Follow Your Bliss

This may or may not be a question you can use -- maybe I just need to talk to somebody who might understand. But I think I'm stuck.

I want to write a book, an LDS book, but I can't seem to come up with a plot that I like. In fact, except for the boringly standard "girl meets boy," I can't seem to come up with any plot at all. It's like my brain has shut down. I only have some ideas for a background and maybe a character or two, but whenever I try to think of a plot, nothing comes out, and I mean, nothing. I've tried to brainstorm a few times, but I usually only come up with a load of questions that I can't answer, or it's all background and no action, and above all, no resolution. I've tried letting everything percolate in the back of my brain, hoping for a spark that will set it all off, but so far, nothing.

Am I trying too hard, putting too much pressure on myself, or maybe not trying hard enough?

Am I limiting myself unnecessarily by saying, "I really don't want to write a romance?" I mean, I wouldn't mind if a touch of romance was a by-product of the main plot, but that main plot just isn't making itself known.

[A friend] once told me I should take the characters and situation from [my story] and make a book out of it. I've been trying, but I just can't seem to get ideas to expand the story into a full-length novel.

Do you have any suggestions as to what I could do to help myself come up with an idea that I really want to work with?

Thanks for listening to me whine, anyway. I know you must be horrendously busy, so I'll understand if you can't reply right away.

I am horrendously busy, but that's not why it's taken me so long to answer this question. It got lost. I found it just now as I was tidying up my email account. Soooo sorry.

Yes, you're trying to hard. Give yourself a break for a bit. Do writing exercises and prompts until an idea strikes, then go for it!

If you don't want to write a romance, don't write a romance. Just because they sell well in the LDS market doesn't mean they're the only thing that's selling. Fantasy is selling well. So are mysteries and historicals.

Sometimes a short story is just a short story. Maybe there's nothing more to it. Or maybe it needs to percolate a bit longer.

Find a story line that excites you, that you're enthused about. That's what you should be writing—not what you think the market expects. If you aren't excited about your story, no one else will be excited about it either. You have to follow your bliss.


Stephen said...

Great advice, LDS Publisher.

Another thing you might try, which I've heard many times from some successful authors, is to not limit yourself to one idea. Especially for stories that you want to develop into a novel, one good idea probably isn't enough.

I know that many authors (and authors-in-training) keep a Word document, a writing journal, etc. with all of their plot, character, and setting ideas. Then, when the current story is kind of stalling, you can consult your other ideas and find a new one to introduce into the story (even if you were planning on using that idea for a completely different story). Sometimes, the best things to include are the ideas that don't seem like they belong at all--its a wonderful stretch of creativity to mash two (or 3, or 10) different, big ideas together. This, of course, is what life is like--lots of unrelated issues crashing together to create real people with real, vivid, breathing experiences and personalities.

Anonymous said...

Ugh! Another LDS romance? Please. Write something besides a romance. Anything. I promise I'll buy twenty copies just to fund the anything-but-LDS-romance movement. I'll even organize your first book signing and pay ten thousand people to stand in line over night just to shake your hand. We'll even give away free t-shirts that say: "Romance Novels: Much ado about nothing."

There are a lot of powerful, entertaining, fun, interesting, deep, and inventive story ideas where the major plot is not a romance. Try one. You can still have a little romantic interest, but not another two hundred and fifty pages dedicated to love at first write. Try something else. Anything else. And you may find yourself as the new LDS Rowlings, or maybe a Mormon Dan Brown. Do you have any poetic license in you? I see a bit of Shakespear in the nuanced way you phrased you question to LDSP. You may have a future as a playwrite. But please, don't fashion yourself as the next LDS Danielle Steele. We already have an entire conference center filled with wannabes.


Jordan said...

Anon—Just because you don't like romance doesn't mean she can't write it if that's where her "bliss" lies. If it's not, she shouldn't feel compelled to, either, but that's not for you to say.

Face it: romance sells, just like LDSP said. It's the height of arrogance to assume that what you don't like isn't worthy of being published. (And publishers have tried LDS-centered fantasy; there's a reason they're not anymore. They could try again, sure, but it'll probably be a while.)

(All that noted, I'm told straight contemporary romance is harder to sell in the LDS market than hybrids like historical romance or romantic suspense.)

Stephen is right—you need more than one idea for a book! A short story is perfect for one idea or event, but a novel needs at least three *big* events, with many smaller ones. Sometimes it takes years for those ideas to come.

I recommend looking outside of yourself for ideas—other books, newspapers, movies, TV can all be inspiration (without being derivative). But possibly the best idea is to get together with a few other creative people and just brainstorm—throw out any idea, no matter how far-fetched.

