Filling Your Well of Ideas

Sometimes I think my idea well has run dry. The plots I dredge up are so spare they couldn’t even flesh out a flash fiction story.

Can you relate?

The Well of Ideas

The Well of Ideas

Usually what this means is I need to switch from “creative” mode to “ingestion” mode—I need more raw material to draw from. Some writers can create a story idea from nothing except their own imagination.

That is not me. And if that’s not you, too, maybe this trick will help you fill your well.

Feed Me, Seymour!

Much like the carnivorous plant in “The Little Shop of Horrors,” I need constant feeding. Often I chow down on a great novel; less frequently nonfiction fills my gullet.

Maybe it’s my background as a newspaper reporter, but some of the best food for my imagination comes from the news—including quasi news sources like blogs. Because, as Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

When I read news, online or print (broadcast doesn’t work for me), invariably I read an article that sparks an idea or two. Now, I freely admit not all of them will produce even a flash fiction piece, let alone a full-blown novel, but the important thing is I’m filling my imagination. At the appropriate time, several of the ideas will likely congeal together and produce something workable.

But I can guarantee that nothing workable will be produced if raw material isn’t imported into the processor.

Is he talking about you?

What is the cost of living together?

What is the cost of living together?

For instance, I read this commentary from Regis Nicoll the other day called “The High Costs of Living Together.” It included this gem:

In 1969, although the vast majority of people, 82 percent, reported having had sex before marriage by age 30, only 21 percent felt that was morally acceptable.

… Over the next 40 years, as public acceptance grew three-fold (to 63 percent) and (more) people (94 percent) admitted to having “done it,” there was far less social pressure to restrain it or keep quiet about it.

This sea change in attitudes and practices can be attributed to two things: “no-consequence” sex and a morally-compromised Church.

… With roughly 80 percent of the U.S. populace Christian and 94 percent admitting to pre-marital sex, that means that a lot of Christians—very likely the majority—are guilty of sexual sin.

Woah … right? I know a lot of people who will take offense at a study like this. But that’s what makes great fiction!

Is that giving you ideas? (Story ideas, guys, story ideas.) It sure did me. My oeuvre, the framework within which I write, includes marriage, fidelity, trust—and all the antonyms of those, of course. I took the entirety of Nicoll’s piece and fed my imagination with it. Who knows where it may lead, but now that information has been uploaded and is available. (And also stored electronically.)

Fill your well

The point is there are ideas for fiction everywhere if you open your eyes, your heart, and your mind to them. If you read something that sticks with you—good or bad—file that away in your Well of Ideas. Maybe you’ll use it, maybe you won’t. But you for sure won’t use it if you don’t have it stored away.

Obviously our world is ever in need of the transformative power of story—and of Story. What ideas have you picked up from news sources and used in your stories?

Want to play?

Screenshot from Jan. 25, 2014, FOXNews.com home page

Screenshot from Jan. 25, 2014, FOXNews.com home page

Go to the front page of your local paper (or to the home page of CNN or Fox News or your favorite online news source) and read the main story—no cherry picking. Choose one fact or one quote or one idea from that story as your idea seed and freewrite a paragraph or two in the comments.

Here’s my example. I wrote this on Jan. 25 based on a story found on FOXNews.com. The story has changed since that day and my idea seed is no longer in it, but it’s still a good example.

My idea seed: The scene was “believed to be secure” police said in a tweet issued at about 12:36 p.m. Here’s what I came up with:

Ethan was dead. True. He’d been an effective triggerman. Also true. But there were others. Many others.

Captain White’s tweet that the mall was “secure” made Gaston—almost—laugh out loud, but he did not “LOL. When he laughed, and it was rare, it was real not some fake social construct. But that “out loud” part was a luxury he couldn’t allow himself right now. Later? Most definitely.

Stupid twerkers. Ethan got a few, but they’d be back prancing through the mall in their tight clothes and loose morals soon enough. It was “secure,” after all. White said so. Truth. 

