How to Have Ideas for Books

Since I’ve been pitching book ideas to my editor recently, I have been spending a lot of time coming up with ideas, both good and bad. Here are some of the strategies that have worked for me:

  • Brute force creativity and rapid cycling
  • Flow chart madness & quotes/excerpts galore
  • Talk it out with someone, anyone, and/or everyone
  • Research, reading, and tricking your brain into relaxing while thinking

Brute Force Creativity, Rapid Cycling

Here’s a great video about brute force creativity (by Hank Green, author of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing). The gist is this: You improve much more quickly if you work iteratively (repeatedly). The more you do, the better you get. If you stress forever about achieving perfection, you’ll never get close.

That’s one of the reasons I wrote four books before I got my book deal. I kept working and practicing, improving each time.

The same goes for ideas! At the outset, sometimes it’s best to just go through a bunch of ideas and write them all down. Then, once you have a collection, you see which ones speak to you and promise the most room for growth. Be careful not to get stuck on an idea that isn’t going anywhere. In the immortal paraphrase of my editor: “It is easy to become trapped by an enticing premise with no story behind it.” (What she actually said was something like “this idea isn’t working even though you want it to; you need to move on.” And honestly, that’s advice that bears repeating in my case.)

Flow Chart Madness & Visualization

If you spiral between different options related to an idea, sometimes you need to visualize it in order to get un-stuck. For example, if you have a premise about aliens on another planet in our solar system but you can’t decide if they should be from Neptune or Uranus, toss the ideas on a whiteboard (or paper, or cork board, etc.). Then diagram it out a bit. Instead of bouncing back and forth between two choices, let both of them branch out a bit and decide which path is more interesting. This is also a good method for deciding plot choices when you’re drafting or outlining, by the way. I know it can feel wasteful to explore a path you don’t end up taking, but it is by far more efficient than spinning your wheels too early in the game.

Writers often want to spend a lot of time inside their own heads. After all, that’s where the stories come from and are built. But there’s a reason we don’t draft the book in our heads first before writing it down. Seeing is believing. Or rather, seeing is actualizing an externalizing an idea so that your brain can focus on expanding an idea instead of just holding onto it.

Say it with me: Seeing. Is. Believing.

This means that you’ve got to get things written down and out of your head, because you can’t keep the idea cooped up in your head for too long.

Quotes & Excerpts Galore

As you brainstorm ideas, if absolutely anything pops in your head related to the idea, WRITE IT DOWN. If a snappy quote pops in your head that totally just nails your main character’s voice, don’t lose it! If you want to write a quick page about the origin story of magic or the culture in your story, do it immediately! All of these things are vital to giving your ideas the foundation for being built. And none of it’s wasteful, because everything you do is an exercise in creativity and stretching your mind! And you may end up literally using a dialogue line or description in this or another story.

Talk it Out

I cannot stress enough the benefit of getting out of your own head. Even just telling someone else the basics will help, because you’ll immediately be listening to it from an outsider’s perspective. My pitches never feel quite solid until I’ve had someone else look at them, whether that’s my agent, author friends, or everyday family and friends. And an everyday person will be able to tell you if it feels right even if they can’t articulate what is wrong.

And getting outsider input is always useful. An idea is just like a pitch, because it should be digestible and comprehensible by anyone and everyone. If you’re struggling to articulate something, then it’s probably your idea and not just your pitch that needs work. 

Read, Research, and Relax

Reading. Reading is great. Sometimes you just have to dive into a good book to remember why you love them and why you write. Sure, there can be distractions or the intimidation of perfection, but there is also inspiration! And proof you can do it! And examples of how it can be done well! Maybe you read a great plot twist and it sparks a plot twist in yours. Maybe you read a cool premise, and you think “yeah, that’d be even cooler if…”

Research. If you have an idea for a sci-fi book about quantum physics, get some research done! It may not be until you stumble upon the delicious fact that one of the sub-atomic quarks is named “Charm” that the idea finally clicks. Wikipedia is your friend. Research is a great way to find sparks that will help you expand on ideas in new and interesting ways.

Relax. These last couple paragraphs have all been about getting your mind a bit farther away from your body. In the end, you need to relax. There’s a reason we say that you need to “sleep on it” in order to solve a tough problem. There’s a reason relaxation is crucial during times of stress. Your brain needs variety, and it’ll keep chugging away at problems in your sub-conscious. So expose yourself to new places and experiences, new people and music, new stories and histories. It’s deceptively easy to lose yourself (and your precious time!) while staring at a blank wall.

