Archive for the 'Ideas' Category

Star Light, Star Bright
by Annette McCleave on June 8th, 2010

My most brilliant writing moments happen when I’m asleep.

I go to bed stewing over plot problems, and when I wake up, I miraculously have answers. I don’t know how it works. Waking often feels like a scene from The Elves and the Shoemaker—when I roll out of bed, there’s a note on the pad by my bed, written in the worst handwriting imaginable. Once I decipher the distorted scrawl, I realize I’ve been handed my answer…by unknown forces.

I know what you’re going to say: Annette, you wrote that note yourself, probably in a half-delirious, semi-somnolent state as you were drifting off to sleep. The ideas belong to you, not the elves.

And I would agree.


Except for one thing. These ideas never come to me when I’m awake. I’ll brainstorm, I’ll seek answers from the experts who’ve gone before me. I’ll even go for long walks. The only other ideation chamber that even comes close to the miracle that occurs when I’m sleeping is the shower. But the shower is better at conjuring fresh ideas, not daring escapes from plot corners I’ve written myself into.

Eight hours of sleep produces answers to some of the most complex problems ever. Problems that made me curse and swear and brew a pot of coffee in the middle of the day. Problems that I’m convinced require a rewrite of the entire book. It doesn’t always happen the first night—sometimes it takes two. After all, I occasionally need to dream of sugarplums to keep those little elves happy. But with enough sleep, any problem can be overcome.

Anyone else out there get nocturnal visits from plotting elves?

Before the Before
by Annette McCleave on April 20th, 2010

My process changes with every book I write. I’d love to announce I have found the best way to get a story onto paper, but sadly, it would be a lie. Novel writing is a great adventure. For now, my process looks something like this:

Flesh out my lead characters
My story ideas often come to me in the form of a character who pops into my mind and demands to tell his or her story. This person is fully formed, but I don’t know him or her very well, so I start by trying to understand what s/he wants, why she wants it, and what’s stopping her from getting it. In my stories, there’s typically two people standing between my hero and his goal–the villain and the heroine. I spend time fleshing them out, too, including what their goals are and why they want them.

Next, I look for the major events that can or will trigger my character to become the person he needs to be in order to succeed. I identify his plan for winning, and the villain’s plan for winning. I explore how my heroine’s individual goal interferes and causes problems for my lead. I give some thought to the worst things that could happen. I’m a big believer in “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Torture is an excellent tool for character-building, I’ve found. Then I toss all that stuff into the pot and mix well.

Now that I have a rough idea what’s going to happen, I can have some fun. Oh, the hours that are lost here. I love researching, and can easily lose myself in the details—many of which are never used in the book. I don’t curtail this activity too much, though, unless I’m way off-base. Immersing myself in the details helps me slide into my characters’ world.

Write the first three to four chapters
Yes, this is pre-writing. At least, it is for me. No matter how much thought I put in before I start writing, I never truly get to know my characters—or truly understand their motivations—until I walk a mile in their shoes. I need to see them react to those nasty events I envisioned and interact with other characters. I need to test them.

After I’ve written those first few chapters, I need to sit back and recalibrate. Do I really know what the hero wants? Do I really know what the heroine is willing to sacrifice to get what she wants? The answer is often NO. So, I head back to the drawing board. I don’t try to figure out everything–I like the mystery if discovering new things as I go along. My plan is simply to spot the big whoppers–the issues that could turn my story completely on it’s ear and result in endless wasted pages.

The best part of this process is peeling away the layers of the character that first showed up in my head. Discovering the complexities of that person, what makes them tick. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I people-watch in real life, too. That couple at the next table? Are they on a first date or celebrating a fortieth anniversary? Sharing the events of an average day? Or sharing a burden that’s been dragging down their shoulders all day?

Anyone else out there a people-watcher who makes up stories about complete strangers?

The work before the words
by Jessa Slade on April 19th, 2010

Currently working on: Navel gazing
Mood: Linty

I recently started messing around with a side project.  It came from my idea file where it had been sitting for about a year.  Despite its time in purgatory, the idea was still shiny and interesting, so I decided to take it out and play with it for a bit.