So not true.

And then he did chuckle—but quietly. After all, the shoppers trapped in his store from the lockdown were still shook up and hyper aware—no sense in giving them something odd to remember if the police did questioned them.

They’d soon enough embrace again the fragile cloak of security they thought protected them. True, always true.

So, if you want to play leave a comment. Or, if you want to talk about where you get your ideas fromhow you fill your Well of Ideasleave a comment.

Well image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and cbenjasuwan.
Couple image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Ambro.

Mike-9Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as the editor of CHEFS Mix Blog for CHEFS Catalog he is enjoying his playground. Previous playgrounds include being the Managing Editor of the magazine ACFW Journal and the ezine Afictionado for seven years. He also plays with words as a freelance editor and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, worked in corporate communications, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Originally posted on Novel Rocket

In The Edit! Peter Leavell

In 2011, Peter Leavell was one of five finalists for the Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest with his manuscript, Songs of Captivity.

Peter Leavell, author of Gideon’s Call

Over the next nine months or so, as I watched him navigate the waters of publication (his novel won the contest and was renamed Gideon’s Call by Worthy Publishing), Peter has become a good friend. He told his story to the world with an article in ACFW Journal, the member magazine of the American Christian Fiction Writers, and subsequently gave his testimony at the organization’s conference last weekend in Dallas TX.

He has let me use his Journal article for In The Edit, and I’m happy to introduce you to Peter today.

Read his original, unedited article.

Peter’s edit

When Peter sent me this article, I knew few of the details he shared. When I read it, my jaw dropped—but that’s not unusual when I read personal stories of how God shows up in our lives.

After picking my jaw up off the desk, I read the article again. That’s when I first started seeing things I could do with it that would increase its impact. For this article, the three main areas I’ll focus on are:

  1. Clarity and consistency
  2. Extra words
  3. Emotion

See my edit in Track Changes mode.

Be clear, be consistent

You don’t have to get too far into this article to find some clarity and consistency issues. Look at the first sentence.

  • I stood between two towering infernos.

First of all, get past the idea of Jerry B. Jenkins and Byron Williamson standing there on fire. I’ll admit, I giggled. Since I read all of the way through the piece before beginning to edit, I knew that later Peter refers to the two men as giants. So, for clarity and consistency, I extinguished the infernos.

Clarity is not just about word choice, however. It also pertains to focus. Reading Peter’s article it was clear to me he was communicating his writing journey as it connected to his spiritual journey. While the information in the sixth graf about how driven he is was interesting, I thought the bit about running 15 miles for fun and writing 10,000 words a day (seriously? C’mon, seriously?) detracted from the overall point he was trying to make—which was how he learned to rely on God.

Trim the fat

Back to the top of the article. In the second graf, Peter plays up nicely the image he’s already given us of being placed between two literary giants.

  • “Standing tiptoe to see over the top of the check, I smiled.”

But then he describes for us what we can see in the photo. When he does that either the photo or the description becomes redundant.

I chose to cut the description. As a result, I was able to move the reader more quickly to the “money line” of this introduction.

  • “Three months earlier, I thought I was going to die.”

Other examples:

  • “Even writing an email was difficult.” He already said he couldn’t write.
  • “…even to my wife and children.” We already know he had little to say.
  • “…leaving me alone in the house. If they’ve gone off without him, then he must be alone.

Each of these cuts clipped unnecessary information and improved the pace of the story.

Make me cry

In personal stories like these, the purpose of the piece is to make God known. To give God glory. But a secondary purpose is to break down walls in others’ lives so they can more fully experience God.

One great tool for that is emotion. Sometimes this means adding something, sometimes it means cutting. Let’s look at some examples.

  • Before:“Diabetes was a possibility, as was cancer. I started my will, a sad thought at age 35.”
  • After:“Diabetes was a possibility, as was cancer. I started my will—at age 35.”

