Tag Archives: inspiration

Quote for the Day

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

— Mark Twain


How simple is that? How wise? Because he was absolutely right. Too often, people allow themselves to be intimidated when it comes to writing, or even starting a manuscript of any length.

I see twenty-year-old students afraid to write because they might do it wrong.

I meet seventy-year-olds afraid to write because they think it’s too late.

I chat with thirty-year-old moms afraid to write because it’s been so long since they took a writing course and now that their children are starting school and they finally have some spare time, they believe they are too rusty to try it.

I deal with fifty-year-old divorcees afraid to write because although they’ve always wanted to they no longer believe in themselves or in reaching for their dreams.

And I coach myself every time I’m about to start a new project, talking myself past being afraid to write it because I know I can do it if I’ll only try.

Early in my career as a novelist, I wrote books that I’m proud of and books that are quick, disposable reads that paid the bills. Either way, I wrote a lot of them and they were published. When I look back over my publication record, I am sometimes astonished at what I accomplished. But when I was a starry-eyed kid of nineteen and twenty and twenty-one, getting my first agent and my first publishing contract, I didn’t know I couldn’t do it.

And that’s the spirit we have to carry within us every day. We can’t know–or think about–what we cannot do.

We just have to set our sights on our objective . . . and start.


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Passing Along Inspiration


Instead of yet another post in my meandering series on what shatters a reader’s suspension of disbelief, today I am sharing a link to a “Brain Pickings” newsletter article. it was passed along to me by a former writing student, Steven Thorn, and it conveys its nine points far more eloquently than I could.

May you be inspired today, if only through acknowledging your worth and creativity. Remember always that you have value, and believe in what you can do.




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Up the Rebels!

Those of you who read my posts regularly can tell that I’m in idle-author mode. Sporadic posts … posts on inspiration, motivation, clutter-busting … nothing on the down-and-gritty business of butt-in-chair writing.

Sometimes the hat of professionalism gets flung off and I just float. Call it a vacation. Call it laziness. Call it missed opportunity. Call it idea development. Call it healthy. Call it rebellion against the shackles of must-work.

Presently, I’m weighing the merits of two and a half book ideas. One idea has been in the back of my mind for nearly a decade. I even wrote a draft of the story but had to go back to the drawing board when it didn’t make it past my first gatekeeper.

Another idea has been bobbing to the surface of my imagination for maybe a couple of years–relegated to the tank of Wait–while I completed my contractual obligations.

The half idea–and how does one have half of an idea anyway? Is that like being “almost pregnant?” Okay, so it’s Idea #3. There. I’ve stuck the “I” label on it. But I still think of it as a half because it’s shy. It doesn’t want to be closely examined yet. When I try to pull it into the glaring light of let’s-develop-you, it flees back into the mists of dream world.

Now, any and all of these ideas are worth working on, but I’m still feeling rebellious at the moment. I could get busy, but I don’t want to.

The bank account is sinking low. The dogs’ whiskery faces stare up at me every night in anticipation of very expensive treats. I probably need a new computer since warnings about changing Windows platforms are being whispered in my ear like stock tips. Mingled motivations of guilt, work ethic, self-discipline, etc. sweep over me from time to time. I am resisting.

I’m playing at the moment, reading at the moment. Just for fun. The years have taught me that my creativity levels are always better if I take a break now and then. This year, with all that’s happened, has given me an attitude of “I don’t have to and I don’t want to.”

But soon, I’ll have to plant myself in my chair and get busy because even the itchiest rash of rebellion can’t compete with a love of writing that has to do with who and what I am.

The only question is which idea will it be?

Hmmm ….


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Cultivating Inspiration

Today, serendipity brought me to a book about Eudora Welty’s garden. It’s called One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place by Susan Haltom. Welty, who lived in her parents’ home for much of her life, apparently shared a love of gardening with her mother and drew a great deal of inspiration for her writing from the garden her mother created.


I’ve tagged the book for purchase on payday. Meanwhile, it set me thinking about how we writers find ways to feed our imaginations. If we don’t realize the importance of nurturing our creativity, then writing becomes harder and harder with each successive project.

Many years ago, when I was first starting my writing career, I was told by a British literary agent to buy the view that would inspire me to write. Heady stuff for a wide-eyed 22-year-old. At the time, I thought I needed to be a millionaire able to purchase my own island or a country estate in Virginia.

