Your Life as Fodder – Or How to Grow a Story

So often I hear people say they want to write but they struggle coming up with ideas. That they feel compelled to write at all tells me they already have ideas. It could be that they just don’t know how to get them outside themselves (remember the jar full of frenzied bees?). Or maybe they don’t know how to transform their ideas into a story and execute it. Or maybe they don’t believe anyone would care to read what they have to say. To all of that, I say this…

First of all, believe in yourself. (You can do it!) Second of all, you’d be surprised at the difference sharing your story can make for another person. (Really.) And third of all, if you really believe you’re out of ideas, simply look to your own life and go from there. (Your life is magical, mystical source of fodder.)

I’m not saying that you ought to write personal essay (unless that’s what you want to do) but that you can take snippets from your life and turn them into fictional stories. Treat those snippets like seeds that you can plant (put them on the page – just get them out of your head – and see what starts to sprout), water (stay with it, tend it, and add what’s needed – trust yourself to know), and prune (edit, cut, and relocate). When you commit to the growth of a story, it will grow.

Here are a few examples of events, phases, facets of my life that I can use to create fictional stories…

  • I had always wanted to experience living in an apartment building and managing it for the benefit of free rent. My personal story didn’t quite go that way – I managed SEVEN buildings (while working two other jobs), and I got a measly $250/month credit on my rent. My romantic fantasy became a horrible reality – the worst job I’ve ever had. (And that’s saying something.)

    Upper management was difficult to work with due to systemic dysfunction and a total lack of awareness that change was needed. One person, in particular – the Assistant General Manager with a bull-in-a-china-shop presence who perpetually, even angrily, chomped on a big wad of gum – was consistently rude and dismissive – even cruel. To me. I worked non-stop with no one to give me a break (even though they “sold” the job as one with TONS of flexibility – they lied). Some residents were demanding and rude. Some were lovely. The building was a “charming” old one in downtown and fraught with problems. I also got up close and personal with the homeless problem in ways I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I saw the underbelly of humanity.

    I moved into the apartment of the previous, beloved maintenance man who had died just a few months before. Management neglected to tell me he died in the apartment (until I asked). But it all worked out because he left a calming presence in the space. And the maintenance and painting crews were fun guys and treated me well. They were, by far, the best part of the job. Think a Raymond Carver-esque short story.

  • Just before taking the manager job at the apartments, I lived in an artists’ community. Sounds cool, right? It wasn’t. Rampant disregard for authority by residents who were underdeveloped emotionally and mentally, partially due to the enabling of the manager who was a lovely person as a person I’d want to know outside that context. You can bet that, someday, the people I met there will wind up in a screenplay, as will the four sane people I also met there. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with art and lots of weed and alcohol.

  • When I was 11, I came home from school one day. My grandma was there, as usual, and I could tell she had been crying. When I asked her why, she stalled, but I eventually learned that when she arrived at our house that day, she found a note on the kitchen table – It was a narrow sliver of torn, lined paper, just wide enough to accommodate two sentences – from my dad saying he was leaving us. I remember immediately going to my parents’ bedroom closet to find his half of the closet empty except for the several naked dangling hangers. The image of that emptiness was seared into my brain and serves as a metaphor for the emptiness his decision made in my life. While I long ago came to terms with that period of my life, it’s an image I can use to tell a story about family, selfishness, grief, infidelity, insanity, growing up too soon, strength, and more. Think a Joyce Carol Oates-esque short story.

So, if you’re compelled to write a story but can’t think of what to write, take some time to scan through your life and all the experiences you’ve had. You’ll find more ideas than you can handle. To start, make three lists:

  • Events/phases – like my working as a manager or living in an artists’ community
  • People – like the brutal Assistant General Manager or the uplifting maintenance crew and painters at the management company, or the enabling but very likeable Manager and “crazy” residents at the artists’ community
  • Images/objects – like the image of my parents’ half-empty closet and all those meager empty hangers

If you’d rather not write about yourself and your life, spin off from one small thing from your life and see what happens. The truth is… we can tell more truths about humanity through fiction than we can through writing from our life experience, anyway. So free yourself up. Draw from your life, then let your imagination take over. Not only will it free you up, but you also won’t have to concern yourself with being called out on “the facts.”