Some ideas are like those fancy dolls that look gorgeous but you really shouldn’t take them out of the plastic because then their perfect corkscrew ringlet hair gets all messed up and they aren’t worth anything anymore.  Other ideas are like Legos, and look simple and kind of boring but can stand up to any sort of abuse and become anything you want when you start adding to them. 

This new idea I’m playing with was like a bag of brightly colored and intriguing puzzle pieces.  Tragically, the box top with the picture of what the puzzle would show was missing, which made me suspicious.  Was this idea all there?  What if pieces were missing?  What if they aren’t even all pieces from the same puzzle?  Would I be wasting my time?

Not much you can do in a situation like that except start working on it and see where the pieces take you.


My prewriting is a ritual the same way my puzzle working has specific steps:

Step 1: Clear a big, flat, clean work surface.
Clearing the decks is important for my writing process.  While I don’t require certain kinds of pens or paper to write, I like to set up my writing files, my word count spreadsheet, some inspirational art, whatever notes I had in the idea folder, etc. before I start.  That virtual workspace is as important to my story as a physical space is to a puzzle which gets hard to move around as the pieces spread.

Step 2: Turn all the colored sides face up.
With a puzzle, knowing what I have to work with — ooh, a lot of yellow; I bet that all goes together — is important.  Same thing with a story idea.  Who are the characters?  What are they trying to accomplish?  What terrible odds are they facing?  Just like in that anonymous bag of puzzle pieces, I might not actually have all the pieces of the story right away, but at least I know what I DO have.

Step 3: Find the straight edge pieces.
Some of those smarty-pants new puzzles don’t have traditional straight edges anymore.  But most stories do.  Usually there’s – for example – a beginning, a middle and an end.  Once I know those pieces, I can link them together, which shows me a framework of what I’m missing.

Step 4: Look for big color blocks and readily identifiable details.
In a puzzle, big color and little details seem to jump out to my eye.  My prewriting tends to be like that too.  I can imagine and make note of big action pieces or little snippets of dialogue even if I’m not quite sure where they will go.

Step 5: Start connecting the pieces.
Even before I type “Chapter 1,” I like to see how all those chunks are fitting together.  Already I can see where I’m missing pieces.  The writing hasn’t even seriously begun and already there are so many questions: Will I find the missing pieces somewhere in the idea pile, or will I have to make a new piece?  Is this a picture anybody — me included — will want to look at?  Hey, what is the dog chewing on?

Some writers prefer not to work out the puzzle before they start writing because then they lose the excitement that keeps them fitting the 400 pages of pieces together.  But for me, all that playing is part of the fun.

How do you like to play?  Do you break your crayons first?  Or do you like to color in the lines?

by Annette McCleave on April 13th, 2010

Ideas for new stories pop into my head all the time.

Sometimes they come to me while driving in the car. Totally inconvenient, as note-taking isn’t conducive to accident-free travel. Sometimes they occur to me as I’m waiting for an appointment. For these occasions, I carry a notebook and pen in my purse, and I hurriedly jot down the basics of my thought. Unless it’s a doctor’s appointment; then I don’t bother to hurry, because I usually get a solid hour to write.

Sometimes the idea comes to me while I’m in the middle of writing a particularly grueling scene in my current WIP. This is just another variation of “I really need to watch a re-run of LOST right now” and “now would be an excellent time to make cabbage rolls”. I know it’s a bad move to give into the urge to play with the idea. But dang. Sometimes the idea has merit. So, I tell myself I have a half hour—no more—to create a file on the idea. Then back to work on the WIP.

What happens to these bits of brilliance, you might wonder? Well, they all end up in the same place. In a file on my computer labeled Ideas and Thoughts. These are separate from the six manuscripts I’ve completed and never sold. Those have their own files. ;-)

Right now, there are forty-three ideas in my Ideas file. Not every idea has staying power. From time to time I re-read them. Some get the immediate heave-ho. What was I thinking? Was I on drugs? That’s the stupidest story idea ever. Some are good, but I feel no urge to enlarge on the notes I have. Then there are a few that still get me as excited as the day I jotted down the notes. Magical ideas that have a life of their own. I have three of those. Every time I go into my Idea file, I’m drawn to them and I work a little bit more on them. In one case I have the first page written, in another the first chapter,and in the third, the first three chapters. I’m fairly certain that these three stories will one day be complete—because I can’t leave the darned things alone. Or they won’t leave me alone. :grin:

Some of my ideas are inspired by real world events—the very first manuscript I wrote was a mystery based on a true story about a man and his son who went on a fishing trip and only the son returned. One of my ideas was spurred to life by a picture. But most of my ideas simply pop into my head, often in the form of a character. And I lovingly capture them.

