Visual artists and the visual arts can be a source of intense inspiration. Because their struggles can be a lot like a writer’s.
Consider how a piece of art makes any of us feel. Does it inspire? Or are you puzzled? Can it move you emotionally? And what’s happening around the fringes? Because sometimes the details and the background are of more interest than the main subject. You know, just like in books sometimes.
Hence let’s take a look at some inspiring pieces.
Of course Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world.
Furthermore, the mystery of the piece continues to this day, as it has for a few hundred years. So, what, exactly, does her smile mean? After all, it’s a small smile. And so the model intrigues us, even now.
Here’s another one. Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is another very well-known piece although you might not have known its name.
Because the painting is so strange, it can offer any number of interpretations. How important is time? Is the setting a desert? And what about the odd white lump in the center? Could that maybe be a creature wearing a clock as a saddle? Maybe it means we are all driven by time and memory. Hence we are all under its yoke.
So think about the paintings (and sculptures, too!) which you know. And consider what you see in them, for they may help, particularly with writer’s block.
A Practical Idea
So did you know that Pinterest has secret pin boards? It’s true. And what that means is, you can always create a secret board for only you to see. Or you can share it with a select audience, such as beta readers or even fans, if you like.
And all you need to do is, go to your profile and scroll all the way down. You’ll find it on the left (“Create Secret Board“). And that’s all you need to. So fill it with art which has meaning for you.
Visual Artists: Some Takeaways
Visual artists and art can inspire. And the internet means you don’t even have to visit a museum, although you might want to, anyway.
While names have meanings, you can even get inspiration simply from how they sound. What’s Gertrude like? How about Lakeisha? Or maybe Stefan or Juan?
The popularity of what people call their children changes over time. This can depend upon movie stars, politicians, or even religious figures. When I was born in 1962, my first name, Janet, was already past its peak. However, it was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Why?
Because in 1937, Janet Gaynor starred in A Star is Born. However, Janet Leigh did not star in Psycho until 1960. And Janet Jackson doesn’t seem to be having too much of an effect on baby naming. For a lot of little girls who would have have the name Janet in the past, now often have the name Jennifer or Jessica.
Another factor? Ethnicity. Maria has probably made the crossover to non-Spanish and non-Italian families, but not Juan and Vito. How many non-Russians have the name Boris (the British politician Boris Johnson notwithstanding)? And do you know any non-Irish women named Siobhan? So when you create your characters, see if you can match ethnicity. Of course there are Jewish kids named Sean and British people named Dominic. So this isn’t a hard and fast rule or anything.
For my own work, Ceilidh O’Malley in The Real Hub of the Universe has the most ethnic name of all of my main characters. But Noah Braverman and Mei-Lin Quan from Mettle are up there, too, as is Mercedes Pérez in Time Addicts.
For westerners, traditional names generally come from both the Old and New Testament, or from the saints. Hence you see Margaret and Mary, but also James and David. Other related names can be similar or with alternate spellings or derivatives. Marynel and Maryellen of course derive from Mary, and Stefan is just the German version of Stephen (or Steven).
In my own work, the most traditional names mainly come from The Real Hub of the Universe. This is because that trilogy takes place in the 1870s and 1880s.
People also, sometimes, invent new names. Actress Alyssa Milano’s daughter is named Elizabella. So of course the name comes from clipping the Beth part off Elizabeth and instead inserting the similar name, Bella. While it might or might not catch on more widely, it’s a fairly harmless alteration. Plus it allows for a number of shortenings.
Because all of the characters in Untrustworthy are aliens, I had to come up with names. Hence I came up with Tathrelle, Ixalla, Adger, and Velexio.
Takeaways For Names
Name your characters whatever you wish, but do keep them consistent within your universe. And while there’s technically nothing wrong with having two similarly-named characters, if they spend too much time together and are otherwise too similar, that can lead to some . Hence you might occasionally want to change Tim and Tom to Tim and Dan.
And keep in mind, names can come into and go out of fashion. These days, very old-fashioned names are often popular again. Hence, your futuristic science fiction novel might have people named Hiram, Dorcas, or Ethel.
Children characters can present their own set of challenges. And keep in mind, I wrote a bit about kids in the Aging post. However, now it’s time for a deeper dive into what it means to write about children.
Don’t gloss over childhood. It’s not all sunshine and roses. Some kids have truly horrible lives – bullying, abuse, poverty, and trafficking are all still with us. And don’t forget, even infants can get cancer. But right now, let’s concentrate on some issues that are a lot easier to take.