Give it a try and let me know what you come up with in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Author Interview – Jemiah Jefferson

What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book?
I’ve been secretly wanting to write a long-form work of erotica for many years – I always sort of mixed it in with a lot of genre elements because I love to also make up my own fictional reality, but I had these characters so firmly in mind I just wanted to tell their story uncomplicated by the supernatural. I had really been living with and developing those characters for years and I just had to determine a framework for them to exist inside, and the story would tell itself.

What obstacles did you encounter while writing the book?
Lots and lots. The major obstacle is one of the most major in life – I have multiple sclerosis, and though I am doing extremely well compared to others managing the syndrome, my daily life is generally exhausting and painful, and it takes up a lot of time that I’d prefer to spend in other ways. I injured my arm about six months and ten chapters into the writing process and was unable to sit and type for hours as I had been used to doing. Then I found that my usual position, posture, and location for writing was having a very painful negative effect on my left hip! Having to change my physical position for writing was a thousand times harder than I’d ever imagined – I’d been doing it that way for a couple of years at that point, and writing as much as 50 hours a week (for years!). And then my former publisher went under and I had a months-long, drawn-out battle to secure the rights to the material I’d had published with them. Then I had a major surgery and was too wasted on pain meds to be able to write (or think clearly) for several months. Then my self-esteem as a writer, as a producer of content for the world of publishing, took a terrible hit and I didn’t just give up on this particular novel – I gave up as a writer altogether. So I self-published a novel I’d had sitting around for more than ten years just to learn the world of self-publishing. It was great! But it wasn’t the same as actual WRITING. Somehow I managed to write something totally else – once again fan fiction saved the day – and I realized that I’d written at least a novel’s worth of content since “giving up.” So I went back to this story… and then was unable to get feedback on the material. So I gave up again. And THEN, once again, wrote some fanfic, which was very satisfying, and realized that I had a novel ALMOST entirely finished – I thought I might as well finish it, and self-publish it, and just get on with it – determining its quality, or its relevance, was not something that was up to me to determine.

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
I honestly don’t know. It changed my life in some ways, in that I haven’t felt so discouraged as a writer for decades. I’ve taken some nasty hits of self-esteem and belief in the years, but this one was pretty major. Fundamentally I’m a writer – I have a certain core identity in addition to that, but writing is what I do – it’s what I love and where I feel my greatest talents lie. It’s not the healthiest perspective, but there it is. I guess the only real answer is “I’m glad I’m finally done with it!” I started writing it more than nine years ago. I’ve never taken nine years to do ANYTHING. I gave up multiple times. But I realized that my self-esteem would be even more destroyed if I just dropped it and conceded defeat.

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? What was that process like?
I self-published Before and After Michael. I don’t have a publisher or an agent or any “official” formal entry into the world of traditional publishing anymore, and to be totally honest I don’t even know how to go about securing any of those things. The fact that it happened in the first place, I tend to regard as a fluke. I was very unprepared for the only agent I’ve ever had to just drop me and vanish off the face of the earth, or for my publisher to literally go out of business. So basically, I don’t understand the process of traditional publishing – but I now have all of the necessary skills to not just write a book, but to edit, proofread, format, obtain visual talent to produce cover images, obtain an ISBN, and publish using online resources. And I love to do it. I always wanted to have some kind of input over book cover images, and also book jacket copy, and things like the interior design of the book – its typeface, its margins, its title treatment, and all that stuff. And now I do. However I have no publicity apparatus, and not very much money for marketing, so my sales will probably not be very good. That, more than anything, is the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing – companies have publicity and marketing departments with skilled staffers, as well as a budget to make those things happen. It makes a huge difference in terms of visibility and potential sales.

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
I am friends with tons of other writers of all types. I wouldn’t say they really influence my writing very much, actually – I am the only one doing the thing I do, and I do it because nobody else does it – so there’s not really much chance of influence. I do want their feedback to my work, though, but it doesn’t happen very often. It’s interesting to see other people’s paths and how they approach the work, and the subsequent promotion or discussion of the work. It’s always very different from mine.

