Tag Archives: writing inspiration

Where do Writers Get Their Ideas? – guest post by Joe McGee

I recently visited a Summer Youth Camp run by the Penn State Lehigh Valley faculty. During my presentation, I shared a bit about my own writing process, to include some ideas about where ideas come from. Where do writers get their ideas? Do they order them from a small, family-owned business in Des Moines, Iowa? No, of course not…or do we? One of the items on my list of “where ideas come from” (not Des Moines – sorry, Iowa) is my favorite question: What if?

What if? What a great and creative question. After my presentation, one of the facilitators mentioned how much that one question resonated with her. As a middle-school teacher, she is constantly trying to find new ways to introduce creative writing approaches to her students. What if?, she said, was a wonderful way to get them writing and thinking about things in a new and exciting way.

What if…when you left this assembly, you found the rest of the building made entirely of Jell-O? Of course, the kids giggle and get excited. What if…when your parents came to pick you up, they weren’t driving their car, but riding on the backs of giant dragonflies? Eyes get wide, kids start oohing and aahing. What if…when you turned on your television later tonight, the screen showed you your future in 10, 20, 30 years? It blows their minds. That question, I tell them, can generate countless stories.

What if? is an absolute gem for creating a story spark. Whether you’re looking for a creative writing exercise prompt, a short story spark, or the idea for your next book. What if apes became hyper-intelligent and fought against captivity? Hello, Planet of the Apes. What if someone were able to genetically recreate dinosaurs from DNA trapped in mosquitoes in amber? Hello, Jurassic Park. What if the U.S. built a giant wall around the entire country…and the zombie apocalypse started in New York? That’s just frightening.

At nErDCampNJ, author Henry Neff mentioned that What if? is a great way to approach world building. Take one or more of the S.P.R.I.T.E. categories (Society, Politics, Religion, Ideas/Culture, Technology, and Economy) and tweak it with What if? For example, What if artificial intelligence grew so smart that it became self aware and considered humanity a virus in need of cleansing? Hello, Terminator. What if, instead of money, we bought, sold, and traded for things with minutes from our life – people give up (or gain) minutes, days, months, years…that car will cost you two years and three months at your current credit score. A gallon of milk costs 26 seconds.

What if? is also good for turning tropes upside down. We’re always looking for fresh ways to spin the norm, right? No, this is not a nod to “alternative facts”. Consider the sweet, elderly librarian; complete with bifocals and a grey bun. But What if she were actually the High Priestess of a cult dedicated to opening a rift that would usher in creatures of unspeakable horror? What if that sword-wielding, muscle-bound barbarian fainted at the sight of blood? What if the werewolf were a vegetarian?

So, you see, there is quite a lot you can do with those two words, that one, simple question. What if?

What if this question was the inspiration for your next big idea? It just might be. Happy writing, friends!

Joe McGee is the author of the picture books Peanut Butter & Brains (Abrams, 2015) and Peanut Butter & Aliens (Abrams, 2017), which comes out August 29thHe earned his Master of Arts in Writing degree at Rowan University and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joe teaches creative writing at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, and is on the faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program, Writing for Children and Young Adults track in Lake Tahoe, NV. Joe is a former airborne Army officer, an avid board and role-playing game gamer, and a consummate daydreamer. You can visit him at http://www.joemcgeeauthor.com or follow him on Twitter @mcgeejp and Instagram at joemcgeeauthor.

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On Finding Your Voice – Guest post by Jenna Gavigan

“But without my voice, how can I…?” – Ariel

We just sold my first novel, Introducing Broadway Lulu. It’ll be published in the fall of 2018. (Fear not, this post is not about selling my novel.) I tell you this because I’ve literally had the idea for the book since 2004. I think I wrote my first draft a few years later because I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I lived there between 2005 and 2011. I’m sure the drafts were fine. I’m sure they were cute. I’m certain they were not the book we just sold. This is partially true because the book we just sold is a middle grade novel and the early incarnations were picture books. My now agent and then friend told me she felt there was far too much story in me for it to be a picture book. She was right. (Thanks Linda!) I had struggled for years trying to cram the story into a picture book and then I wrote the novel in about four months because I had the room to do so.

But greater than the transition from picture book to middle-grade novel was the transition in me from “girl who was always a good writer” to “confidently voiced, sharp, certain of myself woman writer.” Without going into too many boring details, I’ll just tell you that because of my other job—that of actress—I graduated from Columbia University in my late twenties, though I did actually complete my first year at nineteen, like ya do. Late twenties Jenna, unlike eighteen-year-old Jenna, was an adult. With experience. With confidence. With history and the ability to reflect upon it. More than all that, she valued her time at school because she actually wanted to be there and because of that, SHE LEARNED.

