Where To Get Writing Inspiration: Beg, Borrow, or Steal?

 

Oh my god that hair…(My HS yearbook pic)

For the writing class I’m taking I had to write a story in a genre that I don’t usually write in. It was supposed to be about something that had happened to me in high school, or to someone close to me. So, in case you don’t know me, I’m old. I went to high school a looooong time ago. I’m not one of those people with a great memory who remembers all the things. Truth be told, I think I remember the sad or traumatic things mostly. And I remember a glimmer of this thing and that thing… sometimes. But I felt like I’d mined my high school stories already (or at least the ones I’m willing to share). So I did what any self-respecting writer would do: I texted my daughters.

Me: Tell me a story about something that happened in high school. I need it for a paper I’m writing. It can be a story about anything… 😬

Daughter: how about the time you didn’t let us go to radiohead so we screamed about it in the kitchen during spencer’s drum lesson

Me: 😐

Daughter:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Me: I don’t have to be in the story (especially as the bad guy)

Other daughter: slack-imgs.com.png

But then they helped. I mean, I did have to push a little until they each coughed something up. They both told me some stories though. There were some similarities to a couple of them. Some similar settings (on a boat!) and in what happened (adventures!). Well, sort of. And I was feeling some themes. So I picked a bit from one and a bit from another, and then I made up a bunch of stuff. I used the first names of some of their high school classmates and friends, for fun. I think it came out ok… I dusted the whole thing with a touch of magical realism (genre assignment: done!).

Then my daughters wanted to see it! I have to say, I felt a little funny showing it to them. Because I’d taken stuff from their lives, things that had really happened to them, and I had run with it. I made shit up! And it occurred to me that in the novel I’m writing (did you all know I’m writing a novel?!) I have characters that are sort-of-kind-of based on people in my life. But not really. Because I write fiction. So even if I take a phrase that someone I know might say in real life, and put it in the mouth of one of my characters, I’m not trying to have my character be the person who really says that thing.

I think why I ended up being ok with showing them the story is because a shit ton of mother love ended up in it. It was never really about either of them. It was their life events acting as writing prompts. I definitely didn’t tell their stories. Because you know I would never try to co-opt that from anyone (and especially my own children!).

It got me to thinking though. I believe that as writers we need to be fearless about what we put on the paper. And we can’t help but mine our own lives and the lives of those around us. But sometimes it feels like such a fine line between appropriation and inspiration.

What do you think? Do you beg, borrow, or steal your stories?

 

 

 

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Snow Day: a gift

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

by Billy Collins

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

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Answers to Three Quick Questions on Queries

Should my query be long or short?

I say err on the side of brevity. That is to say, some agents might not mind long queries but others (myself included) prefer shorter ones. So you don’t turn anyone off, your best bet is to go with something on the shorter side, whilst keeping it catchy and terrific. I’ve blogged extensively on what to include/not include and how to structure a query letter. I can revisit that another day, too.

What’s the scoop regarding comp titles?

If you’re going to use comp titles, choose wisely. For example, perhaps you don’t want to say you’ve written the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars. A comp title should be used so that the person reading the query gets a sense of what your story’s about. So, if you said, “My story is like Game of Thrones with a cast of rats,” I’d totally get what you were going for (and I’d definitely pass on that… sheesh!). Or if you said, “My story has the feel of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, only set in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina,” it would also be clear. So if you’re going to use comp titles (and it’s not required), make the comps work to explain your manuscript, don’t compare your work to another author’s (especially a blockbuster author’s).

How much should you suck up to the agent?

Don’t suck up. If you’ve met the agent, you can mention it, if you want. If you really adore some of their client’s work, you can tell them. But making stuff up because you’re supposed to try to “connect” usually comes across as inauthentic, in my opinion. It’s nice to know when a blog follower queries me, because I can thank them for following. But it doesn’t earn them “points” or something; I don’t read their queries any differently. So yeah, don’t suck up.

What else do you want to know about queries?

 

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