What About You?

So. What about you! How do you come up with ideas? What methods do you use to kick-start your brain?

Advertisements

Pitching Book Ideas to Your Editor

I’ve been in the process recently of pitching book ideas to my editor. Back in (checks watch) 2016, I signed a contract for a two-book deal. Now that we’re wrapping up book 1, time has come to start on book 2. While they bought book 1 at face value after reading it, the second book hasn’t been written yet.

So what does that mean? It means that I have to pitch ideas for the second book so that they can green-light it before I write it. After all, while I spent nearly 10 months total on writing book 1 and then another year and a half on revisions with my editor, book 2 is supposed to come out one year after book 2. Basically, book 2 has to be written, revised, and finalized on a much tighter schedule.

It’s in the publisher’s interest to understand and approve the book idea (pitch) before you start writing. After all, you don’t want to write a whole book only to have your publisher be unsatisfied.

What Does a Pitch Look Like?

Pitches can vary, but I’d say there are typically two types of short-form pitches: a 1-2 sentence pitch and a 1-3 paragraph pitch. I hear terms thrown around like “elevator pitch” and “high concept pitch,” but they are mostly interchangeable to mean “quick and fast.” A 1-2 sentence pitch is a snappy summary that makes someone go “oh, you must tell me more!” A 1-3 paragraph pitch similar to what goes on the back cover of a book.

Of course, there are longer-form pitches that take the form of a synopsis or outline, which essentially offer proof that you have a cohesive story structure to work with.

What I was Asked For

My editor asked me to do something between the 1-2 sentence and 1-3 paragraphs, because she’s looking for that high concept pitch that will sell. And because I had already sent some earlier pitches that she turned down, she knew my areas of weakness that I should focus on: your main character is your Main Character and must have agency in the story; your worldbuilding and foundational magic system need to be rock solid and clear; and you shouldn’t get too distracted by sub-plots or side characters.

Specifically, my editor asked for “three kickass pitches,” and she asked for them in “two weeks?” I’ve added a question mark there, because I think she knew she was asking for an aggressive timeline. And I agreed, because I love a challenge and a deadline.

What I Delivered

I delivered a one-paragraph pitch for two ideas last Sunday. I can see you’re doing the math. They asked for three, and I only did two. They asked for 2 weeks, and I took 5. Ideas are hard, my friend! And I’d rather deliver two solid ideas than multiple flimsy ones.

I started with upwards of 15 ideas over those first two weeks, half of which I spent on a lovely beach in Florida (productivity vacation!), but most of those ideas never made it past the premise.

The few that survived took me another week-ish to straighten out. It’s tough for me to adequately and concisely summarize a book pitch if I don’t know the heart and soul of it. Some of the ideas never had a main character with clear enough goals. Sometimes the worldbuilding was flimsy or too cliche. Sometimes the magic system was too nebulous. So even though the end-state pitches were only 3-5 sentences long, there were PAGES of content leading up to it.

So, I’m still in the process of straightening out my last pitch. I’ve got two-and-a-half contenders at the moment, and I’m trying to do some rapid game-planning in order to figure out which is the sturdiest.

My Advice

If you’re coming up with ideas for books (or, like me, desperately trying to), I have a few tips that I’ll be expanding upon in my next blog posts:

  • Brute force creativity and rapid cycling
  • Flow chart madness & quotes/excerpts galore
  • Talk it out with someone, anyone, and/or everyone
  • Research, reading, and tricking your brain into relaxing while thinking

Goodreads Tips for Authors

If you’re an author (or hope to be!), chances are you’re keen on having your book show up on Goodreads! Goodreads is an online platform/database where people can track the books they’ve read and find new good reads.

  1. Make sure your book exists on Goodreads. If it doesn’t, add it.
  2. Claim your book (link it to your account).
  3. Update your author profile.
  4. Update your book’s information.
  5. Explore and grow.
  6. And eventually…

Make Sure Your Book Exists on GoodReads!

If your book deal has been announced, take a look on Goodreads and search for your book. Search by author name, title, or ISBN. Chances are, your book will appear on Goodreads rather quickly once your book deal has been announced. People who are looking to become “Goodreads Librarians” (kind of like moderators) have to add a certain number of new books onto Goodreads. So if you’re book has been announced, it may be added before you know it! If your book hasn’t been added, go ahead and add it yourself.

