The Idea that Haunts You

I bet you know exactly what I’m talking about. I may only be a writer, but I bet all creatives know the feeling.

^^Five years’ worth of ideas!

If you’re anything like me, you have dozens of notebooks and Word documents filled with old ideas that never made it off the ground, snippets of scenes that got discarded, and characters whose names you may not even know. And I’m willing to bet you have at least one that you keep going back to.

You know, The Idea?

No matter how many other stories you finish, you keep going back to that one half-crazed idea. Or do you? Maybe it keeps coming back to you, like the ghosts that haunt people in those old horror movies. And maybe you keep pushing it away because even when you try to work on it, it doesn’t really take you anywhere.

Enter J. R. R. Tolkien.

I know I talk about Tolkien a lot on this blog, but I’m going to tell you about him again, because he’s my favorite author of all time. LotR is my favorite book, my favorite movie, and contains some of my favorite characters. You could for sure consider me a Tolkien geek (and yes. I know Elvish.)

Everyone knows that The Lord of the Rings is one of the most well-known, most quoted, most memorable classics of all time. But how much do you know about the man behind the story? Did you know that it took him twelve years to write it? Not counting the time he spent perfecting it? Did you know it started out as a sequel to The Hobbit, but ended up being a sequel to The Silmarillion? Did you know that he kept giving up on it, but found that he just couldn’t get away from it?

It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.

-J. R. R. Tolkien

Obviously I can’t get into Tolkien’s mind, but to me, it seems like this idea haunted him. It followed him around, and no matter what other things he wrote, he couldn’t get away from it. Even when he tried to write it – and kept trying – it didn’t work.

How discouraging.

Or does that make the finally finished story that much more beautiful? You decide.

But no matter how inspiring Tolkien is, we still have a problem. You have an idea and it won’t leave you alone. What should you do?

Well. Unfortunately I can’t read your mind. But if your idea is tugging on your heart this strongly, then maybe it really was meant to be, and it’s not just your Muse being annoying.

Can I tell you a secret? I have one of those ideas. It’s been haunting me for years. My notebooks are filled with many failed attempts at it, and vows to never come back to it.

And then, one magical day, I found the right story to go with it. Pretty fun, right? And I did end up finishing it. It was finally a complete story. So now I can finally let it rest, right?

NO.

That’s the bad thing about these ideas. They never leave you. Even after Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, he couldn’t let it rest. The land of Middle-earth was forever his true homeland, and that other idea he was working on – the bigger idea, the idea which LotR came from – was still in his heart. It never left him alone.

And I suspect it will be the same for me. And the same for all of us. But don’t let it get you discouraged. In the words of Tolkien himself (and don’t bug me about how I’m totally taking this quote out of context):

Not all those who wonder are lost.

Advertisements

The Victory in Surrender

I wanted to make the title an oxymoron to grab your attention. If you’re reading this, it worked. Now instead of my usual storytelling style, I’m going to begin with the end:

When we surrender our lives to Christ, we are surrendering to the One who has already overcome the world.

Surrender is an interesting word. Its meaning is almost never ambiguous, and in most cases it has the same outcome. But it has either good or bad connotations, depending on what context it’s being used in.

Surrender means giving up. Losing the battle. Letting the other side take you. How many times have we heard the words “SURRENDER OR DIE!” shouted at the opposing side during a battle? Surrendering is what happens when one side isn’t strong enough to keep fighting. Surrender is quietly laying down your weapons at the opposing side’s feet and saying “I’m yours.”

This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. For the past year or so, actually. Even though I’ve been dwelling on this idea, and God has shown me lots of things, it just hit me a couple weeks ago: I am not in control of my life. Period.

If you asked me, I wouldn’t say I’m a very controlling person. I never thought this lesson would be “for me.” But if I’m honest with myself, I have plans. Good plans, even. Plans for my life, plans for my future. And I want to control them.

I had a plan for college. I had it all figured out–nope, God shoved me in a completely different direction. I had plans for this amazing book I was going to write–never mind, God definitely had his own plans for that one. I worry about a lot of things. I have anxiety. This one was the hardest, because sometimes it’s easier for me to trust God with the big things in my life–like college–but not the little things, like what if I make a mistake while playing the piano at church.

Usually when I have no control over something, it freaks me out. But lately, I have found peace in it. I can rest in the fact that I have no control, because I am resting in the One who holds all the control. Surrender may seem counterintuitive, but really, it’s what frees us to trust.

And with this surrender comes victory. Because Christ has already overcome the world; he has already atoned for your sin; he has already paid for your life; he has already defeated death.

What if, instead of fighting the battle for control, we surrendered?
What if, instead of worrying, we surrendered our worries to God? What if, instead of trying to control the outcomes of our plans, we surrendered to the One who already knows exactly what we need?

