Finding Ideas

Cloud Idea Bubble - CC0 - pixabay-Alexas_Fotos-686414Ideas come to some authors as easily as sweat comes to armpits in the gym. I’ve heard of authors who have drawers full of ideas, note-books overflowing with anecdotes and stories just waiting to be used at a later date. There are authors who carry special fly swats to rid the air around them of new ideas, so that they can focus on their current book. Alas, I am not one of those authors. On the contrary, I have more next-novel-idea angst than a teenager in an existential crisis. Saying that, I’ve never completely run out of ideas. I’ve always found something to write, but I never know if the idea is good enough until I put pen to paper. I find it very hard to believe in a story before I’ve started it.

It takes me quite a while to finish a YA (young adult) novel, which means I don’t actually need a new novel idea until at least a year after I decided on the last idea. I’m a fast enough writer, though my first drafts are taking longer the more experienced I become at writing. I used to just vomit out the first draft, knowing there’d be time to clean it up later. But then I realised that I don’t really like cleaning up vomit, despite the day job rotating between being a nurse and a mum. Every nurse knows that it’s much easier to prevent the vomit in the first place. So I now take my time, write more slowly, carefully. This also helps to put off the next idea choice. In between editing drafts, I write small Chapter books for kids (ideas come easier when the word count is under 10,000), poems, I attempt to write short stories. I never commit to a new full-size novel until I’m finished with the last.

I’ve started many novels based on an idea. And I’ve given up on many novels, thousands of words in, because I knew the idea wasn’t working. Sometimes I don’t even have an idea, just a character, and it can be a real struggle to figure out who this person in my head is, and what is their story. I often start a story and have no clue where it’s going. I’ve tried to write about certain topics, only to realise that the words that flow are dry and boring. I can start a story for the sake of practising writing, and not have a clue what the plan is, and discover I’ve created a character I love and want to keep. My stories are not always predictable to me, but that makes it much more exciting to write.

I find that ideas for short stories and poems are easier to find than ideas for novels. I often flick through magazines, scroll down my twitter feed, eavesdrop on conversations, looking for shreds of inspiration. Sometimes I get an idea for a short story or Chapter book from another story or book. A line, an image, a piece of information that wakes up my imagination like an alarm clock.

Sometimes ideas come in round about ways. This year I did a creative writing class for short stories. I was the only person writing or reading YA, so I decided to try and write for adults. I enjoyed it so much that I even started a novel, based on a woman. This was new to me, as my protagonists have always been under eighteen. However, it didn’t last. You see, it turned out the woman had a teenage daughter, and after writing 10,000 words of the mother’s story, I suddenly found myself writing the daughter’s side of the story. And it was much more fun to write. And that is the where the idea for the novel I am now working on came from.

So perhaps I am not a writer who catches my ideas with a butterfly net. Instead I am a writer who just keeps on writing, whether or not I have anything to write about. And in that mine of words, I occasionally catch a sparkle out of the corner of my eye, and that next novel angst disappears. For another year anyway.

Writing through Rejection

During a panel of agents at the Cork World Book Festival, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin asked Polly Nolan (Greenhouse Literary Agency) and Simon Trewin (WME) what was the biggest reason for manuscripts to be rejected. The answer was writers sending out their work too early. They recommended putting your manuscript away for a month, three months, six months. Long enough that your eyes no longer skim over the words, and you can see the mistakes and areas that need work.

Putting a novel away and trying to be patient is one of the hardest parts of writing. I would love to get a novel published so I could feel justified as a writer, and to feel less like an outsider looking in on a community that I strive to join. But very few writers make it on their first book. It took me a while to realise that a ‘Debut’ novel doesn’t mean the first novel the author has ever written. It’s the first novel they got published. Many writers have one or two or ten novels hiding away at the back of their laptop or under their bed. They’re probably awful, hence the not published part. But they were a learning curve; their apprenticeship. Some of those novels were submitted and rejected. It can take years until a) your ability to write is good enough, and b) your story is good enough.

A stack of books and notes, probably full of scribbled revisions

Submitting before your book is ready will lead to rejection. Every writer has been rejected, for hundreds of different reasons, and it helps to build that thick skin you’ll need to grow, before your writing goes out into the world. Simon Trewin changed my thinking when he expressed his dislike of the word ‘rejection’. To him, it’s less a matter of being rejected and more a matter of not being the right fit. If you go into a book shop and pick one book out of one hundred, it means that one appealed to you above all the others. You’re not, as such, rejecting the others. Reading is subjective, there’s no size that fits all.

I’m always surprised to hear how people react to rejection. Every time I receive a rejection from a journal or a competition or an agent, I feel two things. One, happiness that I’m a real writer doing real grown up writerly things like making submissions. Two, a little bit of heart break. It is harrowing, working on a piece for weeks on end (or years when it comes to novels), pulling up the courage and emailing it out, only to get a polite ‘No thanks’. I certainly don’t send back angry emails, but some people do. Threatening and abusing whoever had the audacity to reject them. But this is business, and whoever rejected you is not a robot; they are a person. They have a right to refuse, and a right to be respected. Rudeness has no place. And from another angle entirely, you can never re-submit to that agent with your next book, if you’ve made such a fool of yourself.

If you’ve tried your very best, and you just can’t get your book published, it may be time to let it go. Move onto the next book. This is not easy, but you’ll bring what you’ve learnt from the first book to your next. And in a year or 2 down the line, you may take out the first book and have fresh eyes to see what the book was lacking. Sometimes it’s not the right time for a book. You might be submitting a dystopian book, just as the trend for dystopian fiction is nearing it’s end. Maybe the time will come in a few years. Maybe that book will never be the one to launch your career. So let it go, for now, or forever, and try again.

Being flexible and trying a new style, or genre, can be what makes the difference in getting published. I often read prose that I wished I’d written myself. But when I try to write similarly, it comes out as jargon. It’s not my true voice. You need to allow yourself test different styles to find your voice, and be open to suggestion. Exercise your writing muscle in different ways, and you may surprise yourself. If you keep getting rejected for the same reasons, then maybe you need to listen to what the agents or editors are saying. But don’t sell you soul either. You have the power to say no, and the power to say yes. Stand over your book, but don’t let it cripple you. Every parent needs to give their babies room to change and breathe, all by themselves.

So, how do you survive rejection? When I receive a rejection letter, I analyse it. Do the suggestions ring true to me? Can I see where they’re coming from? Is the letter hopeful, ‘maybe next time’, or down-right a bad fit? Do they even give me a suggestion, or is it just a bog standard rejection letter? But then I stop analysing it. I go for a walk, take a break, forget all about it for a few days until I can see the wood from the trees and decide whether to take on board any suggestions. Sometimes I feel like never writing again, and then I take a break for a day. But by the second day I miss writing and feel all wrong, and when I sit down at a new or different project I remember the reason I started writing in the first place. Not to be published, but because writing cheers my soul. That’s how I live through rejections; by remembering I write for the love of it. Writing stills my busy mind, it inspires and over-powers me. It can turn my bad mood into a good one, and gives me a place to express myself and work out my thoughts. Simply, it brings me joy. So don’t let rejections make you reject writing.