Now, I realize that an inspirational corner is all a writer may need. Be it a bed of flowers inherited from a grandmother, or a writing office furnished with beautiful antiques, or a comfy bedroom chair in a quiet area of the house with a window to read by and a little table at your elbow to hold a cup of tea–these small places of repose and grace can renew our wellspring just as effectively as hearing the surf pound a moonlit beach or gazing at a remote desert horizon.

Do you have a little corner for yourself? One that you don’t share? I think most of us had one as children–some retreat or special hiding place that we believed was ours alone. The treehouse in the backyard or the barn loft over horses munching hay or the soft quiet of the woods in autumn with hickory nuts falling.

Your inner child still needs a safe corner, a secret spot to hide in … or dream in. A place to regroup. If you’ve let others invade your place, make a new one for yourself. If you don’t have one at all, find it.

Don’t you think you–and your writing muse–deserve it?

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Quicksand and Black Holes

Among the pitfalls awaiting writers of long fiction, two are particularly pernicious. I call them quicksand and black holes. The quicksand problem is where the trap closes on you so gradually you don’t really notice it until you’re up past your kneecaps. The black hole problem is where you’re sucked into major trouble abruptly. Let’s deal with them one at a time.


You have your story outlined. Your characters are introduced. Your plot situation is set up, and the events are rolling forward. Everything seems good, except …

You find yourself bogged down. You’re writing, but no actual pages are being produced. For days, you’ve been stuck in the same section of your manuscript. Although your characters are talking to each other, the scene doesn’t advance. You thought you had everything worked out for this event ahead of time, but what’s happened? Why are you trapped here? Why won’t the scene end?


*Am I out-thinking my plot and characters? 

Sometimes we grow so anxious to check off the story events on our outline that we forget we must take our protagonist fully through the moment. Our protagonist can’t think ahead. He or she is caught up in the current problem in the present of story time. That problem shouldn’t be rushed or shortchanged. Curb your impatience and let the event unfold as it should. If you brush past it in your anxiety to race to the next thing, you’ll end up with implausible, contrived copy.

*Am I being too predictable?

Have you already written six similar scenes to the one where you’re stuck now? Same kind of conflict, same kind of pacing, same kind of villain, same kind of intensity, same kind of transitions, same length of paragraphs, same old hook as you used the last time, and the time before that ….

Remember that variety keeps the story fresh. Move slightly away from your outline and ask yourself, “what if my character jumped out the window instead of standing here talking?” Or, “what if my character lied about where the child is being hidden?” Or, “what if my character grabs the paper containing the chemical formula and runs?”

The what if game is very useful in keeping your imagination free-flowing. And as soon as you notice a pattern in what you’re doing, stop it. Shift to a different technique of introducing characters. Try a new kind of time-pointer transition. Keep yourself interested. Don’t worry if your scenes are of different lengths or your chapters don’t all come out to an equal number of pages.


Unseen disaster looms on your horizon. You’re busy writing. You have no inkling of what’s about to befall you. You may or may not be working to an outline. At best, it’s loose and elastic. You play the what if game every day. Your writing is going fair. Your characters are behaving as they should, more or less. And then–without warning–a comet of inspiration strikes some lobe of your brain and you think, Why not send my characters to Paris? despite the fact that you’ve never intended for your plot to shift to that setting. Or you may abruptly encounter a secondary character that steps in and completely takes over the plot.

Suddenly you don’t know where you are. You don’t know why you let this character into the story, except that she’s more vivid than anyone else and you like her. But where is she taking you?


*Is this non-planned character going to help the story become more dynamic and exciting?

If the answer’s yes, then take some time to figure out how to best incorporate the character and move forward.

*Is this non-planned character going to force me to re-plot my first 350 pages?

If the answer’s yes, then put on the brakes. Make sure you fully understand what you’re about to do. You could be throwing aside a perfectly good draft to pursue a will-o’-the-wisp. Always stick with your original concept, at least to the end of a completed draft. If you decide to then change the plot drastically, you can do so in an organized and systematic approach. Revisions should be focused and thoughtful, not based on random impulses.

*Does this burst of “inspiration” confuse me because I can’t make it fit anywhere?

