[Special Guest Post!] Find Your Theme, Fix Your Life: Another Great Reason to Write

Find your theme, fix your life: Another great reason to write! (Special guest post with Jessica Lourey!) on Lucyflint.com

Hello, my lionhearted friends! And welcome to June!!

I don't know about you, but I am READY for a chilled-out summer and a slower pace.

Here on the blog, that translates to a broader focus. We're going to take this month to kinda zoom out from the day-to-day of a writer's life. And instead, we'll take a look at the big picture.

Because lately, I've caught myself pawing through my writing years, trying to get a grip on my own trajectory. And I've been asking myself: what happens to a writer across many projects? What kinds of seasons happen in a writer's creative life? 

And how do all my crazy projects and ideas mesh together, anyway? 

Lucky me: To look more at that last question, we have a special guest post today with Jessica Lourey.

Jessica Lourey

I am SO excited to introduce her to you: she's published fifteen books and she has something pretty awesome to say about the themes that show up in our work. I'm so glad we get to hear from her!

So check out her post below, and be sure to hit the comments to say hi to Jessica in person!

Then you'll definitely want check out her TEDx Talk (it blew me away), as well as her latest book.

(And whaaaaat, she also has a coloring book for writers? I know I won't be the only one scrambling to get my hands on that!)

Are you excited? Let's dive in. Here's Jessica:


My 15th book released a few weeks ago. It's called Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, and it walks readers through the lucrative and life-changing process of transforming life experiences into powerful fiction. 

I stumbled across this fact-to-fiction process by accident. The year was 2001. I had a three-year-old daughter and another on the way. I was teaching full-time and loving life.

Unexpectedly, inexplicably, I lost my husband.

I go into more detail in my TEDx Talk, but in general, here's what happened after his death:

I had to write to survive. I needed to transform my fear and pain into something coherent.

I wrote one book, then another. I'd written three whole novels and received 423 rejections before I landed my first agent. Fifteen books later, I'd give up wine, bread, cheese, and my left foot before I'd quit writing.

But even after all that passion and practice, if I'm honest with myself (and you), it's not exactly ancient history that the idea of drafting a novel felt like being dropped into central Africa's Congo Basin with a compass and a paperclip.

Naked. 

Rolled in honey.

With everyone whom I've ever wanted to impress watching via a live feed, gathered together in a room, eating popcorn and laughing so hard that they spewed schadenfreude all over the television. 

In fact, after I began my first novel I spent much of my writing time feeling overwhelmed at the scope of what I'd taken on and like a ridiculous fraud for even pretending I could write a book. I grew up in rural Minnesota, for crying in the night. Not only did I not know any writers, I hardly knew anyone who liked to read.

But there was personal treasure to be mined in the writing of a novel, I sensed it even then, rubies of resilience and emeralds of hope, and so I read what I could on the art of writing, sought out mentors, and read fiction like a chef trying to puzzle out the recipe by tasting the meal.

After five years of trial and error, I finally arrived at a method to reduce the time and stress of writing an experience-based novel while increasing the joy in the writing and the quality of the story.

More importantly, I discovered that writing fiction allows me to process much of my personal garbage so I can live healthier and happier.

Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, by Jessica Lourey

You'll find that most if not all your best novel ideas are already growing, ready to be plucked, in the compost pile of your mind. (Your compost pile is that fertile, loamy, crap-filled place where you tossed your baggage in the hopes that it would decompose on its own. It doesn't. You have to stir it up and spread it out. It's just the way it works.)

All writers end up with a unifying theme across the books that they write, and that theme is the most indigestible nugget in their mental compost pile, the personal challenge they were put on this earth to overcome.

For example, I write about the poison and power of secrets. In every. Single. Book. (It took me eight novels to realize my recurring theme.)

I come by this meta theme honestly. I grew up in a house built on fear and secrets, liberally sprinkled with alcoholism, psychedelic drugs, swingers, and naked volleyball parties. I packed my first bong before I was ten and mixed a mean whiskey water by age twelve. To this day, I think my parents' worst fear was that I'd rebel and grow up to be a right-winger.

(My parents would be mortified if they knew I was writing about them or my childhood. This, along with an instilled allegiance to secrets, has kept me from writing nonfiction up until this moment. How am I finally breaking free of this, you ask? The advice to write as if your parents are dead seems too harsh. I'm instead writing as if they're illiterate.)

My experience of working through and spreading my mental compost pile via novel writing is not unique.

At a recent writing conference, a successful noir author confessed to me that all her books are about that pivotal, cathartic moment when a person tests his/her limits. John Irving's recurring theme seems to be younger men who are seduced or abused by older women. Parental abandonment appears in every one of Charles Dickens' books. Amy Tan tackles mother/daughter relationships in her writing.

You will find some version of your own experience-based theme in all the novels you write.

Don't worry if you don't know your life theme right now; discovering it is one of the many gifts of novel writing. 

Just know that wherever you are at in the writing process, you are doing the right thing. The good work. 

Write on, with love,

Jessica Lourey
www.jessicalourey.com


The above is partially excerpted from Jessica Lourey's Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, available May 1, 2017, wherever books are sold.

Jessica is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She also writes sword and sorcery fantasy, edge-of-your-seat YA adventure, a coloring book for writers, and magical realism, literary fiction, and feminist thrillers. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a sought-after workshop leader and keynote speaker who delivered the 2016 "Rewrite Your Life" TEDx Talk.

How to Be Your Own Writing-Life Fairy Godmother (Or, Finding Your Groove, Part Two!)

Getting into a good groove is essential for long-term sustainable writing life. (Plus, it's way more fun. I mean seriously. So much nicer than a slog.) In this post, four more ways to find your way into one. You'll think your fairy godmother just showed up. (Pumpkins optional.) | lucyflint.com

So last time, we talked about four ways to build a groove in our writing lives. Ways to make our writing flow more readily, more easily. Without, you know, spraining our ankles or exhausting ourselves.

We talked about creating the best environment for our work, about flooding our creativity with quality nutrition, about learning craft from a master, and about committing to the hard work required to really find our pace.

When these traits add up, they really can make writing-life magic. More words, richer ideas, more ease. I mean ... who doesn't want that, right? (So if you missed the last post, check it out.)

Okay. If you're ready for a few more ways you can support yourself into a writing life upgrade, read on! 

The next four traits build on the previous four. These can seem like the lighter set of tools, all fluffy and unimportant. And none of them are going to be completely and crazily new to you, if you've hung out here for a while.

But don't be fooled. Because when we take all four together ... well.

It's like your fairy godmother just showed up.

She might seem like any other lady at first, but then she starts turning pumpkins into high-class transportation. Suddenly you're going somewhere.

Never underestimate the power of your fairy godmother, my friend. She makes all the difference. 

Ready for your transformation? Here we go:

1: Set yourself up.

Here's the truth about the writing life: It can be very hard. The craft is far bigger than we can ever learn. And we're working for a significant amount of time without a reward.

Which means that: There are going to be minutes, hours, days, and whole months, where our instinct for self-preservation is going to be dead set against our doing any of this.

Why put yourself through it?! It's easy to give up, it's easy to stop early, and it's easy to just not start at all.

This is why I'm a big fan of the power of routines, the steadying effect of habits, and the beauty of rituals.

They are how I've made sense of this work, how I define what I'm doing. They're the invisible net that holds this whole writing life of mine together.

I have a general routine, and I have a few dozen habits, just like anyone else. 

But what I've been especially focused on lately are rituals. 

Neat little collections of habits, all grouped together in a pack, each habit addressing something very specific and particular, the answer to a set of questions I used to ask myself. 

How do I get my mind ready for my creative work? How do I make sure my physical energy stays up? How do I keep track of general ideas that don't fit this particular project? How do I not lose old insights? How do I steady my courage for the day? How do I not give up before I've even started?

I answered those questions in the form of rituals.

There's the first ritual of the day, writing my three morning pages (à la Julia Cameron), longhand, by the light of a lamp, sitting up in bed. The whole house is quiet, but my mind is awake, and I scribble down all the mundane thoughts and emotions and worries that I woke up with.

A bit later, when I sit down at my writing desk, there's a set of habits that form the ritual that starts my writing session:

  • I bring a cup of coffee to my desk. Because coffee. No one needs a reason for coffee, right?
     
  • And then I take out an old journal and I read a few pages in it. Reading these old pages is so valuable: they remind me of how I've solved past problems, or I come across old insights I'd forgotten. And sometimes, these pages make me laugh because of how obsessed I was about something that turned out to not matter at all. (Who, me??) Rereading old journals gives me perspective, and it's also a great transition into my writing work.
     