Make Sure You Have An Author Profile, Claim Your Book

First: You need to have a Goodreads account to associate the book to your account.

Second: You can use a preexisting account or create a new one. I created a new one, mainly because I wanted to establish a new account that was tied to my formal author’s email and not to a Facebook account that I may or may not keep forever.

  • I know people who choose to keep their preexisting account. It has your record of books, it’s already with your desired email/Facebook linkage. It’s already connected to your site. It has all your friends.
  • I know people who choose to create a new account. You get a fresh account. You get to sever the link to old reviews/ratings. You get to decide where the linkage is to your email/social media account.

Third: Claim your book! This can be done quite easily. Logged in, there is an option below the book on its page that says “Is this you? Let us know!” Full instructions can be found on the Goodreads author program page. This is especially important if your book has accidentally been attributed to another author with the same name.

Update Your Author Profile

Once you have an author profile, you can do all sorts of fun things! But first, you’ll want to update your profile to include:

  • A photo of yourself
  • A short biography or description of yourself. This “about” section will appear on the same page as all of your books, so you’ll want to make sure it’s professional and inoffensive.
  • Links to your other platforms/locations, such as social media or blogging sites.
  • Make sure your book(s) shows up as belonging to you.
  • Toggle whether you are open to receiving questions.
  • Here’s mine as an example

Update your Book’s Information

Now that you’re the author, you can more easily request changes be made to your book. Maybe you noticed that the person who added it selected the wrong publication date or listed the wrong publisher. Maybe the summary needs some tweaks or corrections. Now that you’re listed as the author, your requests for updates will go through pretty quickly. (Mine took less than a day.) Go through and check everything twice! Goodreads recommends new books to its users, so if you have a good summary, it can draw new readers in!

Explore & Grow

The Goodreads author dashboard gives you a lot of insight. You can see graphs of how many people have added your book or plan to read it. You can add blog posts directly to Goodreads, similar to how a typical blogging platform functions. You can follow other authors (this is true for all users) and do all of the normal things you do with a Goodreads account.

If there are any Reader Questions that show up for the book, any user can answer them. But now, as the author, your responses will likely get prioritized. (I’m not positive on this, but it seems like something that should be true.)

Eventually…

You’ll start seeing reviews and ratings for your book. Don’t panic or stress. (Try not to panic or stress.) You’ll often see these BEFORE your book even comes out. Why do people rate and review things they’ve never read? I’ll never know.

You can engage with your audience by answering questions, hosting giveaways, and displaying scheduled events. You can read and respond to reviews, thank your audience for their love and goodness, and enjoy the platform!

You’ll get a bad review. It might be inflammatory, drudgery, passionate, or apathetic. But eventually, it’ll happen. This is a good time to remember that not everyone loves everything, and everyone hates something. It’s also a good time to decide whether you want to be reading reviews or not. Some authors find them incredibly injurious, while others find it only partially injurious. (I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t get upset about inflammatory comments on the internet.)

Like all online communities, it’s up to you to determine your engagement level and commitment. And if you have any fun facts or questions, let me know!

Good luck!

Add my Book, if you like!

If you like, my book, THE NAMELESS QUEEN, is available to add on Goodreads:

My Book is on GoodReads!

Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 5.34.34 PM

My book is on GoodReads! This is so cool! It doesn’t have a cover yet, so it still has that “title/author” cover. Which I still think is beautiful, because it’s a promise of greater things to come!

And you can ADD it on GoodReads. You can plop it in your stack of To-Read books, and it becomes a decent benchmark for me to reassure myself that this book thing is really going to happen and holy griboli, people are going to read it in real life.

There are currently over 1500 people who have added my book on GoodReads! Some people have rated it already (which is a weird facet of GoodReads where people rate books without even reading them?) But, people are looking forward to it! Aside from this being totally weird and wonderful, there’s also a terror connected to it:

Not everyone will like my book. Some people will love it (Mom, I’m looking at you). Some people will hate it (Mom, if you hate it, you’re required to lie to me and say you love it). Most people will live their lives and not even know it exists.

It’s wild and crazy! There are equal measures of being nervous and being excited.

But whenever someone is nervous, I always tell them: being nervous is just proof that you care. If you’re nervous, that means it is important to you to do a good job.

So, I have to remind myself as I move forward over the next year that as my ARCs are created, as the cover is designed and finalized, and as the marketing tics closer to the publish date… I will be ever-so nervous.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s wonderful.

