(Image courtesy of Willamette Writers)
The first week of December, we met with Fonda Lee to discuss how to discover great story ideas. Besides being an engaging, friendly speaker, Fonda has a success story most of us drool over. She began her publishing journey at our very own Willamette Writers’ Conference in 2013. Over the past 4 years, she’s published 3 books and is under contract for 3 more. Clearly, this is a writer with no problems finding ideas for her stories.
Fonda started off sharing the things she’d wish she’d known before she was published. Here are her truths:
- Truth #1: Good writing doesn’t sell books. Great ideas sell books. The idea gets you in the door and the writing seals the deal.
- I’ve spent time in the bookstore plucking books off the shelves and opening to a random section. I’ve been surprised at just how much mediocre writing is out there, and yet these books continue to come out because it’s not really about the writing – it’s about the story.
- Truth #2: There are 2 common beliefs held by writers.
- #1 Optimistic Artist: I need an original idea no one has every done before.
- #2 Cynical Commercialist: Copy an idea that’s been successful.
- As Austin Kleon says, “Steal like an artist.” (TED talk provided in the link)
- So we ask ourselves: do agents and editors want what’s new and original or what’s proven and done. And the catch is, they want both: a unique take on a familiar subject. (disclaimer, I may have gotten this truth wrong as my notes have annoyingly omitted “Truth #2” in my notebook. I think the words walked off the page of their own accord. I’ve seen it happen.)
- Truth #3: Creative ideas come from making connections between seemingly unrelated events.
- Here, Fonda invoked the old adage we’re all familiar with: write what you know. But, Fonda said, take it to the next level – draw connections between all the things you know. (There’s an exercise for this in a little bit)
- Truth #4: The originality of a story does not come from its ideas but from its creator.
So if we combine these four truths together. We get Fonda’s advice for building all of this into one framework: connect, combine, steal, remix, mash-up, and transform. Here, we see how both the optimistic artist and the cynical commercialist can find common ground.
Exercise for Generating Ideas:
One of the best things I love about attending our WW meetings is that we (usually) get some hands-on ideas for how to implement the concepts discussed in the talk. Fonda’s idea really hit home for me and an idea – that is, a feasible, doable idea – came out of the scant 10 minutes we spent on this exercise. The exercise: Take a sheet of paper and make three columns. At the top of the first, write: Things I’ve experienced. At the top of the middle, write: Things I Know About. At the top of the third, write: Things I’m passionate about. To give you an example from my list, I wrote about some of the things I’ve experienced due to our family’s infertility. In the second, I wrote about all the different historical eras I like to study – Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Tudor England, Regency England, etc. And in the final one, I listed my passions, one of which is knitting.
Then, explore your lists and see what your connections are. Pull something from each category and see how it mashes up. What did I come up with? “An infertile woman discovers the ability to knit portals through time.” I’m not sure what else would happen in this story, but I imagine that she might fall back through time, be mistaken for a midwife (or a witch), and use her knowledge to both help the women she encounters and find healing for herself. Again, it’s just a seed, but it’s not half bad, if I do say so myself.
Give it a try. I think you’ll surprise yourself.
Fonda then gave us some Practical Advice:
- Keep an Idea File – a story seed farm
- Cultivate a habit of noticing connections
- explore what you’re seeing in different contexts
- Read, watch, and consume art widely
- Anyone notice how popular cross-genre fiction is??
- More experiences = more creative fodder
- This reminds me of something Portland-based author Vanessa Veselka said in a workshop once, which was that writers must give themselves permission to NOT write. She said, take a few weeks and go DO something. Fonda also shared that she is not an everyday writer and doesn’t believe that a strict regimen is right for her and may not be right for everyone. But you can bet that if she’s not writing, she’s doing something that will fuel her writing later.
- Let ideas rise to the top over time
- Let those good ideas percolate. As we’ve probably all experienced, the flush and flurry of a new idea can send us racing for our keyboard or notepad, but then we burn out on them after just a couple chapters. In my own experience, I had an idea for a Jane Austen time travel something like 5 or 6 years ago. I kept a notebook just for that particular idea and would jot things down as they came to me over 3 years – scenes, dialogue, and plot points. When I sat down to write that draft (in a Literary Arts workshop with Emily Chenoweth on writing a novel in 8 weeks), my fingers were practically vibrating with the muse. And I did it – I wrote something like 60,000 words in 8 weeks. It was a very rough draft, but it was a draft and I was able to bang it out because I had let it sit. I’m now at work on my next novel, which also came into being as a short story some 5 years ago and which I’ve been percolating for that time.
- Dig deep, be vulnerable, be personal
- Know when to be alone and when to collaborate
- Deliver on the execution – while good writing won’t sell the book, bad writing could certainly be the reason an agent or editor gives it a pass.
- Don’t imitate. Transform.
Q/A with Fonda Lee:
Q: Did you have a large social media platform that influenced publishers?
A: No, and it’s not necessary. There’s an expectation you have to have some presence. But it has little bearing on getting published. For the average author, it does not have a bearing.
Q: To what extend do tricks of the trade (a la Writers’ Digest, etc) work?
A: There is a difference between a writing workout/conditioning and actual writing. It is separate from the work itself. Don’t rely on tricks of the trade to get to a finished book.
Q: How do you develop characters?
A: Sometimes, it’s character first (Zeroboxer), plot first (Exo), or world first (Jade City). What is the spark of that idea? Then gather material around it. Ask yourself: “who would be really poorly equipped to deal with this problem?” Or “What would be the worst thing that could happen to this character?”
Q: How much world building has to be done? Every detail?
A: Identify the core of the story and the character. Which components of the world need to be developed? In Zeroboxer, it was a story about an athlete at its core. World building has to center on his experience – all the other stuff didn’t have to be as detailed. If your world feels credible, readers will extrapolate.
Q: What do you do when you’re finished with one book and haven’t started another? Do you have a writing routine?
A: I don’t believe in writing every day, but I do something creative every day. I have a parallel process. At any one time, I’m drafting the new book, revising the previous one, and ruminating on the next one. I also spend about 2-4 months of research before starting a new book for things that will go into the world.