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like?
I used to write hours and hours every day – I’d come home from work and write until I went to sleep, and repeat again the next day. One day – about 6 or 7 years ago, now – I sort of hit a wall, and I haven’t been able to do that anymore since then. Now, I don’t write regularly at all. I only write when I’m not just inspired, but I’m physically comfortable, I’m liable not to be disturbed for a while, and I have enough energy to get the ideas done coherently. That doesn’t happen super often these days. I’ve managed to write three novel-length works of fiction in those six or seven years, which seems pretty great except compared to how I was before, when I wrote a novel every six months to a year – for almost 20 straight years. Writing has become increasingly difficult, though I have no shortage of ideas. I’m just exhausted (and admittedly discouraged) more than anything else.

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
No actual novels have been started in the last ten years, unless you count fan fiction, and I don’t, because despite their finished lengths being in the 90,000 word range, they are written and constructed as linked long short stories or novellas that average about 10-12,000 words each. A whole novel seems really intimidating to me now. But I’ve got a few vague ideas that I’ve been kicking around for years that, if the right spark happens, I will be noveling again! In the meantime, I have two fan fiction series that need a final installment, so I’m mostly trying to get my head in the game to finish those. One of them’s been waiting for four years for me to get back to it!

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
Only in the sense that it’s what I feel I truly do, and it’s what makes my life matter. I mean, sure, I have a job and all that, and I have a pet, but that’s pretty much it. When I am writing I feel amazing. It’s the best fun ever and I love it and it makes me feel like a genius. It’s a drag that I’m too tired and/or depressed, most of the time, to actually feel like doing it. I have to keep my job and that’s all I have the energy to do.

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
It’s bleak. I’ve been there. I haven’t got almost anything else to live for – just being a good person is worthy, but I really want and need more out of life. But I also have to do without those things I need and want (because there are plenty of other things I need and want, but I can’t just have them for the asking – or even the working towards it), and that’s just reality. Yeah, I’m a grim soul.

Why do you write?
I don’t know, but I have to. I have been doing it all my life – when I was a little kid I called it “stories” and I’d just make up narratives for play. Once in a while I’d have a friend and they would share in the narrative and it was great, but most of the time I didn’t have even one friend I could share that with – and that’s when I started writing the narratives down so that I could re-read them myself. It’s a literal compulsion. I have to do it or I lose my mind, quite literally – I have too many ideas and I have to delineate and narrate at least some of them so I can get to sleep at night, and have a reason to get up in the morning. Also, I completely live on praise, and when I have to do without that for too long, I really fall apart.


Jemiah Jefferson is the author of the vampire novels Voice of the Blood, Wounds, Fiend, and A Drop of Scarlet, as well as the dark comedy, Mixtape for the Apocalypse and erotic literary fiction, Before and After Michael, her latest novel. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with a tuxedo cat, blackout curtains, and a collection of books and graphic novels that has grown completely out of control.

Who Am I To…? What To Do When Imposter Syndrome Sets In

“I assure you, all of my novels were first-rate before they were written.”
– Virginia Woolf

I’m sure most – if not all – of us can relate to this statement. The idea comes, the characters take shape, we start hearing dialogue, and the setting comes into view. We sit down, we write, and when we read our words a few days later, it feels flat. Or like it’s missing something but we don’t know what, exactly.

We start to have doubts. About our initial idea. About our writing. About ourselves. We can start to question whether or not we should proceed – at the very least, with this new idea – and at the very worst – with writing at all. Ever. We lapse into self-flagellation, even if only metaphorically.

It’s easy for imposter syndrome to set in. And it’s easy to compare our “less-than” prose to all those polished, finished, printed books on the bookstore shelf. We believe we don’t – maybe even, can’t – measure up.

You’ve become enmeshed with your work, much like a person who’s become enmeshed in a relationship. You can’t find the edges of yourself. (Where do you end and the writing (or the other person) begin?) It feels icky. It feels claustrophobic. It’s unhealthy.