***

If you like, you can add my book on GoodReads!

***

Growing Up and Being Professional

You know how your first email address was something like “luv2readBOOKZ@aol.com”? But when you hit late high school/college, you realize you probably need a more professional-sounding email.

Or how you set a joke outgoing voicemail along the lines of “Hello? Oh hey! How are you doing? … mhmm, that’s great. Yeah, I’ve been good. I’m actually not here right now, so please leave a message.” But when you realize college admissions folks, job interviewers, and dates are going to get that message, you realize that a joke isn’t always the best professional option.

You want to make sure you have a professional and comfortable online presence, especially if you’re trying to launch a social media, blog, site, or electronic presence that will usher you into the developing stages of your career.

All of this to say:

I updated my blog domain from makawalli.wordpress.com to mcrebecky.wordpress.com.

The reasoning is simple.

Makawalli was the name of a made-up country that became a staple of my high school imagination. It was fun and silly (and, in retrospect, a bit culturally insensitive), and it may have been a decent place to do some early growing. But it’s not really a good representation of me as a career author.

McRebecky, on the other hand, is a blobby version of my name, Rebecca McLaughlin, which is a bit closer to the truth. In reality, it’s the same as all of my social media handles (across twitter, instagram, youtube, etc.), so when someone comes to this site from those places or vice versa, hopefully they’ll be reassured they are in the right place.

Your blog and other online presences are often the first impression others have you. Whether you’re going for a job interview, a date, or a literary agency or publisher is scope you out, the visibility, message, and tone of your online life is crucial.

So! If you’re venturing out into the professional world, remember to take a look at your social media presences, your usernames, your email addresses, your voicemail, and more. Look at yourself from an object perspective, and make sure you don’t come off as inexperienced or unprofessional.

“Vacation” as a Workaholic

Vacation. I’m not good at it.

In my school days, I made it 1-1/2 weeks into summer vacation before I started doing silly things, like buying next year’s text books, writing partial drafts of new books, and/or getting hugely addicted to television shows.

I didn’t know it then, but I need things to do. All of this culminates in the fact that I’m not very great at vacation.

But here I am on my last day of a one-week vacation in Florida. Let’s put aside that it’s November and this is my first vacation all year, and let’s also ignore the fact that the morning of my last day of vacation is being spent writing this blog post. I’m waiting for laundry. Cut me some slack!

So, what does vacation look like for a workaholic? At its worst, it can look exactly like work. At best, it can look like a proper magical vacation. I went into this vacation with 3 expectations.

  1. Relax. For real relax. Actually and properly relax.
  2. Work on the pitches for my contracted Book 2, which is due before Thanksgiving. And various other things due on an ongoing basis.
  3. Have new experiences and adventures.

That third item came from a good friend, and it was a motivator for having a good vacation and for finding inspiration for pitch ideas. So I went into my vacation with these directions, and I said yes to every invitation and plan and event.

I spent my mornings on a balcony overlooking the ocean. I walked a mile down the beach to a lighthouse, where I then climbed to the very tippy top. I went shopping at a resale store and found some great deals. I went to a butterfly and vegetation sanctuary and learned an obnoxiously wonderful amount of information about palms. I let my distractions take hold of me and fell down research rabbit holes. I sat on the beach and scribbled out pages and pages of ideas and plans while listening to the ocean.

I did and tried new things. Ate a whole artichoke. Swam in the ocean out to where I couldn’t touch the ground (scary!). Ate stone crab (holy hell is it expensive). Saw wild manatees bobbing in the waves. Climbed narrow steps to the fogged-windows of a lighthouse where you know you’re at the highest point possible even though you can’t see a thing to prove it. You just know it even if you can’t see it.

I had to remind myself that part of being an author and part of being on vacation means that you can’t force your brain into a corner and make it work. Not all the time, anyway.

Work doesn’t have to be a constant dredge. It shouldn’t be! It should be interspersed with new experiences, relaxation, and time to think and innovate.

Okay, now I sound like a workplace time management specialist wannabe.

Long story short: if you take a vacation and you’re a workaholic, don’t stress out about working or not working. Put aside time to wander. Make an effort to enjoy yourself, and let yourself exist and thrive in whatever way brings you joy. If that means you check your work email once per day after drinking coffee on an oceanside balcony, you do you, friend.

Enjoy. Relax. Recharge. And, if it’s enjoyable, go ahead and work.

img_33341.jpg