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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
This week I’d like to introduce an independent author—Rebecca Fellrath. Rebecca is actually a friend of mine from middle school. We were in an indoor drumline together, but then lost touch when she went back to being home-schooled and my family eventually moved away. Twelve years later, we both ended up in the Dayton area with published novels. Rebecca and I recently reconnected and I got to read her debut novel, a Christian romance called A Lily at Dawn. I asked Rebecca to do an interview so she could share about her book and publication process.
Could you tell us what A Lily at Dawn is about?
The story follows a young woman who finds herself, God, and romance in the midst of unimaginable tragedy. As she walks through her healing process and interacts with other hurting people, she experiences how God weaves stories together and works all things out for good.
I don’t usually like to write in or mark up my books, but I just had to highlight a line from early on in your novel: “‘I know it hurts, son, but you have to let go of your need to see Matt saved and start letting Jesus save you instead.’” Could you talk more about this theme of letting go of past hurts and focusing on Jesus?
When Jesus taught us to pray, he said, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The act of receiving God’s grace and forgiveness is almost always coupled with forgiving others and extending grace outwardly. I think this is a crucial story to tell because our ability to forgive and heal always starts with what Jesus did for us. How can we forgive others if we have not fully accepted Jesus’ forgiveness? And, likewise, how can we accept Jesus’ forgiveness if we are refusing to forgive others?
We forget that we are just as broken and needy as those who have hurt us. I’m not saying that we don’t need to establish good boundaries, or that we shouldn’t protect ourselves from other people’s abusive behaviors, but that we need to see forgiveness as an act of grace.
Without this act of grace, past hurts can become a miniature god that we worship in our hearts. Just like some of the characters in A Lily at Dawn, we can even allow those hurts to dictate our careers, love life, and view of God. The situation becomes even more complicated when those hurts come from people professing to know Christ. Regardless of the who, when, and how these hurts enter our lives, the answer will always be found in Jesus’ forgiveness and the way it moves us to forgive.
What inspired you to write this book?
The idea for the book came when I was twelve years old. Believe it or not, I still played pretend and even used Barbies. My Barbies didn’t go shopping though, they were getting into car accidents and questioning God’s existence. After playing through the story with my Barbies, I thought it would make a good book. Most of my early writing and short stories started by playing pretend and testing ideas out on dolls. I ended up typing the whole first draft of A Lily at Dawn when I was twelve, but then I accidentally deleted the whole thing!
Years later, I was involved in a serious car accident. It reminded me of the story I had written long ago, and it gave me a new perspective on how God uses tragedy to tell His love stories. The extended recovery process provided me with enough time to write the story again.
You deal with some pretty heavy topics in A Lily at Dawn, from the death of a loved one and theft to abortion and drug use. Why do you think it’s important to write about such difficult topics?
I think it’s easy to look at difficult situations and pretend that they are rare and unfamiliar. The reality is that evil isn’t only on episodes of C.S.I. The damage caused by abuse, theft, drug use, abortion and deception are all around us, even within the walls of church. No one will get the help they need as long as we are silent about sin. As a writer, I feel compelled and privileged to write the truth. I want to open up honest conversations about who we are and be vulnerable about the brokenness that humanity shares.
What was your writing process like?
I’m a natural extrovert, so my process usually begins by talking about my ideas. I suppose it’s the adult version of “playing the story out” with dolls. I like to brainstorm out loud and bounce ideas around. I really enjoy coming up with story ideas and beginning the writing process. Finishing what I started, however, is the challenge. The ideas are easy, but disciplining myself to do the work is tough. That being the case, I wrote an outline for the entire book and broke it up into chapters. Each day I would take the next step in the outline and write out what I planned for that chapter. Sometimes I would even tell myself, “Just glue your butt to the chair and get it done!”
How did you go about publishing this book?
When I recognized how difficult it would be to get published by a traditional publisher, I pursued getting self-published. I didn’t have much knowledge or experience with the process, so I self-published through Westbow Press. As a mom, I knew I wasn’t going to have much time to market the book, so it seemed like the best option at the time. In hindsight I wish I would have done a little more research and examined more options. I am thankful, though, that Westbow Press did provide the help I needed to “get my book out there.”
Do you have any writing advice you’d like to pass on?
Write for you. It sounds cliché, but it’s been the most helpful advice for me. It’s easy to be distracted by working to get published or by trying to craft something that will be meaningful to your readers. If you write what is meaningful for you, the authenticity will speak for itself. You will enjoy the process and actually reach the readers that need your story most.