That's where many of the fun ideas came from for the Indiana Jones series: they started with a character, then got the creator, director and screenwriter together and just talked for over an hour. Not everything went in, but a lot of the ideas fit into the later Indiana Jones movies. Here's an analysis of the story conference with a link to the full transcript: http://mysterymanonfilm.blogspot.com/2009/03/raiders-story-conference.html

Writing a complete novel isn't easy, but it's an awesome accomplishment. With planning and effort, you can do it!

Susan said...

Relax. When I stress, I can't write. I agree with LDSP. Follow your bliss, because if you don't love your story, no one else will either. I have a hard time getting my stories going but after a while, it all starts to click, and then when I know my characters better, I can go back and change the stilted parts at the beginning. That's just how it works for me. But I think stress=writer's block. Good luck!

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Anon promising to buy 20 copies of the non-romance LDS novel....

Jonathan Langford and I would LOVE to take you up on that offer!!! (And we want the t-shirts, too)

Anonymous said...

Oh, come on Jordan. Tell me you're not so into your genre that you didn't at least smile. What's a little strong, colorful, direct language if not a good way to write with an impactful voice for each of your characters? How can you create a little humor if you're not concrete and specific in your meaning? Funny is all about timing and this was timed. Believe me. It was timed. Much ado about nothing t shirts? That was okay funny. Not Rob Wells funny, but still worth a smile. Love at first write. That was decent. A conference center full of wannabes. Not bad insider LDS imagery.

Geesh, Jordan. Lay it back, honey. Enjoy the back and forth. And please, come down from your minaret long enough to grovel in the dust of the common woman with me. Is there no room to diss LDS Romance without suffering the wrath of the Romance Author Junta?

For all the writing expertise in this author group, is there no one who can read the humor between the lines. Anyone?

Give it up for the anything-but-LDS-romance crowd. Go on. Raise the roof. Cheer. Really loudly. And then go out and buy everyone on your Christmas list a thriller or a mystery or a sentimental seasonal or a historical.

Down with romance. Up with everything else!

Jordan said...

Anon—You are more than welcome to love and promote other genres—it does take all kinds, and I love many genres—but why put someone else down to do it? Couldn't you write an equally funny comment promoting your favorite genres instead of making fun of people who write and read romance?

But really, I think the thing that bothers me most is that it sounds like this person's ideas fall mostly in the romance category, so maybe that is what she should write, but it's sentiments like the ones you've expressed that make her feel like she can't do that (and therefore has no ideas for a book).

If she truly doesn't want to write a romance, fine, don't. There are lots of other equally worthy genres out there to write in. But if she has good ideas for a romance, that kind of response just tells her once again that she shouldn't write romance.

(BTW, does anyone actually want to be the Danielle Steele of LDS romance?)

Angie said...

Along with the other great advice above, I like to daydream when I'm stuck. Just for fun. Without the pressure of "this has to become a novel." I get stuck in that trap a lot, and it can be paralyzing. So, I try to just let my imagination go where it wants without worrying about whether I'm actually going to write that idea or not. It usually helps get me unstuck.

Annette Lyon said...

Anon, there's a reason that 40% of all books sold in the US are Romances. People buy it and read it. If you aren't one of them, that's fine, but you can't knock those numbers.

To the person who asked the question in the post--I'm wondering if you've ever completed a full book manuscript in the first place. Two? Three? Writing novels takes practice. They're complex and take subplots and layers. You can't just dash one off the first time. That might be part of your problem. Try writing a novel of ANY kind first. (And maybe second and third and fourth) before dipping into a specific genre.

Marny said...

Try attending a writer's conference. You get to hear lots of writers talk about different ideas and how they go about working on their own books.

Algis Budrys used to give writer's workshops where he talked about the seven-part story: have a (1) character in a (2) context with a (3) problem. The character (4) tries and fails (any number of times), then (5) learns something new that leads to (6) last ditch effort to solve the problem, either with success or failure, and ends with (7) validation (denoument). It sounds like you are having trouble with number 3, coming up with a problem.

Orson Scott Card gives a workshop on 1001 ideas in an hour. He says when you look for ideas, throw away the first two that come to mind since they are the easy answers. If you stretch a little bit you can come up with more creative ideas. Writer's groups are great for doing this since you can get a lot of ideas generated instead of trying to do it all yourself.

Or you could play the question game: What is the focus of your story, a charcter, a setting, an idea? Why is it interesting or important to you? What do you want to show? How can you depict that? What makes it that way? Who cares about it and why? and just keep asking questions--why and what if--until you have your story outlined.