  • I'll write down any new thoughts or ideas that strike me, using the format for the idea journal that Todd Henry talks about in The Accidental Creative. (Basically a plain journal that I index as I go: I fill pages with ideas that spring up during the day—after listening to a podcast, watching a movie, walking the dog, washing the dishes. Whatever, whenever: it goes in here. At the front, I summarize each idea with a single line and a page number for reference. SUPER handy.)
     
  • Then I review the index of ideas that I've been compiling in the front of that idea journal, and if anything snags my interest, I'll go back and reread the entry for that particular idea. This is a great way to stir up my mind, and to keep quality ideas from slipping away.
     
  • After that, I read two pages in A Year of Writing Dangerously, because I just love what that book does for me—it is so encouraging. And it connects me in spirit to a huge collection of people who spend time among words. I feel my bravery rising.
     
  • And finally, I'll sit with a list of true beliefs I've developed, and I practice actually believing them. (If this sounds totally weird and waaaay too touchy-feely for you, I really understand. But you gotta check out this post. Skip down to point number two. And see what you think after reading.)

At this point, my mind is all stirred and awake. I feel grounded and cared for and ready, and as brave as I can be.

And so I dive in.

That's it! That's my pre-work set of rituals. 

Spelled out, they might sound completely mundane and boring. But as I enter into them, I feel a little whiff of excitement—as if I've just flicked the first domino in a long snaking line-up, and now I get the joy of watching them zip along on their own.

If I skip this set of habits, this pre-work ritual, I can still do my writing work, but I feel a bit off, a bit blindsided. 

I get more easily distracted, sideswept by doubts. It's easier to slide off track and indulge the "but I don't feel like it" whine. I'm less focused. Susceptible to interruption.

That's why I love calling these habits a ritual, why I love dignifying them like that. Because they're so important, vital to the success of each work session.  

So what about you? What are your rituals? Your routines? 

What do you need to set yourself up well? What are the provisions—mental, physical, spiritual, emotional—that you need for the next little stage of your writing journey?

What would be an incredible gift to yourself, at the start of your work session?

Do you have any nagging questions or concerns about how you work, anything that's been thrumming in your mind lately, that could be addressed by some small, simple behavior? 

String those behaviors in a row, teach each to feed into each, and you'll have your own pre-work ritual. 

You'll have created your own gravity, a set of behaviors and rhythms that pull you to your work, keep you from floating away.

Twyla Tharp in The Creative Habit points to rituals as tools of commitment and preparation. I love that.

So what tools of commitment and preparation do you need in your arsenal? 

(If you're loving this topic and would like a little more, check out this post for an all-purpose, all-weather writing routine, and this one for a bit more on the rituals that protect our work.)

2: Go for steady.

So much of what I do in my writing work is shaped by the goals I have. Oh, goals. We've had such a roller coaster relationship. 

This is why I love everything to do with goals:

  • They give me a rush. 
  • They make a gorgeous future seem more possible.
  • They make what's important to me very clear.
  • They let me feel like I've organized my life very, very well. Gold star for me. (And I love gold stars.)
  • They give me something spectacular to aim for. Which makes them the most essential tool in an overachiever's toolkit, right? And I like that toolkit. It's neat.

And here is why I really don't love goals at all: 

  • My life is incredibly unpredictable. And when my health goes belly-up, or when family needs me, I have less energy to give my ultra-ambitious writing goals. 
  • I sometimes accidentally look at things from a pass/fail perspective. And I tend to find myself "failing" when I do that.
  • Oh, and this happens about 90% of the time: On my way to hitting the goal, I discover something much more important that needs my attention. When I switch tracks, I feel foolish, uncertain, and inconsistent.
  • I brag about goals, tell everyone about them, and then abandon them

Goals can sweep me up in a dizzying skyward surge of energy, but then one thing and another and another conspire to tug at our wings, and the goal and I plummet back to earth.

Those landings are a real blast.

This is why, last spring, I began revising my view of goals. The more I saw them as just a tool, the better I felt. Tools are meant to serve, not destroy.

I'm always going to be a sucker for that neat clean feeling of a few well-chosen goals, but I also want the freedom to replace them, revise them, and refresh them as I go.

What's a romantic goal-setter to do? Especially when I fall for every goal-making chance I find: I make new goals after reading a fantastically helpful book, I make them at the start of summer, at my birthday, during back-to-school season, and always always at the new year... 

So is there hope? Yes, of course. That hope comes from the wonderful relationship between a good goal and a strong system

A goal is the thing that helps you know where you're aiming. It's invaluable. I am probably never going to stop picking up goals and bringing them home and feeding them and smiling at them. 

But their highest and best use (for me, at least!) is this: I need to use those goals to engineer a strong system.

The goal is where you aim; the system is what you put into practice in order to get there. The goal is the beautiful height you want to reach; the system is the practical smart staircase that you wheel underneath the height.

Goals might sound pass/fail, but systems aren't. Systems are quiet, non-flashy things. They are the program that runs everything, as it turns out. 

When you pair really lovely habits and rituals and routines, with a deep, sensible program for how you'd like your work to move forward—what kinds of people you want to learn from, the books you want to study, how you want to practice, how much you want to create—that is what makes up your system. 

So if you have a bit of a goal-hangover, if your resolutions are all forgotten, overruled, or dead: embrace the power of systems. Systems are your friend.

(If you want more: This quick read is a superb article from James Clear, which explains the difference between goals & systems beautifully. Systems win. So inspiring!)

3: Head toward the heat.

When I had to do a research paper in school (for high school or college or whatever), I usually fell into this terrible habit.

I was so focused on the deadline, and the amount of work looming between me and that due date, that I wouldn't spend much time looking for a topic. I'd grab the first possible thing that came to me, and off I'd go.

Do the research, do more research, write the paper, barrel through a few drafts, hit all the milestones, and turn it in.

I usually didn't much love what I was writing about. I didn't feel any conviction or excitement about it. But hey, school is school. No excitement doesn't exactly raise red flags.

Here's the problem: I brought that old writing process right into my post-school writing life. 

Bad Thing #2: I didn't even realize it. I didn't even notice.

I'm embarrassed to say it, but there was a whole lot about my first novel idea that I didn't even like much.

I kept wedging certain topics and ideas and plotlines into it because I thought I should. And not because they thrilled me, delighted me, kept me from sleeping.

Here's a tip: Writing about stuff that doesn't move you will probably never launch you into a writing groove. 

Yeah. I think I can say that confidently: NEVER.

So give yourself and your writing life a little check-up: Are you ridiculously in love with what you're writing about?

Have you given yourself permission to even find out what you love?

It was a long time before I finally did that. Before I finally took the time to admit to myself that I adore middle grade adventures and always will. Before I admitted that my favorite characters are more than a little weird, that I love worlds that aren't true high fantasy but are instead a funny mashup of reality and the bizarre. 

That's what I'm writing now, and I'm seriously delighted by it.

But here's a hint: I couldn't figure out what I love by moving quickly. Speed and rushing around basically hijack self-awareness for me. 

If you suspect that you don't truly love what you're writing about, that it isn't coming from the deepest and best place in you, then maybe take a moment to explore that.

Give yourself permission, space, time, and silence: Listen to yourself. And discover what nudges your curiosity. What moves you toward wonder. 

What you love.

What lights up your writerly heart? What gets your enthusiasm flowing?

Work from that place, where it's warm and everything is glowing. Work from your curiosity; work from your natural excitement. This can sound so simple, but it's oh-so important (and shockingly easy to side-step!).

And it's really the best writing fuel there is. Trust me.

(If you'd like a bit more on this topic, check out this post on embracing your quirks, on seeking more wonder, and on how not to learn to write a novel.)

4: Respect your source.

Sometimes, when we really, really, REEEALLY want to see results in our work, we abuse our creativity and our energy. 

We sideline vital things like sleep requirements and monitoring our energy. The way we talk to ourselves changes, gets a bit more sharp, more urgent.

It's all in pursuit of a greater purpose. So that can feel noble. Self-sacrificing. 

Only problem is, when you're an artist, a writer, and you decide to be self-sacrificing, it means you're burning up the very thing you're working from.

When we burn up our energy, when we get exhausted, when we mentally beat ourselves up, it's the same as setting our work space on fire, torching our computers and our online accounts. As erasing the alphabet from memory.

Working too late, too long, too hard, without breaks, without replenishing yourself... it's not a good recipe, my friend.

That's destructive. And what we're trying to be is creative

If we're working to build something with our brains, we can't, at the same time, tear apart our ability to use our brains.

So do a bit of a general check-up: How has your energy been lately? Have you been taking superb care of yourself, or maybe, um, not? 

