How to Inhale Inspiration

I just learned today that before it became known as the kind of out-of-reach thing that all writers seek, the word inspiration originally meant “to draw in air.” Of course, to inspire, can still mean to breathe in, but knowing the history of the word gives me a new appreciation of this part of the writing process. We “draw in” the things we see around us, the things that make us feel something. And we breathe them onto the page in front of us.

In my experience with talking with writers and readers, it seems like one of the most common (and at times, most frustrating) questions we writers receive is something along the lines of “Where do you get your inspiration?”

I’ve never been sure how to answer that question (“Umm, from everywhere?), but especially with National Novel Writing Month  fast approaching and thousands of people trying to come up with ideas for their novels, I have a few ideas for how to draw in inspiration.

For me, inspiration often comes from an object I see around me. For example, one day my eyes happened to catch on a tree in winter whose branches spread out like a fan, and I imagined its hidden roots did the same. I thought that tree was like an hourglass, and that was how my poem, “Hourglass,” started.

Or, for a novel: The idea for my first novel, Dreamweaver, came from my finding pennies in the coin slots of gumball and toy machines. I wondered what would happen if there was one person who left lucky pennies lying there for kids to find.

See what works for you. Are your ideas prompted by things you see in the world around you? Or maybe the things people say make you question our intriguing world. Or maybe you need to experience something before your characters can experience it.

The other thing I always tell younger writers that I think works for writers of any age is to ask “What if” questions about the world. What if lucky pennies brought dreams to life? I think every story starts with a what if, and writers just start by wondering.

I think the biggest thing is not to expect to find inspiration by just sitting inside. My best ideas have come while I’m outside, seeing the things that make me wonder. I’ve heard a lot too that “my ideas just come to me,” that you “can’t rush them.” That’s not true at all. After going through NaNo so many times, I’ve discovered, strangely, that you can find inspiration on a deadline. You just have to go outside your own mind. Take the beauty you find in the outside world and draw it in.

How I Wrote a NaNo Novel That Got Published At Age 16 – Part 1: Planning

As a college-age writer, I meet lots of people on a daily basis, and somehow, my novels invariably come up in the conversation. Here’s how it normally goes:

New person: “So what’s your major?”

Me: “English with a creative writing concentration!”

New person: “Oh, that’s interesting. What will you do with that after you graduate?”

Me (slightly annoyed that everyone asks this): “Um, well I actually have already had two of my novels published. So I’m going to continue on that path as a novelist.”

New person: “Oh!”

Me (happy to share some writing excitement): “Yeah. I wrote each one during a challenge to write a novel in 30 days.”

New person: … How?!

Yep, so the takeaway here is that if you write a novel in 30 days as a teen, you will impress people. Also, people who haven’t heard of NaNo ask how we do it all the time. How is the most common question I get about writing and publishing NaNo novels.

Storyime! So I started out by hearing about a contest my local library was hosting to go along with NaNoWriMo. This contest was just for teens, and they said that at the end of the month, everyone who completed NaNo could submit their novels to the library’s panel of judges, and they would choose one to be sponsored for publication. They had a professional freelance editor, independent publishers, and a graphic designer for the cover all lined up.

I was 15 and knew I one day wanted to write novels, but at the time I had only written a handful of short stories I wasn’t particularly happy with. But with the prospect of the contest prize dangling in front of me, I set off on a crazy 30-day adventure that every year I say I won’t do again and then end up getting excited about and always doing year after year anyway.

The how for the publishing of my novels will have to wait for another day, but what I think is most relevant right now, especially for new NaNo novelists, is the month before the action.

If you’ve ever talked with fellow NaNo novelists, you likely have already been asked whether you are a planner (plot out your entire novel in advance) or a pantser (you just fly by the seat of your pants and see where you end up). I am a reluctant pantser (I always mean to plan beforehand, but it doesn’t really happen). However, there are things that I did in October for my first novel that I think would be helpful for anyone, whether they be planner or pantser.