This is the fun part of being a writer—the idea generation. There’s no sweat involved, no agony. The hard work comes next. Writing the story.

Question of the day to aspiring writers: Do you carry a notebook in your purse/pocket, or have you moved beyond the pen and paper to taking notes on your smart phone?

Getting & vetting ideas
by Jessa Slade on April 12th, 2010

Currently working on: Brand-new project
Mood: Fightin’ words

Most writers who tell other people that they write will eventually hear some version of the following conversation:

Non-writer: Wow, you write?  I’ve always wanted to write something.  Maybe a poem.  Or a screenplay that will make more than Avatar.  Probably not a novel, because only crazy people do novels.  But I have this great idea…
Writer: Look at the time, will ya?  I have to–
Non-writer: Hey, how about I tell you the idea, you write it down, and we’ll split the profits 50-50?
Writer: My world will not be complete without your idea. Seriously, tell me now before I expire from curiosity. But hold on just a second while I get a pen. Maybe a very expensive Waterman pen to adequately capture the brilliance of your idea.  You wait right here…

I personally have only endured this conversation three times (and to be honest, I wasn’t sarcastic to the non-writer at all) but I expect to have it many times more.  Because most people think the trick to writing is having the idea.

The truth?  Ideas are like chewing gum.  Ideas are so much like chewing gum that it’s really surprising they aren’t sold at convenience stores:

Ideas, like chewing gum, are cheap and everywhere:
I’m going to pull three books from my shelf.  The three closest to hand are a dictionary, a paranormal romance novel (happens to be Sharon’s SCORCHED!) and… hmm, Aid to Bible Understanding.  I randomly choose three words.  From the dictionary I get devoir, which in addition to looking very cool (like a combination of devoid and devour) means duty or responsibility, a formal act of civility.  From SCORCHED, I find incubus (hey, get your own copy!).  And from the bible book I get the word ointment.  You can see how there’s an inkling of an idea right there, right?

Ideas, like chewing gum, need to be chewed and softened up:
I don’t necessarily talk out my ideas a lot beforehand, but I think them out.  I chew on the idea, I stretch it, I stick it on the bedpost overnight and chew it again the next morning.

A good idea, like chewing gum, sticks to the bottom of your shoe:
I find that a good idea has staying power.  I can’t get to every idea right away, so I have a file where I tuck them away.  By the time I get back to them, some of the ideas have faded.  But some are still in minty fresh condition.  That’s an idea that might actually last through 400 pages.

Ideas, like chewing gum, are only as impressive as the hot air you blow into them:
What the non-writer doesn’t understand about ideas is that the idea itself — no matter how brightly packaged — is only a dry stick of artifical color and fake sugar.  It’s not until the hard work, spit, and huffing and puffing are through that you have something the world can admire.  Right before it blows up in your face and you have to cut the chunks out of your hair and rug, but that’s a different story.

I’m betting (see, here’s another idea) that the kind of gum you liked best as a kid predicts your future personality.  Like, a Rorschach ink blot test in chicle and corn syrup.  Reveal your favorite gum here and we’ll psychoanalyze you.

To explore strange new worlds
by Jessa Slade on March 1st, 2010

Currently working on: Al.Most.Done with revisions
Mood: Last stretch of K2 with the promise of a long toboggan ride down — whee! (probably into a bottomless cravasse, but…)

Our topic this week is “If I wrote in another subgenre…” which didn’t take that much imagining for me because I’ve already done it.  And the timing of the topic couldn’t be better since I just cleaned out a cabinet and unearthed (and yes, by unearthed I mean removed enough dust to qualify as earth) these:


These are a bunch (not all, mind you) of my old stories.  In this stack or out of view on the floor are the following:

  • A historical of no particular time period (who knew you had to choose ONE time period or at least provide a time machine) with exceedingly murky point of view changes
  • Two rom-coms, one with a herd of dachshunds
  • Two Regencies, one with requisite duke (I feel a sudden urge to write THE DUKE OF DACHSHUNDS for some reason)
  • A medieval with paranormal elements
  • A futuristic romantic suspense with old skool Indiana Jones overtones
  • A high fantasy heroic quest road trip revised as a contemporary paranormal romance
  • Various and assorted pieces and parts of other Regencies, contemps and Harlequin categories


Writing coaches will tell you to pick a subgenre and stick with it, at least until you’ve made a place for yourself as a certain kind of writer offering a certain kind of experience.  And, they say, for heaven’s sake, DON’T query an agent or editor with all of the above.  (Uh, oops…)

I’m sure the writing coaches are right.  They also tell you that you should probably write what you read.  And that was my problem — I read all sorts of romance.  So I wrote all sorts of romance before I found out that might be considered a waste of time.  Not to mention a waste of paper.

But I don’t regret those wide-ranging stories.  All that casting around (maybe I should say, casting up my writing accounts — you Regency readers will know what I mean) was me trying to unearth “my voice” and what kinds of stories I wanted to tell.

Even though the subgenres displayed a touch of multiple personality disorder, the stories inside contained many of the same elements:

  • A heroine marching to her own piper
  • A hero with troubles he’d rather not share
  • A few (or more) shadows with contrasting light moments
  • Enough adventure or intrigue to keep me interested

And even if I write a cookbook, I can pretty much guess how it will end.  Happily.

Those earlier projects mark my evolution as a writer.  I almost hate to recycle the primeval papertrail they left.  But they are footsteps I’ve left behind me, not a path I need to retrace.

I have some old jewelry I made, from when I first started stringing beads, that I need to take apart too.  I’ve improved my craft and my vision and they aren’t my best effort anymore.  The components — crystal, pearl, sterling, glass – are still good, though, and I have a scavenger’s eye for salvage :)  I look forward to snipping off the ends and tumbling all the smooth and sparkly bits across my desk to see what I can keep.

Do you have old projects you keep around?  How do you know when you’re through with them?  Does seeing them weigh you down, or do they inspire you when you see how far you’ve come?


Alice wonders why
by Jessa Slade on February 1st, 2010

Currently working on: Judging RITA books, the Romance Writers of America award of excellence in romance fiction
Mood: Awed by some great talent

There’s a lot going on in a writer’s head, I swear, even though a lot of time it looks like I’m staring off into space.  While I’m staring, I’m plotting, testing out lines of dialogue, thinking about whom to kill.

And more often than I’d wish, I’m just afraid to start.

See, while the stories in my head are endlessly entertaining to me (hence the long periods of blank-eyed staring) getting what’s in my head onto the page can be a maddening proposition.  In fact, I often feel like my writing sessions are a bit like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where too many conflicting (and crazy) voices have been invited to the table.


The White Rabbit of Overwhelm
He’s the one always chanting “I’m late, I’m late” in my head (because, really, aren’t we always late for something?) which doesn’t much get things off to a convivial start.  Trust me, if you go chasing rabbits, you know you’re going to fall.

The Mad Hatter Muse
Yes, even when not played by Johnny “I’m too sexy to <fill in the blank>” Depp, everybody swoons for the Muse, so he must be invited to the party even though he’s — you know — psychotic, encouraging everyone to run amok and constantly asking silly questions like “How is a raven like a writing desk?” when everybody knows we needn’t answer that question until Chapter 23.

The March Hare Moment
He’s best friends with the Mad Muse… and equally crackers.  He comes around holding out inspiration like a big cup of tea… Only to jerk it away at the last moment.  Emphasis on jerk.  At best, I’ll be left with a little spill of inspiration that I try to mop up and ring out over my pages.

The Queen of (Broken) Hearts Internal Editor
Everybody has to tip toe around her for fear of coming under her gimlet eye.  She’s always deflating the mood with her muttered “Off with her adverbs!”  Heads and hearts are constantly at risk around her, and yet she has a chair of her own because somebody has to be in charge of cutting words and killing our darlings.

The dormouse
He’s already asleep, curled up at the keyboard with his head on ZZZZZZZZ, even though we still have a thousand words to go.

And there, at the far end of the table — she’s lucky she even got a seat — is poor Alice, who just wants a story that makes sense.

Well, forget it, Alice.