We all know death at an early age is sad—heck, death is always sad from a human perspective. But by telling us it was sad, Peter short-circuited the emotion by not allowing our brains to jump to the connection.

  • Before:“My memory is blurry, but I remember my son and daughter going off to soccer and ballet without me, leaving me alone in the house. Their lives had to go on, even if mine couldn’t.
  • After: “My memory is blurry, but I remember my son and daughter going off to soccer and ballet without me. Their lives had to go on, even if mine couldn’t.”

Not only was the cut material unnecessary, but it also killed the emotion of the graf’s closing line.

See the article as it appeared in ACFW Journal.

Peter, thanks for your friendship and for letting me use your article on my blog.

Would you like to see your writing In The Edit? Send me a short sample. If I use it, you’ll be eligible for a discount on my freelance editing services.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

In The Edit: Mike Dellosso

Mike Dellosso, author of Frantic and Rearview

Today’s In The Edit is, once again, a little different. For the July issue of ACFW Journal, suspense author Mike Dellosso (also d.b.a. as Michael King) interviewed Michael Hyatt, chairman of Thomas Nelson, author of the new book Platform: Get Noticed In A Noisy World, and the keynote speaker for American Christian Fiction Writer’s upcoming September conference.

After Dellosso interviewed Hyatt, it seemed wise to him to do the article in the Q-and-A format. In other words, to let Hyatt speak for himself rather than through the interpretation of the article’s author.

I liked the idea and greenlighted it. The end result was, like Hyatt, “the real deal.”

See Dellosso’s original article.

Editing process?

So, editing for a Q-and-A is pretty much a no-brainer, right? In many ways, yes. But there are a couple good guidelines to bear in mind if you ever get the opportunity to write (or edit) a Q-and-A article.

  1. Extra words: These can still be a problem, but must now be balanced against accurately presenting what the subject said.
  2. Grammar questions: There’s a difference between the way we speak and the way we want to be perceived in print.
  3. Reader-focused: How to be true to the subject of the interview as well as the reader.

Read my edit with track changes.

Trimming a Q-and-A

Here at Writing On The Fine Line, one of the key things I always point out are the extra words that find their way into our sentences. Tight writing is preferred over loosey-goosey prose every day.

But what about when those words are part of an actual quote—as they are in a Q-and-A article? Let’s look at Hyatt’s answer to the question about how he balanced work and family.

Hyatt: I didn’t always do that well. There were certainly times when I was tragically out of balance—where work was consuming all of my time and life. and I did what a lot of people do and convinced myself that I was in a temporary situation, that if I could just get through this season or just get this project done that I could then give focus to what I knew was important, which was my family.

People often speak in what, if printed, would be run-on sentences. In a newspaper this problem can be solved by indirect quotations and saving the actual quotes—what’s between the quotation marks—for the particularly pithy or meaningful words. However, in a Q-and-A that’s not practical.

So I elected to do strategic tightening, leaving many words in that I would edit out if this were fiction dialogue, but staying true to both the literal meaning of Hyatt’s words and his intent. None of the words deleted altered Hyatt’s remark or cast a false light on what he was saying.

Woulda, coulda, should not

There were a few places where Dellosso transcribed Hyatt as saying “gonna” and “gotta”. Unless trying to establish that an interview subject is a Southern gentleman, I opt for correcting these little speaking shortcuts we all use.

Why? Mostly because it’s right that way, but also because people are judgmental. I wouldn’t want someone thinking poorly about a interview subject I’m talking to. The AP Stylebook supports this: Do not use substandard spellings such as gonna or wanna in attempts to convey regional dialects or informal pronunciations, except to help a desired touch or to convey an emphasis by the speaker.

Easy-to-read

Always bear audience in mind. When you do that, you look at the information being shared in a Q-and-A and determine how to structure it so that the audience both benefits from the information and gets a true representation of the person providing the knowledge.

