Sunday, April 21, 2013

Stoking the Creative Fire

Years ago I had the opportunity to hear Anne Lamott speak.  A friend in my critique group happened to have an extra ticket for her lecture and I JUMPED at the chance to listen to one of my favorite authors discuss the writing process. I don’t quite remember the venue, suffice to say a large, old, theater/auditorium somewhere in mid-town Manhattan, and I’d be hard pressed to come up with an exact quote, but I remember nervously handing Ms. Lamott my copy of Bird by Bird, and squeaking out something that was supposed to sound like thank you as I scuttled away.  I do remember laughing a lot as she talked about her process.   And I do remember leaving inspired to dive into my own writing.

One of the writing tricks/tools that Ms. Lamott spoke about that day was The Observation Deck – A Tool Kit for Writers by Naomi Epel.    I may have ordered it that night when I got home, but I think if Anne had said that it was important to eat artichokes and hop on one leg for ten minutes before sitting down to write, I probably would have done that too.  (So glad she didn’t recommend that, btw.)

The Observation Deck is a handy-dandy deck of cards that can inspire you to action when you’re feeling stuck or just in the mood for a nudge in any direction.   For instance, I just drew a card that reads   “Study Opening Lines” – this one is pretty self explanatory, but if you need to dig deeper you can turn to the corresponding book to look up the meaning of the card.   The gist of this card is that  “You have a world of powerful teachers sitting on the bookshelves in your house right now…” and goes on to give examples of famous first lines from novels and how they resonate with readers.  And now I bet you are thinking of some of your favorite first lines of novels, maybe even revisiting the first sentence of your own WIP and wondering how you can make it pack a punch.  See?  All from a card that helped you think about something different.   And sometimes, that’s all we need.

A few summers ago, I turned to The Observation Deck when I was trying to decide what direction to take with my new WIP.   I’d been toying with the idea of writing a story about a shy girl who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight after she saves someone.  My character was whispering to me at that point and I couldn’t find the inspiration to get the engine started.  The card I picked was “Combine Elements” – take two totally different ideas and put them together and see what happens.   I’d had this other story in my brain too – about a teenage thief who wanted to reform his ways – but I’d never written from a male POV before and I just didn’t know where I was heading even though that particular character was practically screaming in my head.

So…I put them together.

What if shy girl saves teen thief and he sees that as his opportunity for a second chance?  What if they fall in love?  What if just when things seem to be changing his past comes back to haunt him and threatens their relationship?  That was the day Wren met Grayson…and the day my 2014 debut novel THE PROMISE OF AMAZING was born.   Maybe I would have eventually put the two together, but drawing that “Combine Elements” card made it feel like putting those characters together was no big deal and if I wanted to change it up at some point, no harm done.  Of course the story evolved a lot from that first seed, but I’m so glad I pulled that card that day, and continue to include The Observation Deck in my little bag o' writer tricks.

So how about you?  What are some of your favorite tools/tricks to help you along in your writing process?


  1. I don't have a favorite tool now, but it sounds as though I should buy the OBSERVATION DECK toute suite! Thanks for alerting us to a potential game changer.

  2. Great post, Robin. In addition to OBSERVATION DECK as a tip, I think you've got another very important tip in there: "drawing that “Combine Elements” card made it feel like putting those characters together was no big deal and if I wanted to change it up at some point, no harm done."

    To me, that is one of the most important writing tips. There is no harm done by writing something. I think that fear stops so many people. Don't be afraid to write the wrong thing. That is what new files are for.

  3. Thanks for sharing an exciting resource, Robin! The OBSERVATION DECK sounds very helpful! Combining elements can definitely be exciting. So wonderful that you drew a card that set you on the track to writing THE PROMISE OF AMAZING!

    I think my favorite trick is just the simple writing question, "What if?" For me, that question can sometimes jump start an idea.

  4. I love Anne Lamott too and I will look for the Observation Deck. Combining Elements is a great idea. I also use the 'what if' exercise. Sometimes I play the 'why' game with myself -- why would a MC, or even a person on the news, or a character from history, do something? It spins off ideas for me.