Have you been overworking yourself, feeling like you can't ever take a break, can't ease up? If so, check out Twyla Tharp's fantastic recommendation:

If you've been following a don't-stop-till-you-drop routine--that is, you only quit when you're totally wiped out--rethink that. This is how ruts form. As an exercise, for the next week or so, end your working day when you still have something in reserve. 

Now ask yourself, exactly what is it that you're putting into reserve. Is it raw energy? Is it desire? Is it a few more ideas left unexplored? Is it something you meant to say to someone but didn't? Whatever it is, describe it in writing on a notepad or index card. Put the note away and don't think about it for the rest of the day. Start the next day by looking at your note.

She's a master choreographer, creating scores of dances over dozens of years. This woman knows what she's talking about. It's probably a real good idea to listen to her. ;)

It's tempting to wear ourselves out. But that's only a short-term solution: it kills us over the long-term.

How sustainable is your writing habit? Do you binge then burn out? Do you beat yourself up mentally?

Oh, my friend. Let's come back to a kinder, gentler, more long-term way to work.

(If you want more on this, I've got more!! Check out these posts: for a comprehensive energy check-up, for a thorough sustainability check, a plea to get rid of brain fog, the best support for creativity that I've found ever, the best escape for a weary writer, and how to change that killing voice in our heads.)

The Great Setting Round Up: 65 Possible Settings For Your Work-In-Progress!

Dreaming up new settings is usually the last thing on my mind during a drafting marathon... which is why I've pulled together 65 ideas for settings, ready to use! Check them out, and see if you find the next location you were looking for. | lucyflint.com

When it comes to inventing settings, I run out of imagination pretty fast. Especially when I'm in the middle of a drafting marathon. I'm spending my efforts juggling characters and conflicts, and I'm not really paying attention to where these characters and this conflict are happening.

Basically, I'd love to just set everything against a green screen and go from there!

But the dedicated writer in me knows that setting is a huge opportunity for shaking up a scene.  

And since many of us are spending November drafting as quickly as possible, I thought I'd do a kind of setting round up, to help all of us out.

I'm not saying that these are all brand-new setting ideas you haven't considered before... but there's probably at least a few that might be good contenders for that one scene coming up.

Some are pretty basic, others are a bit more quirky ... and some are pretty out there. (Hey, why not?)

A lot of these ideas will depend on your characters and your story, and how the prompt would best work for you. Others are more scene elements (like weather) that you could layer into an existing setting to give it a little more oomph.

But whatever you're writing, I hope you'll find some fun ideas here to help you along!

Sound good? Here we go! In no order in particular, what if your scene took place in, on, or near: 

  1. A tree: in the trunk, or below the roots, standing on a massive stump, climbing the branches, or even up in a tree house
  2. A quarry or a mine
  3. A furnace or boiler room
  4. An ornamental garden
  5. Wherever they house the transportation: garage, airplane hangar, rocket storage facility, bicycle lot...
  6. A specialty shop: for glass knick-knacks, ornamental clocks, fountain pens, marbles... (for some ideas, check this, this, this, and this!)
  7. A sand bar in the middle of a river
  8. Any kind of kennel, stable, or animal housing
  9. A poison garden (yes really!) 
  10. A factory—maybe they make really basic everyday equipment, or maybe something ultra fancy and quirky and specialized—or maybe candy. Candy would be great.
     
  11. The sewer system or some network of underground tunnels
  12. An abandoned/ruined hospital or asylum
  13. A cave
  14. A plant nursery
  15. Your antagonist's favorite landmark: something extra-special from your antagonist's personal history
  16. The place where the people in your storyworld exercise: whether that means a track for running, a place for boxing or heaving weights, or training in whatever way
  17. An orchard or vineyard
  18. On top of something that they'd normally be traveling in: like a train, bus, car, subway, submarine, spaceship...
  19. Someplace where the air isn't good to breathe: maybe after a chemical accident, or a place that vents poisonous vapors from underground, or maybe the scene of a diabolical attack... wherever they are, the air is bad.
  20. A river crossing—maybe a ferry, or a footbridge, or stepping stones, or some kind of natural formation
     
  21. The place of greatest historical significance to your characters, their families, their government, or their storyworld: where the town was founded, where a great victory was won, where an old hero died, etc.
  22. A hot air balloon
  23. A field of grass, crops, or a pumpkin patch
  24. A laboratory
  25. The house of a person not in the scene... especially if that person would hate that they're there
  26. How about in a sinkhole? (Hey, it could happen!)
  27. Your storyworld's tallest building: put some clouds below your characters' feet!
  28. An immense beach: maybe a scuzzy, sludgy, awful one where you'd expect to find dead bodies, or maybe one that's packed with a zillion people, and, I don't know, a couple hundred corgis? Or maybe a sandcastle-making competition?
  29. A symphonic concert, a play, an opera, or a rock concert. Maybe in the crowd, or backstage, or heck, onstage in the midst of the action... 
  30. A lighthouse, beacon, or some sort of signaling tower
     
  31. A graveyard, cemetery, mausoleum, or a morgue
  32. At some kind of studio—for ceramics, or painting, or dancing
  33. A desert
  34. An unusual staircase (check out these amazing spirals!)
  35. Standing on ice (because slippery footing is always interesting and maybe even metaphorical...). Maybe in the middle of a parking lot, or maybe the middle of a lake
  36.  Wherever they might be if one of the participants in the scene is in a casket (dead or alive, your choice!)
  37. A greenhouse
  38. A coat closet, storage closet, or locker space
  39. An underground bunker or house—especially if it's deeper underground than your character would like to be
  40. Any place with ancient statuary, whether it's something major, like Stonehenge or Easter Island, or something tiny, and known only to a handful of characters in your storyworld
     
  41. Some kind of wind tunnel, or any place where your characters have to talk or fight against the wind
  42. In the middle of a lake, pond, ocean, on something other than a boat
  43. A desert oasis!
  44. The set of a film (a major Hollywood production, or a tiny indie film, or even a home movie) or a photo shoot
  45. The banks along a river
  46. An escalator, elevator, or moving sidewalk
  47. The cockpit of a plane that's maybe about to crash...
  48. A stolen boat (or yacht, or pirate ship, or cruise liner...)
  49. The tree in the forest that's haunted, cursed, the oldest, or just plain weirdest
  50. A war memorial or some other local monument
     
  51. Somewhere "behind the scenes" in your storyworld's most glamorous hotel—in the laundry area or the staff room or the cleaning closet, perhaps?
  52. A museum—whether especially grand, or tiny and quirky, or some specific niche. It could play to what your character most loves or most hates, or whatever most makes him/her uneasy...
  53. At (or behind, or under...) a waterfall
  54. An especially strange forest: maybe one that's crooked, intricate, despairing, massive, or just especially beautiful
  55. A quicksand pit, bog, marshy area, or mud slick
  56. An observatory
  57. In the midst of a mist
  58. At a funeral, visitation, or wake, of someone your characters may or may not know
  59. Or at a wedding, engagement party, bridal shower, or baby shower (and again, they might not know the people involved!)
  60. At the source of a river (oooh, great literary resonance in that)
     
  61. A rooftop with an incredible view
  62. A library
  63. A "field" of something manmade—like windmills, solar panels, fog catchers
  64. Someplace where the characters aren't supposed to be at the zoo—the lion's cage, perhaps?
  65. Whatever kind of setting is the total opposite of the conversation/action taking place: clearing up mundane information at a soaring, glitzy setting, or having an explosive discussion on the soup aisle at the local store.

And there you go! I hope a few of these triggered some fun new setting ideas for your story. Good luck! 


By the way: if you checked out a few of the links, you'll also see that Atlas Obscura is one of my all-time favorite sites for anything setting related.

They just published an excellent book that I looooooove, and they send out fantastic daily emails if you sign up. Plus the site is just incredible to explore! Highly recommended resource for stirring our writerly imaginations: check 'em out! You just might browse for ages!

PS: And just to clarify, this isn't an affiliate link or affiliate anything. I just love their work and want everyone to know about them! 

Explode Your Creativity (and Just Have a Lot More Fun!) by Strengthening This One Dynamic Skill

An essential skill that's usually in desperate need of strengthening, if we want to create better stories ... and a more satisfying writing life. | lucyflint.com

Have you ever read a book that felt like the author was standing waaaaay too far away from you?

There's this weird kind of distance—like they're standing outside of their own book. That incredibly tedious, frustrating sensation that the writer is writing about their story. 

Know what I mean?

Their scenes feel like static, lifeless things that the writer is pointing to and explaining to me.

... Instead of whisking me up and sticking me right in the middle of the story itself. 

Confession One: With this kind of book, I don't last long as a reader.

Confession Two: And I can totally become this kind of writer, when I'm not careful.