In some cases, though not in this case, that may mean cutting out whole chunks of quoted material that are not relevant. What it meant in this piece was taking some of those spoken run-ons and creating sentences out of them to make it easier for the reader to grab the sense of what Hyatt was sharing. Here’s one example:

So cContent is king but platform is queen. You’re not going to succeed in today’s publishing environment without both. so aAuthors have to stop telling themselves, this story that “I’m not good at selling.” “I’m not a marketer.” “I’m an introvert.”, whatever it is. That’s not going to be helpful to them. , tThey’ll end up playing the role of a victim where they blame everybody else about why their book didn’t sell. You’ve got to take responsibility and own it.

An important point was being made in this graf, and I wanted to emphasize it. First, I got rid of the so’s, which we commonly use when transitioning in conversation. Then I put what author’s need to stop saying to themselves within quotation marks because I don’t want the audience to miss that and the marks will make it more like dialogue—and make that part more noticed.

View the story as it appeared in the July issue of ACFW Journal.


Mike Dellosso, thanks for coming In The Edit with me today! I appreciate it.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

In The Edit: Jennifer Slattery



In these posts, with the author’s permission, I look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece. The idea is to catch a glimpse into not only the editing process, but the relationship between editor and author.


Jennifer Slattery

Jennifer Slattery is one of my favorite writers for the ACFW Journal. She comes up with great ideas, pitches them well, and then executes them pretty much to my expectation. She is an editor’s dream, because I know I won’t have to reconstruct or rewrite, but more than that, that she’ll make it interesting.

The piece we’re looking at today—a feature on author Athol Dickson—is one of my favorites. It ran in the July 2012 issue of ACFW Journal. I’ve attached the designed spread (below) so you can see how well it works.

Dickson is, for me, one of those writers almost of mythical proportions. His body of work is consistently engaging and thought-provoking. Yet, Jen has revealed him as entirely human.

Jennifer’s edit

See Jennifer’s original.

These are the three main things I addressed in this article:

  1. Article’s purpose: This is a little hard to define, but for magazine writing—and specifically for a writer’s magazine—the features have to show the reader who the subject is without coming across as a tour guide or promotional piece. I did this by:
    • Punching up the lead.
    • Enhancing Jen’s natural accessible flow
    • Paying close attention to word choice.
  2. Writing tighter: Paring down where possible and expunging unnecessary information.
  3. Style issues: AP style and manuscript style.

See my edit in track changes.

What are we doing here?

Any magazine you write for has a style, an audience they are trying to reach. The ACFW Journal’s audience is Christian writers, published and unpublished. Our mission is to instruct, inspire, motivate, and entertain them.

Since that’s our audience, we need to write with eloquence, while adhering to established writing mores the organization teaches.

We want to grip the reader from the get go and then make it disarmingly easy to continue reading. One example is the change in the lead. You can see that what Jen did in one paragraph, I turned into two. The content is largely the same, but trimmed and divided into the punch (graf 1) and the support (graf 2).

Advice: As you write, think about the map of the magazine you’re targeting. We use a 3-column grid, big art, and lots of pull quotes, white space, and color. Jen’s original lead, while containing the right information, would have been a mass of grey in our grid.

Did I mention tight?

Review my previous In The Edit posts for lots of tips on how to write tighter. Though I use many of them in Jen’s piece, today I want to focus on just one: Getting rid of information the reader doesn’t need or that doesn’t add substantially to the piece.

In the section, ‘I’m done with You’, where we learn that Dickson was angry at God, Jen originally included this quote: “There was a televangelist talking on the TV set at that moment, and I watched that man jabbering on and on and strutting on the stage.” But, Dickson had just said he was mad at God, so why diffuse that anger by including the televangelist?

Don’t get me wrong—it may have been an important part of Dickson’s thinking. But without a lot more explanation, the reader is not going to feel the same indignation. Better to get right to what he was feeling when he was angry with God.

You can see similar cuts made elsewhere in the track changes version of the article.