The next writing conference that I know of coming up is Life, the Universe, & Everything at BYU in February. The next is LDS Storymakers at the Provo Marriott in April. These are great places to get ideas and talk to other writers. Or if you aren't in Utah Valley, find something near you. Or start or find a writer's group (there are some good ones online).

Good luck!

Stephanie Black said...

It takes me tons of brainstorming before a full-fledged novel takes shape. I just glanced at the brainstorming file for my work-in-progress, and it's 42 pages long. I brainstorm until enough of an idea takes shape that I can hammer out a rough outline. Then during my first draft, I'm constantly going back to that brainstorming file to figure out what comes next.

If you have an initial idea or a character or a background, you've got a starting place. Take that idea and play with it. Jot down ideas. What does the main character want and why? Who is trying to stop her, and why? Who else is involved? What are their goals, and how could they create complications for the heroine/hero? And so on. Or whatever brainstorming style works for you.

It can be very daunting trying to start a novel from scratch--that is NOT my favorite part of writing. But if you play with an idea long enough, I'm betting other ideas will start to spring from it. For me, jotting ideas down is what works--just brainstorming, brainstorming, brainstorming until a novel starts to sprout.

Emily M. said...

I'm just getting started writing fiction, and the thing that has helped me the most is studying story structure. I really enjoy Robert McKee's screenwriting textbook, _Story_, and Larry Brooks' ebook (for sale on storyfix.com) has been helpful to me as well, because it's more user-friendly. I discovered his site through (I think?) a link on Jordan McCullom's--she has a great blog for understanding story structure better.

I have discovered that, despite being an avid reader for my entire life, and having majored in Comparative Literature, I knew NOTHING about how to actually construct a compelling story.

The more I understand about how good stories are structured, the more ideas I get about my own material. For me, not having any ideas was a function of my not knowing anything useful about telling a story.

That may not be helpful to you. But it's been a revelation for me.

Anonymous said...

Why do you want to write a book? Is it just because your friend said you should? Some of us aren't writers. (I'm not.) Maybe you do better at short stories. Some people are much better at one form that another; stick with what works best for you.

Melanie Goldmund said...

Okay, I'm outing myself as the author of this question. I asked it because romance definitely is not my bliss. Like I said, I don't mind it as a sub-plot, but when it's the main event, I usually skip that book and look for something else. I'm painfully aware that it sells, and sells well.

I've never written a novel before. I have written two fanfic novella-length stories. In fact, that's where about 90% of my writing experience comes from -- fanfic. But as I've matured in the fanfic universe, I've seen my stories grow longer and more complex, more original and definitely less dependent on the fandom, which I take to be an encouraging sign.

I wish so much that I could attend a writer's conference, but I live in Germany, so that's a bit difficult.

I think a huge part of the problem I had when I wrote this question was that I was putting myself under an immense amount of pressure to write something that would definitely sell in the LDS market, which is why I thought of romance in the first place. I'm happy to report, however, that I have since found an old story that I'd started and abandoned, and I am now picking it up again and seeing what I can do with it, with a great deal of help from an online friend. It might not sell, it might not ever get published, but it will give me some good experience.

If it DOES get published, Anonymous, (may I call you Nony for short?) I will expect that book signing, the hand-shaking, and most especially the T-shirts! *g*

I've also found all of your hints very helpful and I will take them to heart. I'm also keeping a very close eye on your blog, Jordan, and have found lots of good things there, even though I lurk and I'm too shy to comment. So thank you very much, everybody.

*grateful smile*

Jordan said...

Melanie—If you're not interested in writing romance, that's fine! I just didn't want you to feel that romance was "beneath" you. I let that snobbery (for romance and genre fiction in general) stop me from writing for five years. (Personally, I'm not big into straight romance either. Go figure.)

You don't have to limit yourself to the LDS market, either, if you don't want to! I didn't have any "LDS" ideas until about a year ago—but even then, I'm not married to any one market or genre.

I'm really flattered to hear that you and Emily are reading my blog! Feel free to jump in any time; nobody bites!

Most of all, I'm glad to hear that you're getting past your block. Good luck! Annette's right; it's a long row to hoe. (And for some of us, the first draft is the easy part!) With help and perseverance, though, you can do it!

Anonymous said...

Darn. And I thought it was my blog Melanie was reading.

Mel. I didn't know you lived in Germany. And if you knew who I was, you'd laugh until the cows came home. Or beyond.

I still think its my blog she's reading, Jordan, so don't get too proud about all that.