Yiiiiiiiiikes.

Spoiler alert: I'm not about to dive into the differences of "showing versus telling." And I'm not going to unpack the more descriptive styles of writing as opposed to the more stark.

Nope. What's on my mind is the big, overarching, world-shaping superpower that we all have access to as writers. 

Imagination.

Today we're gonna dive into how we can strengthen that oh-so-vital aspect of our craft.

But before we start, WHY does it feel so silly to talk about imagination? Like it is so very uncool and unadult.

After kicking off this series on strength-building, I feel like I've just waltzed into a weightlifting class and announced, "Today, we fingerpaint!"

And yet. Training our imaginations has a lot more to do with athletic prowess than anything goofy or simplistic. (Not to knock fingerpainting. Fingerpainting is awesome.)

After all, my friends, we're creating people and conflicts and settings and whole worlds in our minds

That's one heck of a barbell to hoist off the ground.

Okay? So let's not belittle ourselves by sneering at the term "imagination."

It's just the name of the muscle we happen to use for this incredibly powerful work we do.

How We Get Toned, Build Muscle, and Increase Imaginative Flexibility

As I come back to my novel after a turbulent summer, I'm realizing how much time I've spent away from the inner workings of my story. I've used my creativity to solve daily problems ... instead of using it to dive into my characters' world.

So my imagination has lost a whole lot of muscle mass. It's gotten scrawny. It skips the stairs and heads for the elevator. And its joints are all stiff and inflexible. 

So when I ask it to work hard on my novel, it kinda gasps and shakes and then looks around for a bag of chips.

No bueno.

I want my novel to thrive this autumn. Right? And you want yours to be amazing too, I'm sure. 

Which means it's time to build some serious strength in imagination!

So ...

So, how do we do that?

Well, a lot goes into this, for sure. We could talk about nurturing our curiosity, pouring ourselves into wonder, and taking ourselves exploring on artist dates, all of which are essential components to a full imagination-health routine. 

But I think that there's one skill that's more vital than all the rest.

Something that can totally dry up when we forget how important it is. When we start "coasting," and skimp on our attention to it.

But when we practice it over and over, ohhhh, look out.

Our writing gets richer, stronger, and generally more awesome.

I'm talking about the simple yet incredibly challenging practice of fully visualizing what we are about to write.

This is the practice of taking a scene that exists as an idea in your head, and then experiencing it. As if you were there, in the scene. 

Being present inside it, as completely and totally as possible.

THAT.

Yeah. Like I said: it's simple. Yet super challenging. 

James Scott Bell sums up this kind of imagination practice so well in his book Plot & Structure: "Be an actor." He says: 

I'll ... try to live the emotions. I'll act out the parts I've created. Almost always what I feel "in character" will make me add to or change the scene. ...
     Vividly imagine the scene, step by step, in your mind. Let it play like a movie. But instead of watching the movie from a seat in the theater, be in the scene.

Be. In. The. Scene.

So—we've probably all done this to some degree. There are scenes and moments in our stories that tend to just drop into our imaginations, right? And other pivotal scenes can be easy for us to tumble into and experience vividly.

But I know that, for myself, I tend to not make this immersive imagining a key part of my writing routine.

Instead, I get by on low-grade visualizing. Barely seeing it in my head, I instead think my way through: I guess the character could say this, and then he'd reply with this, and so she'd counter with this

But too much of that, and writing just feels like manipulating ideas of people, notions of conflict, rough sketches of setting.

Instead of the living, breathing story itself. 

Instead of the kind of story that makes its readers stay up waaaaay too late at night finishing it.

The kind of story that haunts readers and inspires their dreams.

My friends, visualizing our stories changes everything.

It keeps us from standing outside a scene and writing about the action. Instead, it plunges us inside it, so that we create the scene. First in our heads, and then on paper.

And our readers? Better be prepared to be carried away.

Five Essentials for Imagination Practice

This is a practice, so be super patient. Especially if you're as rusty at it as I am!

Be incredibly kind to yourself, refuse to expect perfection, and just keep coming back to it.

As you do, here are five things to remember that might make all the difference for you.

1. Be willing to move slowly.

It's when I'm trying to hurry through my work that all pretense of richly imagining the scene just goes straight out the window. 

I'll have the merest glimmer of the scene in my head as I pound it out on a keyboard.

Now, I'm not at all against writing fast: I think it's the coolest thing ever, and I want to get better at it. (Because THIS!)

But as we get ready to write quickly, our preparation time is a key moment for visualizing. 

That's when we can slow down, and take the time to fully sink into whatever it is we're about to write. 

If you're tempted to rush, like I can be, it's good to take a deep breath and remember what it feels like to be totally blown away as a reader.

Is it worth it, for an incredible scene? 

OH yeah. Totally worth it. 

2. Build the whole scene.

It's terribly easy for me to fall into a rut with what I imagine for my scenes. If I could get away with it, I'd have faceless, undetailed characters and nearly blank settings. I'm stronger on voice quality and emotional beats and overall action. 

But setting details? Physical characteristics? 

Ack! I have to remind myself to not leave them out.

So, as you plunge your imagination into the scene, feel into all these lifelike details: 

  • The sensations of the air, the temperature, dampness or dryness...
  • The quality of the space—claustrophobic, exposed, oppressive, frivolous, light...
  • All the sounds: of gadgets, people, movement, weather, animals, distant traffic, or hollow stillness...
  • Scent. It's so easy to forget! The smells of the people, the rooms, the outdoor spaces, fabrics, foods, mustiness...
  • And then of course, the feel of the emotions: tension, excitement, nerves, hope, shame, uncertainty, expectation...

We could probably come up with a list five times as long as this. (Which would be awesome, but really overwhelming too, haha!) 

The point is: try to be as present in your visualization of the scene as you would be in real life.

Notice what you notice. Feel what you feel. And figure out alllll the little details that affect you.

3. And definitely expect it to feel super weird.

It can help to remember: this might be really uncomfortable.

Sometimes, when I'm visualizing a scene, something in my head says, "Hold up. This is a really strange thing to be doing. NOT very normal. Not very adult. So let's not." 

Right? 

It's important to remember that, especially when we're new to this kind of imagination training, it might seem really weird, or childish, or wild, or uncertain. 

But it's still worth it.

Basically? Keep on going, even when it feels strange.

Even if something in you wants to say, "Ack, that's enough, right? We have a general idea of this scene. Let's just hurry up and write it already." 

Hang on. Even in that tough place.

Why? Because this is where strength starts to build.

Strength happens every time we don't quit when we want to quit.

Just like when we're jogging a longer route than usual, or wobbling in a yoga balancing pose, or lifting a weight that's right at our limit—we will want to quit.

We cry, "Okay, enough, I'm done!"

But if you push through the discomfort, if you hold on, then you get better, stronger, more flexible, more stable. 

You're inventing worlds in your mind, my friend. It takes strength and skill. Keep going. It's worth it.

4. Don't grab the distraction bait.

When it gets tough or challenging, it's so easy to think, "I need back-up!"

So we drop out of our intense imagining, and go find: a good Google image spread, or a Wikipedia page, or maybe check out that one Instagram account, or go make coffee.

Or basically do anything but the imagining.

But the longer we can focus allllllll our attention on this, the more rich and deep and well-constructed it will be.

So if you need more details in your scene, just make them up. Even if they might not be accurate or will need updating later.

If you're getting bored and this visualizing feels tedious, add something that puts you back on your edge. Raymond Chandler would send in a man with a gun. Personally, I like to throw in something weird, off kilter, askew.

What would most re-engage your attention? Send it in there.

5. Whatever else you do, don't hold back the most essential part of the scene. 

Deeply imagining a scene is a choice. And a skill. I've felt it get easier with practice... and then much harder when I'm out of practice.

So when we engage with this, we're increasing our skill, for sure. 

But we're also re-choosing and re-committing to our own story. 

We're deciding to live in it. Inhabit it. Participate inside it.

When I do this, I'm pushing myself to experience my story not just as a reader, but essentially as a character. 

I become someone who can peer into the absolute central workings of it. I get to witness all the exquisite moments that won't make it onto the "main stage" of the finished page. I spend my working hours wandering other realities.

And that is when I feel like the writing life is the most incredible, satisfying, and adventurous life that there can be.

It's pretty freaking amazing, in other words.

What we have to remember is that this isn't just an exercise.

It isn't just a strength-building, creativity-enhancing strategy.

It's a way of life. A way of working.

And it's the most literally mind-bending part of our craft.

It gifts us with the ability to write our stories from inside of them. Instead of from a distance, like we're merely pulling puppet strings.

