They’re slippery little things.
If you ask a writer where to find them, they’re likely to say something like: “I don’t know??? They just...arrive??? Go ask somebody else???”
Part of me understands their frustration. Because sometimes ideas do simply arrive, sudden and whole and complete, and no one can explain that particular breed of magic.
But another part of me has always wanted to write a blog post about how to generate ideas, because writers don’t just sit around waiting for story-sparks. They also make them, from scratch, with nothing more than ink and spit.
So here are some exercises I’ve used to come up with story-seeds—which, after a little daydreaming and notebook time, can grow into Fully Fledged Ideas:
OPEN THE DICTIONARY
Let's get this out of the way: words are not just words. They're worlds. One word can spark a whole novel, or a whole universe.
So, open the dictionary to a random page and choose a word that reverberates at the same frequency as your heart.
Trick. Cinnamon. Dulcet. Sabotage.
Slip. Porridge. Leviathan. Herringbone.
Got a word?
Now take that word and play with it.
What if it were the name of a character? “Herringbone Linx was having a terrible day.”
What if it were the name of a world? “In the town of Porridge, gruel made people sick.”
Keep going until you find yourself in a world you recognise as your own.
THE TITLE GAME
I got this one from Ray Bradbury.
Take a couple of words and combine them into titles. (You could even put a bunch of words in a hat, and pick combinations out.)
The Cinnamon Trick.
A Trick of Cinnamon.
Cinnamon Trick and the Solstice Lampshade.
Ask yourself, if this were the title of a book, what would it be about?
Write, write, write.
Keep going until you find something—a spark or feeling—that makes your chest bloom with roses.
TURN A SONG INTO A BOOK
1. Find a song you love.
2. Take a look at the lyrics.
3. Make a story out of your favourite line.
Here’s one my favourite lines from "Possibly Maybe" by Björk:
I suck my tongue
In remembrance of you
Hmmm, okay. Who’s sucking their tongue? A girl. A girl who’s just bitten into an apple. Okay, maybe an apple is too obvious. A guava, then. Or a kiwi. Or a fruit with wings called a featherberry that can only be picked by the brokenhearted. . .
Who is this girl? She's a girl who’s just been reminded of something—who’s standing, after taking a sour bite of featherberry, in an orchard of memories. . .
Keep going until your heart shatters a little bit.
A NOUN + THE UNEXPECTED
Choose a noun.
(Choose one consciously, or open the dictionary and scan until you find one.)
Then put another word with that noun.
An unexpected word.
For instance, if your noun is glove, don’t use leather or velvet. How about forgiving? The Forgiving Glove. We could work with that.
Once you’ve got an odd combination, free write for a page or two, starting with a phrase that incorporates your title in some way:
"The gloves she wore were not forgiving."
"It was common cause in Flaunton Heights that a woman could not forgive a man if her hands were ungloved."
Keep digging until you find a gem.
So there you have it. Some exercises for generating ideas when your soul feels as dry as the Namibian desert.
All these exercises are variations on the same theme: words make worlds. You're a writer, and therefore a universe-maker. All you really need is one word that makes you shiver. So start there.
Remember to read, and to play, and to delight. Ideas are drawn to joy like bugs to a lamp.
And if one of you wants to write a book called The Forgiving Glove, please, go right ahead. . .
From the day I was born until the time I started school, I loved my hair. I had no reason to believe that it wasn't beautiful.
But when I entered Grade 1, teachers told me my hair didn’t look “neat” enough, even when it was tied up. In Grade 2, a girl started calling me "Frizz Pop", which was a clever pun because we used to eat these lollipops called Fizz Pops, but which nonetheless humiliated me. By Grade 3, when I was eight-turning-nine, I’d realised that my hair was not what most people considered beautiful. All my friends were girls with very pale skin and long, glossy hair. I had olive skin and wild curls.
I didn’t fit.
