Three Consequences of Always “Writing What We Know”

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We’ve all gotten this piece of advice at least once before: “write what you know.” On the surface, it’s not the worst slice of writing advice you’re ever going to get. First starting out, writing what’s familiar to us is how we begin finding our voice, familiarizing ourselves with our style and learning, essentially, how to write a story.

That’s all fine early on. But as we mature and writing becomes like an organ (we can’t function without it), we need to—dare we take this route? Yes—exercise it.

What happens to your heart if you just sit around all day, every day? Basically, eventually, it fails.

So does your ability to craft good stories, if you don’t work to maintain and refine it.

What’s the best way to suffer creative failure? Well, writing what you know, and only what you know, of course.

What happens when we get too cozy with the easy, the familiar, the safe?

Here are the consequences.

We give ourselves permission to be lazy

Somewhere, somehow, there has risen a belief that doing research, writing outside our expertise, spending just as much time learning as we do writing isn’t healthy for our creativity. We’ve been convinced writing “what we know” is the most effective way to convince our audience we know what we’re doing and they can trust our credibility. No Googling required. Right?

Over time we’ve misinterpreted the idea that we should base our stories on ideas we hold dear to our hearts. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can only base stories, characters and themes off of things that are familiar to us. There’s a big difference between basing a story entirely off our lives and taking an original idea and applying new, well-researched, often unfamiliar themes to create a new, exciting and fresh perspective on something we’ve all heard, read and experienced a thousand times before.

We lock our creativity in a cage 

Creativity is supposed to be freeing, exhilarating and spontaneous. Yes, writers do make things up on the spot, make up words, worlds, cultures. We do a lot of things without bothering to look anything up or ask an “expert.” But what happens when that’s all we do, when the same author writes based off her limited amount of experiences (for each of us can only have so many worthy of a good story) and creates the same characters, worlds, storylines over and over and over again?

New ideas may seem like they come out of nowhere, but there’s always something that coaxes them out of the depths. Looking things up, learning something new, expanding your knowledge base, that’s how new ideas, the really good ones, come about. Going beyond what you know allows your own creativity to grow and thrive. If you keep your mind at the same level, never letting it grow, your stories will become formulated, and once there’s a template, you’ve officially killed the diversity of your ideas. 

We let ourselves get comfortable

Part of the challenge, and thrill, of making up our own stories is teaching ourselves how to write outside our comfort zones. Writing “uncomfortably” means writing those scenes we’re afraid to write; “going there” when we’re not sure we’re ready. Bringing to the surface those truths everyone else keeps too concealed between the lines.

Never let yourself fall into a literary rhythm. How do we get caught in this trap? By sticking with what we know. By never daring to be uncomfortable. Let’s say small-town life is what you know best. Sorry Nicholas Sparks, but I need to drag you in here for a second. Not every story you write has to, or should, take place in a small southern town where everyone knows everyone.

Dare to write about characters who live in big cities, in different places around the world. Don’t know anything about big cities or different places around the world? Research. Travel, if you can. Get out there. Do something. For the sake of your creativity and your writing and maybe hopefully eventually your future career.

Your heart is meant to beat. Your creativity is meant to thrive. Don’t stick with the everyday routines that aren’t doing anything for your stories. Be adventurous, even if that means spending a few hours reading articles, watching documentaries. Let your mind wander where it never has before. Be terrified. Look at what you’ve just written, that page you want so much to delete—and don’t.

Start with what you know. Then dare to write what you don’t.

It will become almost like an addiction, but a healthy one. The only consequence of being addicted to writing, we suppose, is having too many stories to keep track of all at once.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Today We Finally Define “Brain Rush”

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We’ve talked about it more than once, leaving the phrase up to interpretation. We want to talk about it more. But we can’t do that if we continue to neglect defining what it actually means.

Here’s what comes up on the first page of search results when you type “brain rush” into Google:

BrainRush, “high-efficiency game-based learning” from Adaptive Practice™ (they’re also on Twitter @GoBrainRush and they have, at this moment, 536 likes on Facebook)

Brain Rush, the Android puzzle app (Brain Shape Rush for IOS)

Brain Rush (the American T.V. game show that lasted, count it, one month)

Putting the words “brain” and “rush” together isn’t something new. There are a lot of companies and concepts out there dedicated to combining creativity and fun with learning and thought development.