And Emily M. I second your suggestion. The more you learn about the structure of story telling, the more you see how your own ideas, thoughts, impressions, experiences, ditties, foolery, imaginations, news, politics, religion, hopes, dreams, antecdotes, family mishpas, family vacations, family moments, dread, fears and faith are not just fleeting moments in time. They're story. And the fit like a piece of a puzzle into your story.

So wrap up all your moments, Mel, and start assembling them into your story. They all fit. Somewhere. In the opening. In a characterization. In a story line. In an action scene. Somewhere. Every. Single. Experience. You. Posess. Will. Find. Its. Way. Into. Your. Story.

You go girl. We are, in real life, aquentences. Isn't that the funniest thing in the world.

Good luck.

Lee Ann Setzer said...

I think it's Jeff Savage who does a writing presentation where he sends one person out of the room, then writes a string of 6 or 8 random letters on the chalkboard. The person comes back in the room and asks yes/no questions. If the question ends with a letter on the board, the answer is "yes." Otherwise, the answer is "no." Either you get a random pile of answers that are so annoying you're inspired to write something better, or you actually get the tiny seed of an interesting story.

I got stuck and did this with my 12-year-old. Made me realize I really did have preferred answers to my sticky questions...

Melanie Goldmund said...

So, Nony, we are acquaintances in real life, but you didn't know I lived in Germany. Yet you recognized me even under my married name. Hmmm.

I love a good mystery, but I love a good laugh even more. So go on, tell me who you are. *g* My e-mail address should be available in my profile, as is my website. And tell me all about your blog so I can start reading it regularly, too! :-)

I do know what you mean about our own experiences finding their place in our writing.

John Brown said...


A bit late, but maybe you'll find it useful. I've found when people usually say they have a hard time coming up with story ideas, that they're talking about plot. As you said, you've got characters and backgrounds, but they just don't go anywhere. That's because a story needs setting, character, AND plot. And the key to plot is the problem.

I've found I can't write until the problem is very clear in my mind. Until I have it, I'm just noodling around with ideas that peter out or lead me into road blocks.

But what you need to key into first is the problem, the situation the character is going to face. This is the heart of the story. It's the engine that makes it work. Once you have the situation, you can start working your way around the story cycle.

If you look at most fiction that sells well, the problem is usually either a threat to or lack of happiness OR it's a mystery.

Let's take happiness first. Dangers come at many levels.

--Security (where your life or safety are threatened).

--Social (where your being part of the group or being loved and wanted is threatened; we're group animals and very few of us want to be alone).

--Freedom (where your ability to possess or do is threatened).

--Meaningfulness (where your ability to pursue a meaningful life is threatened; here are threats of endless drudgery or escape from it)

--Self-respect (where your worth in your own eyes is threatened; you'll find tons of stories here about people who made wrong choices in the past overcome it, stories of redemption,).

You might add a few more. The key is that in this type of story is that you present a danger, a clear THREAT to the happiness of the character at one of those levels. Or you show us a character who LACKS one of these things and present an opportunity for them to fill that lack (for example, a love story is usually a problem of lack; you show someone who is single but alone and present an opportunity). The problem will complicate and grow as the story progresses and may begin to affecting a few other levels. But you want to focus on one main problem.

The danger or lack has to be immediate, significant, and probable. Threats that are in the far future, insignificant, or highly unlikely don't have enough umph to make anyone care too much about them.

Mystery problems are simply compelling questions that the character and reader have to see answered.

So I've found it's helpful to start brainstorming all the different problems that might arise. Now, you might need to explore the setting or characters a bit more to identify dangers or mysteries. Or develop them in new ways before the problem presents itself.

But I've found if I keep looking and generating problems, eventually one will present itself that really zings. Here's what's helped me do that. Think about your characters and setting. Then ask yourself questions to help you find/develop a compelling problem.

--What's the most awful thing that can happen in this situation? To this character? What would they NOT want to lose?

--Who hurts the most in this situation? Or stands to put the most at risk or lost the most?

--What threats can arise in this situation?

--What big goals/dreams might this character have? What could threaten them?

Sometimes it's a story where there is a clear villain. If so, then I explore the villain's goal, motives, and plans. And how my hero or heroine is dragged into them and why they cannot just walk away. Because in these types of stories it's the villain who is the force behind the threat/danger and moves the plot. Think of Star Wars. No flight to freedom by C3PO or R2D2, no message to get to Obi-Wan, if Darth Vader didn't have a things ALREADY in motion.

So I've blabbed forever, but maybe this will help.

John Brown said...

BTW, I wrote at length about plot basics here: http://johndbrown.com/2008/12/plot-basics/.

And provide a Story Cycle handout at the bottom here: http://johndbrown.com/writers/