I spent about the next ten years fighting with my hair. I used to tie it up, still wet, in a tight band, gelling it down in the front to tame the soft baby hairs that stood up obstinately. When I got a bit older, I’d get it blown out at a salon every now and then and people would say, “You look so pretty with straight hair!” not realising the insult contained in their compliment. I would spend one or two days feeling good about my hair, but eventually I’d have to wet it, and the curls would come back, and everyone would go back to saying, “You’d be so much prettier if your hair were straight.” I believed them.
But then something changed.
When I was nineteen, I went to Israel.
For the first time in my life, I saw girls and women celebrating their curls. They had cropped bobs and wild pixies, capes of dark curls down their backs. Their hair looked like mine—but they didn’t fight against it. They loved it.
When I got home, I stopped straightening my hair. I started being gentle with it. I combed it with my fingers and left glossy beads of conditioner in it and I let it be. I loved it. And it loved me back.
I never get insults about my hair now. In fact, it’s the opposite. Most of the time, people tell they wish they had hair like mine. Maybe it’s because I’m not in school anymore, or maybe it’s because I take better care of it now, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because I love it.
So what does all of this have to do with writing?
Well, your writing style is a little like your hair. You’re born with it. Sure, you can improve and develop. But there’s something at the heart of your writing that’s there from the get go. What you notice. What you care about. The kinds of words and sentences you like to use.
So treat your words like I treat my curls. Be gentle. Honour them. Don’t mess with them too much—with the words and themes and stories that spring naturally from your being. Let them be.
Your job as a writer is to love yourself, just as your job as a person is to love yourself. (Yes, your job is to send love into the world, too—but how can you do that if you hate yourself?)
If you love your words, they’ll love you back. And others—not everyone, but the right people—will see them for what they really are: beautiful and strange and unruly and awesome and completely, completely unique.
No blow out required.
Voice is really important to me—as a reader and as a writer.
My favourite books are ones whose narrators seem to reinvent language—CHIME, ROOFTOPPERS, THE KINGDOM OF LITTLE WOUNDS, THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, THE BLOODY CHAMBER AND OTHER STORIES, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, THE FOLK KEEPER, THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN.
I struggle to get started with a draft until I’ve found the voice of the narrator, and my writing is often described as "voicey".
You could say that voice is something I’m obsessed with.
But what is it, really?
In the publishing world, voice is a term used by literary agents and editors to describe the quality of a writer’s prose.
They’ll say things like, “I like the concept, but the voice didn’t grab me.” Or: “I love the voice here! I’d follow this character anywhere.” (Which is actually something my literary agent said to me when I sent her an early draft of THE TURNAWAY GIRLS.) (And I love her for it.)
When you boil it down, voice is diction, rhythm, metaphor. It’s structure and sentence length and punctuation and repetition.
Voice is basically words doing what they do best.
But it’s also this ephemeral quality that a piece of writing either has or doesn’t have—a quality that makes you want to keep reading, that connects deeply to your soul, that makes you go, “I can’t get enough of this!”
It's because of this that I think the idea of voice can be extended.
Voice isn't just how you write.
It's who you are.
This work happens off the page.
It starts with this: your life is argument for something. If there’s no argument in your life, there won’t be any argument in your writing. And by argument I mean: energy, drive, forward-motion.
If you don’t yet know what your life is an argument for, that’s okay. Here are some questions to get you started:
What do I have nightmares about?
What’s my deepest fear?
What makes me angry?
What do I love?
Who do I love?
What am I willing to fight for?
What problem in the world do I want to solve?
What is my most painful memory?
You’ll often hear writers say, “Write what you’re afraid of,” or, “Write the book that won’t leave you alone.” And I completely agree.
Here’s why: if you’re afraid of a project or you can’t stop thinking about a project, it’s more likely to be connected with themes, ideas and characters you care about. It's as simple (and as complicated) as that.