In a way, we’re doing the same thing. Writing is a creative process, but it requires a lot of brain power. Sometimes it’s hard to get a string of thoughts together; other times, it’s impossible to stop thinking.

Therefore, we like to use the phrase “brain rush” too. Maybe a bit differently than playing a game or watching reruns of a short-lived T.V. show (if you want, you can watch the Cartoon Network show promo here).

What is brain rush? 

For writers and other creative thinkers, brain rush is that occasional yet glorious (and sometimes annoying, inconvenient, overwhelming) period of time when ideas rush into your brain nonstop. Old ideas, new ideas, odd combinations of both—you’ll be reading something, watching something, eating dinner, and boom—brain rush. Sometimes so severe you have to write something down, fast.

Why? To make room for more ideas, of course. But really because the feeling of harboring multiple ideas at once, accompanied by the fear of forgetting them, is worse than actually (temporarily) forgetting them.

How do you manage brain rush?

Whether you’re for writing down your ideas or against it, find some way to get the ones that stick out to you most out of your head somehow. Make a note in your phone. Scribble keywords down on a post-it note. Record a voice memo. Do something to free your mind from the rush of thoughts inside. Then, leave it there and go on with what you were doing before the rush.

When you go back to your phone, post-it, voice memo, whatever your method, your list of ideas might not seem quite as promising as they did when they first came to you. This is exactly why it’s never a good suggestion to jump on a new idea the second you think of it. With the rush comes excitement, a tiny bit of healthy mania. It’s likely, though, that only a few of those original thoughts, or maybe even just one, is worth developing further.

Is brain rush a good thing?

It can be, if you know how to manage it. After period of “brain drought” (much more justifiable than writer’s block, because your brain can’t block thoughts that aren’t there!) brain rush can quench your creative thirst and melt your fears of never being able to come up with a decent idea ever again (we’ve all been there).

However, learning to use brain rushes to your advantage takes practice. It takes time to figure out a good spark-record-review cycle. It takes time to figure out which ideas are promising enough to turn into future projects. Over time you learn your style, your strengths and how much of a challenge is too much.

In a sudden rush of creativity and abstract discovery, it’s not easy to know what to do with all the ideas you’ve transferred from your brain to another device, ideas that, seemingly, came out of nowhere.

That’s why we practice. That’s why we refine our craft. That’s why it’s okay, every now and then, to try out an idea, decide it isn’t working, and set it aside. Like writing itself, managing our ideas is a process. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s so frustrating it seems impossible.

Creativity is unpredictable. Expect the unexpected. Power through the drought. Drink in the rush. Whether you’re putting the fun back into learning, creating an app or pitching a new idea for a game show, ideas will come. Often all at once. In the middle of the night.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

New Ideas Are Your Motivators, Not Your Enemies

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Yesterday afternoon, I got a new idea for a book.

Like most ideas, it came to me in the middle of doing something else, something that just so happened to be rather important. I suppose it didn’t come from nowhere; it’s more of a loosely woven thread of feelings and experiences that all of a sudden became worthy of a story.

Like most ideas, it wants my attention. Desperately.

But as you may or may not know, I’m already writing a book, one now over three years in the making.

If there is ever a time to follow my own advice, friends, it is now.

Remember: ideas have a life cycle

Sort of. They begin as microscopic fragments of names and dialogue and events. They slowly, very slowly, mature into storylines suited enough to write (or at least attempt to). They need time to grow before they’re ready to work with you. It is a partnership, your relation to your ideas. Neither of you can function all too well without the other. I might even dare to say it’s dangerous to start developing them too early.

So why am I so tempted to?

July 1 is approaching

This is the main source of my conflict and worry. After all, what better time to leap into a new story than a WriMo? Camp NaNoWriMo is supposed to motivate us to take our ideas and put them to paper (word processor?). Why not this one?

I’m not a huge supporter of abandoning current projects to start new ones on a whim. I never have been. After years of practice, I’ve become one of those people that finishes what she starts (I wasn’t born with the instinct, trust me). My biggest fear is that, if I put my current project aside, even for 10,000 words, I won’t want to go back to it once this new, shiny story starts unfolding.

I know it’s too early to run with it

 The idea, the kind you can hold in your hand and begin shaping into a plot with characters and climaxes and mysteries and words, only became so clear in my mind yesterday. Not even 24 hours ago. I’ve told all of you plenty of times not to jump into something new without giving it time to solidify in the depths of your mind.