When this happens, take a step back. Separate yourself from your writing – the work. You and it are two separate entities. And as Chuck Wendig says, “Your First Draft Does Not Require Your Faith In It.”

What matters most is that you just keep moving forward. Keep massaging the idea and the story and the character, and like a bound-up muscle, it will start to relax. In subsequent drafts (and it could mean – almost always means – A LOT of drafts), you may just start to see a glimmer of the brilliance that first came to you.

And always remember Virginia’s quote: For most of us – even the greats – the original idea may always feel like a dream.

And that’s okay…

 

Reason You Aren’t Writing #3

In my last post about why you might not be writing, I talked about the benefits of freewriting and how it can kickstart us on stuck days so we can get going or get into the flow of writing.

And sometimes, even when we’ve been able to write pages and pages, we know that something’s missing… we know that we’ve sidestepped something important that could deepen the story or character, but we can’t quite locate it.

Writing with our opposing hand can help.

Much like freewriting, it “tricks” our brain into working differently, and in this case, it’s about more than just helping us get into the flow state. It’s about accessing parts of our brain that have gone quiet and that likely hold some wisdom our story needs.

If you do this enough, fascinating information will bubble up from your subconscious, flow down your arm, through your hand, into your pen, and onto the page. And don’t be surprised if those neuropeptides scientist and pharmacologist, Candace Pert, wrote about come into play. That is, you’ll probably feel some feelings…

If you’re thinking I don’t want to spend my precious time scrawling nonsense in child-like penmanship, think again. Give it a shot. Chances are, you would have wasted more time agonizing over the fact that the thing you want is eluding you. When we write with our opposing hand, we light up dormant synapses in our brain. And again… magic.

When you do this exercise, do what Tony, my yoga teachers says: Notice what you notice, and feel what you feel.

And here’s your writing prompt: When [your protagonist’s name] was a girl/boy, the thing she/he wanted more than anything else was _________________.

Set a timer for 10 minutes, pick up your favorite writing utensil, and go.

Then…

Head over to the Writing Through the Body™ Writers Group on Facebook and let us know how it went. What was the process like? Did you unearth something unexpected? Did you get a new idea or gain an insight that will help you move some aspect of your current writing project forward or more deeply? I look forward to hearing.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Author Interview – Kristin Oakley

What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book?
Strange as it sounds, my protagonist, Leo Townsend, compelled me. I didn’t know that I’d be writing a series until I’d written the last line of my first book, Carpe Diem, Illinois, and once I did, I knew Leo had more stories to tell. In the second book, God on Mayhem Street, which is my most recently published book, Leo is forced to deal with his estranged father and learns things about his family he never knew – I never knew, until I wrote them. The book also explores the idea of a front-running presidential candidate who is openly gay and who is likely to win. How will the country deal with that?

What obstacles did you encounter while writing the book?
Most of God on Mayhem Street takes place on Leo’s family farm outside my fictional town of Endeavor, Wisconsin. I’m a city girl and have been on a farm maybe six times in my life, so I didn’t have a clue about the farming life. I was lucky enough to meet fellow writer Dr. Bill Stork, a Wisconsin veterinarian, at the Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival a few years ago which was run by our mutual publisher, Kristin Mitchell of Little Creek Press. Bill helped me with the terminology, the farming culture, and the best way to poison cows.

The other obstacle I had was my protagonist, Jacob Landry. I knew he wanted the Townsend farm but he was reluctant to let me know why. He gave me a lot of headaches. I figured there was something valuable about the land, oil maybe? In Wisconsin – no way. After many hours of research, I did find out something interesting and unique about Wisconsin that made sense to the storyline and led me to Jacob’s secret.

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?Strange as it might sound, I finally felt like a novelist. I guess it’s because there are many writers who only produce one book and then move on to something else for whatever reason. While publishing my debut novel was a huge accomplishment, creating more than one book meant I’ve turned my writing into a career. In some ways, it’s made me take my writing all that more seriously.