Infants and Toddlers
The very young can change in rather rapid and surprising ways. Fortunately, several developmental charts exist. And they can give you an idea of what a baby or child can do at a certain stage. Hence, for example, a newborn should not be out of diapers unless they have help or you are writing some sort of fantasy. Furthermore, while these charts give an idea of what to expect, they’re not laws.
Kids develop at their own paces. So recognize that while your newborn character going diaper-less is probably not going to be believable, you can still write a range for these milestones. Furthermore, you can also use standard milestones as a way to signal problems with a baby, such as by showing the reader a child who should be crawling as barely holding his head up.
Preschoolers and Elementary School Children
The start of school is a major event in a young child’s life. And so are other firsts, such as learning to read and beginning to really socialize. And their vocabularies are growing as their worlds continue to expand. By this time, they probably have a good idea of their sexuality even if girls are icky and boys are gross.
For the most part, a child does not naturally lisp! Adding lisping and other affectations will just irritate most readers. However, you can indicate immaturity with simpler sentence structures and vocabulary. A young child has not read Kierkegaard. And they probably don’t know what plenipotentiary means, either. Unless, of course, they’re a genius.
But use genius characters sparingly. Most people just plain aren’t Einstein or Hawking, etc. Too many geniuses, unless you make them some sort of a special program, are just going to be annoying to readers.
Tweens and Teens
As with younger children, these older kids have their own developmental milestones. Puberty in girls comes with not only the development of secondary sex characteristics, but also menarche. Adolescence in boys can arrive later than in girls.
Writing a historical novel? Then know that menarche (a girl’s first menstrual period) occurs about three years earlier now than it did a century ago. This is due to, among other things, better nutrition.
Kids in these age groups tend to start to get interested in relationships (although asexual folks beg to differ). Plus, everything can be ultra-dramatic. Some may be losing their virginity or facing pregnancy issues. And others might be late bloomers, wondering why things are happening to everyone but them. Our present-day culture attaches a number of privileges to this time, including becoming old enough to drive, work, drink, marry, go to war, and even vote.
Kids are more than their developmental stages. However, it still pays to know these and follow them, even if you want your characters to subvert them. And as with all characters, do your best to avoid clichés.
Better dialogue can elevate any piece. And it can even help to salvage a bad or otherwise forgettable piece of writing. Consider, for example, the works of Aaron Sorkin or Robert Altman. While these are examples from television and film, they should give an idea.
Sorkin is known for excellent dialogue, from such films as The Social Network and TV shows like The West Wing. However, Altman’s fame comes more for overlapping dialogue, from films like Nashville, M*A*S*H, and McCabe and Mrs.Miller.
Consider your characters’ educational levels. A college graduate will, in general, use longer and more complex and subtle words versus a high school dropout. This does not necessarily mean one is smarter than the other, I might add. Hence consider who says prior to instead of before, or automobile rather than car. Because that will help the reader to define who is speaking if you are more or less consistent with who uses the ten dollar words, and who does not.
Affectations, Accents, and Pet Names
While I don’t want to get into accents again, you should consider regional dialects and regionalisms. A sandwich on a long roll is a grinder in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but it’s a hoagie in Philadelphia, a po’boy in New Orleans, and a sub in New York. So if your characters are from Queens, you’d better have them call it a sub unless they’re messing around or are copying someone from out of town.
Pet name usage can be extremely helpful in writing. When you write a couple, you may find you are writing a ton of dialogue between them. And it can get boring to constantly write he said, she said, so you can usually drop that after the first trade of words. However, you may need to pick that up again after a while if you think the reader will get lost. And it could be that they can really get lost if your couple is of the same-sex variety. However, if one person calls the other one snookums, and the other doesn’t use pet names or just says darling, then the reader gets a clue when you use those terms. Just be consistent and your readers will thank you.
Listen to people talk whenever you can, and try to read your dialogue aloud. If you can get a friend to help you, even better. Because if your sentence is a tongue twister for you, then it is for your character (and, by extension, your readers as well).
Where do your story ideas come from? Harlan Ellison has been known to quip, “Schenectady.”
I wanted to use this image for a blog post about getting story ideas because it is perhaps the oddest thing. Because I really did see this dirty plate in the sink a few years ago. And I thought: there’s a story there.
Inspiration Comes in Many Forms
So for every dirty plate, there are a thousand other possible sources of inspiration. And I’ve been posting a lot of these sources. These are means of how I inspire myself but they are far from being all-inclusive. And you don’t have to find any of them inspiring if you don’t want to. Also, your methodology will, undoubtedly, differ from my own.
However, here are some things which have worked well for me.
Look at multiples. That is, if you see one thing that is of interest, pair it with something unexpected. Or maybe add another thing to it. As a result of doing this, I came up with the phrase, “Smart kangaroos“. And this phrase helped me to write a ton of fan fiction.