It’s impossible to get all those voices to speak one at a time, much less use their napkins instead of their sleeves.  So I’ll take what they spew out and try to capture it for you in all its mad glory.

Maybe a raven is like a writing desk because, with the wind under their wings, they can both take flight.

Anybody else looking forward to Tim Burton’s vision of Alice In Wonderland?  He’s one of my heroes, because if he doesn’t get everything that’s on his head down on paper, I can’t even imagine what else is in there!


Writing in the dark
by Jessa Slade on January 25th, 2010

Currently working on: Brooding
Mood: Broody

Last year, the grapes tried to come in the house.

XY bought me a couple gorgeous Interlachen grapes for my birthday three years ago, and last year, they really took off.  They ran up into the birch tree and across the porch.  They tangled in the yuccas and wrapped around the sun shades.  When they started scratching eerily at the front door on windy nights, we knew they had to move.

So this weekend, while they’re dormant for the winter, XY whacked them back and transplanted them to brand new holes on their very own trellis, where they can run this way ‘n’ that way without opposition.  XY also moved the fruit trees to accommodate the new grapes trellis.  One of the roses, a lilac, and a bunch of perennials had to go to make room for the fruit trees.  It was cold, wet, muddy work, and the front yard looks like a cemetery with its piles of dark earth and skeletal plants. 

Tonight, when we took Monster Girl the dog for her walk, we paused in the 5 o’clock, low cloud darkness to stare at the wreckage, and it was hard to believe spring will ever come.

 At some point in my writing, I always feel like that.


There always comes a time in my writing when the story is out of control.  Tendrils are choking the life out of anything nearby.  Too scraggly and unwieldy and ugly, my writing begins to creep me out.  The darkness descends.  The winter of our discontent, indeed.

This is my fallow season.  Since the cycles of my writing echo the seasons in my garden, I’ve learned to apply a few rules to both.

1. Just cut back the dead wood already.
I have roses that bloom through November.  At Thanksgiving, they still have buds forming.  But invariably, sometime in December we finally get a hard frost which kills the last blossoms.  The buds blacken and slump on their stems.  The surviving leaves give me (false) hope that I’ll get another glimpse of pink.  But no.  Really, there’s nothing to do but get out the clippers and whack everything back to sturdy greenery.  That first cut is the sharpest, but the harsher I am, the more lush and vigorous the blooms are the following year. 

2. Lay the ground work and run the guide wires now.
I read a garden book once that said you should always put your 50-cent peat pot in a five-dollar hole.  I get impatient (and cheap) and am sometimes tempted to skip ahead.  But there’s no rushing the prep work.  So now I start by honing the spade and invest time in reading craft books and taking workshops that can make me a sharper writer.  I dig a deep and rock-free hole of prewriting.  I string my story arc wire on securely concreted plotting posts.  And I turn my well-aged compost into a hot and steaming muck.

3. Nurture the seedling.
Good God, but a seedling is so small and pathetic.  With only two baby leaves, I can’t even tell the peppers from the potato, the carrots from the kohlrabi.  And knowing how long it will take before harvest, sometimes it seems so pointless.  But I have faith that if I put a tiny toilet paper roll anti-slug collar around them, if I spread the compost thick, and thin the weeds, if I water them regularly with my blood, sweat and tears (minus the cliche), in the end — The End — I will hold the fruits of my labor.

Sure, it’s a dream.  But it’s always easier to dream in the dark.

Do you have rituals for the dark and fallow months?  Or do you vegetate?


Blame it on Buffy
by Jessa Slade on October 19th, 2009

Currently working on: Arm wrestling Book 3
Mood: Sore but unbowed

Powerful women.  Hot men.  Zinging dialogue.  Fate of the world and the human heart at stake.  If you’ve enjoyed those elements in a paranormal romance, I believe you can blame Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a good chunk of it.  Oh sure, brooding bad boys existed before Spike and definitely high school was hell all along, but when it came to mixing big paranormal love with big paranormal problems, Buffy was in a class by herself.


In previous posts, I’ve betrayed my adoration — which is not to say weird stalkeryness — for Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy and the equally wonderful spin-off Angel and the even more wonderful Firefly plus the wacky Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog.  So why keep reliving the glory days?  Because I don’t think they’ve been done better since.