One of my favorite classes was called “Style and Voice.” Actually, I think it was called something else on the syllabus but on the first day of class the professor said, “By the way, this class is actually called ‘Style and Voice.’” We read a lot—a lot of essays, short fiction. An assignment to read Nora Ephron essays? Don’t mind if I do! And we wrote. A lot. We learned how to play around with sentence structure and word choice and even grammar to develop our own unique voices and make them distinguishable from others. (You know you’re reading or watching Nora Ephron when you’re reading or watching Nora Ephron, am I right?) I learned that the only thing I’ve got going for me that others don’t is that I’m me and they’re not. And not to toot my own horn, but I think I’m swell.

When I began writing the novel version of Lulu, I began with my own voice. (Yes, Lulu is slightly based on me. No, I’m not a child mouse.) Lulu’s distinct voice eventually emerged, as did the voices of the cast of characters who surround her; but beginning with my own voice gave me a way in. I—in case you couldn’t tell—am a bit sassy. I like parentheses and asides. (I’m sure you already noticed that, yes?) I am a big personality in a tiny body and it just so happens that there is no smaller body in my book than that of my protagonist and heroine, Lulu the Mouse. (“The Mouse” is her surname and, for that matter, the surname of all other mice in my land of make believe.)

There were times, though, as an author-writer-actress-human-female, that I squashed my uniqueness and the voice that came with it. I suppose I was afraid of it? Or was afraid of what others would think of it/me? I put my precociousness in my purse on dates. I did scenes as I thought the director or writer or whoever would want me to do them, rather than how I instinctually thought they should be done. I was timid with emails or phone calls, rather than being straight to the point and asking for what I wanted and deserved. I wrote some pretty beige first drafts of what is now a very colorful book.

My time at Columbia gave me some of the skills I needed to find my voice. My dear Linda Epstein suggested a way for me to create space to say all I wanted to say with that voice. And my dear little Lulu—oh geez, now I’m crying—my dear little alter-ego of a mouse taught me that my voice isn’t simply mine, it’s fabulous. It’s valid. It’s honest. It’s fun. It’s worthy. It took a tiny, fictional mouse (of my own creation) to remind me of something I knew as a child but somehow lost as a young adult: I can do anything and I can do it by being me.

So, if you’ve got something you want to write, go write it. And start with yourself. Stop comparing, stop looking at what others are writing or how they’re writing it. (Yes, you should read other writing and learn and grow from what you read but you shouldn’t try to replicate it, is what I’m saying.) The one thing you’ve got going for you is that you’re you and no one else is. Sure, I forget all this from time to time. I become fearful about sending an email, or starting a new chapter, or simply saying what I want to say. But then this tiny, sassy, strong voice in my head tells me to cut it out and I get to work.

Jenna Gavigan’s debut middle grade novel, Introducing Broadway Lulu! will be published in Fall 2018 by Running Press Kids. Jenna is a working actress, having appeared on over a dozen television shows (usually crying), half a dozen movies (often crying), and on stage (sometimes crying, sometimes baton-twirling). She made her Broadway debut at age sixteen in the Sam Mendes-helmed revival of Gypsy opposite Bernadette Peters, and most recently appeared off-Broadway in the world-premiere of Straight, opposite Jake Epstein (of Degrassi fame). Find Jenna online at iamjennagavigan.com,  and Twitter and Instagram @Jenna_Gavigan.

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Writing for Kids: 5 tools for success

Join SCBWI. If you don’t know what that is, it stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s the professional organization for people who write or illustrate books for children. Here’s a link to their site. They are a national organization and there are regional groups. There are two big conferences yearly (one in NY one in LA) and many regional conferences. They can help you find a critique partner. You can support and be supported by other writers. There are so many benefits to joining SCBWI I could write a whole blog post about it (but I’m not going to). The membership fee isn’t that much, for what you get back. Just do it. Join.

Write. I mean, that seems obvious, right? But it’s not. You finished your manuscript? Cool. You’re sending it to agents now? Fabulous. Perhaps your agent is sending your manuscript out to editors? Awesome. Or maybe you’re waiting for your novel to come out? Amazing. But writers write. So… write the next thing. It’s what we do. It’s just what’s next. Do it. Write the next thing.

Read. I know you have a full time job. I know you’ve got <fill in the #> kids. I understand. Really, I do. But writers need to read. Do you write picture books? You’d better be reading picture books. Like, lots of them. Are you working on a mystery? Have you read mysteries? Do you love writing for teenagers? Please tell me you’re deep into reading YAs. You think you might have a chapter book series in you? There are lots of chapter book series for you to cut your teeth on. Do it. Read, read, read.

Hang out with kids. If you’re writing for kids, you need to talk to them and listen to them. You need to hear what their concerns are and how they talk. You need to see the world through their eyes. Your writing will be better and sound more authentic if you hang out with some kids. Do it. Don’t be creepy or anything. Just find some kids and hang out.

Take a walk*. According to a recent article in Psychology Today and another in Fortune magazine, taking a walk can aid in creative thinking. Can’t figure out how to end your story? Take a walk. Fresh out of picture book ideas? Take a walk. Wondering what your main character really wants? Take a walk. Summer, Winter, Spring, Fall. Doesn’t matter. Go for a walk.

*for those physically unable to walk, take a mental break from your task at hand and go for a virtual walk.

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