The Blog

Ask the Book Doctor: Using characters to inspire you

Q. Meredith says, “I often find B characters in novels more interesting than the leads, yet they’re never fully developed (hence the B aspect). I wonder if using another novelist’s B characters as a jumping off point for a new character or story would ever produce any ideas worth exploring.”

A. As writers, we can find inspiration all around us, and other people’s fictional worlds and characters are a good example. The key point here is how (as Meredith specifies) you need to create a new character. Of course, you can’t use another writer’s characters or worlds, as that is copyright infringement, unless the novel is out of copyright protection (which is why we have all those Jane Austen mashups). Authors keep the right to produce derivative works (that is, other stories based on their characters and worlds) and although fan fiction is a popular sport, for someone seriously pursuing a writing career, you have to create your own characters and worlds unless you want to end up on the wrong end of a subpoena.

But you can certainly be inspired by other people’s stories and characters! In fact, for Jenny Jacobs’ The Winter Promise, the whole book was sparked by seeing Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He is a minor character–a B character–but there was something about his situation that struck me as having a lot of potential for a story. The character I ended up writing, Lord Robert, has almost nothing in common with Faramir, but the novel wouldn’t even exist if I hadn’t seen Faramir and thought, “Hmm.”

The key is to make the character/story your own, even if the spark comes from another character. What about the character intrigues you? How can you make the story your own? Dig deep and you might be surprised what you can come up with!

Nonfiction to Fiction

Some advice for writers

Almost all of my private coaching clients are established nonfiction writers who are honing their fiction skills. So you can imagine their most common questions have to do with making this leap.

Fiction and nonfiction writing have a lot of similarities, but it’s the differences that can be most nettlesome. Here are my thoughts on things to consider about making such a transition:

  • Your past experience doesn’t matter much to agents and editors except as evidence that you are a professional (which is good but in itself isn’t sufficient to interest them in your work). Focus on getting the fiction chops you need to succeed.
  • You have to be all in. Nonfiction writers often sell based on queries and proposals, but novelists (especially for the first few books) have to write the complete manuscript and polish it to perfection before they can generate interest. (Obviously I’m talking about traditional publishing here, but even if you’re self-publishing, to succeed you have to be committed to the project in a wholehearted way.)
  • You have to read and respect the genre you’re writing in. There’s a misconception among non-novelists that you can make a lot of money as a romance writer (or an erotica writer or a fill-in-the-blank). Sure, some people have lots of success in these genres, but you can’t pick a genre just because you think you could make some money. You have to read the genre, understand what it’s about it, and like it in order to successfully write it.
  • You have to keep an open mind. Just because you’re an established professional in one field doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to learn in another. Educate yourself, read, be an empty vessel instead of a know-it-all.
  • Your colleagues are still your best go-to group. Even if your nonfiction buddies don’t write fiction, they may be willing to act as first readers, or be able to connect you with someone who can help.
  • You have skills and tools that someone else just starting out doesn’t have. You’re a media professional. You know how to use words. You aren’t going to burst into noisy tears at the first sign of criticism. You know how to research (and how to stop so you can write the darned thing). You know how to focus. You have discipline. All of these elements are crucial to writing fiction, too.

Freelance writer Karen Kroll comments, “There’s much more to it than you realize at first, even if you’re an experienced nonfiction writer. The other thing that’s so different is the lack of certainty. Not that freelance nonfiction writing is certain, but if you stick with it and develop your skills, most freelancers can steadily build a client base; the ability to diversify (i.e, some magazine, some trade, some corporate, etc.) really helps.”

This is a great point: there are many different types of opportunities for a nonfiction writer that simply don’t exist for a novelist. One approach that works for several of my clients is to combine the two.

If any of you have made this transition, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

How to Generate Ideas

IMG_0416One of the most common questions I’m asked is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I’ve always said that if you ask me to write a story about a woman in a red dress sitting at a bar, I can do that without batting an eye, but ask me to write a story about whatever I want, and I can feel the panic setting in.

So, here are a few of my favorite ways to generate ideas:

1. Consider what you’re reacting to. If you have an opinion, maybe you have a story idea.  When someone posts an update on Facebook that makes my eyes roll, I often find that there’s a story there (I’m a contrary person, so a lot of times my ideas have to do with “what is the opposite of what everyone else is writing about these days?”)

2. Be mindful of your ideas. Ideas flit into your mind all the time. They just flit out again if you don’t pay attention. So, start paying attention.

3. Think about markets. It’s easier for me to think of an idea for a personal finance story to pitch an editor I know at Bankrate.com than it is for me to think of an idea.

4. Respect the idea. If an idea comes to you, pin that sucker down. I was sitting at a beachside diner last summer, chatting with my daughter and waiting for a storm to pass when I had an idea. I grabbed a pen and some napkins and caught that idea before it went away (see illustration).

5. Listen and watch people.  I do a lot of work in coffee shops and not just because I get tired of my living room. People spark ideas all the time.

6. Keep a journal. I have vivid dreams about all kinds of things, and I’ve written several books based on themes or feelings that arose when I was dreaming. I wrote those ideas down before I forgot them.

7. Think about what you know. For years what I knew about was martial arts. I tried to find ways to talk about martial arts that not everyone was already doing.

8. Research. Sometimes we think that ideas should just come to us out of the blue, but they don’t. They have context. So, if you have an area of interest, try reading the newest studies about it. Take a class. Talk to a teacher. Go to the library.

9. Develop a habit. Look for ideas. Look for them everywhere. Write them down. Pretty soon your problem won’t be not enough ideas but too many ideas to ever be able to write about in this lifetime. That’s a good kind of problem to have.