And here’s a passage from A Lily at Dawn:
Zuriel was nervous. Her own heart was realizing that she may have spent her life believing the wrong things and living for the wrong reasons. She didn’t understand God, she didn’t even like all the things she had heard about him, but she just knew she needed him. Zuriel felt angry with herself as she sat there, staring out the large living room window. God was bad, wasn’t he? Hadn’t he made her childhood difficult and allowed her mother to leave her as a baby? Hadn’t he made high school a living hell? Hadn’t he left her alone when Suzy went crazy with her drugs? Yet despite all these things, Zuriel couldn’t escape the feeling that God was more than that. She couldn’t ignore her desire to be loved in the way that Suzy had described God’s love to her. She wondered if it was actually God who had made her life miserable after all. Was it God, or was it a mixture of her own mistakes and the mistakes of others? She wasn’t sure, but she almost didn’t care.
You can find A Lily at Dawn here and find Rebecca at her website here.
In addition to making jewelry and coloring, one of my favorite things to do when I’m not writing is watch musicals. One of my first memories is when my mom took me to see my very first musical—a community theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Seeing this show when I was little launched a lifetime love of musicals.
I love musicals because I love music, and getting to see stories presented in other formats has always been fascinating to me as a book lover/writer. Using music is such an interesting way to tell a story. Plus it makes the stories easier to remember because songs are pretty easy to commit to memory. I can (badly) sing almost the entirety of Joseph and Les Misérables.
I also think that watching musicals can be helpful to writers. Along with watching movies and television, reading comics and poetry, and even acting, seeing stories presented in different formats than fiction writing can be beneficial.
Other forms of stories can infuse your fiction writing and make it richer. For example, I, like many teenagers, couldn’t understand a word Shakespeare wrote until I was cast in a high school play that modernized scenes from various Shakespeare plays. Getting the chance to act out what I was reading allowed me to truly understand it. I can still remember some of my lines from that play, and now I can read Shakespeare with ease. I love his poetry and some of his themes have an influence on my work.
My favorite musicals are Les Mis, Joseph, Cinderella, Shrek, and Phantom of the Opera. My new obsessions are Wicked and Newsies, which I’ve both recently seen for the first time. I’ve gotten to see all of these live except for Shrek and Newsies, but I hope to see them someday. There is nothing quite as powerful as seeing these amazing stories acted out live.
For my birthday this year, I got to see the musical Wicked for the very first time. I’ve been a musical fan my entire life, and I can’t believe I never got to see this show until now. Honestly I was a little disappointed, but I think that’s just because my friends hyped it up too much. Or maybe because I’ve seen Idina Menzel in concert and you can’t beat the original Elphaba. However, while I was watching the musical I realized that you can learn a lot about writing from the show. Here are five writing lessons from Wicked:
1. “Once you’re with the wizard, no one thinks you’re strange.”
Most people think writers are weird. At least that was my experience growing up. I was the super shy girl who read and wrote in notebooks all the time. And then once I got serious about writing and changed my college major to creative writing, nearly everyone asked me But what are you going to do for a living?
The sad truth is that no one is going to take you seriously until you publish something. Being a creative writer is like being an artist, and it’s a tough business to get into. But, like Elphaba, you have to realize that your talent is incredibly important. You will make a difference in this world if you don’t give up.
2. “I’m defying gravity, and you won’t bring me down.”
There will be lots of people who tell you you’re not going to make it as a writer. They will say you’re not good enough or that it’s too hard, that getting published is impossible.
Don’t listen to them.
You can do this. Put in the work. Don’t give up. And defy gravity.
3. “Maybe I’m brainless. Maybe I’m wise. But you’ve got me seeing through different eyes.”
One of my favorite parts in Wicked is when Elphaba says she wishes she could be beautiful for Fiyero, and that he shouldn’t lie and say that she is. But he says he’s just looking at things differently. I think this concept of looking at things from another perspective is so important to writers. That’s our job—to look at topics from different angles and tell a story. And that’s what the musical Wicked does—present another perspective on the story you already know to show you that the villain might not actually be the villain.
These last two come from the structure of the story rather than the story itself.
4. Villain Story Arcs
Prequels and retellings seem to be pretty popular these days. Wicked is an awesome example of retelling a familiar story from another viewpoint. The show gives you the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West, and then runs parallel to the story we know of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz to tell the audience what really happened when a tornado brought Dorothy from Kansas.
If you’re like me and love making fairy tales your own, try taking a familiar story and looking at the story behind it. This is what Gregory Maguire did when he wrote Wicked the novel. You never know what you might uncover.
5. The Importance of Backstory
Not only is Wicked interesting in the way it gives you the backstory of a character you already know, the musical shows just how important backstory is in general. Backstory is whatever happened to your character before the story opens. For Wicked, the entire first act is the backstory to The Wizard of Oz, and the second act runs parallel to the familiar story. The backstory sets up the story better and gives you greater insight into who the character is.
However, that doesn’t mean that readers want to actually see the backstory. The point of Wicked is to show the backstory, but in regular books the backstory should be hovering underneath the surface of the story. You as the author should know a lot more about the story than what goes into the book. You should know your characters’ history and why they act the way they do. And this knowledge should infuse every word you write about those characters. As Wicked shows, knowing a character’s past can change the whole story.