Flip the script. So what I mean is, consider the opposite of something you like. Or even consider something you dislike, and what it would take to make you like it.
Filter your outside stimuli. That is, look at the outside world like a character or a reader would. What do you notice? What do you ignore?
Let ideas settle and percolate.
Use brainstorming as a tactic. This means not filtering your ideas. The concept behind brainstorming is to throw a ton of jello against a wall and hope some of it sticks (or something like that; I’m probably mixing metaphors here). The short answer is: don’t self-censor.
Write down your dreams.
Write down your ideas, no matter what they are. They might be a turn of phrase, a scene, a name, a face, anything.
Getting Story Ideas: Takeaways
If all else fails, you can look at writing prompts and those are perfectly fine. But to make your own kinds of prompts, consider what you would be doing if you had to be the one coming up with the prompts.
First of all, exposition basically means a literary device intended to describe a character’s background, or “our story so far”. It can be done elegantly, with flashbacks or dialogue or even a character finding something or other. It can be clunky, like when characters say, “As you know, …” and then proceed to clue in the reader but then tell the other characters everything they should, logically, already know. For example, one doctor telling another one how chemotherapy works would denote really clunky exposition.
Clunkiness was rather memorably skewered by the Basil Exposition character in Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. However, you and I don’t want that to happen with our works.So we’ve got to try to be a lot more eloquent. Hence we’ve got to figure out how to clue in our readers in a more natural fashion. So consider your setting.
Using Settings for Exposition
What do I mean by this? Your story’s circumstances and your characters’ specifics might be places to sneak in some background. Are they spies? Spies get briefings. Are they museum goers? Museums have docents (specialized guides) and tours, and they also have guidebooks and even identification for paintings or artifacts. Hikers use trails. Motorists use maps (or GPS, if the time period is right).
There is nothing wrong with a character reading a street sign, either out loud or to themselves.
Here Now the News
Love or hate it, but a character reading a newspaper or listening to radio news or watching it on television can provide a level of exposition to your story which can be seamless and even elegant.
When your chapter title is Sunday, August 6, 2017, 11 AM, San Francisco Chinatown, you get across a ton of information in a very short space. And you do so without interrupting the flow of the story unnecessarily.
Character Names and Occupations
These are more subtle, but if your characters have names like Maria, Vito, Anna, Guido, and Antonio, your reader will think Italy or at least an Italian family. If your characters have occupations such as blacksmith, miller, alchemist, and barber surgeon, your reader will think of medieval times.
The New Guy
There is a damned fine reason why a lot of television pilots involve someone coming to a new city or starting a new job. This is because explaining the story and the plot and characters to the new kid in town is perfectly natural.
“Excuse me, but where’s the spaceship parking bay?” “Oh, it’s next to the mess hall. I’m Dave; I do the regular run to Venus every Thursday.”
It’s natural, it flows, and it doesn’t bog down the story.
Yet another method is to weave the exposition into the story or the dialog. “You have great eyes. I love that color blue.” “My mom always said they looked like the ocean. But I grew up in Kansas and I confess I didn’t see the ocean until I was thirty.” Or “You look like hell,” she said, noticing the wound on his arm. “Oh, you should see the other guy.”
Exposition is truly vital in writing but you need to get it across without a dump of information. Read back your exposition. If it reads like a text book, or it goes on for too long, see about changing it but also about breaking it up. A bit of exposition here and there, even if it’s the same amount as in your big info dump, will stick out a lot less.
Now that you want to get your work published, it’s time to write a query letter!
It’s understandable to be a bit anxious about this. Practice will help a lot, not just with writing better queries, but also with your nervousness. Understand that many famous authors were rejected several times before they were published. So keep on plugging and try not to get discouraged.
Query Letter Basics
First things first: always do what the publisher says you should do. Seriously. Queries are cover letters accompanying your submissions to a publisher or agent. They can vary in length, but Job One is always to do what the recipient wants. That is, if the recipient wants it as an attachment, send an attachment. If they want it in the body of the email or sent via snail mail or faxed, then do that. Double-spaced? Do it. Times New Roman font? Why, that’s suddenly your favorite font, too!
The last thing you want to do is annoy the recipient of your letter. So follow directions to the letter. Unsure of an instruction? How about asking on Twitter? Do not let your manuscript get a rejection under a technicality.
Rather than giving you an example, it’s probably best to link to a successful modern query letter. Now imagine your work, with a showcase like that. Change the genre if necessary, the character names, etc., and you’ve got the bare bones of a query letter.