If we’re not imagining, we’re settling for less. Less from our stories, less for our readers, but also less of an experience as writers.

When I think of fully imagining a scene, I'm reminded of this quote by—guess who!—Julia Cameron, in her book Walking in This World. (She's referring to the start of a larger project, but I think it applies equally well to this idea of visualizing our stories.) 

She writes: 

Horseback riders who jump the Grand Prix fences of terrifying heights talk of "throwing their heart" over the fence so their horse jumps after it. We must do the same.

That image just grabs me. Can't that be how we pursue this?

Let's not make visualizing just one more static exercise for mere technical improvement. 

Let's turn it into an opportunity to throw our hearts more fully into our scenes.

And let the action and the details and the writing itself jump after it—to great heights.

Don't Skip This Essential Step Before Finding A Swoon-Worthy Idea

Next time you need an idea to sweep in and save you, start with this vital (and incredibly helpful!) process. | lucyflint.com

So we're about midway through Idea Camp. Can you believe it?!

(Hey, June! Slow down!! Haha! ... Okay, but I'm serious. Slow down.)

We've covered a lot of awesome idea-generating tools so far: three topic lists that work incredibly well together (one and two and three), as well as a few idea scouting techniques (this one and this other one) that will absolutely get you some good results.

Whew!

Are your imaginations fizzing yet? 

Today we're going to take a look at idea-finding from the opposite end.

This is one of the most important things you can do when you're in desperate need of the right idea, the perfect solution.

Define the problem.

Does it sound mundane? Boring? Obvious?

Ah, but don't be fooled. Don't underestimate this incredibly important step—like I used to.

Because sometimes, just doing this process of analyzing the problem will give you the exact perfect idea to solve it.

Whoa, right? 

I can't tell you how many times I've hit a snag in my story, and then beat my brains up trying to figure out what to do next.

Maybe I've run into a problem with a character, a setting, or the conflict. I'll have backed my protagonist into a corner—and have zero ideas about what to do next.

It's great for story suspense, but pretty bad for my writing day.

So I used to make a lot of noise, growl at my computer screen, and rack my brains trying to come up with the idea I needed.

I spent a lot of time mentally spinning my tires, until I figured this out: That I needed a crystal clear definition of what problem I was trying to solve. 

Sometimes we can come up with a good idea on impulse. But for the more complex, more elusive solutions, it pays to back off and take the time to study the problem itself.

It's tough to remember to do! Usually I just want to plug away until I have the solution I need.

But in order to design the right fix, you have to know exactly what you're looking for.

And you need to diligently uncover all the hidden requirements of the particular idea that you're after.

We can't solve anything until we're clear on exactly what we're solving!

My favorite way to "define the problem" is with a lot of informal freewriting.

Basically, I interview myself about exactly what's gone wrong. I'm looking for the most precise description of my problem, of the story snag, or the hole I'm trying to fill.

And then I take plenty of notes on my answers.

Writing it all down is key, because all your discussion with yourself about the problem is full of good clues: pointers to your needed idea!

Just remember: You're getting the exact dimensions of your missing puzzle piece. That's the only way to recognize the best solution.

Obviously, the questions that you ask yourself will look different depending on the idea that you're after. But the first place to start is by asking: 

What exactly isn't working here? What is the problem really

And then, go into detail.

Like, a lot of detail.

You really can't have too much detail! If you're an overthinker like me, just do your thing. Let it all out.

So, for me, I need to define the problem most often because I've hit a major snarl in my plot.

Like recently: I needed to figure out what my protagonist was going to do during a critical part of the climactic sequence. I knew what happened just before this moment, and I knew what happened just after. 

But there was a big gap between the two, and I had nothing.

And after being frustrated for a while (stomping, staring, roaring), I remembered to start asking these questions. 

I opened a new document on my computer, and I wrote it down: "I don't know how to get my protagonist into this important building at the end of the story."

And then I imagined my computer saying (in a calm, thoughtful voice): "Tell me more about that."

This is when you start discussing every single component of the problem. 

So, for my problem, I wrote about who my protagonist was at this exact moment in the story.

What she had been learning, and what she was up against. How tired she was, and all the conflicts between herself and her allies. And also how she felt about the villains at the moment.

I also wrote down anything pertinent about her skills, her strengths, her flaws. What was her biggest fear? What was her chief objective, and what was the motive behind it? 

I reviewed all of this good stuff. (Brilliant ideas are lurking in these kinds of questions!)

Then I thought through my other characters, and what they were doing during this exact moment in the plot.

And then, too, the antagonist and all his friends: What were they up to? What were they worried about? How were they gathering for the climactic scenes? What did they still have up their sleeves?

I took a zillion notes, and then sat back and kept thinking.

What else was part of the problem?

Well, the building she needed to get into: it was extremely important to the story, and it had some special plot-related requirements of its own. 

So I wrote down everything that I could think of about that

And then I thought through everything else going on in the story's setting: the surrounding area, and the weather, and anything else that could be a part of it.

Another great question if you're looking at a plot problem: What story resources are still untapped?

What about these characters have I not used in a while? What haven't I exploited about the setting?

See how it goes?

The main thing is to drill wide, and drill deep. 

And don't stop until you feel like you have the most accurate representation of the hole you need to fill. 

Also, you can take some time to explain why other solutions don't work. 

This can be really clarifying. It's also a little cathartic, since you've probably had to abandon a handful of ideas for certain reasons. Get all that down, so that you know where you are:

I can't do this, because of that and that and that. I can't do this other thing, because of x and y and z.

Then ask:

What else will the solution have to take into consideration?

What other constraints are you operating with?

And (since sometimes you're filling a gap, and you know what's on the other side of it) what will this solution have to lead into?

Whew! 

After I've written everything down—and then some!—I'll usually take a break from this "Defining the Problem Q&A." 

I'll come back a few hours later, or the next day, and reread all the scribbling I've done and see if I've left anything out.

Once you've gotten every single possible element of your problem onto paper, you're set. Good job!

You have just become the expert on the idea that you're looking for. 

So where does that leave you? 

Actually in a really good place. 

When I did this process for that climactic story snag I had? The exact perfect solution dropped into my head, while I was writing down all the things that wouldn't work.

It feels like magic when that happens! Like "Congrats, you're a genius!!"

The right solution fell into place, and I love it. It feels unexpected in the story (I think!), and it ties up all the concerns I had about the moment itself.

But there's no way I would have been clear on that, if I hadn't gone through this process.

If the perfect idea doesn't show up, at least you know exactly what you are looking for. And that's a powerful place to be, when you need the perfect idea!

So how do you go about finding it?

That's what we'll talk about in the next post.

Ooooh. Story problems: brace yourselves!!

The Fun Way to Build an Army of Brilliant Little Ideas (Ready to Conquer Your Future Story Snags!)

This is a fun daily (or almost-daily) habit, guaranteed to result in an army of awesome, useable little ideas, ready to march in and conquer your future story snags. Did I mention that it's fun? Did I mention that it's easy? And it really, really works? You've got nothing to lose: let's dive in. | lucyflint.com

Hey there, Idea Campers. How are your imaginations feeling? Excited to hit the trails? YES! But also a bit hungry? Yep, mine too.

We already have three awesome, idea-generating lists at our fingertips, right? (If not, create these invaluable resources here and here.) 

Today we're supplementing that foundation with an easy, fun habit. Which also packs a huge punch. 

This is the habit that helped me build my favorite writing project EVER. (So if I'm a bit excited ... that's why.) 

And it is so simple—you'll love it. Ready?

I call it Idea Scouting. And it's one of the best ways to build an army of ideas that will absolutely march in and rescue you, whenever you need 'em.

So get your word nerd on, and let's dive in to what Idea Scouting looks like.

1. Run to your most beloved reference book.

The point of Idea Scouting is to develop a rich catalogue of ideas, right at your fingertips.

Where do you find these ideas? From fantastic reference books.

Any compendium of words, phrases, or facts will work splendidly: I'm having a fling with a set of old encyclopedias, and I'm also still in love with my Collegiate Dictionary. So that's what I head toward.

But any other collection of facts, random entries, explanations, or odd tidbits will be perfect.

Browse the reference section and see what strikes your fancy.

(My most recent favorite place for this kind of thing is Atlas Obscura: I signed up for their emails and now get an incredible selection of fascinating info emailed to me every day. Trust me, it's completely addictive!)

2. Read like a scout (and not like a student).

Here's the great thing about this kind of work: You don't have to dutifully copy out facts and dates. You're not writing a report. You don't have to care about any entry that doesn't grab you.

You're a scout

You're on the lookout for anything that glimmers.

You're walking through the woods of all this information with your eyes wide open for any motion, anything out of the ordinary, anything that strikes you.