I would say that about 90% of voice is being true to yourself. The rest is craft and that can be learnt—through reading a lot and writing a lot, to put it simply—but the real work of voice starts away from your laptop or notebook.
It’s starts with living.
It’s starts with knowing yourself.
If you’re a creative person trying to Make a Thing, you’ve probably met your fair share of people who’ve told you that it’s dangerous to hope.
They’ve probably told you this with a tilted head and well-meaning sympathy in their eyes, as though they Know Better.
They’ve probably said, “Don’t get me wrong, you should write that book/paint that portrait/design that line of poodle-shaped ceramics—just don’t expect anything from it. That way, you won’t feel let down when it doesn’t work out.”
To be fair, you’ve probably even told yourself this.
(Well, if you’re me, you have.)
I’ve had people say this kind of thing to me a lot.
But I have this really revolutionary way of dealing with it. (Not really.)
I simply don’t listen.
See, if I listened, I would lose hope pretty quickly. And I can’t afford to do that.
Because I run on hope.
Hope is the petrol I put in my tank. It’s what kindles my creative fire. Hope is the thing that keeps me going. (Okay, and coffee.) Bottom line is: if I’m not hoping, I’m not working.
What do I mean by hoping?
I mean that when I’m writing a book, I believe all the good things it is possible to believe about a book.
I believe my agent will love it. I believe it will sell. I believe it will find an audience. I believe people will adore it as much as I do.
It’s not easy. In fact, it’s pretty hard to maintain a sense of hope in what sometimes feels like a never-ending maelstrom of Horrible Things.
But I do it anyway.
Because it’s the only thing I can do.
So in case you need a top up, here are some of the things I do to keep the positive vibes alive:
I give myself pep talks
Sometimes I’ll be like that bunny in the “you’re gonna do great today” meme and I’ll literally stand in front of a mirror and tell myself to keep going.
Sometimes I’ll write emails to myself when I’m backing up drafts of a manuscript. (When I was doing this for THE TURNAWAY GIRLS, I sent an email to myself that said, ‘Keep going. This is going to be your debut.’)
Often, in the mornings, while I’m having my first cup of coffee, I’ll write down all my dreams for a particular project.
Some days I don’t need a pep talk. Other days, I need three. (I find this is directly proportionate to the amount of time I’ve spent with The Head Tilters.)
A pep talk can be a flurry of words typed out on your laptop, or a whisper to yourself in the quiet of the evening.
It can be anything, as long as its central message reminds you why you’re Making a Thing and pushes you to keep going.
I hang out in bookshops
Bookshops are basically rooms full of realised dreams. They’re physical, touchable proof that the book I’m writing has the potential to become real.
Pick up a book in your genre. Run your hand over the cover. Feel its weight. Smell its pages.
Can you picture your book? Great. Now go home and write it.
(Note: you can adjust this technique to suit anything you’re trying to make. If you’re painting, go look at some paintings. If you’re making furniture, go to a design expo, etc.)
I block out negativity
Okay, so what if you’re at a dinner party and you tell someone you’re writing a book and they look at you in a way that makes you feel like you’re about the size of a grain of salt? Yeah. We’ve all been there. I don’t really have advice for that situation because it sucks and basically the only solution is to cry your eyes out and then fill yourself up with hope again.
But here’s my advice for avoiding all the pain to begin with:
DON’T TELL ANYONE YOU’RE WRITING A BOOK.
Or, only tell people who will hold your dreams with the delicate wonder they deserve.
You don’t have to tell anyone your creative secrets. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for how you’re spending your time. Keep your impossible dreams safe until they’re strong enough to face the critics.
I have conversations with my future self
I like to do this in the evenings, when everything’s quiet and tinted with purple. I lie on my bed, or on the floor. I close my eyes. I picture meeting my future self in my favourite coffee shop. I ask her how things are going and imagine the best possible answers.
