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There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

My writing buddy Annie asked the question for this round of the blog chain:

Do you ever get inspired by a real-life event or news story and fear you're ripping off the story too much? Do you ever get inspired by a song or poem or line from a book and worry you're stealing that original person's idea? What if your research is overtaking your originality?

What popped into my head immediately upon reading this were those old Ecclesiastes verses: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.

Like most people, I have been inspired by other people's works, and from time to time I've even used those works as a springboard for my own. For me, the nice thing is that as I find the story's voice and work with the characters, it all becomes uniquely mine.

I just started reading Jessica Verday's upcoming novel The Hollow, and it's set in the town of Sleepy Hollow, and quoted at the beginning of each chapter is a bit of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Jess took a story most of us know and found her own spin on it. That's not plagiarism, that's creativity.

Your question makes me think a bit about fanfiction. Fanfiction is the use of someone else's copyrighted characters and universe in a story. Fanfiction ranges from atrocious to amazing; it also runs the gamut from poorly-retold episodes or stories with an obvious Mary Sue inserted to wildly new and inventive tales that expand the "canonical" story in exciting ways.

Early on, i.e. when the internet was just starting to boom, companies like FOX went after fanfic writers to try to make them stop using copyrighted characters (e.g. The X-Files' Mulder and Scully). Soon, though, even FOX realized that fanfiction was just a way to expand the buzz about a show. These days, writers of shows like Supernatural work inside jokes acknowledging fanfic--and therefore fandom--into their episodes.

None of that is to say that fanfiction can't cross some boundaries that writers need to be wary of. And because the characters are copyrighted, it's rare for fanfiction to find an outlet in the traditional publishing world.

And it's good to be aware that plagiarism is a problem. Certainly Kaavya Viswanathan learned that lesson the hard way. And even Cassie Edwards has been called to the table. But as long as you aren't mimicking entire passages, characters, situations, etc. from someone else's work...that is, as long as you are putting your unique spin on things, really telling the story through a new character's long as you're using your inspiring source as nothing more than a're on the right track.

What do you think, dear Reader? How do we stay original when we're inspired by someone else's work? And where is the line we must be careful not to cross?

Sandra came before me and Kate is up next!

Finding the Next Novel-Worthy Story (Fiction)

So now that my NaNo novel is finished and has officially been sent off to some critiquing friends (bless them!), it's time for something new.  But finding new novel-worthy ideas is difficult for me.  I'll get an idea, but then I think "But where would I go with that?"  Since I never map out a novel before I write it, I guess it's kind of silly that I let that question stop me, but it does.

Like a big old brick wall.

I started to understand better why when I was reading Les Edgerton's Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. (Recommended, by the way.  I don't often learn new things from writing books these days, but I did from this one.)  Edgerton argues that "surface problems" aren't enough to carry a story, because they don't launch the character on a journey or force him to change (i.e. to have a character arc) the way a "story-worthy problem" does.

Edgerton says you have to just keep asking yourself "why?" questions. To get from a surface problem to a story-worthy problem, he says, you have to delve into the psychology of the character.  Why is this character doing this?  What is the psychology behind his actions?

Out of the blue I had a still from a scene float up into my consciousness.  I knew there was more story to be told in my NaNo novel world, but I had no idea what it was.  And here at last was something, just a fragment of a scene.  And that scene led to another scene. So now I have two context-less scenes that are intriguing me, but I'm not sure how to branch out from here.  I think I am going to write brief descriptions of the two scenes on notecards (which is how I developed the NaNo novel) and then do my best to mind-map outward from there.

I'd love to hear your advice, dear Reader.  What do you do?  How do your ideas start and how do you help nurture them until they're worthy of an entire novel?

Writing As an Emotional Outlet

For this go-round of the blog chain, Christine asked

How do you add emotional depth to your stories? How to do know when you have enough emotional content? And how to you keep it authentic?

Now, I'm going to be honest with you.  I stared at these questions.  And then I stared at them some more.  It's like I'm being asked how I breathe.  I don't know, I just do!  You know, breath in, breath out.  Easy, right?  Right?

I've been looking at other people's answers to this question -- Michelle's, for example, or Elana's.  I mean, Michelle talks about emotions she hasn't experienced.  Huh?  And Elana says she has trouble with emotional writing.  Wha?

For me, the problem is how to dam back the flow of emotion.  I once had a friend sit down across from me and say, "It's amazing how many emotions you must experience."  And I said, "Huh?"  And he said, "From your writing, there's such a rainbow of emotions.  I pretty much have two -- okay and pissed off."  And I thought, That sounds kinda boring.

I'm extremely comfortable writing about emotions, including the ugly ones--greed, lust, schadenfreude, envy, maliciousness, you name it.  I am an emotional maelstrom, and I'm happy to dump some of it off into my stories.  Sometimes I'd swear that's why I write in the first place -- it gives me an outlet for all of that emotion.

I guess the most pertinent question for me from the ones Christine asked is the last one: How do you keep it authentic?

The two things that are a challenge for me are 1) Making sure the emotion fits the character (I bleed into my characters from time to time, which isn't so good) and 2) Making sure the reader appreciates why the character is emoting all over the place.  Like Annie said, it's not so good when the characters seem to be freaking out over nothing.

I do make character sheets, but they don't include things like hair and eye color.  They read like psychological test results, and they help me keep my characters (and their emotions) in character.  I also do my very best to have characters respond at a level that wouldn't get them diagnosed as histrionic or borderline.  And when all else fails, I have my fantabulous readers to save me from myself!