Suggestion: check several successful query letters, particularly those which are fairly recent and are in your genre. If they are the queries which your actual target admires, then so much the better.
Keep plugging. Queries are a rite of passage for every author. They will get easier as you keep on doing them.
So, swag is necessary when you go on the road. Work a convention at a dealer’s table, or get your book into a library, and you may need a little extra something to give away. Hence here are a few choices.
Bookmarks, a Very Common Form of Swag
Maybe the best and closest kind of giveaway item is the humble bookmark. In one sense, it’s perfect because it relates directly to books and reading. And you can spend as much or as little as you like. Plus maybe you only want something straightforward, perhaps a section of your cover, often printed on one side on heavy cardboard stock. And that’s great!
Because you’ve got some real estate, consider some additions, such as your website or even a QR code for a discount off one of your books. However, I suggest leaving one side blank for notes. While that’s not strictly necessarily, it may end up cheaper for you, not to mention it having an actual purpose.
Bookmarks are particularly useful because not only can you put them in your own books, you can put them in library or bookstore books. Yes, they might be removed and discarded. However, you need to consider that these are loss leaders; you need to be ready to lose some cash on these.
These seem hit or miss. If you go to conventions and run a table or booth, you will need cards. And again, try to keep the back blank. Pro tip: use matte. Shiny card stock costs more and it makes it harder to write on the card. Because you want people writing on your cards. Oh, and don’t be stingy with them. Give them away. Meet someone? Give them a card. Someone stops by your table? Give them a card. Like bookmarks, these will be discarded by a lot of people. Accept that as a cost of doing business.
These can work really well if you have a fantastic and memorable cover design, or a great catch phrase. Imagine a tee shirt which has your cover on the front and your catch phrase on the back. You can make people into walking billboards this way. Be ready to give a lot of these away, and maybe even use them as contest prizes. Most people will not purchase these unless you become really famous. Again, this is a cost of doing business.
Toys and Action Figures
Funko Pops lets you design your own male and female characters. But volume is an issue here. And so is the startup cost. The blank figures in that link are almost $10 apiece. Hence a large run of these may not be in the cards – so take advantage of their rareness and play on the scarcity aspect when giving these away or selling them.
For other types of action figures, look at prices and consider what you want to settle with. If the figure doesn’t end up looking a lot like you, how will that make you feel? If the answer is ‘terrible, of course’, then you might want to do something else with your swag budget.
Swag: Some Takeaways
Giving away swag may seem counterintuitive. After all, you want to make money, rather than spend it. But if you are new on the scene, it can be a great way to get noticed and show how you’re different from all the rest.
Here’s what they mean. A Ghost Town is, essentially, either a more or less empty community or one without deep engagement. People may come in after an initial push and then just abandon the place. Now, the converse to this is people who hang around forever and never seem to convert to paying customers of any sort. In a commercial enterprise, that’s no good, either. But definitely you need for people to hang around, at least a little bit.
Land of 1,000 Flowers
Land of 1,000 Flowers is where there’s perhaps a little bit of everything but there is little connectivity. Some of the problem could potentially be alleviated with a very good search engine, e. g. if people see that the question about who wrote Peter Rabbit has already been answered, they might just go to that answer, rather than asking it again. Of course the downside to this is converting potential participants right back into lurkers.
Drama Central Without Management
Drama Central, ah, yes, this bit of juvenalia in a community without management. This is a byproduct of having a smaller community/one that is not too active. If there are 100 members, and one acts out, that one will loom large. With 1,000 members, that person’s impact diminishes.
And with 1,000,000 members, they barely register as a blip on the screen. And, even in a smaller community, if there are 100 members but also a good 1,000 topics are created every month, the one Drama Queen’s attention-grabbing me me me topic can be more or less swept under the rug. However, if your users create only five or so new topics every month, guess what’s gonna be front and center?
A Circling Storm
In A Circling Storm, there are a lot of entrenched factions, hostile to one another, when your community goes without management. Even in a well-moderated community, this can still happen in a Politics section (and, to a lesser extent, in a Religion section). Hence people form strong opinions and don’t want to back down. How to handle it? I say let them argue, for the most part, but intervene if newbies are being chased off or it becomes too personal.
A Clique Without Management
A Clique, of course this is a niche or fringe group that grabs and hogs the spotlight. This can be whiny teenagers (you know who you are), organic gardeners, birthers, I dunno. They can absolutely create a self-fulfilling prophecy, e. g. if the only people they welcome are from Omaha, then those will be the ones who stick around. And then eventually people from Poughkeepsie or wherever don’t stick around and suddenly your board is filled with Nebraskans.