I remember all the crazy, improbable, wonderful things that have happened to me already
I was born. (Seriously, look up the statistics on that one.) I met the love of my life in a coffee shop when I was eighteen. I sent poems out randomly and without query letters and somehow they were published before I was 20. I connected with my (perfect) agent. My (amazing) editor bought my book. I've received funding and met incredible people and I have the best poodle in the world.
These are just a few examples.
So much of our lives is miracle.
I keep working
If hope begets work, then work begets hope, too. Enough said.
If you run on hope, don’t let the world tell you you’re naïve or childish or silly for believing in your work.
Hoping is a radical act. It’s a rebellion.
Hoping is getting up every day and working and working and working even though you don’t know if your book will sell or your opera will be appreciated or your sculpture will find its way into someone’s living room.
You’re brave and strong and amazing, and you can do this.
We can all do this.
(I just realised this whole blog post is a pep talk.)
(I needed it, too.)
I was twenty-two years old. I had just started law school. And I was obsessed with one word—poodle.
Yep. You read that right. Poodle.
But why? Why was I thinking about a curly-haired water dog? I couldn’t have told you. I only knew that the word was there, and that it wouldn’t leave me alone.
So I did what any other sane person would do. I started googling.
I learnt about the history of poodles. Did you know, for instance, that toy poodles were bred so that they could fit inside the muffs of Russian princesses to keep their hands warm? I learnt about the fact that, unlike most dogs, their hair doesn’t fall out. It just grows and grows and grows until it covers their eyes and ears and feet. And, much to the delight of my friend Kate, I spent hours during lectures looking up pictures of the different colours they came in. (She’s a human rights lawyer now and still laughs about this.)
But knowing about them wasn’t enough.
I wanted one of my own.
So one night, when my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I were eating at our favourite sushi place, I decided to bring it up. “What would you say,” I said, “if I told you I wanted to get a poodle?” (We were living together at the time. He needed to be consulted.) He dropped his chopsticks on the table. The first word out of his mouth was no. He didn’t like them, he said. They were lap dogs, silly dogs. Dogs with funny hairstyles and small brains.***
Luckily I had done the research. I managed to refute each of his arguments, one by one. In fact, I could say that attending law school taught me to argue for poodle ownership more than anything else.
He held to his opinion. But that didn’t stop me. I started building a case.
I looked up reputable breeders and researched rescue organisations. I joined a forum. I read about training, personality, breeding, temperament, grooming. I found a nearby puppy school.
It wouldn’t be an over-exaggeration to say that by the time I got my puppy—a brown toy poodle named Delphi—I was completely obsessed.
We fetched her at the airport because she had flown in from Cape Town. When we walked up to her crate she was scratching at the bars, whining. I unlatched the door and she leapt into my arms, a ball of brown cotton wool no bigger than a guinea pig. She licked frantically at my cheek as if to say, You’ve saved me!
But the truth was quite the opposite.
There’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot since then. It’s this thing of paying attention to what you pay attention to. What obsesses you. What won’t leave you alone. The word poodle was like that for me. It came out of nowhere. I had never owned a poodle. No one in my family had ever owned a poodle. I’d never even met a poodle. I’d never thought about them at all. And then, suddenly, out of the blue: poodle, poodle, poodle.
It was almost like a didn’t have a choice in the matter.
When Delphi was a puppy, I used to take her everywhere with me. For the first month or so, she wouldn’t even walk anywhere on her own four feet. She had to be held. Constantly. She was tiny and the world was big and she was afraid most of the time. So I never left her alone. I took her to coffee shops, to the DVD store, to the bookshop, to university. And whenever I bumped into people I knew, their very first reaction would be something along the lines of: “What is that? Is that a dog? It looks more like a rodent.”
Yeah. Turns out, there are a lot of people who don’t like poodles.
But you know what? I found that I really didn’t care what people said or thought. Which was a first for me.
I loved Delphi. She loved me. That was enough.