Never be so dazzled by so-called inspiration that you don’t test it. If you can use it, and it adds to your story and increases unpredictability, fine. If it gets you seriously off-track, then toss it aside or file it to be used in another story. Being unpredictable and plotting by the seat of your pants doesn’t mean that your story should be random and chaotic. Keep it plausible. You don’t want to be sucked into a black hole to nowhere.


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When Sparks Connect

In my last post, I discussed how I’m becoming magnetized to stories about waifs and war orphans. All summer I’ve been encountering them and mulling them over without any kind of forced attention.

I’ve plenty to do on the writing front, and although it’s time to start cooking up a new proposal to submit to publishers, I haven’t begun pushing my muse to give me material.

But has my muse perhaps begun to push me?

Over the weekend, an old plot scenario floated up to the surface of my mind. I’d written a manuscript about it years ago, but it was too grim and edgy to catch publisher interest at the time. In that version, I focused on the mother of a little boy as my central character.

Now, the connections are linking up. I want to use that old plot, but shift it around. My focus is going to be the child instead of the mother. An orphaned child. A waif.

Inspiration has come. My synapses are firing. I feel growing excitement over this project. (That’s a good sign.) I’ll give it a bit more time and see if my “muse magnet” attracts any more information, then I’ll start outlining a plot.

Who’s going to be the protagonist? The waif or a more streetwise boy?

Who’s going to be the antagonist? Right now, I don’t have that character, but I do know that formless, faceless Authority won’t cut it.

What’s the objective? No clue.

What’s the story question? Not yet determined.

How many other characters do I need? I have two secondary figures starting to take dim shape in my mind. The rest are but shadows.

How will it end? Not yet determined.

The questions are a test of sorts. I’ll see whether any answers come along. If the idea’s viable, the answers will come and the story will grow. If the idea’s not viable the whole thing will fade.

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In my blog entry, “Filling the Well,” I included a long list of ways in which to keep your imagination humming. The last entry on that list suggested that you pick a favorite novel and type the first three chapters.

Sounds like drudgery homework, doesn’t it?

It’s not.

Years ago, I came across a quote that I can only paraphrase now. But it was something along the lines of you can judge whether you’ve found your true calling if you enjoy even the tedious aspects of that profession or task.

It’s important to keep your writing skills honed. We work so hard to acquire them, yet they can go rusty in two weeks. So writers must always be practicing and learning the craft.

In doing so, you will also keep your imagination toned and ready to supply you with ideas.

Now, you don’t type another author’s story to steal it. You type it to get a close feel for how this writer puts sentences together, how the words flow, how the paragraphs link, how the scene conflict unfolds, or how the dialogue rambles or snaps.

You may be thinking, Is she out of her mind? Type three chapters? Use hours of potential writing time, typing some rich author’s work? I can see what Arthur Author’s doing without going to all that trouble and effort!

Can you?

You’ll see something, but you won’t get close enough until you practice it.

Case in point: earlier this summer I wanted a strong opening hook for a story I was working on.

The best novel-opening hook I can think of is the first sentence of John D. MacDonald’s DARKER THAN AMBER.

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”

There it is. A simple, effective, well-written sentence that conveys just enough to grab your interest and make you want to read the next paragraph.

Now, sure. I can read and reread that sentence. But I wanted the cadence of the words. I wanted that rhythm for my own. So I typed the sentence several times, then I placed my own opening sentence next to it and tweaked and edited until I achieved the effect I wanted.

Plagiarism? Not at all. I’m not writing the SAME sentence. I’m not writing the same plot, or setting, or genre, or characters.

All I took away from Mr. MacDonald was the rhythm, cadence, and pattern of how the sentence flows.

(Am I going to share my sentence with you? Sorry, no.  Chalk it up to an old superstition of mine–no sharing until publication.)

If you want to learn how to launch a novel, type the first three chapters of the best book you can think of. Get a feel for it, where the breaks are, how the scenes or description move.

If you want to learn how to write good description or good dialogue, type the best examples you can find and compare your efforts to them.

This exercise doesn’t work if you don’t type the excerpt from the published material.

Opening sentence: The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car.

If you want to teach yourself how to plot, type the whole book that you’ve chosen as your template.

Yes. From start to finish, type the thing. It will teach you more than you can imagine.

Opening: I didn't realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn't at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil ...

Opening: Bailey was not surprised when the doctor's first incision drew up something darker than blood.


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