Tuesday, February 15, 2011

For Writers - Writing Fresh with Kate Coombs

I love having clever writing friends. Especially when they are willing to take the time to share their expertise with us. This week's tipper is my dear friend Kate Coombs, the acclaimed author of SECRET KEEPER, THE RUNAWAY PRINCESS, and THE RUNAWAY DRAGON. Kate is a talented and witty author, a poet, and an artist. (You can see some of her artwork on her clever website.) She knows more about children's literature than about anyone I know. (Check out her fabulous blog, Book Aunt.) Finally, Kate's writing is fun to read and uniquely Kate, so she's the perfect author to offer advice on fresh writing. Enjoy!

Kate's Tips for Writing Fresh:

Let's say you're brainstorming, getting ready to start a new book and trying to come up with a great premise. You really should know that on average, the first idea that pops into your head has an 85% probability of being a cliché. (Note: All statistics were specially invented for this post.)

Please, try for idea #2.

Oops. IT has a 50% probability of being a cliché.

After that, the process isn't quite as predictable. But my point is, a brainstorm list with 12 items on it is much richer than one with 3, no matter how much you think you like #2. 'Cause baby, wait till you see #8!

Then there's the Tweak Phase. Let's say you've made a list of 10 ideas and NONE of them cause your computer screen to light up and ring like a Vegas slot machine because they are Astonishingly Good. So what do you do?

You take each idea and brainstorm about it! The key phrase for brainstorming book ideas as well as for tweaking them is, of course, "What if?" Here's an example, starting with a so-so idea before moving into tweak mode.

1. A girl goes to prom with this boy she really likes after feeling like a loser, and now she feels confident and beautiful. [NO, TOO TYPICAL.]

2. A girl goes to prom with a guy she hardly knows because he owes her brother a big favor. He's surprised to discover he likes her. [STILL PRETTY BLAH.]

3. The guy thinks he's doing the girl such a favor, but she isn't that thrilled, and HE winds up falling for her. [I'M BORED. TIME FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT.]

4. What if a girl at the prom with a guy she hardly knows is secretly pregnant and has her baby in the bathroom? [MORE MATERIAL THERE! WHAT ELSE?]

5. What if the girl convinces another girl—a quiet loner/loser—to say it's hers? [MUCH BETTER.]

6. What if the second girl decides she really likes having a baby and wants to keep it? [OKAY, BUT...]

7. What if the first girl changes her mind, so the second girl goes on the run with the baby? [NICE! HOW DOES SHE PULL THIS OFF?]

8. Why does the first girl want the baby back, anyway? Is it maternal instinct, or because her rich grandmother wants to leave all her money to her first grandchild? [SOAP OPERA-ISH, BUT FUN!]

9. Does the boy find out and want his paternal rights? Who is he? What's he like? [NOW WE'RE COOKING!]

10. What if the father of the child falls for the second girl? [HMM. THAT'S WAAAY TOO CONVENIENT. HOLLYWOOD WOULD LOVE IT.]

11. What if the father of the child falls for the second girl, but she doesn't like him back? [NICE TWIST.]

12. What if the grandmother sues for custody? [MORE SOAP OPERA, BUT I'M REALLY ENJOYING ALL THIS!]

You may have noticed that my premise tweaking turned into plot development, but that's good, too. Oh, the incredible power of "What if"! You can use it to move a story along, especially when you're stuck, and even to revise after you've finished the first draft or so. I sometimes assign writing students to pick plot points or scenes from their WIPs that are bugging them vaguely and brainstorm the wildest twists they can think of for those sections. They often come up with really good stuff and end up incorporating it in the next draft.

Another consideration when trying to "write fresh" is: How do you know if your ideas are stale and predictable? I bring this up because I've had people say the equivalent of, "I have the most amazing idea for a book! There's a girl, and she's in love with a vampire, but her other friend is a werewolf, and it's this whole love triangle!" They tend to get upset when I say, "Um. Sounds like Twilight."