It might not even be a book idea; it might be a short story idea or a poem or a haiku, for all I know. The thing is, this early on in the process, you don’t know. You can’t know right away. So closing out my current Word document and starting a new file, starting a new book, would be foolish. Reckless. I’d pretty much be going against everything I have ever taught you about idea management.

Yet it’s keeping me awake at night

Okay, only one night. But if you’ve been there, you know how awfully long those nights can be. It isn’t that I’m itching to write down my thoughts as much as I’m dying to know if the idea will ever become something more than this.

I’m still so committed to my initial project; that motivation has not left. Yet I have toyed with the idea of working on both at once, in smaller pieces each, to see if I could handle it. I don’t think I could. Our brains are powerful, but I’m not sure mine can keep track of two stories at once. I don’t want to diminish the quality of both because I’m trying too hard to make them both come to life.

I didn’t ask for this, you know. We never do. Ideas appear when we least expect them to. Sometimes they are unwanted. Yet they stay.

I am grieving a loss, and I really think giving this idea a chance could really help me—help me get the closure I need and at the same time honor the life of someone I really cared about.

I think it’s this—knowing it could change me, knowing it could give him a voice even now—that has given me the answers I needed today.

It’s a good idea. Good ideas never leave you. I think I have an obligation to my current project. And I think, if I keep pushing forward and finish it to the best of my ability, this newer idea will still be there waiting.

At least, I sincerely hope it will be.

Have you been here before? Have you survived this? Have your ideas stuck with you even after putting them to the side?

I’d love to know I’m not alone.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.

 

Three Strategies for Overcoming Your Creative Barriers

blog0612 Writer’s Block is not a real thing.

Now that all the Writer’s Block enthusiasts have navigated away from this page (giant squids of anger? Anyone? Anyone?), let us explain ourselves.

Writer’s Block does not exist because it isn’t just writers who have trouble coaxing their ideas out of hiding. Anyone who engages in some type of creative process—musicians, designers, entrepreneurs and yes, writers—have moments when all they want to do is engage in the activity they enjoy (or do for a living, or both). Sometimes, the ideas, the motivation, just won’t come. Sometimes, there’s an invisible wall. A creative barrier. And it seems impossible to knock down with a metaphorical sledgehammer.

We know. We’ve been there. We can help.  

1. Get up and move

This can mean two things: either grab your laptop and choose another temporary work station (if portions of your work station are portable, that is) or abandon your work entirely for a little while and go do something else. Physical activity can do wonders for the mind. Commanding your body to transition into a voluntary, yet mindless series of movements can leave your brain extra capacity to process thoughts. Go for a jog, if you’re into that sort of thing. Go for a walk. Step outside to grab the morning paper. Anything that does not involve sitting and staring at a screen, at least for a small segment of your day.  

2. If you can’t move, move on

If you get paid to write, first of all, you’re doing something right, so kudos to you. If you’re stuck in an office or wedged in a pitiful cubicle between a wall and a co-worker who prefers headphones and eating lunch at his desk, you probably don’t have as much freedom to try step one. Deadlines are deadlines, and you can’t spend all morning putting off getting your work done because of a mental block. Your boss might not believe in the “creative barrier” enough to count it as a free pass. Do your best, but if you can, switch to another project for the time being. Take a two-minute break and watch a quick video to stimulate your mind in a different way. You might have a different perspective on the task at hand when you do come back to it.  

3. Engage in productive procrastination

This is a real thing, and it’s not actually as sketchy as you might think. Sometimes—and let’s be honest, we’ve all done it—you need to put off a project in order to trick your brain into channeling its best ideas exactly where you need it to. How do you productively procrastinate, in a literary sense? Read a book. Watch a TED talk. Write a blog post about productive procrastination. Do something that still keeps the wheels in your head spinning without sitting for 10 minutes in front of a blank page, stressing about how much you’re not getting done. Probably the most important strategy of all, though, is to try not to stress about it.

Worrying about how much your brain is apparently betraying you only makes it worse. That’s why the steps above involve distraction and moving away from the stressful, doesn’t-want-to-be-written assignment in front of you. The ideas will come back. They haven’t gone away. If they come rushing back to you all at once, well, that’s another problem for another post.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Five Questions You’ll Ask Your Latest Story Idea

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We talk a lot about ideas here at Novelty Revisions.

