Tuesday, December 27, 2005


One of the dreaded questions often asked of authors at book signings is "Where do you get your ideas?" If you ever have the opportunity to watch a writer respond to this thorny question, pay attention to their eyes and I guarantee you’ll see them roll ...just a bit.

The reason this is not a favorite question is because authors often don’t know where idea formation comes from; it might come while looking at a snail edging along a leaf, watching a warplane on the news bombing a building, or suddenly pop up in a dream.

But, as a writer, if you’re having trouble coming up with new ideas, try a road trip. And I don’t mean speeding 90 mph down an interstate trying to make it to a destination before nightfall. I mean driving leisurely down back-roads with a cooler in the backseat, a camera, and some pen and paper.

I recently took the opportunity to do just this, and living in California one might wonder how I could possibly tract across anything remotely back-roadish in such a well-populated State. It really isn’t that tough, because California is only densely peopled in the southwestern and coastal areas. The rest of the State’s inhabitants are sprinkled liberally here and there, with spots of vast emptiness in certain areas. One of these empty locations I decided to visit in December: the Sonoran Desert region that borders Arizona. Recalling the words of an explorer in Australia who said a desert is "Any barren tract of land that is truly dangerous to cross with camels," going here might give some pause when deciding to take a mini-vacation. But winter time in desert regions can be remarkably beautiful.

I visited the tiny city of Mecca and edged up to the Salton Sea. I meandered through Joshua Tree National Park and saw trees and plants that resembled life on another planet. I ate at Mom-and-Pop restaurants in Yucca Valley and rubbed shoulders with locals. I skirted by military installations at Twentynine Palms. I witnessed the troubling shanty-like homes of farm workers only 45 minutes away from the oozing wealth of La Quinta and Palm Desert; now tell me there aren’t a few stories seeping out of this little paragraph!

California isn’t the only State where you can do this, obviously, so give it a try in your area. Pull out a map and look at a lonely stretch of seldom used highway that wiggles itself through a section of land you’ve never dreamt of visiting. Is it calling to you?

Go on. You know you want to see it.

Friday, December 09, 2005


"I don't read much because I don't want what I read to influence my writing."

"I'm afraid if I read other writers in the genre I might unconsciously plagiarize."

I've heard these two statements from many, many writers (mostly unpublished), and you know what I say to this? Bullllllshit.
If you want to write well, you need to be well read yourself (i.e., have a grasp of what sells and what your target audience likes). My grandfather had an incredible library and after his death the family had to go through it and decide what to keep and what to donate to local libraries. It was a daunting task considering the hundreds and hundreds of tomes he kept (the entire downstairs area of his home in Washington had been pure bookshelves). But it was also a serious eye-opener for me. The reason many of his novels were so popular is that he had an insightful understanding into the minds of his readers; he knew what they wanted because he'd read so much of the material. And no one had ever accused him of plagiarism (although George Lucas was accused---for a time---of stealing some of my grandfather's ideas for his STAR WARS films).

In the not-so-distant past, I'd vented my frustration to writers I know about their lack of understanding in the genre they were trying to write in. And they'd responded with one of those comments that started this post.

So it was with great relief that I received my copy of Writer's Digest Magazine today and found an article entitled 'Read Like a Writer' by Linda Parker (pg. 44, January 2006). The gist of the article is this: "You should read a lot. A careful reader can easily pick up trade secrets from writers they love." The piece mentions how to figure plots, transitions, and character development into your own story by figuring out how the pros do it.

I was also pleased to see a story on Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley in this same Writer's Digest Magazine edition. And what was this article about? Well, it was about how reading over 100 novels helped her get out of a writing rut and aided her in producing another great nonfiction title called THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL. So not only can reading help a writer with their own story ideas, it can also create new opportunities.

So when authors come to me and say those terrible lies about how they don't want other writers' works to influence their own, you know what I'll say...

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Today is the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination, and although I don't like celebrating assassination dates (personally I'd prefer to remember his birthday or when he first arrived on the music scene), I felt obliged to write a bit about this sentinel event.

Some of you may be wondering why I'm mentioning this on a blog site dedicated to writing and publishing. Well, not only was John a song writer, he was also an author, actor, film producer, and a political spokesperson. Americans feel terribly drawn to his music just as much as his homeland folks from England. His marriage to Yoko Ono sent ripples of woe through his fandom (I've personally spoken with several older women who swooned when they learned of his new wife). And his talent as a song writer went unmatched during his lifetime; some might argue that it is still unmatched.

For some reason whenever I see Kathy Bates in her role as Annie Wilkes in the film Misery, I always think of John Lennon's death. And although Misery was a work of fiction and what happened to John most certainly was not, the two resonate together in my mind (a crazed fan doing the unthinkable to someone they idolize). <shiver>

At any rate, it's always nice to remember what John Lennon accomplished during his short tenure here on Earth. His music helped coalesce the peace movement during the Vietnam War era. His political activism polarized nations. And his love of life spread over any who came into contact with him. That's why I'm writing this today. Not because it's "the day John Lennon got shot", but because his message of love, peace and questioning our leaders still stands out in my mind. And that's what many great writers (be it of songs or of fiction) always hope to accomplish whenever they put pen to paper.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


When I sit in front of a blank computer screen and try to write, I sometimes lock-up. My mind shuts down, brain cells sputter and I generally start panicking. Writer’s block has reared its ugly head!

Must write.

Must write.

Must write.

Adding more pressure or making up excuses—too much noise, too many distractions, too many other things I need to do—doesn’t help either. I consider most of that bullshit anyway. Sitting down is easy. Getting the ideas to come is the hard part. So if you’re like me, and want to get the ball rolling, you’ll need to use a few strategies to keep the creative juices flowing.

First, turn off all the phones or place them on silent. Nothing can damage your ability to write more than being interrupted during a pivotal scene or plot concept. <Riiiing! You throw up your hands and say, "I give up!>

Second, find a place that’s quiet and comfortable. This allows you to relax and free your mind from other internal interruptions (Did I empty the dishwasher?).

Third, if you’ve already written some on the story, go back and read the last two pages to get you "into the groove." This will put your mind on track with the story and help direct where you need to go next, and this can be a huge hurdle if you’re experiencing writer’s block.

Fourth, just type. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you write, just as long as you’re doing it. Even if it’s the worst crap you’ve ever put forth, let it come out. It’s okay to write material you’d never even consider using as toilet paper. Once it’s out of your system, chances are you’ll start producing some worthy material. And finally, contact a friend/family member who writes or knows writing and tell them you’re having trouble. See if they can give you advice on how to get back to your story. But don’t spend all day on the phone (Mr. or Mrs. Procrastinator). After they’ve given you the spark you need, let your fingers fly over the keyboard!

Okay. Are you still reading this? Why! Get to work!