What are some methods you use to generate ideas?

Establishing–and juggling!–multiple revenue streams

Multiple streams of income. You’ve probably heard that as a writer you should have them—but how? And why?

Simply put, having multiple streams of income means you earn money from various sources. A staff reporter has one source of income, her employer; a freelance writer may have ten or more, depending on how many clients she’s juggling at any given time.

Beyond that, though, and what I think is most important for freelancers, is the concept of having a variety of types of income. This makes intuitive sense to most people. If you have one spigot, and it gets turned off, you’re going to go thirsty. If you have ten, and one gets turned off, well, you still have nine to draw water from.

That’s the key to surviving the often-turbulent waters of freelancing. For many years, writers who wrote exclusively for consumer magazines did very well for themselves—and then the economy tanked, and print media was devastated, and those writers were left scrambling to regroup when assignments stopped coming. Going from 80 to 0 in a couple of months is like slamming into a brick wall. It takes a while to shake it off. Writers who weren’t so heavily invested in writing for consumer magazines had an easier time of navigating the new waters.

The problem—which I’m sure you can immediately see—is that you can get too scattered chasing all kinds of opportunities and end up with nothing much to show for your efforts. Everyone has a limited amount of resources (time, attention, energy, knowledge). If I’m trying to break into magazine writing, should I also be trying to break into book publishing and corporate writing at the same time?

Probably not. Although I now have many sources of income—book advances, book royalties, magazine writing, teaching, editing, coaching—I certainly didn’t start that way. I didn’t pursue all of the possibilities at the same time.

I started with books, mostly because I’d always wanted to write them. I focused on martial arts related topics (a subject matter I knew pretty well). Then I started to write for magazines: first, I wrote for magazines that published martial arts content, then I wrote articles with a martial arts slant for general consumer magazines. Then an opportunity arose for me to edit a martial arts magazine, so I branched into that. In the meantime, because I had become familiar with book publishing, and I had some editing skills and deep intimacy with the Chicago Manual of Style (from grad school days), I started doing copyediting and developmental editing for book publishers. Then came chances to teach writing and editing skills at various universities (as well as online courses I develop myself).

What’s effective about this approach is that I got pretty good at one skill (say, writing books). Then I branched out and got pretty good at another skill (say, writing magazine articles). Then I spent time mastering yet another skill (editing magazines). Each time, I was getting paid for mastering the skill, and I didn’t try to take on too many new skills at one time.

In practice, how does this work? Each year, I look at my income, creative, and personal goals. I look at the mix of work I have, consider what I would like to be doing, and make adjustments. If I have too much of one kind of work, I will tend to solicit another kind. For example, a few years ago I felt I was relying too heavily on magazine income, so I started doing more teaching. If one area is dead (nonfiction books is an area I’m not spending much time in now), then I concentrate my efforts elsewhere (right now I’m doing more editing).

How do you get started creating multiple streams of income? First, look at where the opportunities are. I recently got a question from a reader who wanted to know how to make a living writing short stories and poetry. If I had that secret, I would sell it for ten million dollars and go to the islands. There just aren’t many opportunities to make money selling short stories and poetry. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing, but that work needs to be filed in the “personally fulfilling” category and not the “how I’m gonna pay this month’s rent” category.

The opportunities are going to be a little bit different for everyone, depending on what your skills are, what network of freelancers you’re linked into (they’re going to be one of your best sources of leads to new opportunities), and what you find interesting to do. In other words, you need to make logical connections. If you write articles about a certain subject matter, could you write a book? Could you give classes? Could you edit other people’s writing on the subject?

One of the best ways to get started is to expand your horizons with your current clients so you can get the skills, experience, and portfolio you need to work in another field. So, for example, if you write for a website, and you’d like to do more photography, it’s a fairly simple proposition to propose a photo-heavy piece to your editor. Now you have a solid credential to show to potential clients.

I know one writer who has turned his photography skills into a steady stream of business shooting other writers for book jackets and promotional material. He happened to make the connection between the facts that 1) he had good photography skills and 2) he knew lots of writers who needed photos for various PR-related purposes. It didn’t take him a huge investment of time, money, or effort to let these people know that he could help them solve a problem (how to get a flattering photo from someone who understood their needs).

What skills and relationships do you have that you can make connections between? For example, I’m a member of a nonfiction writers’ group that includes people wanting to write books. After I’d been a member of a while, it became clear that I knew more than most of the members about how to write book proposals because I’d written so many of them. I realized that many of the writers would happily sign up for a class on how to write a book proposal. So I connected with the group’s moderator/owner, got her blessing to develop the class, and have been offering it periodically for several years. It is one of my most lucrative streams of income, and I don’t have to do that much work to promote it. In fact, many members of the group actually promote the class for me. It fills a need, so I don’t have to do any arm-twisting to get people to see the value in it.

The key to developing multiple streams of income is to make those kinds of connections in your own career and life. What do your clients wish they had that they don’t? Who is the connector in your life—the person who knows everyone and what they’re up to? Does that person know that you’re looking for connections? Be open to new possibilities, but also let things evolve. I took my first stab at teaching an editing class about ten years ago, but it didn’t work out as I’d hoped and I ended up only teaching one class. A few years later, an opportunity to teach copyediting came around and I took it. Some years after that, an opportunity to teach developmental editing opened up and I had great success with it.

The lesson? Plant the seeds, cultivate them, make adjustments as you go along. We’re looking for a flower garden here, not a field of corn, so your seeds shouldn’t all look the same.