In other words, it's meant to be fun. You're searching for what you naturally like—and there are no wrong answers for that.

Notice what you notice. And leave the rest.

What's awesome about this: you are a totally unique, super original person. And by grabbing the ideas that appeal to you, you're building originality right into your idea files. 

Which is GREAT news for all your future writing.

So feel free to play to your quirks and lean on all the subjects you most love.

3. Take notesand write wide.

This is the most important part of the whole Idea Scouting ritual: where your simple habit turns into mega-genius. 

But it's super easy. Almost effortless!

When you're reading, and you notice something that catches you—a word, a concept, a phrase that's fun, an image, or anything at all—you write it down, of course. 

I've created separate files for different categories: character ideas, setting ideas, miscellaneous concepts, etc.

And I've arranged mine alphabetically because I adore the alphabet. But whatever suits you will work just fine. 

Pull up your appropriate file, and jot down the tidbit that caught your eye.

But then you press just a bit further: Write down anything that your imagination is already telling you. 

In other words, you don't just copy down the words that sparked you. Add everything else that showed up in your brain. 

Maybe a definition brings to life in you a particular character, with a certain tone of voice. You write down at that entry everything you sense about the character, and maybe some exact dialogue as well. 

If another entry sounds like the perfect place name, you write that down, and anything about the place itself that you can see or sense. 

Or maybe there's just a word that you love: if you can see it clearly, add in the specifics about what you can see.

Remember that great Heather Sellers quote about writing down images instead of ideas? Yeah. Do that.

Because this is definitely a place for images.

The more you can see and hear and sense, and the more you write alllll of that down, the much richer these files will be when you need them.

THAT is what makes your Scout Files so valuable. Every idea comes partially prepped! 

At the moment of writing it down, it feels like almost no work at all. It's easy to write when you can see something clearly in your head, right? 

But when you're searching for something later, you'll have all that juicy imagination work all ready to go. 

COMPLETELY amazing. It's a game changer.

4. Keep coming back.

Turn the process into a habit, and you'll never be low on ideas.

So when do you do this? It's up to you.

Maybe it's the first ten minutes of your writing day. Or maybe once a week you have a thirty minute idea-finding festival. Or some other pattern.

The most important thing is: To do it regularly, and to do it in such a way that it's a fun exploration.

Not drudgery. Not something you have to do.

Keep it light. Ten minutes really works just fine! Long enough to find some ideas, and not so long that your brain turns to mush.

The other thing is: You'll want to come back to your Scout Files from time to time and scan them. Just check 'em out, read some of the entries, and see what stands out. 

Maybe you'll want this review to be a regular habit too. It can be really inspiring to breeze through a list of ideas and feel your imagination revving up!

Or, you can just wander back through whenever the urge strikes.

However you choose to do it, you'll definitely want to do a major review of all your Scout Files before starting a new project. (Or, of course, whenever you feel stuck!)

See what works for you. The goal is to feel refreshed—not like you have one more homework assignment hanging over your head.

Scout Files in Action:

How is all this helpful? Well, the process itself gets you thinking and searching and imagining like a writer, which is incredibly valuable training.

But there's another huge reason why I love Idea Scouting  and my Scout Files so much: those files are what fleshed out my current work-in-progress.

I had a slim, quiet little idea, something that wouldn't leave me alone. But there wasn't much meat on it.

So when I decided to take that idea out for a spin during Nanowrimo (way back in 2009!), I combed through my Scout Files. Especially my huge lists of possible characters and quirky concepts. 

I pulled out everything that snagged my heart or made me happy or seemed to fit with the atmosphere of my new idea, and I put them in a separate file of their own.

And then, as I hurtled through Nanowrimo's daily writing quotas, I snatched those prepped ideas every time I needed a new character, a bit of setting, a detail, a plot twist, a new layer to the conflict, or a chance reference. 

The result? A wacky, marvelously fun book that's packed full of ideas I love. (And which wasn't too hard to draft!)

It's become a book that totally grabs my heart. And it's turned into a trilogy, as those ideas launched more ideas.

... Not a bad payoff, for spending ten or twenty minutes every day, cheerily reading the dictionary (and feeling quite writerly).

YAY for that, right?

As you settle into this habit, you'll see that it radically ups your confidence. Eventually, you'll have your own army of ideas.

Wonderful notions for characters, settings, and amazing little details begging to be sprinkled through your next piece.

With that kind of back-up, you can march into any writing project ready for action.

... And also, can the nerd in me just say: it is super fun to work with ideas in a no-pressure situation. To be looking for delicious ideas before you need them.

There's another name for that. ... Hang on, what is it? Oh yeah: PLAY.

This is a great way to play as a writer! Because you're just messing around, reading a bit and letting your brain look around and scavenge what it will.

Wahoo!! This is what we love, am I right?

So which reference book will you be taking out for a spin? The incredibly useful dictionary, an agreeable encyclopedia, or some other reference that you're partial to? 

Dig in. Let your imagination ramble.

And relish the ideas that come running out to meet you.

You've Already Done Your Hardest Research (So Let's Turn It Into Idea Gold!)

You've done so much living and learning that your heart knows a TON. (With clear, vivid imagery attached, of course!) Let's get it all down, so it can fuel your most amazing ideas! (Idea Camp going strong y'all!) | lucyflint.com

"Write what you know" is probably one of the most clichéd sayings in writerdom.

I've heard a few different takes on it, as well as a thorough defense of its opposite: Write what you don't know. (Intriguing, right?)

Like any cliché, it can get a little irritating. (Yes, I've definitely rolled my eyes at it.)

But. When we really lean into "write what you know," it can be one of the most powerful and freeing guides to our writing.

Also? It can generate a bunch of quality ideas.

Which is why it totally belongs in Idea Camp.

Here is the truest true thing about my best work: it all is closely tied to what I know very well. 

Especially what I know well emotionally. The stuff that I've seen to be true in my life. What I know about people, about power, about place, about change.

About family. About loneliness. About myself.

THAT is the kind of what you know that drives really good ideas, and really compelling stories.

Writing what we don't know is magnificent when it comes to new settings, fantastical beings, and villainy. 

But as writers (and observers! and artists!), part of our job description is to truthfully share the things that we know the best.

Meaning: What our hearts know.

When I encounter that kind of knowing in a novel, it rings in my head and heart long after I finish reading. You know the feeling? 

When another writer has taken the time to show exactly what it looks like: to be here, to be alive. To feel small, to be alone, to try hard. To get bruised and then to get up again. To fight for what matters. 

THOSE are the stories we need. And that's what it means (to me, at least) to write what you know.

Which means some of the best stuff that you will write comes straight out of your own past. 

The strongest, brightest, strangest, sharpest memories.

The places and people and relationships and circumstances that you knew most intimately. 

That is what will drive your material. And that is going to lead to your best, clearest writing.

Mmmmmmm!! I'm excited.

Let's hear from two helpful guides before we dive in.

First, Heather Sellers makes a fantastic point in Chapter After Chapter, when she talks about the difference between ideas and images:

When most writers try to write down their ideas for stories, they usually only capture a tiny bit of the work from a faraway, not creative place in their minds. ...
   Do not save up ideas. Do not write about the work from a distance. Instead of writing notes about an idea like
story about babysitter, write: Dana said, "You didn't pay me last time, either, Heather." And she smacked that gum which seemed to be a weird striped gum, green and purple, both. 
   Write down what you hear. Write down what you see. ...
   Transition out of ideas and into
images. You will be amazed at the results you get when you start doing this. 

Let me just say: she is totally right about that.

It is so tempting to leave our ideas in those distant terms. "Write about my second grade teacher. Write about recess in sixth grade. Write about my friend-who-wasn't-a-friend in high school." 

But for Idea Camp, we're aiming at appealing, useable concepts with velocity. 

Velocity shows up only when we're working in images. In sounds, smells, textures. In the emotions, in exactly how they feel. 

So, for this list we're about to make, paint your images as richly as you can. 

What's going onto the list? Memories. 

James Scott Bell talks about how this kind of memory list can work. This is from Plot & Structure (awesome book, by the way!): 

Early in his career, Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns that flew out of his subconscious. These became fodder for his stories. 
   Start your own list. Let your mind comb through the mental pictures of your own past. ...
   Each of these is a germ of a possible story or novel. They resonate from my past. I can take one of these items and brainstorm a whole host of possibilities that come straight from the heart.

(How much do I love the idea of Ray Bradbury's list of nouns?? Ahhhh. So much.) 

I love Bell's point: that these memories have a natural resonance.

Also, the things that our hearts have learned are tied to real, factual moments: Nouns. Verbs. Images. 

The concrete stuff that we'll communicate in our writing.