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? What was that process like?
I took the hybrid route of self-publishing by hiring Little Creek Press. I had pitched my first book to agents and got some interest, but nothing came of it. I knew Carpe Diem, Illinois was good, ready for an audience, and I didn’t want to wait years for it to be published. I decided to hire Kristin Mitchell of Little Creek Press because she’s first and foremost a graphic artist and her book covers are beautiful. Since I’d spent years of my life crafting my books, I wanted beautiful covers for them as well. I also didn’t want to spend a lot of my time figuring out the publishing and distribution processes. I just wanted to write.

The first thing I had to do was find a good editor. At the Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival I mentioned earlier, I met one of Kristin’s editors, Karyn Saemann, and we clicked immediately. After the book was edited, I sent the final manuscript to Kristin and she did the rest—acquiring the ISBN, formatting the book for both paperback and Kindle, getting it in various distribution sources, and advertising it on her website. I liked the results, so hired Kristin and Karyn to help me with God on Mayhem Street.

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?Definitely. The majority of my friends are writers. They give me valuable feedback on my pages, brainstorm ideas, help me set up and meet deadlines, pass along resources such as contests or book signing opportunities, and give me encouragement and support. I can’t imagine writing without them.

I have a critique group I meet with every two weeks or so for valuable writing time and feedback, a couple of friends who I retreat with twice a year, and several other writer friends who’ll I’ll periodically meet at coffee shops. I’m also on the board of the Chicago Writers Association (CWA) where I’m managing editor of our online magazine, The Write City Review, and our debut anthology, The Write City Review. I’ve made some wonderful connections through CWA and even won their 2014 Book of the Year Award for Non-traditionally published fiction for Carpe Diem, Illinois which opened a lot of doors for me.

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like?
Sort of. I’m in editing mode right now, editing the second draft of the second book in my Devil Particle Trilogy (which I hope to release next year) so I try to edit about 30-50 pages each week. I shoot for editing every day because then the story stays fresh in my mind, but at least I manage to set aside three to four 2-hour or more blocks of time each week to devote to my work-in-progress. What works best for me is to establish deadlines because I’m really good at meeting them. I plan on finishing this round of edits on the second book by September 1st and then working on the first draft of the third book, which I hope to have completed by the end of this year.

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
Four books – or more. As I mentioned, I’m currently working on The Devil Particle Trilogy – a young adult dystopian series. I also have 30,000 words of the third book in the Leo Townsend series written and can’t wait to get back to it. Leo’s mad at me for neglecting him! And I have ideas for two more Leo Townsend novels bouncing around in my head. Oh, and ideas for a woman’s fiction and another futuristic/dystopian book. I guess that makes 8!

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
I guess it depends upon your definition of spiritual. Writing definitely fulfills me and brings joy to my life, especially when a reader tells me they’ve been moved by my writing.

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
It would be very different—it’s hard to imagine. I would probably concentrate on my art – oil painting and photography. Right now, those are somewhat neglected hobbies.

Why do you write?
For the money – lol! Oh, don’t get me wrong, the money would be nice, but it’s not realistic to think I’ll get rich from my writing. And even if I do, that would be wonderful, but it wouldn’t be the reason why I write. I write because of the thrill of creating whole worlds, strange and interesting people, and surprising situations. I like tackling the big issues of our time through the lives of intriguing characters. For instance, what would life be like if children never attended school? Or why should it matter to anyone else that two people of the same sex love each other? I love developing characters that are intriguing, and words fascinate me – how just one word can inspire or incite. Plus, like all writers, I get a definite high when the words flow. Good writing is definitely addicting.


Kristin A. Oakley’s debut novel, Carpe Diem, Illinois, won the 2014 Chicago Writers
Association Book of the Year Award for non-traditionally published fiction, was a
finalist in the Independent Author Network 2015 Book of the Year, and a runner-up in
the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition. Its sequel, God on Mayhem
Street, was released in 2016. Kristin is a Chicago Writers Association board member, the
managing editor of The Write City Magazine and The Write City Review, and a UW-
Madison Division of Continuing Studies adjunct writing instructor where she critiques
manuscripts and offers a variety of workshops.