Why? Because ideas are like small children, and figuring out how to handle them when they crawl into your lap can be a real struggle.

A lot of things can happen when you get a new idea. You’re going to have a lot of questions about how to “raise it” right.

Here are a few things you’ll probably wonder—maybe even out loud—when that time comes.

1. Where did you come from?

Like really, which part of your brain did this mysterious thing live before now? Because you’re pretty confident in your own general level of sanity, and this doesn’t seem like something a relatively sane person would come up with on the spot.

 2. Can this wait?

You have a thousand things going on, not to mention real-world responsibilities and things to pay for. There isn’t time to start on a new project. Especially if you’re already working your way through one. 

3. How much longer are you going to keep me awake?

It’s 2 a.m., you were already up late glued to YouTube (admit it), you have stuff to do when your alarm goes off in three hours. This is the time of day your brain is supposed to stop bothering you, not the other way around.

 4. What am I supposed to do with you?

Okay … so maybe the idea itself isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s a pretty decent one, actually. But can you make it a short story, just to give it some attention? Does it need 50,000+ words to feel fulfilled? What does it want to become?!

 5. Would you mind if I introduced you to a friend of mine?

Sometimes, talking about your ideas with someone close to you can ease any frustrations or concerns you have in response to their unexpected arrival. Working your way through your thoughts, verbally, can do wonders for your conscience.

Ideas are prone to spontaneous appearance. And they do not like to share your affection. They will immerse themselves so deeply into your thoughts that everything—working on other projects, sleeping, functioning as a relatively sane human being—seems impossible to manage.

But ideas, when you figure out how to manage them, have the potential to become the best, most worthwhile parts of your life.

After all … they’d be nothing without you.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Can Ideas Die?

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No one has really figured out how to explain to “non-writers” how writers “come up with” their ideas. But an idea is an idea. Entrepreneurs, inventors—there are plenty of forms an idea can take. Explaining how ideas “come to you” isn’t as important as what you do with the ideas you do grab hold of.

As far as stories go, ideas are just part of the process. Sometimes you don’t realize how many you come up with in a given period of time, but when you do, you certainly rarely find a reason to complain about it.

But once you get an idea—is it a forever companion?

Ideas are abstract, but it’s possible to better understand the process of creating and constructing when you use a metaphor. Here, we think of ideas as “born and developing.” It sounds a bit odd at first, but it makes more sense when you break it down.

Ideas have a sort of “growth cycle”

Often, out of nowhere, an idea spontaneously forms in your brain. We’re not scientists, so we just call this magic. And it really can be quite magical, that moment you realize something has appeared in the deep, mysterious depths of your mind that wasn’t there five seconds ago.

Ideas form, and ideas grow. The more you nurture them, the more they develop and mature before your eyes. This process continues even after your original idea becomes a finished product—let’s use a published book as an example. That book started out as just an idea only you could access. Now it has become something sharable with anyone who wants to enjoy it.

Not every idea you have will grow to its full potential 

This is, in a sense, just part of life. Not every story idea you have will make it all the way to a published book. This is where the steps of the process get a little fuzzy.

There are some ideas you will try to nurture and just don’t have what it takes to make it very far in the cycle. This might mean laying aside a project you’ve already put a lot of time and effort into—but don’t get discouraged. It does not mean you are a terrible writer, or a failure, or that your idea was “bad.”

Some ideas just try to move through the cycle in a way that isn’t working right now, either because you need to give it more time to develop, or because your idea has begun to form—but there’s a smaller piece of it that’s trying to get your attention while buried under other fragments. 

What does “giving up on” an idea really mean?

“Giving up” isn’t the best way to think of the process of re-evaluating your ideas. There’s just an overly negative connotation there, one that often makes writers feel like every project they start that just isn’t working somehow makes them less of a success.

Instead, think of setting a project aside as “giving it time to settle.” When we reach out and encourage you not to give up—what we really mean is, don’t lose faith in the great ideas you do have. Let’s return to something we wrote above.

Sometimes a great idea forms—but along with it come everything you unintentionally associate with that idea, like movies you’ve seen or books you’ve read that remind you of it. That’s always going to be there. And sometimes what stops us from being able to write a promising, original piece is the fear that we are copying someone else’s work too closely.