So today, we're going to start our Memory List. You can start with a bunch of nouns, if you like Bradbury's approach, and see what comes up. 

Or—because I like a good question to chew on—check out my list of prompts below.

Think through your past with each question. And if that feels totally overwhelming (it does for me!), try scanning  your history in seven-year chunks. Age 0-7. Then 8-14. 15-21. And so on. 

Try to answer each question with as much imagery as you can. Let your heart talk.

... But before we make our lists, one more quick thing. This is meant to be a list of things that you feel willing to write about. This isn't about the stories and memories that we're not actually ready to write about.

So if there are dark, sad, terrible truths in your past that you don't feel ready to share, then they don't belong on this list. Okay? Keep processing, keep healing. You don't have to write about those yet.

This list is truly just for the things that you're ready to bring out in stories. (Also, if this is you, then I wish I could give you a big hug. Truly.)

Ready? Grab your pen and paper, grab a fresh document on your computer, and let's dive in!

For each span of years, think about what stands out the most in your memory. Especially: 

  • What places meant a lot to you? Where did you live? Where did you visit? Where else did you go: school, church, camp, friends' houses, family, vacations... Describe them with as much imagery as you can remember. The sounds, the smells, the tastes.
  • What were you most afraid of during these years? (Again, press for the images, not just the ideas...)
  • What embarrassments do you remember?
  • What most delighted you? 
  • What happened on the "happiest day of your life" in this time period? What made it a great day? What were the highlights? Capture the sensory details of that kind of day.
  • What achievements did you have? What are you still proud of? 
  • How did you like to spend your time? What hobbies, what activities? 
  • Which people and which relationships were the most important to you (in good ways or bad ways)? Who was helpful? Who, um, wasn't? What specific memories do you have about these people? 
  • If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be, and why? What would happen next?
  • What haunts you from this time? And what do you still feel happy about? 
  • What else do you remember? What else won't leave you alone? Nothing is too small of a detail.

What I love about this list is that we've already done the emotional research.

This is the stuff we know! We've already done the hard work of learning it and living it. It's time to turn those experiences into vivid scenes, characters that resonate, high moments in our novels.

What I love about using our memories for ideas is how versatile they are.

They can be the tiniest ideas that we sprinkle into our stories—the little things we add to make the scene feel more real, vivid, and lived in. 

Or they can be the whole point of the novel itself. The theme. The main characters. The villain. The setting. The conflict.

That's why no memory is too big, too small, too localized, or too weird. (I love the too weird ones!!)

After you've taken your first run at this list, give yourself a bit of a break—a few hours, a few days—and then read it through and add more to it. 

Hopefully you'll see situations, characters, circumstances, details, moments, and settings that are just begging to be used.

Maybe you'll write them in clear, memoir-esque detail.

Or you'll use your history, but totally transformed, turned inside out and backwards. Reinvented. Fantastical. The funhouse-mirror version of your past. 

This is ridiculously fun to do, by the way.

When I think of ways to switch up my past and use it in a story, I get the most incredible glee. It's still one of the best parts of being a writer, being able to use (redeem, vindicate) your past.

Okay. Want to get even more crazy? YES YOU DO and so do I.

Get out your two lists from the last post: your Major Interests List and your Curiosity List

Let's have some fun. Choose an item from two of the lists, and mash 'em up in your mind. Or pick an item from all three! 

Do a little mix-and-match action, and just see what starts to come up. Try to imagine it as fully as possible: full images, full senses. 

Jot down notes, and chase anything that quickens your heart. 

Like: how much do I love the mash-up of my stern, much-wrinkled second grade teacher, who was always writing my name up on the board for talking (memory list), plus the circus (curiosity list)?

Stir in a bit of how cooking and sharing meals bring us together (major interests list), and suddenly I have some AMAZING images, unusual characters, and hilarious conflicts brewing in my mind!

This is the fun part! Let yourself loose, and see what connections you can make between the three lists.

Maybe there's your next novel in there. Or a whole series.

Oooooh.

Happy idea finding!


Want to do a little more digging into how you're already an original, full of ideas? (Because you totally are!) Check out these two posts: they're right up your alley! How (and Why) to Put Your Heart on a Platter and Stop Dodging Your Best Work (Celebrate Where You've Been)

Dare to Transform Your Writing Life with This One Strategy

If I had started doing this sooner, my whole writing career would look different!! But better late than never. All you need? A little time and a little courage. But the rewards? Huge. Do you have the guts to try? | lucyflint.com

When I officially launched this blog last March, one of the toughest decisions to make was the title for the blog.

If you've started a blog, or website, or similar project, you get this, right? Sum up all your hopes and dreams for the project in one teeny phrase

I knew some of what I was looking for: I wanted it to be happy. I wanted to talk about the kind of writing life I had just started to explore—what I most wanted to grow into.

I tried everything. For a long while, this blog was almost subtitled, "Pursuing the Merry & Wild Writing Life."

I loved the idea of an unusually joyful approach to writing. Merry, for sure!

And I also liked not fitting so neatly into a box, not being so darned meek and quiet about our writer selves. Being fierce in our creativity. More than a little wild.

Merry & Wild. Close. But not quite there.

When I hit on the term lionheart, I knew my blog had met its destiny.

Because when I say lionheart, I don't just mean "courageous person" (although of course that's part of it). The word has absorbed a host of other senses, elements, and ideas.

And so when I say I aim to be a Lionhearted Writer, it's shorthand for all the traits I'm aiming at.

The entire bag of tricks that make up my exact ideal way to be a writer.

... And since I'm obsessed with definitions, I thought maybe it's time to lay that definition out completely.

For the month of May, we're going to explore everything that goes into being that kind of writer. 

It's the anatomy of a lionheart! 

And just so we're clear: When I say lionheart, I of course mean you, me, and the hundreds of other writers who are reading this post. There are a lot of us.

Get ready for some roaring.


So! Lionhearted writers! Let's do this! Let's break it down!

Where to start? With something really quiet, small, and incredibly powerful.

The lionhearted writer trusts herself.

What?! Trust?

Yes. 

It seems like a little thing, but the more I think about it—oh, is it valuable!

Let's back up: Recently my younger sister and I were talking about Brené Brown, and how she's the coolest ever, and how we're both diving into the material she's created, and how much we loooooooove it.

My sister recommended her talk on trust, which I hadn't seen yet. And when I did, I was blown away.*

I loved the talk. (And as soon as you have twenty-four minutes available for awesomeness, you should go listen to it!) She defines trust, the elements that go into it, how it's built, how it's destroyed. 

But the thing that made my eyes open twice as wide, and start talking back excitedly to my computer screen, and then tell everyone else about it—was right at the end.

When she talked about applying all those trust-building skills to yourself

Are we trustworthy to ourselves? Do we honor our boundaries and do what we say we will? Do we take good care of our more vulnerable secrets, do we treat ourselves with generosity? 

I started applying that to myself, of course, with general life stuff. But then I asked another big question:

Do I trust myself as a writer?

For the first eight years or so of writing full time, I was the poster child for NOT trusting myself.

I essentially treated my creativity, my writing impulses, and my time, with utmost distrust and suspicion.

I worked in a panic. (Just to be clear, this is a very unpleasant way to work. Please don't do this.)

Of course I didn't trust myself! I didn't even want to. I was too new at this, too ignorant, so (I thought) how could I have anything in myself worth trusting? 

I had too much to learn, and not enough time for it. And I never wanted to give myself time to learn. Ever.

I had no faith in my instincts about how I needed to work. Instead, I was terrified that I wasn't challenging myself enough, so I pushed super hard—then burned out.

Scraped myself back together and pushed to burnout again. 

Um. It wasn't a healthy cycle.

All I had to show for it—after years—was a bunch of bruises, a total lack of faith in myself, and a lot of that time (which I was so scared about wasting) gone.

Now I think that if I had taken the time to actually listen to what I deep-down knew I neededtrusted it, and acted on it, I'd have a whole different story! 

Here is what I know: It is scary hard to trust yourself.

Especially when you're new at this... but I'm guessing it's going to be hard for a while longer than that. (Heck, right now, I probably trust myself 65% of the time. HUGE for me, but definitely not to 100 yet!)

It is hard to get really quiet and still and ask yourself: Okay. What do I need next? It's even harder to believe that the answer is a good one!

And it's hard to not just freak out all the time.

But no matter how uncertain it feels, I promise that it is worth building trust with yourself.

And I don't mean the screaming, freaking out, panicking part of you. (That part needs a hug and then a whole bunch of chocolate chip cookies and then a fuzzy blanket. But its screamed suggestions probably don't need to be followed.)

