How to Get Ideas: First Lines

Writers are always asked how they come up with their ideas, but it’s often hard to know exactly where a story idea comes from. Ideas seem to come from anywhere and everywhere, and they sometimes come when you’re not even trying. But for those who are newer to writing and for those who are having trouble figuring out what to write next, ideas can be hard to find and you might have to force yourself to come up with them.

That’s what this blog series is all about—how to get ideas and how to develop stories from those ideas. So far I’ve written about what if questions, titles, and prompts. Today I’m going to take a look at first lines.

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The first line of any story should hook your reader into going on and reading the rest of the story. In order to hook the reader, that first line has to be interesting and get the reader curious about what’s going to happen next. The first line should have an inherent question to it that makes the reader keep reading to find the answer.

K. M. Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel goes into detail about every aspect of story structure. I loved her chapter about hooks and first lines because she helps you understand what exactly makes a first line great. Weiland discusses the five elements a first line can have: an inherent question, character, setting, a sweeping declaration, and tone. The first line should set up some or all of these important story elements in order to make the reader want to keep reading.

Weiland also makes an important observation—that most first lines aren’t that memorable. First lines don’t have to be super-memorable, amazing lines. They simply have to make the reader want to read the next line and the line after that.

I love first lines. First lines can convey so much. They can show you the main character and setting, set the tone for the book, and ask a question that the story will answer. When I write a story, I spend a lot of time on the first scene. I love taking my time on that first scene and first line, working to make them perfect. But I also love creating stories from first lines.

With the very first full-length novel I wrote, I initially thought of it by thinking of the first line: I’ll never forget the day he came. Looking back I know that that isn’t a great first line—it’s vague and not that interesting—but that line just popped into my head one day and it got me started.

You can always change your first line later on when you edit, but you can take a line and use it as your launching point for a story. A seemingly random line—a random sentence, a piece of dialogue, and interesting description—can all be a starting point for you to write from and build a story around.

For me though, first lines usually just feel right. I had the idea for Somewhere Only We Know rolling around in my head for years, but it wasn’t until I thought of a new first line that I was able to write the entire book. I love my first line. It introduces Frankie and Susan, explains what happened to their mother, and asks the question of why Susan is boxing up her books. It piqued my curiosity and made me want to keep writing. I hope it makes readers want to keep reading

SOWK first line

What’s your favorite first line from a book? Do you like creating stories from first lines?

Finding Your Time

Are you an Early Bird or Night Owl?

We’ve all be asked this question before, but I’ve never really liked it because I’ve never felt like either. I like to sleep in a little and take my mornings slow and easy. And, while I do stay up later, I don’t do anything productive later at night.

I’m not an early bird or a night owl. Instead, what I’ve found is that I’m a 10:00 am person.

I take my time getting ready in the morning, relaxing and spending time with God, and after I eat breakfast I get down to work. I can usually be pretty productive between 10 am and 2 pm.

I know that I’m lucky to get to work from home. I get to plan how my days go and can work whatever hours I choose. I know not everyone has that luxury. But the point I’m trying to make is to find your time.

People are not necessarily early birds or night owls, but everyone has a time when they feel the most awake and energized and can be the most productive. Finding that time for you is imperative because fighting your body’s natural rhythm will not help you be productive. This is especially important for creative people because it’s really hard to create when you don’t feel energized.

Once you find what time works best for you, make the most of it. Plan your schedule around it. Save the most important tasks or activities for when you can give them your complete focus. And if you write or create something, do it during this time.

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A great example of someone who has found their time is my good friend Alli. Alli is most definitely an early bird. She wakes up around four every day so she can have her alone time and get stuff done. She gets her workouts done in the morning and often does a lot of work for her bakery business. Alli inspires me every day with how dedicated she is to her work and how she schedules her time to make the most of her most productive hours. Also her cake balls are amazing and you should check out her website here.

Have you found your time? In what hours do you feel the most productive?

How to Get Ideas: Prompts

Writers are always asked how they come up with their ideas, but it’s often hard to know exactly where a story idea comes from. Ideas seem to come from anywhere and everywhere, and they sometimes come when you’re not even trying. But for those who are newer to writing and for those who are having trouble figuring out what to write next, ideas can be hard to find and you might have to force yourself to come up with them.

That’s what this blog series is all about—how to get ideas and how to develop stories from those ideas. I’ve written about what if questions and titles, and today I’m going to write about prompts.

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To be honest, I usually don’t like writing prompts. When I think of prompts, I think back to my writing classes in college. The teacher would give us a prompt and everyone would write silently for ten minutes, and then people could share what they’d written.

For me, those ten minutes dragged on forever. I can’t write on cue. I especially can’t write on cue if it’s not one of my own ideas. Instead of trying to write something in answer to the prompts in class, I’d ponder them for a moment, then turn to the back of my notebook to write down ideas for something I was already working on. Then when my classmates would share what they’d written I was always amazed by what they could come up with so quickly.