What if we surrendered our entire lives to Him, in faith, knowing that He’s in complete control?

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
(Luke 9:23-24)

The Writing Bubble

Ah, here we are, at the very end of summer. It sure went by fast. School’s about to start (if it hasn’t already), and it’s almost the season for pumpkin spice and apples and crunchy orange leaves and NaNoWriMo. Perfect time for writing, if  you ask me. It’s very cozy to sit in Starbucks with your laptop and the rain drizzling down the windowpane and the steam from your latte warming your face.

Writing is interesting in that it has bubbles. You know what I mean. Genres, audiences… the like. Lots of people will tell you to stay in your bubble, but those people are only concerned for your public face and not your actual self.

the writing bubble

It’s okay if you want to stay in your bubble. Lots of writers do. They find their niche, settle in, get comfortable, and stay there. Personally, I like my little YA Fantasy bubble, but occasionally I’ll branch out into sci-fi or middle grade fiction or poetry. There’s nothing wrong with bubbles, it’s just that… well, if you stay in them, you’re missing something.

It’s just like music. You can spend your entire life mastering one instrument, but by doing so, you miss everything else. You miss an entire world of skills, songs, and beauty. I’ve spent about ten years of my life taking piano lessons, and it’s taken me that long to realize that there is so much more out there. Music is more than mastering one classical song after another. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of other instruments. And if that’s not enough, there is so much more you can do with music. You can compose a film score. You can be in a band. You can become a YouTube star. You can conduct an orchestra. You can write Broadway musical.

The same goes for writing. You don’t have to stick with your genre, for example, YA Fantasy. You could try writing for middle grade instead. Or branch out even farther and try sci-fi, or historical fiction, or horror or contemporary or thriller or romance.

Or, if you’re especially brave, you could venture outside the fiction bubble. Try nonfiction. Write a memoir, a biography, a cookbook, a Bible study. Or… don’t write a book at all. Write movies. Write plays. Write Studio-C-style sketches.

And if you really want to get outside your bubble, don’t use words at all. Write music to tell a story. Paint a masterpiece. Perform a dance.

See, storytelling is so much more than writing. Every author, every poet, every screenwriter, is telling a story. Every artist, every composer, every dancer, has a story to tell the audience. Creativity is a gift, a means to express yourself, to share pieces of your heart. Use that gift. Even though not everyone tries to tell stories, that’s usually what ends up happening.

Think about it. Traditionally speaking, every book has a theme. Every song has a chorus. Every painting has a focal point.

I’m not saying you should try something outside your bubble. But why not? Don’t let fear hold you back. Don’t tell me you’re not good enough. With experience, you’ll grow. Every storyteller starts out as an amateur.

I’ll close with a quote by J.R.R. Tolkien. I always go back to this quote, and it sums up storytelling pretty much perfectly:

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien

What’s your writing bubble?

Have you ever tried anything different?

The Truth About Clichés

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about clichés. Writers are told to avoid them like the plague. They are a horribly awful very bad idea. A big no-no. Clichés are a sign of lazy writing, amateur writing, and all sorts of other writing that you’d never want to associate with.

Think of the young, orphaned, teenage protagonist who is secretly the Chosen One but doesn’t know it until an old, bearded, magical, wizard-like mentor tells him.

Think of the Super Evil Bad Guy who has a bazillion evil traits and zero good ones, who’s so evil, there’s no hope of redemption.

Think of love triangles, dark and stormy nights, ancient prophecies that always come true, and my personal favorite, quests for magical artifacts.

By the way, I am definitely guilty of most if not all of the above.

The (1)

So if you’re not supposed to use clichés, what are you supposed to do? Well, you’ve heard it before. You have to twist the cliché. Do something unexpected with it. For example, if you just have to have a Chosen One in your story, perhaps you could give your protagonist a big ego about his special status. Or maybe the Chosen One isn’t the protagonist at all.

See, agents and editors hate clichés. Readers notice them, too. They roll their eyes and might even stop reading altogether, and that’s the last thing writers want. The solution? Be original.

But that’s not what I’m aiming for. I want to go deeper. Twisting clichés is fun and entertaining, and will probably improve your writing, but there is a line that you are not allowed to cross.

People are afraid of originality.

Let me say that again, just to make sure it sinks in:

People are afraid of originality.

We live in a culture that is addicted to comfort, and can’t handle the unfamiliar. We all have our comfort zones, and we are perfectly happy staying inside them. And yet, we get tired of the same old, same old. If we still read books at all, we are absolutely terrified of anything original. Clichés are familiar, something we know. They’re tried and true, they’re safe. Comfortable. Boring, even. So when authors twist clichés, it’s a win-win. The book still holds that hint of familiarity, and yet it’s something different, something fresh.