Stylin’ baby, stylin’

Each magazine, newspaper, or publishing house has a style guide they adhere to. Our go-to guide is the AP Stylebook, the preference for many newspapers and magazines. AP stands for Associated Press.

You’ll note in Jen’s original, she referred to Athol Dickson on second and subsequent references as Athol. But AP style is to default to last names on second references. (Exception in this article: When quoting Athol’s brother, also a Dickson, for clarity we used first and last names for both brothers.)

Another style issue is the use of says instead of said for attribution. The thinking is this gives the article a stronger immediacy. Personally, I do not agree, but this is one area where I grit my teeth and go along with what is becoming standard practice.

Finally, in the style section, if you are sending an article or manuscript to an editor, it is still expected that you send it in double-spaced paragraphs, with half-inch indents, and a 12pt serif font such as Times New Roman. Unless you know with certainty, as Jen does, that your editor prefers another approach. (I prefer single-spaced, no indents, because I never edit on paper, only electronic.)

See my edited version, clean.

See the designed version from the ACFW Journal.



Jennifer, thanks for submitting this piece to In The Edit. As always, I enjoy working with your writing. Because you submitted, you are now eligible for a 25-percent discount on any of my editorial services.


If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). You too can be eligible for a 25-percent discount.


Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

In The Edit: Deborah Raney

Today’s In The Edit is a little different. Today I want to show you, by using a Deborah Raney example, ways that a good editor can help you make the most of the articles you write as you’re building your platform or your freelance business.

But, I do want to caution you as well. While it is permissible to repurpose an article—even wise—you need to be careful to not plagiarize yourself, as agent Steve Laube shares in his blog.

Deborah Raney
best-selling author of After All

The key, as best-selling author Deborah Raney suggests, is that each of these pieces, though about the same subject (how to incorporate the six senses into your fiction writing), are revised and re-edited with the audience in mind and each publisher was aware the article had been used before in another form.

I was not the editor on all of these pieces, but I did edit the versions that appeared in the Christian Writers Guild’s WordSmith ezine and the longer version in the ACFW Journal.

The original

“This article has gained so much mileage it’s not even funny!” Deb said. “The original sold to RWR (the magazine of the Romance Writers of America) in 2004—eight years ago. At that time it was 2500 words.”

See Deb’s original, unedited. Sorry, I do not have the edited version.

Christian Writers Guild version

This year, Deb will be one of the featured instructors at the Guild’s Writing for the Soul conference at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs CO. When I was the editor-in-chief at CWG, one of the things we liked to do was feature the conference instructors in our publications.

I needed something from Deb for the April 2012 issue of WordSmith and she suggested a reworking of this piece because the principles in it would help our students improve their storytelling abilities.

I had not read the RWR version, but she told me it had been published in the longer version above eight years earlier.

Read the version she sent me—already edited by Deb to 680 words.

The problem? I needed 300 words at the most—and, because of the audience, I needed a strong educational focus. Plus there was a desire, obviously, to promote Deb’s appearance at the conference.

See what we ended up with. (Deb’s article is on page 4 of the newsletter.)

Once more, with feeling!

Finally (so far…), Deb is the author of the Self-editing column for ACFW Journal, the quarterly magazine I edit for the American Christian Fiction Writers organization. When it was time for her July column, she suggested we run this piece again—only this time we were able to reinsert some of the stuff we had to cut for WordSmith.

See the ACFW Journal version.

Now, here’s where you may be wondering if this article is reaching critical mass. It has appeared, so far, in three publications that cater to writers: RWR, WordSmith, and ACFW Journal. Is that overkill?

A couple important things to remember: All three of those publications are member magazines and therefore only available to members of the organization that publishes them. While it’s possible there are a few people who are members of two of the organizations—even three—that is a fairly small population and each version of the story is substantially different.