But when I’m stuck on the ideas I already have, prompts are a great way to come up with new ideas. There are so many prompt books available, and all of them are full of ideas that could spark a new story idea. Most prompts are short, a one-sentence situation or a first line of dialogue. One book I’ve enjoyed is The Writer’s Book of Matches by the staff of Fresh Boiled Peanuts.

Prompts can help to spark an idea in you and get you writing, but if you’re like me and don’t usually like prompts, what I’ve learned is that you need to make the prompt work for you.

What I mean by that is that you take the prompt and find some element in it that can help you. For example, if you’re stuck in the story you’re working on, but then hear a prompt about a character in a situation, you might want to try using that prompt with the story and characters you already have. You could insert the prompted situation into what you’ve already started, and that might give you enough help to keep going. Prompts can help you find what’s missing in your story to help you get unstuck.

Do you enjoy using prompts? How do you make prompts work for you?

How to Get Ideas: Titles

Writers are always asked how they come up with their ideas, but it’s often hard to know exactly where a story idea comes from. Ideas seem to come from anywhere and everywhere, and they sometimes come when you’re not even trying. But for those who are newer to writing and for those who are having trouble figuring out what to write next, ideas can be hard to find and you might have to force yourself to come up with them.

That’s what this blog series is all about—how to get ideas and how to develop stories from those ideas. Last time I wrote about what if questions, and today I’ll be digging into titles.

How to Get Ideas

I don’t pick up books based on their covers. I choose to read a book based on its title. A good title asks a question, and if that question intrigues me, I’ll choose to read a book.

For example, one of my favorite titles ever is Thirteen Reasons Why. The title of Jay Asher’s novel poses so many questions: Reasons why what? Did something bad already happen? Why are there 13 reasons? Does the number 13, which is usually thought of as unlucky, have any significance? The title alone makes me as a reader want to know what happens. And that’s what a title should do.

Because a book’s title can pose so many questions, titles are also a great place to develop story ideas.

When I was young, I kept a notebook of story title idea—of things that sounded cool but that didn’t really have a story to them, at least not yet. One of these titles was The Means. I thought The Means, as in “do the ends justify the means” would make for such a cool book, even if I didn’t know at the time what that book would be. But in my capstone fiction class when I was in college, I turned back to that title and started writing a book. Even though it will probably never be published, I wrote an entire novel based on that two word title. I took The Means and built an entire story around it about a reality game show where anything goes and the goal is to win by any means necessary.

Writer’s Digest’s July/August 2017 issue had a wonderful article about titling books called “Naming the Baby” by Jacquelyn Mitchard. Mitchard suggested many strategies for naming a book such as places, common phrases made new, borrowed turns of phrases, and religious references. Titles can come from anywhere, but they must stand out and make people want to read the book.

What I’m suggesting is that you take something you think would be a good title and use that as your foundation to build your story around. Take a title that poses an interesting question, and then write a book to answer that question. Anything can inspire a book—why not the title itself?

Even if you have already got a seed of a book idea, you might want to come up with the title before you truly get started on writing the book. I have to know the title to be able to work on something. Having a title helps make the story seem more real, and it will also help you pinpoint the main theme you want your book to emulate.

What titles have made you want to read a book? Have you ever come up with a story idea from a title?

Why I Love Writing, Sometimes

Today I had planned out in my blog calendar that I was going to write a post called “Why I Love Writing.” I tried writing a draft of this post, but, like everything I’ve tried to write lately, it just wasn’t working. And I had to stop myself because I wasn’t being honest.

I do love writing. When I know where a story is going, the words seem to flow out of my fingers and I can write stories quickly and easily. I’ve been a bookworm for as long as I can remember. Growing up, stories were where I found comfort and friends. Books helped me to see and understand the world. And since I am a creative person, writing stories of my own was the next step to reading them. I’ve also always found it easier to communicate in writing than in person, so writing is the best way for me to say what I have to say to the world.

But writing is really hard sometimes. And when I don’t know what’s next in a story or what story to write in the first place I just feel stuck. And I hate everything I try to write. And then I forget why I even like writing in the first place.

Winter is hard for me. I don’t like the cold and dark days. I’ve been dealing with health issues. And I’ve been stuck for months with my writing—wanting to write desperately, but not knowing how to get started on any of my ideas.

But it’s March now and today the sun is shining (even though it’s still cold outside). And so I’m taking a step back and reminding myself why I love writing. If you don’t remind yourself how amazing writing can be, then you could give up and let yourself stay stuck until you stop writing at all.

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I have the best job in the world. Every day I feel grateful and blessed that I get to stay home and write. I get to hang out with my puppy, surround myself with books, and create stories. So even when I feel stuck and am having trouble getting going on a new book, I just have to remind myself how awesome writing is and how wonderful my job can be.

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.

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?