Strip that idea down to its roots. Separate it out into its smaller fragments. You might have a story idea about a teenager who loses his only parent and goes on an adventure in search of the other. Not so original, right? But is there another element underneath that’s really the intended focus, such as him avoiding college applications because he doesn’t want to follow in either of his parents’ footsteps?

Outline your story, if you have to. Find the part of your idea that’s really reaching out to you. It might be the missing inspiration you’ve been searching for.

So now we return to our initial question: can ideas die?

The answer: no. Like us, they get exhausted. They get worn out and distorted. Sometimes we try to manipulate them so much into becoming what we think we want them to be, their true identities seem to disappear.

But you can bring them back. Even if it means putting your current story aside and giving it time to rest, and remind itself what it really wants to become.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Solution Saturday: I Have a Story Idea, but Lack the Discipline to Write It

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At least, that’s what you think.

Welcome to our first Solution Saturday, your chance to find solutions to the “writer problems” keeping you from achieving your literary ambitions.

There are a lot of people wandering around the globe with amazing ideas in their heads. For some reason, humans are really good at coming up with stories. We’ve been telling them for centuries. We’re constantly seeking out new stories to read, when it feels like we’ve run out of our own to tell.

Some writers are really good at transferring their ideas from head to hand. They can get an idea and start working on it instantly, if they want to. Some writers have a little bit more difficulty, as we like to say here, putting their ideas into words.

If the latter describes you, you’re in the right place.

Does this “writer problem” make you a bad writer? Of course not. Anyone with an idea can turn that idea into something real.

Let’s say you have this great story idea. You’ve had it in your head for a long time. You keep meaning to work it out, to start writing it even in small bits and pieces. But it seems you just don’t have the “discipline” to make any progress.

So. How do you change that?

Here are a few solutions to help you turn your idea into a real, physical piece of writing.

Solution 1: Talk About It

This isn’t necessarily a suggestion to drag your closest friend into a secluded corner of the nearest coffee shop and spilling your idea out on the table for them. But if that’s what you think might help you—if you’re one of those people who has to “talk out” their problems—go for it. Just ask them if it’s okay first. If they’re willing to listen, both of you might end up benefitting from the experience.

If you’re not comfortable telling other people about your ideas, this is where a journal, private blog, unlisted video blog or imaginary friend/stuffed animal/God can come in handy (if applicable?). Talk to yourself, for what it’s worth. The simple act of speaking or writing aimlessly about your thoughts might help you get a better grasp on what you want to do with the idea next.

Solution 2: Outline It

Okay, so you might not be a huge fan of outlining. Years of forced outlining for a grade in English class may have turned you off to the process a long time ago. But this is your idea, your work. You don’t have to do it in any specific format. You don’t have to explain your thoughts in detail, if you’re not ready to. It doesn’t even have to make sense.

Start by jotting down anything you think of when your idea comes to mind—in a Word document, on the back of a napkin, whatever works for you (just don’t accidentally thorw away the napkin). A place? A problem? A character’s name or a vague description of a made-up historical event? Think of the fragmented shards of information you may or may not have told someone else. It doesn’t matter how organized (or not) you present it. Sometimes, just getting it out of your head is the first of many triumphant steps.

Solution 3: Schedule It 

If your biggest struggle is finding the time to sit down and crank out a few hundred words here and there, you have to make it work to fit your lifestyle. If you work full-time and have evening obligations, you might only have time for 10 minutes of writing before bed. Ten minutes is better than zero, but the key here is to make the process part of your routine as soon as possible.

Five minutes of your lunch break, the commute home (unless you drive—please don’t write and drive!), between classes, while you’re waiting for your mocha Frapp at Starbucks—whatever works. It doesn’t have to take large chunks out of your day. Once you get better at keeping up with it, you can work toward dedicating more time to each scribble session. 

June already? Camp NaNoWriMo is upon us! Check out our tips for making time to write when you don’t have any.

Don’t get discouraged if you’re still having trouble getting your ideas out. It’s a skill, just like learning to read. No one is going to steal your idea. And if they do, well, they’re dumb. You thought of it first.

Give it time, and be patient. You are a writer with an idea. You are more powerful, and capable, than you know.

Do you have a “writer problem” that you can’t seem to find a solution to? Leave a comment or tweet @MegDowell with the hashtag #NRSaturdaySolutions and we might help you solve your problem in next week’s post!

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.