The most powerful thing about me getting a poodle was this: I was being me. Doing me. For the first time in a long time, perhaps in my life, I had made a choice for myself based on who I was and what I liked. I wanted a dog who slept on my lap while I read, who was clever and loving and clingy. And so I got Delphi. And it didn’t bother me that people didn’t particularly like her.
It seems like a small choice, but it was huge for me.
Once I could say, “I love my poodle,” I found I could say something else: “I want to write a novel.”
And then I became obsessed with another word. Writer.
I started writing.
I wrote and wrote and wrote while Delphi lay on my stomach, or tucked between my ankles.
I never stopped.
About a month before Delphi turned five, I sold my first book.
The main character in my debut, THE TURNAWAY GIRLS, is called Delphernia Undersea. She’s not named after my dog—at the time I simply liked the sound of the name and that’s why I chose it—but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s a little bit of Delph in my first book. Without her, there probably wouldn’t be a book.
She taught me how to say, “I love.”
She taught me how to say, “I want.”
What could be more life-changing than that?
*** It should be noted that my husband is now Delphi's biggest fan. I convinced him; she stole his heart. See photo evidence.
Typing the title of this post is incredibly surreal, because I’ve been dreaming about writing it since…well, since I knew what a literary agent was. It’s amazing and unbelievable and I still have this niggling feeling that someone is going to send me an email that says, “LOL! Just jokes! You do not have an agent after all!” (Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.) But seriously. It’s wonderful. And I do not believe it. Not quite, anyway.
Here’s my story:
In 2013, I decided to write a middle grade novel. I read SKELLIG by David Almond, and it completely blew my mind, and I thought: I want to do this. So I did. Or, at least, I tried.
Side note: I had written other things before attempting to write middle grade. I grew up reading literary fiction—KAFKA ON THE SHORE was my YA—so I always harboured this dream of writing a Great Novel. In other words, the kind of novel that would win the Man Booker Prize. Hah! So, pre-middle grade, I had written pretentious short stories, poems (some of which were published) and half-novels that I started and got tired of because they were SO. VERY. BORING. (Advice to past-Hayley: Write what you love, and you won’t get bored.)
So, anyway, I wrote a middle grade novel. And it was…a mess. It was riddled with clichés, the pacing was all wrong, the plot was generic…I could go on. But the good thing was, I finished it. I had never finished anything novel-length before. It was a big deal.
After too many drafts to count, I decided it still wasn’t good enough to query, or even to show to anyone. (It was really bad.) So I shelved it, and I wrote middle grade novel #2. Then I rewrote middle grade novel #2. I revised it. I revised it some more. (I didn’t even show it to anyone because I didn’t have critique partners or betareaders and I was too shy to meet any! Yeah, I know—silly!)
Finally middle grade novel #2 seemed decent enough to query. After reading a gazillion articles on how to write an effective query letter, and writing and rewriting mine a couple of hundred times, I took a deep breath, and I sent it off.
Then I waited.
I got form rejections. But I also got…full requests! I danced around a little bit when I got the first one. What a FEELING! All the full requests I received ended up as (nice) rejections. Some of them were REALLY nice rejections. But one of them was a revise and resubmit.
This just happened to occur a few weeks before I got married, so I read through the notes slowly and then took some time to think (and not think) about them. When we got back from honeymoon, I started revising. It took me about three months to get everything done. I sent the revised manuscript off and immediately felt nauseous. What if the agent HATED the revisions? What if he HATED me? What if EVERYONE hated me? (Anxiety: it sucks.)
Well, it turns out, the agent didn’t hate the revisions. In fact, there were some things he loved about the new manuscript. But he had also picked up on some problems. In the end, he passed. And you know what? Looking back, I can TOTALLY see why he rejected the book. But at the time I was devastated. DEVASTATED.
So I allowed myself to wallow for a bit. And it was during this wallowing stage that I had the idea for middle grade novel #3. I let it sit in the back of my mind for a while, and then I started writing.