  1. The most unusual thing I did was create a virtual image of my main character. Kind of weird, I know. But there are free sites where you can create a character (usually used for avatars), and there’s just something about seeing your main character that makes this all so much more real. If you happen to be handy at drawing, then even better (I’m not that lucky)!
  2. Be that odd person who talks to their characters. Yep, that’s what I did in October and I think it helped me more than anything. I wrote down a character “interview,” as if I were asking them questions. Not only do I learn weird facts about my characters, but I also get to hear there voice (how they talk, what kind of personality they have, how they interact with me as the interviewer, etc). Even if I have no idea what’s going to happen in my story, I know a bit more about how my character will react when I suddenly decide to throw that random crumbling boulder onto the roof of Granny’s house in chapter 11.
  3. I also created a “plot roller coaster,” like YWP NaNoWriMo’s Novelist Workbooks talk about. Pantsers, don’t freak out and flee the scene – yes, this is a bit of planning, but it is painless. The plot roller coaster is a way of looking at the structure of a novel (exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution). But don’t be overwhelmed – all I decided beforehand for my novels was the inciting incident. The moment or event in your character’s life that kicks you off into the reason you have for telling the story in the first place. In other words, it’s the thing that happens that makes your protagonist’s life change forever. So, figure out what incites your character’s roller coaster life to start going uphill, and you will be ready for NaNo!

Even though I didn’t plan my first novel a ton, I was still in a good place because of these three things I did. Readers, is there a planning technique (or lack thereof) that has served you well? I’d love to hear about it.

Why Write A Novel in 30 Days??

As the month of November approaches more quickly than ever, hundreds of thousands of people are also preparing to simultaneously write novels in 30 days. Although it’s only been around for 18 years, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has become one of the most popular ways for writers to connect and create books in a short amount of time.

All this creativity happening all over the world for the same goal at the same time makes me dizzy! If you are hesitant about writing an entire book in such a short amount of time and need a few reasons to convince you, have no fear and just keep reading below!

1. Write that book you’ve always wanted but that you never got past the first page.

I don’t know about you, but I have far more first paragraphs of stories tucked away in the backs of drawers that no longer open than I do of actual completed novels. I wrote the idea for my first novel in a single paragraph in a journal, and it sat there for 2 years before I even started turning it into a novel. Often, a book will never actually get written if you don’t give yourself a deadline. Writers can come up with dozens of excuses not to write, so NaNoWriMo ensures we actually have something to work with by the end of the month, even though it won’t be a polished piece.

2. You get to read cool online cartoons about fellow Wrimos (NaNoToons.Net).

Granted, you can read cartoons anytime, but every year in November, NaNoToons posts a daily web comic following various characters’ adventures in NaNoing. I like to post printouts of these on my bedroom door for inspiration. Here is one of my favorites.

3. Win prizes!

If you make your wordgoal by the end of the month, the NaNo site will give you small prizes, like coupons, from their sponsors! I’m not sure if they do this anymore, but when I first started doing NaNo, winners received a free copy of their book from a self-publishing service! So even though I wasn’t ready to publish 2 of the novels I wrote, I was able to claim single copies of them for free, to have something to show for all of the hard work that month. Also, bragging rights.

4. Be a part of a community

When I tried NaNo for the first time, I went to weekly “write-ins” and parties that my public library held for the monthly event. There I met other writers, got critiques, and attended presentations from published authors. Most cities hold special events during NaNo, so it is a fantastic way to meet people and keep yourself accountable.

5. You’re in good company.

I never heard about this before trying NaNo for myself, but a lot of famous, bestselling authors wrote books that were NaNoWriMo novels. Some of my favorite, speed-writing novelists are Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus), Marissa Meyer (Cinder series), Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), and Rainbow Rowell (Fangirl). So many impressive, extremely successful writers do NaNo!

Still not convinced? Perhaps this musical about the ups and downs of NaNo will persuade you!

Be on the lookout for more information and tips about NaNo prep soon!