Susan’s Randoms: Lighting Can Strike 5 Times

First, let me say that coming up with the idea for Black Tuesday was right up my alley. When Penguin asked me to come up with 10 story ideas based off news stories, I was in hog heaven. I was already doing that! I stalk sites like CNN and Salon, and I even subscribe to Reuter’s Oddly Enough news. So when I read how actress Rebecca Gayheart had accidentally killed a child with her car, the seed for Black Tuesday started to bloom (and what eventually got Penguin to buy Black Tuesday).

That said, I feel like I am one of the most receptive people out there in terms of getting inspired–sort of like a lightning rod for all things inspirational. I get inspiration from just about anything, and these ideas are scrawled on check registers, gum wrappers, even those subscription cards in the middle of magazines.

For instance, I get inspiration from the mom at Target threatening that if the five-year-old doesn’t put down the Elmo bathsoap, Santa’s not going to come. I get inspiration from the line in a magazine article that talks about Charlize Theron getting discovered while throwing a temper tantrum in a bank line. I get inspiration when I stand on the side of the road, getting offered a glass of water from a woman who lives in a trailer twenty feet where I just had a car accident. But here are a few ideas about how to become a lighting rod for inspiration you may not know about:

1) I get inspired while I’m, uh, using the facilities. Or on the treadmill. Or at a stoplight. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in our stories that our brains are constantly churning and we can’t figure out how to solve a plot point/fix a character flaw/come up with a title that will make our publisher smile with relief. I find my best thinking time is when I have a clear mind, such as when I’m thinking about getting to the post office before it closes (i.e., at a stoplight) or trying not to die as I sprint the last two minutes (i.e., on the treadmill) or praying the lock holds while someone outside is pounding on the door (i.e., using the facilities). The point I’m trying to get to is that you have to allow yourself to have a blank mind. It’s okay. You’re not doing your story a disservice by putting it on a back burner. You know what they say about a watched kettle, after all… (Cliches are my drug of choice, people.)

2) Hello. I’m Susan, and I’m a collager.
I know that other writers admit to this–namely Linda Lael Miller and Jennifer Crusie–but I became obsessed with collages when I was about 10, cutting out my favorite dresses/houses/furniture from magazines and splicing them together into those static-cling photo books. I now do that for my stories, and I do them in my cheap paint program that my husband made me download for free off the Internet (Gimp–it does the job, but I miss my namebrand paint program!). Anyway, I find the actors that most resemble my hero and heroine, and then I find the heroine’s house, the heroine’s town (or at least a town that would resemble hers), maybe the dress she wears during a pivotal scene, possibly the candy she’s obsessed with, or the jalopy she drives to school. The point is to spend an afternoon making your protagonist real. And once you have, turn it into your desktop so that it’s constantly there to nudge you when you’re blocked and need an idea about what your protagonist’s world needs in order for it to be torn asunder.

3) One day, I really, really, REALLY want to give a workshop about why writers should watch more TV.
Inevitably, I find a way to dig myself out of a go-nowhere scene by watching an episode of True Life or Dr. Phil and I get struck by a nugget of gold. The key? Watching documentaries (or, more aptly, documentary-lites) helps me round out characters. For instance, where else can you get inspired by an overweight girl who enters beauty pageants and dates a guy 50 pounds lighter than her (True Life)? Then again, maybe this is the curse of the new mom who lives in Small Town, America. I can’t exactly get out too often to experience real life. I know a lot of people like this, actually. So c’mon, people, live your life vicariously through TV! It’s not like I’m asking you to do lines of coke or watch Barney or anything.

4) People need people–specifically, writers need routine meetings with their critique groups to brainstorm and trip over a spark of inspiration.
For instance, it was while I was at a face-to-face meeting with my critique group in Phoenix (who have been my online group ever since I moved 3,000 miles away two years ago) that one partner told me something that would’ve resonated with her as a girl with no money and no hopes (which is the gist of my protagonist in my second book). My oh-so-wise partner said, “A trip to the grocery store used to be painful, looking for generics, sales, dented cans, and never getting to buy what you really wanted.” (This is a paraphrase, but you get the idea.) Her heartfelt words drawn from her own experience gave me a better opening scene. And perhaps, just perhaps, a stronger theme. Thank you, S4.

5) And here’s one more cliche for you: I get ideas while reading writing books. But don’t become a writing book obsessive compulsive. I’ve known some people who just read writing books and haven’t really put finger to keyboard to actually write anything. I pick up a writing book probably twice a year, when I’m stuck. Lately, I’ve been reading Write Away by Elizabeth George. It was while I was reading her book aloud to my baby (hey, it helps her fall asleep AND mommy gets some reading done) that I fell onto these words: “To avoid merely reporting on a setting, to render it instead–which implies bringing it to life–the craftsman puts place into action, knowing that the best use of details comprises details in motion.” I actually slowed down over these words since I’m trying to world-build a small New England town, and these words came at the exact right moment.

Here’s hoping you get struck by inspirational lightning soon. Just be receptive. And wear a lighting rod.



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