Once I’d finished polishing it up, I entered this competition called Pitch Slam.
Side note: I HIGHLY recommend entering Pitch Slam. The superheroines who run it are kind, smart, and encouraging, and it’s a great opportunity to make writerly friends.
I got four requests from the competition, which I sent off immediately, squealing all the while. I also sent off some queries while I was at it.
Then I waited.
The first agent to get back to me was one of the competition agents. She had read my manuscript in a weekend. And she wanted me to…revise and resubmit! Let’s call her Lovely R&R Agent. Now, I can’t say I was that happy about the idea of doing another R&R. After all, I’d spent months doing changes on my first queried MG and it was rejected after all that work and that sucked. A lot. But Lovely R&R Agent’s suggestions were specific and so insightful. Plus, I really liked her. I’d been following her on Twitter for a while and she was just…my kind of person.
So I decided to do it.
But this time, I did things a little differently. I read Lovely R&R Agent’s (detailed) notes and asked (a panoply of) questions. I read the craft books she recommended. I tore my draft to shreds. I re-thought the entire story. And I started from scratch.
Looking back on it, this was a little crazy of me. I mean, I’d gone through this before—rewriting an entire manuscript—and it was so much work and in the end it was rejected and it gutted me. But here’s the thing: it felt different this time. Like I was writing the book I wanted to write. Like I was writing with structure in mind. Like I was doing the right thing. And the truth was, I knew that even if Lovely R&R Agent rejected the new manuscript, I would still have something I was proud of.
That was the clincher for me.
So…I worked. I worked and I worked. I cried a little. I worked some more.
And then, I was bumbling along with the revisions when something CRAZY happened. I got an OFFER. Lovely Offering Agent called. We chatted. She was friendly, and kind, and she adored my book. I couldn’t believe it. (I still don’t—not quite.)
After I got off the phone with her, I sent emails to all the agents who had my full to let them know I had an offer. And, of course, this included sending an email to Lovely R&R Agent, even though all I had to show for my revisions was a very long and very rough first draft. Lovely R&R Agent asked if I could polish up the first fifty pages and send her a synopsis. I said, SURE!
And then I got to work again.
Because there was a lot of work to be done. Here’s the thing: my first drafts are severely first drafty. Messy, discombobulated, long sentences that go on for half a page…You get the gist. But…I did it. Within a week, I had the first fifty pages ready for her. I sent them off, biting my nails. Meanwhile, I got some really nice rejections, and another OFFER! I squealed some more. And then I got an email from Lovely R&R Agent. She loved the changes I’d made. And she wanted to talk about REPRESENTATION!
Lovely R&R Agent called. We spoke about the changes I’d made to the MS, my writing dreams, and the vision she had for my book. I felt…giddy. This is someone who basically reads for a LIVING, who has two Master’s degrees and who is a REALLY COOL PERSON and she actually LIKES my BOOK? Unbelievable doesn’t begin to cover it. It was a WONDERFUL call.
And then I spoke to Lovely Offering Agent #2 a couple of days later. She was so awesome! And she loved my book! And she suggested editorial changes that were spot on! I kept saying to my husband: “Everyone in publishing is SO NICE.” (It’s true.)
I had a few days to make my decision, and I thought about it A LOT. I read through contracts and asked LOTS of questions. I went through the notes I’d made during each phone call. I made lists of pros and cons.
But, in the end, after all the lists had been made and the comparisons had been drawn, I knew in my gut who I wanted to choose: Lovely R&R Agent. Her notes on my manuscript made it SO MUCH BETTER. She loved the ideas I sent her for future books. We got along so well on the phone. We just kind of…clicked.
So, now that it’s all official and stuff, I am SO EXCITED to say that I've signed with Patricia Nelson at Marsal Lyon Literary!
I’ll just be over here, doing cartwheels.