No, really, assuming you aren't THAT bad, how do you know?

One suggestion is to read extensively in the field. You can also do some googling and other Internet research—for example, look up certain books on Amazon and check out the section that says, "People who bought this book also bought...." Or try asking librarians and knowledgeable bookstore clerks for good books about your general topic, then read the flap copy of selected books and decide which ones you feel you should read in their entirety.

Of course, there will always be some basic overlap regardless of what you choose to write about. But do your homework. And if you really, really must write about vampires, tweak your premise very deliberately to make sure it's not a Twilight clone. Instead, YOURS will be a wild new take on that currently overdone subgenre.

What else can you do to ensure freshness? Put the brainstorm list away and let it incubate. In a week or two, come back and make a brand-new list. Then and only then, you can take another look at your previous list. Compare the two lists. Combine items. And maybe even repeat the whole process all over again.

Assuming you've made your list—or two or three lists—and are now sitting there staring at them, which idea should you pick to work on?

If none of the ideas on your list are working, try rewriting every single idea with a twist. Or rewrite the better ones with multiple twists. But if you already have some stuff you really like, put a star by your three favorite ideas, the ones that appeal to you on a gut level. (If you've made additional lists, mark four or five.) The next step, which is very important, is to do a one- or two-page freewrite about each of your top ideas.

THEN you can see which one is really taking flight. That is, do this for three or four of your top ideas because the one that shines will not always be the one you might have predicted.

At this point, make yet another "what if" list, this time oriented toward further plot development, as I did in the second half of my example above. As you can see, I tend to write these notes as a series of questions and answers about the plot. While you're doing that, see if the idea continues to soar, filling you with hope and energy. Does it intrigue you? Are you eager to read this book you haven't even written yet?

If not, you can always start over, pursuing the elusive fresh factor with yet another "What if?" Because if you're going to spend a year of your life writing one particular story, you really want something that makes you smile every morning when you wake up. Happily, that will almost always be the same story that makes readers smile, too.

This week's link roundup:

Ode to the Shiny New Idea (Frenzy of Noise)

Easy Outlining for Whiners (Misadventures in Candyland)

What to Know Before You Start (Annastan)

What's it About? (Loglines) (Katie Ganshert)

Finding Clarity (W.I.P. It)

Zen and the Art of 1st Draft Writing (Claire King)

Seven Tips to Writing Success (TheArtist'sRoad)

Six Things to Consider Before Adding Flashbacks (Character Therapist)

Three Places to Tell, Not Show (Wordplay)

Gender Writing (The Other Side of the Story)

Character Habits (Mystery Writing is Murder)

Confused Characters (Unedited)

Character Development Tool (Paperback Writer)

Staying Sexy in Fiction (YA Fantasy Guide)

Victims Aren't Sexy (Don't Pet Me, I'm Writing)

Dialog Basics (Part One) (Part Two)

Creating Settings (Kill Zone)

Micro Tension (Sisters in Scribe)

Conflict, Tension, Stakes (Dawn's Rise)

Avoiding Melodrama (Fiction Groupie)

Time Transition (The Sharp Angle)

Stuck in the Middle? How to get unstuck. (Time to Write)

Nailing the Climax (Publetariat)

Getting to The End (Plot Whisperer)

Finding Your Way Through Revision (JoKnowles)

Phrase Frequency Counter (GalleyCat)

Presubmission Checklist (Adventures in Children's Publishing)

Query Troubleshooting (Babbles from Scott)

Agent Perspective - Love vs Sell (KidLit)

The Pressure to Jump Too Soon (Jody Hedlund)

Tips to Keep Writing (KatrinaKittle)

Ten Tips to Ensure a Productive Writing Day (BloodRedPencil)

For Mac Users: Writing & Publishing Tools (The Creative Penn)

Now go! Write!