Lost lost me.  Heroes had a few too many to keep track of.  Smallville felt that way to me.  Supernatural… okay, that one has the hot guys.  Still, the lack of a compelling-t0-me romance in most of today’s paranormal themed television shows leaves me cold.  I’m at a disadvantage because I don’t have cable; maybe True Blood would have been ”my show”?


So many of the things I love about a paranormal story can be done so well on screen:  Claustrophic close-ups to heighten the tension of what’s sneaking up behind; creepy fog-filled settings with obligatory search-light backlighting; eerie music to heighten the tension of what’s sneaking up behind; high action quick-cut edits to make you feel like you’re really there; terrific gore-ific special effects to release the tension of what was sneaking up behind.

And yet portraying that compelling-t0-me love story is apparently really hard.  Maybe because the course of many months — years, if the show is lucky and good — is a tough timeframe.  A two-hour movie can get away with a kiss, some witty banter, and a soft-focus love scene.  But a television show has the opportunity to build a romance from first glance to true love with all the stages in between.  And maybe that’s not easy at all.

So maybe that’s why I read romance novels while my 11-year-old TV sits in the basement with dust on the screen and the picture slowly blowing out into strange flares of red and blue.

But could be I’m missing something.  I’m watching Whedon’s newest show Dollhouse in its second season.  No love story, except my love for Whedon himself.  So perhaps I have room for another show, one with a romance I can sink my teeth into, although I don’t demand vampires necessarily.  Enlighten me, those of you with a working television set — Any worthy successors to Buffy?

Setting the stage
by Jessa Slade on October 12th, 2009

Currently working on: Recovering from last weekend’s Emerald City Writers Conference — Jessa’s unofficial motto: Too much fun, not enough sleep
Mood: Groggy

I chose my hometown of Chicago for the world of the Marked Souls, because the city has so many facets.  Its changeable weather, its rich and poor neighborhoods, its many moods offer endless potential for any scene. 

But before I started writing, while I was still just in thinking mode about the story, I also scouted — at least in my imagination — a few other possibilities.

setting-nawlinsWell, who doesn’t think of Nawlins, Loosyana as a wonderful setting?  And never mind what kind of story it is.  The city reeks of character (character and soured alcohol, that is).  I’ve visited twice.  Once was for a Romance Writers of America conference.  Yup, 2000 romance writers loose on the streets of the French Quarter.  Sadly, a missed opportunity for the Girls Gone Wild video guys.

But the second time was a strange, surrel trip when XY and I showed up late on Christmas Eve.  We’d scored a ridiculously cheap room in the Quarter.  The city was all but empty, the streets eerily quiet.  We walked our dog down to the river.  An old homeless man stood on the bank, swaying a little.  He sang “Old Man River” and never looked at us.

But, New Orleans has been so done but so many that I couldn’t justify using it, even though I’d already half-written a tasty love scene with Cafe Du Monde’s beignets.  Powdered sugar is insufficent building material for a whole story.


I also considered the American West.  I love all those sprawling states and have traveled through swaths of them.  Desolate, wild and elemental with the best star displays in the country IMO, the deserts have graced the backdrop of many a stripped-down lawman on the trail of a heartless killer, which certainly would’ve worked for the demon-possessed warriors in my storyworld. 

But I decided I needed more cannon fodder characters to people my story, and while the scenic West abounds in dramatic colors, vast skies and dangers aplenty, the one thing it’s often missing is people.  Hard to stage a battle for souls when there aren’t souls enough to go around.

setting-portlandOf course, I also contemplated my current city, Portland Oregon.  A less often used setting, no doubt, with a good range of sub-settings: Mt Hood on the skyline, the beach an hour away, a pretty river through the center of the city.

But in the end, I couldn’t stage an epic battle between good and evil in a town where plaid flannel is still considered appropriate evening wear.  Obviously, purgatory has already won.

I’m happy with my final choice, but I do sometimes wonder how a different setting might have changed my story.  And whether, say, a setting in the Caribbean could’ve justified a “research trip.”  Maybe I’ll do another short story. Maybe “Demons Gone Wild” could be set in Cancun, where my moody, broody heroes get a new eyeful of wicked.

Do you think your life story would’ve been different if you’d had another setting?  Where would you stage the movie version of your new life?