What to do? Well, it may seem obvious, or it may not. Manage the site! Don’t just leave it to chance!
Light Touch with Management
However, don’t go overboard with management. Heavy-handed community management can stifle. So find a balance, and do your best to follow it, all while respecting the community and its interests, but nudging it in the proper directions if it threatens to go off-course. You don’t just have to let the boat go wherever the currents take it but, at the same time, you also need to leave the dock.
When we last left, I was talking about some things not to do. Here are a few more.
You Don’t Have to be Everywhere Online
Don’t become a one-armed paper hanger online. Just like with athletic training, rest (e. g. taking breaks) is a weapon. Furthermore, too many posts will burn you out and they will probably end up hurting each other.
Now, this does not mean you take three years between blog posts. It does not mean you never tweet! Rather, the idea is to say what you want and need to without overdoing it. You do not need to get back to people in five minutes. Even big-time professionals take some time. And yes, I am including big-time professionals who have people to do all of this for them. If it bothers you, you can always set an expectation on your blog or Facebook page or the like. But do yourself a favor: don’t be too specific, so as to allow for the occasional weird hiccups in life. If your laptop is damaged during a vacation, you’ll thank me for this.
Don’t Chase the Shiny Stuff
Here is a corollary to the previous tip. By shiny, I mean new platforms. Hot platforms are fun and they can be exciting. Furthermore, it can be helpful to get in on the ground floor, as it were. Or that can be a waste of your time. Most of us remember when MySpace was big, and Facebook was an upstart. But here we are now, years later, and we can be killin’ it on Facebook without having been there at the very start. So relax. And do some research. Maybe the shiny thing would fit your work and your readership perfectly.
Timing is Everything
We have all heard that expression, and it’s true on social media. But it’s also true in writing. When a big zombie television show stops making new content, for example, readers might be interested in almost continuing the story (I don’t mean fanfiction; rather, I mean similar works in the genre but they do not infringe on copyright). That could be an opportunity to ride the wave. Or maybe people are sick of those stories, and that’s why the show was cancelled. Without further information, either theory is plausible.
Use Your Spots But Don’t Be Annoying
What? While you should not be a 24/7 advertising channel (nobody likes that, not even born advertisers), you can and should take advantage of certain spots and placements. For example, when you add a picture to a blog post, what do you put in the alt= attribute? Nothing?Sacre bleu!
Excuse me for a moment while I swoon in horror. At the absolute minimum, put your blog post title in there. Even better, add your name or your blog’s name.
Or, are you published and your work is available on Amazon? If it is, then you need to take possession of your author page. Make it so that, if someone clicks on the author name (that would be your name), then they get somewhere. Somewhere with a bit about who you are, and what you are working on next. It is foolish to let this free real estate go.
When people click on the author’s name, they want information. So feed it to them.
But don’t force-feed them, by providing a Twitter stream that is a nonstop ad for your work. That brings me to my next point.
This is a Community. Act Like It.
Way back, when I was a kid (so, the late 1960s, early 1970s), suburbia was where you could borrow a neighbor’s hedge clippers. Or they would come over for coffee and bring a cake and you would temporarily take possession of the plate it was on. In both instances, you would return the articles as soon as possible, cleaned and ready for reuse. If you broke either, you told the owner, you apologized, and then you presented them with a brand-new one. Or if their kid had a recital and they invited you, you did your best to go. If your dog got loose, they helped find the beast. You get the idea.
People still help each other, of course. And I grew up far from Mayberry. So the concept here is: build each other up. Don’t break each other down. Got praise? Then tell everyone. Got criticism? Then tell the writer privately. Don’t lie on your public reviews, but don’t tear people new ones, either. Even bad writing can be considered unique or ambitious.
And that reminds me: if you get someone’s book, either free or cheap or used or at full price, review it!
Don’t Sacrifice Writing Time for Social Media
This one is important. Yes, you need to promote, and social media is a part of that. Promotions can also include holding book signings, or donating your book to your local library, or handing out bookmarks. But don’t lose your writing time because you’re out socializing (or in. You know what I mean).
I use my calendar program and I just make a weekday appointment with myself. Now, I don’t always keep that appointment. And the one hour I set aside sometimes means 2,000 words and sometimes it means 20. But the appointment is still there.
I urge you to make a recurring appointment so that writing is as important to you as visiting the dentist or changing the batteries in the smoke detector.
And Finally from Social Media Writing Part 3 …
Hard work is everything.
Overnight success stories take years.
You are worth it.
This has been Social Media Writing Part 3. Now back to you, in the comments section. Did I leave anything out of Social Media Writing Part 3 (of 3)? Do tell.