher
February—If I Stay by Gayle Forman
March—The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes
April—13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
May—Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
June—Everlost by Neal Shusterman
July—Legend by Marie Lu
August—Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis
September—The Selection by Kiera Cass
October—Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
November—The Reader by Traci Chee

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For December, I chose to feature The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, a book I fell in love with in college and which had an influence on my novel Somewhere Only We Know.

The House on Mango Street is a short novel made up of vignettes (short scenes) about Esperanza Cordero, a young girl growing up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago. Esperanza has always wanted a house of her own where she could be free, but what she got was a small house on Mango Street. Despite her circumstances, Esperanza learns to write and hope for the future. The House on Mango Street is a beautiful story with poetic prose that features so many interesting characters and so much hope despite the pain in those character’s lives. Esperanza’s name even means “hope.”

The main reason I love this book is because of the language. It is incredible to read this book and see how Cisneros can take a page-long vignette and show you so much about a character. Cisneros’s language is spare and precise, and the lines feel like poems with how smooth they sound. One of my favorite paragraphs at the end of a vignette is this: “Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.” The fragments make the words seem like a song, and they are so beautiful.

This book will also hold a place in my heart like all of the books that influenced Somewhere Only We Know do. The House on Mango Street is one of the books Frankie reads in my novel. I included this book because I wanted Frankie to see how Esperanza was able to overcome her difficult situation and still find hope.

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I hope you enjoyed reading my Favorite Book Features as much as I enjoyed rereading each of these great books! I plan on doing another post with short features on the books on my favorites shelf that I did not feature, so be looking out for that.