How would you answer Christine's questions, dear Reader?  Feel free to play along using your own blog or the Comments below!

Sandra's post came before mine, and Kate's will come next!

Building Your Platform (Cross-Post)

What is a platform?

A platform is name recognition of some kind. Celebrity, if you will.

Why do you need one?

A platform will help you attract the attention of an agent and later a publisher. Why?

Because having a platform proves that you

* Care enough about your project to promote it
* Have some marketing savvy
* Come with a built-in fan based (read: guaranteed sales)

More importantly, a good platform will help sell your book when it comes out. Fewer and fewer publishers are putting money into promoting books — especially books by unknowns and newcomers. That means that the onus of promotion falls almost completely (and sometimes completely) on you, the author. You are the one who’s going to be making people aware of the book, and convincing them to buy it. You are the one who’s responsible for making the book a success.

Just sit with that for a minute.

Your job doesn’t end with writing the book. It doesn’t end with landing an agent or even a publisher. These days, you must also be a marketing expert.

The good news is, you can learn how if you don’t know. And I'm going to help you get started.

Do you already have the makings of a platform?

If you’re writing nonfiction, do you have any of the following in the area you’re writing about?

* Advanced degrees or certifications (e.g. MA, PhD)

* Teaching experience

* Speaking experience (e.g. you’re the pastor of a large church, you give presentations to large corporate groups)

* Professional (i.e. on-the-job) experience

* Expert experience (i.e. have you been quoted in newspapers or magazines as an expert on your topic?

* Published articles in local (good) or national (better) magazines or newspapers

* A polished, professional-looking website or blog

If you’re writing fiction, do you have any of the following?

* Advanced degrees or certifications (e.g. an MFA)

* Published short fiction

* Writing awards from local, regional, or national contests (see below)

* A successful website or blog that spotlights your writing

Help! — I don’t have a platform!

Let’s say you don’t have a platform. You don’t even have a shoebox to stand on. Now what?

Now you sit down with a piece of paper and answer the following questions.

* Why do people need my book (as opposed to the thousands that already line the shelves?) What makes my idea unique? (Everyone must be able to answer this.)

* Why must I be the one to write this book? What about my background or experience makes me the only one who can write this? (This is particularly important for nonfiction writers.)

* What do I do really well? (Go ahead and list everything you can think of here, even if it doesn’t seem relevant.)

* How much time and energy am I willing to commit to building this platform? (e.g. I will blog three times a week on my book topic, every week)

* What would I like my platform to look like in a year? (e.g. my blog will have 1000 subscribers)

After you answer these questions, you need to decide how you’re going to get from point A (don’t even have a shoebox) to point B (a real live platform). Look again at the skills you listed — can you use any of them?

For fiction writers
* Try entering some contests. Here’s a great resource to help you find some:

For both fiction and nonfiction writers, some of the best ways to build a platform include:
* Blogging – I know I reference her all the time, but fiction writer (and QT Blogger!) Elana Johnson has a fantastic blog — so good that…well, that I reference her all the time. Which means she’s got word of mouth, and word of mouth means she’s got a platform. Her blog is just that good.

* Using other social networking sites, such as mySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. The trick is to provide information that’s really going to intrigue other people and get them invested in your book. Don’t tell them that you wrote 1500 words today — tell them that you did some fascinating research for your story on bondage furniture for that S&M dungeon in your story. Don’t just tell them you’re interviewing people for your nonfiction book — give them outtakes from the interview, or at least tease them with what kinds of nuggets of wisdom are going to be in your finished manuscript.

* A website that provides information related to your story or nonfiction book. Writing a story about psychics? Give people some information about real psychics and how you got interested in the topic. Mary Lindsey provides photographs of real places mentioned in her novelSoul Purpose. Even if you haven’t read the novel, the pictures are interesting.

For nonfiction writers, find ways to speak or teach publicly.

* Writing a book on a particular kind of craft? Call your local craft store and ask how they find teachers for their classes. (In the US, consider, for example, JoAnn and Michaels crafts stores.) Arrange to meet with the person who organizes the classes, and go armed — take photographs and, if you can, pieces of your very best work. Make a handout that would help your potential students and take that along, too, to show how you would teach.

* If you have an advanced degree or specialized knowledge and are willing to spend some money to get your name into big magazines and newspapers, consider becoming ProfNet Expert. This is just one way that coaching expert Larina Kase went from being an unknown to being a heavy hitter—not just in business, but as a writer!

* Use your website or blog to answer questions from readers on your topic.

* Read the best books on platform building. My favorites are Guerrilla Marketing for Writers : 100 Weapons to Help You Sell Your WorkGet Known Before The Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths To Grow An Author Platform, and Plug Your Book! Online Book Marketing for Authors.

And do all of these things BEFORE you send your query. Don’t tell the agent you’re going to build a platform; tell her you already have a great one in place. Rachelle Gardner puts it this way:      

I DON'T want to see in your proposal, "I am willing to start a blog and join social networks to market myself."
I DO want to see: "I've been blogging for a year, with my readership growing steadily. I use Facebook and Twitter to create relationships with potential future readers of my books, and to drive people back to my blog. I'm currently making contact through the blog and social networks with several hundred (or several thousand) people a day."
Still have questions?  Have other ideas on building platform? Feel free to use the comments area below!

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she runs Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and an associated blog. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource. 

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