But wait…

So Deb’s done with this topic now, right? Not so fast. When publicizing her latest release, After All (the third in the Hanover Falls series), Deb was asked to do a guest post on the blog The Borrowed Book. Yep, by taking the same information and revisiting it with examples from her new book, Deb was able to share this great writing information with another audience and do some good marketing for her book.

Why share this? Because when you write a good article, it’s not necessarily one and done—sometimes it’s one-, two-, three-, four- and (maybe) done. Especially if you think in advance about the different ways you can use the information you have to share.


Deb, thanks for letting me tell your story In The Edit today.

Eye image (c) Ken Raney


I hope you’ll come back on Thursday for another writing tip and then stop by Saturday for a writing quote and a question.


If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). If I use it, you’ll be eligible for a 25-percent discount on any editing services.

On Thursday, we’ll look at another self-editing writing tip. See you then! Then on Saturday, drop by for a quick writer’s quote and to share what that quote means to you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

Quote it! Mark Twain

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.”

Mark Twain, American author and humorist

Love Twain! He was a great curmudgeon.

The idea behind this quote is rich. When you think you’re done that’s when you should begin. It’s certainly been true in many articles I’ve written. Curse you deadline!

Maybe we should begin writing earlier?



Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

In The Edit: Linda Rohrbough

In these posts, with the author’s permission, we look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece.

Linda Rohrbough

This is probably breaking a point or two of some unpublished Editor’s Creed, but today’s volunteer for In The Edit (Linda Rohrbough) is a good friend, so I will just swallow hard, bite the inside of my cheek, and admit it: Editor’s don’t always communicate perfectly.

Pardon me, but I need a moment to catch my breath.

You’ll notice when you look at the various versions of Linda’s “Market News” article that I wholesale cut out a huge chunk at the end. This is not because Linda wrote it poorly or that the information was not of value. This is because (The inside of my cheek is already bleeding, so why not? Chomp!) I failed to let her know that the word count for the article had changed.

See Linda’s original article

Linda’s edit

Linda is a tight writer. She knows well the less = more economy of words. My main focus when editing this piece was:

  • Tightening: There are almost always words to remove, whether because of redundancy or because they aren’t needed.
  • Style: For the ACFW Journal we default to AP style.
  • Tone: Linda’s column is one that is read by all levels of ACFW membership so we strive for a professional tone, while still encouraging Linda’s voice.

See my edit of Linda’s article with Track Changes

Tightening

Remember, Linda already writes tight. But, in the second paragraph I was able to reduce the word count by seven words (60 to 53) and eliminate some passivity (Bowker manages and publishes rather than Bowker is known for managing and publishing).

In the next graf, I was able to do even better! (Yes, editors often pat themselves on the back for reducing words. Live with it.) Eliminating “I spoke with” as unnecessary—Linda wrote the piece, we know who spoke with Colleen Coble—and taking out where they spoke (not pertinent to the point) accomplished most of the reduction from 65 to 43 words.

Style

AP style is among the most fluid. I refer to the Associated Press Stylebook so often, that I’ve subscribed to the e-version. Because I’m always looking, I know that AP approves of email (no hyphen) but not ebook. So, where Linda used ebook I changed it to e-book and changed internet to Internet.

Tone

One of the things I love about Linda’s writing is the accessibility of her word choices and her conversational tone. When editing the “Market News” column, however, I keep the audience (professional writers and editors, or those aspiring to professional status) in mind and tend to tone down some of that.

You can see this in my edits of her subheads, but also, as an example, in paragraph 4, where I took out some hedging and redundancies, i.e., would a publisher attempt to shore up a bottom line if it wasn’t sagging?

See Linda’s article as edited

Linda, thanks for letting me use you as an example!

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to michael.ehret (at) inbox (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). If I use it, you’ll be eligible for a 10-percent discount on any editing services.

On Thursday, we’ll look at passive vs. active writing, so be sure to visit. Then on Saturday, drop by for a quick writer’s quote and to share what that quote means to you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line