The truth that I've been stepping into lately, is that I understand a heck of a lot about how I need to work, what I need to be saying, and how I need to say it. 

The same thing is true of you. (Even if you're brand new to this!)

There's a part of you that does understand how you work. And even might hold some clues about how you work best

If you really pay attention to it, you can start to understand from that clever part of you: where your best material lies, and what you most need to learn

That part of you.

Find it. And then clear space, time, noise, and listen. 

I'm serious. Get a notebook, take some deep breaths, and just ask that deeper, wiser, word-loving part of you: What do I most need in my writing life right now? 

New resources, or time to play? A creative date where you go and wander and don't have to talk to anyone?

A different project? A crazy-fun class? A group? Or alone time?

Just listen in. Listen deep and listen long.

Find those gut instincts, and then trust them.

Show up for that part of yourself. It's something we all need—including me, for sure—to do more often.

... Oooh, what if once a week, we took fifteen minutes for this. Listening, writing down notes, just checking in.

And then, we acted on the good stuff that bubbled up about the direction of our writing.

Wouldn't that transform your approach to your work? What you work on? How you approach social media, marketing, all of that?

Again, I'm not talking about the million lists that all of our busy brains could frantically generate.

We're seeking that deeper, intuitive understanding.

If you're more extrovert style, I love and respect you: do this in your marvelous extrovert way. Maybe you'll want to grab a close friend who gets this kind of writing/creative lifestyle, and talk it through.

But however this looks for you, find a way to give your instincts a lot more trust. Let them make the call. Steer by them for a while.

That could be the key to a transformational amount of amazingness.


* Yep, I only just realized that Brené Brown's talk is called The Anatomy of Trust, though somewhere in my head that must've stuck. ... Which is probably why "The Anatomy of a Lionheart" struck me as a great series title!

Haha! Thanks, Brené Brown!!

When I Want to Be the Sharpest Writer I Can Be, I Grab This Book (Spring Cleaning Our Creativity)

Want to spring clean your creativity? This is the book I go to when I need a mental and creative sprucing, when I want new language for creativity, and when I need a general butt kicking and pep rally all in one. And yeah, you'd probably like this book too. | lucyflint.com

When my approach to creativity, idea-finding, and the whole imaginative life starts to get a bit cluttered, dull, and dry, I go to a specific volume on my writing bookshelf.

If I realize that I've let some self-pitying and some boo-hoo-hooing into my creativity, I reach for a certain guide.

And if I know that I've been taking it too easy and now need a real ZING:

Yup. You know it.

I grab that same book.

And so if you're in the mood to do a spring cleaning of your creativity—whaaaat?! heck yes, we're going there!—then this is the book you want too.

It's Twyla Tharp's practical guide to the creative life: The Creative Habit.

So how is this gonna spruce up our creativity?

Well, for starters, it just looks clean, with its white cover, lots of white space on the pages, grey and black type, with the occasional splash of red.

The book-nerd in me (wait, that's all of me) flat out loves it right from the start for looking so bracing.

And once you're into it and reading, the actual text and tips are sooooo refreshing.

Because Tharp is a choreographer. Her natural creative language is the language of dance.

... Which doesn't make this book inaccessible, by the way: she's talking to all creatives, and uses examples from business, painting, music, and yes, writing. 

I'm grateful for her new-to-me perspective, because it's easy for us writers to keep sharing similar tips over and over, right? Advice begins to sound the same. 

But not with this book.

Tharp's whole approach always resets me. It's where I go when I'm craving creative clarity, precision, no nonsense, and a general butt-kicking.

And in this book, she takes us through her whole process, start to finish. She talks about where a project begins, how you find ideas, and what your natural creative stance is. (She calls it your creative DNA. Cool, right?)

Then she gets into the nitty-gritty of how to approach a single piece of work. The role our skill plays. How to deal with failure, how to get out of a rut.

And—my favorite, favorite, heartbeat-picks-up kind of stuff—how to be in this game for the long term, how to find your groove, and how to get into a creative bubble and make your best work.

Every time I finish this book, I think: DANG. 

And then also: YES, PLEASE.

Can I please be every bit as passionate as she is about creativity after thirty-plus more years of doing this? 

Can I be at master-level? Can I be so savvy and calm about how creativity works? Can I be continually doing my best work? 

Fortunately, we can. Because she just told us how.

So there you go: pick up this book when you want something mega-inspiring and incredibly helpful, full of a fresh and practical approach to creativity.

Sound good?? Happy cleaning.

I'm Not Super Interested in My Writing Process Feeling Like a Slog, Are You?

I was running out of steam this week, and thought I had to just keep plowing. Oh wait: that's not how I roll any more. Here's the new way to become a writing machine. (It's so much more fun, btw.) | lucyflint.com

How's your writing going, lionhearts? 

I've been back to my novel-in-progress in a big way over the last week. Words! Paragraphs! Chapters! It's been grand.

Plus, thanks to Monday's pep talk, I'm embracing the fact that it's gonna sound like a crappy first draft. No worries about quality.

So I thought that I'd keep chugging along, giving 90 percent of my energy to the words, bearing with the sloppiness of the drafting process

And then my word-making engine started making funny sounds. And acting weird.

Spluttering, coughing, jerking around. It kept stalling and puttering and cutting out.

I couldn't figure out what was wrong at first.

These chapters have been outlined—enough and not too much—so I knew what I was writing.

It's an exciting part of the story, too: the aunt and the niece are bickering, the baby has gone missing, and they've fallen into another world. 

Lots of tension! Intriguing settings! Plenty to do!

But I kept wearing out. I had the ideas, but my brain felt like taffy. Stretched too thin—shredding to wisps. The ideas weren't turning into real images, real moments, real words.  

What's a writer with a mega-steep deadline to do? 

Thrash about? Fight it out? Get all the words down with blood and sweat and tears?

Ha! If you've been around here for five minutes, you know by now: that's not how I roll. Not anymore.

So what, then? The deadline is tight and certain. How do I get these words moving again?

It took an evening of soul-searching, but I realized the answer was staring me in the face. 

I've come back to this draft after a ton of chaos. My brain has been full of problems to solve, of logistics and nurturing other people and getting plenty of vitamin C.

And I haven't done the oh-so-necessary spelunking in the wonderful dark caves of the imagination.

I haven't been feeding my story-making side at all.

Whoops.

So today's quote comes from Elizabeth Berg. It's marvelously straightforward, and precisely what I need:

"Find out what works as a literary stimulant for you, and use it shamelessly."

Obviously, this isn't shocking news. One of the words most often on our writerly lips is inspiration after all.

So the reason I love this quote is that it gives permission.

Use it shamelessly.

No guilt when you're off inspiration-seeking! No mixed feelings about nurturing the imagination!

"Find out what works as a literary stimulant for you, and use it shamelessly." -- Elizabeth Berg ... If you were looking for permission to drop everything and go out in search of what most inspires you: This is it. | lucyflint.com

I need to hear this.

Because sometimes, I misdiagnose.

I feel like I must be procrastinating when I'm off seeking inspiration. Like I'm putting off the real work of the words on the page—which of course is important! Super important! 

But we have to remember that our stories come from a dance between the two: we refuel the place that comes up with the words. And then we write what bubbles up. 

Refuel, write, repeat.

And yes, if you're chewing on that idea of putting 90 percent of your energy to the words on the page, this active refueling can make up part of that. Especially if you keep running dry, like I was.

When we're operating from a place of rich, deep fuel, it's easier to fall into our story and stay there.

It is, dare I say it, easy to write.

And that's what I want to get back to. 

So I'm making a list of all my tricks. All of 'em! It's shocking, actually, how I had totally forgotten them.

(Terrifying to be out of that habit!)

I grabbed a book of poems and stuck it by my bed to read just before drifting off to sleep. 

I'm spending time listening to songs that inspire me, watching movie trailers that whip my imagination into a frenzy, and browsing concept design on Pinterest

And then, that most potent strategy of all, I'm actively dropping my mind straight into my book. Swapping realities. 

Whew! I'm so out of practice! 

But this is what saves my writerly bacon. 

This is what gets the book written, without all that anguish.

This is what even makes the writing fun. It turns the work into an adventure—instead of another day pushing numbers into a graph. This many words and that many chapters by these dates.

We're not accountants.

(And I love accountants. No offense, number lovers!)

But we are writers. We've got to get a little gooey sometimes. We're supposed to.

We need to know what works for us, what stimulates stories in us, and then we have to give ourselves permission to go after that. 

It's the job. (And it's actually a lot of fun!)

Happy spelunking.


Where do your story ideas lurk? What feeds your gooey, story-making side? Please do share in the comments!! We could all use a few more strategies! (And nothing is too weird. I promise.)