But when the author does something completely original – well, that’s when people aren’t sure what to think. Even agents and editors shy away. That’s why J. K. Rowling got twelve rejections before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Sure, there are probably lots of clichés in the Harry Potter franchise, but it’s just that no one had done anything quite like that before. No one knew what to think. And now, twenty years later, millions of other authors have been inspired by her books.

But being original – really original – is hard work to begin with. Even if you do manage to create something amazing, you’ll have to deal with rejections and general disinterest. And I shouldn’t even mention the workload. Tolkien spent years writing The Lord of the Rings. Twelve, to be approximate. And that was just one story. Before that, he wrote The Hobbit, and before that, he was developing the language and lore of Middle-earth.

In conclusion, I highly discourage it. Don’t be original. It’s way too much work. It won’t pay off right away, if ever. Stay in your comfort zone, keep your readers in theirs, and everyone will be okay. Twist those clichés, insert plot twist or two, but don’t go crazy with your originality. Stay safe. No one wants that idea that doesn’t quite fit in with anything else.

Okay. Let me say what I came here to say.

Be brave, dear writer. Pursue things that no author has pursued before. Step out of your comfort zone. Leave behind the familiar. Write about things that scare you, terrify you even. Write about things that make you sad. Write until your tears stain your notebook. Write to embark on a journey of discovery. Write a real, honest story, not the watered-down version that people like. And when you’ve finished, take another step, perhaps the hardest step of all. Let other people read it. It will take them outside of their comfort zones, yes. But that’s good. Let them embark on this journey of discovery, too.

And don’t give up. Giving up will be the easiest path, I can guarantee you that. You may fail. But you can get up again. You can keep trying. You may get ten rejections, you may get a hundred. But you can keep writing. If it’s a story that tugs at your heart and won’t let go, God put it there in front of you for a reason, and you had better keep writing it.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) clichés?

What authors have inspired you?

Using Music as a Writing Tool

Ah, finally. A post about music. I’ve been waiting to do this for a long time. I love music, don’t you? One minute you can be sitting at your desk staring at a blank piece of paper, and the next minute you’re in a completely different world, and with each pulse of the music, the story moves along as if it had a heartbeat of its own.

Music is strange, to be sure. It affects us in ways we can’t often explain. If you think about it, all music really is is just a series of random sounds and tones. If you know the science behind sound waves, you’ll know that music is just a bunch of air molecules bumping into each other, with varied frequencies and amplitudes, interpreted by your brain as sound. And how did we ever figure out how to get these sound waves so precise so as to tell a unique story with every song?

Using Music as a Writing Tool

It blows my mind every time I think about it. Music can speak to us in ways words could never do. Somehow, simple melodies can make us smile or cry uncontrollably, feel nostalgic or uneasy, or even leave us with a sense of mystery. We get chills by listening to that epic masterpiece and compulsively dance along to the rhythmic beat that we can feel in our chest.

The more you think about it, the more you realize how odd music really is. People dance or do gymnastics routines set to music. And the music isn’t there to amplify the beauty of what the person is doing; it’s the other way around. We dance because we feel deeply how beautiful the music is, and we want to express it somehow. There’s a reason movies have soundtrack, and there’s a reason that some stories are completely set to music (ahem, musicals. They’re the best.) It’s because music is a deeper level of storytelling; it captures something that words could never capture.

people-2585962_640There’s a reason we sing songs when we worship God. It’s because something inside of us is captivated by the beauty of God. He is incomprehensible, his beauty beyond human explanation or expression. I think, in a much smaller way, music is similar. We know how beautiful it is because we feel it deep inside, but we can’t explain it.  Besides, God specifically designed music as a form of worship. The Bible says that the angels in heaven sing songs to God.

There’s a reason people like to listen to music when they work out, or when they study. All sorts of scientific and psychological experiments have been done on that, but you don’t have to be a scholar to know that it works. I personally love listening to music when I study, and contrary to popular belief, you can listen to genres besides classical (although, I do love classical music–Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Scarlatti, and Shostakovich, just to name a few!) Most days though, power metal is my favorite, and if you know me, that might come as a surprise. You can thank my dad for that. (Theocracy is my favorite band. You should look them up.)

Music is also a valuable writing tool. Because it is a deeper form of storytelling, I like to listen to it when I write. It usually inspires a phrase or a paragraph, and sometimes entire scenes that I never would have thought of on my own. It makes the writing process seem like magic (most of the time. The writing process is fickle, as you probably know.) Whenever I go back and read stuff I’ve written previously, there’s always a little bit of music there too. Between the lines. I associate certain characters with specific songs, and sometimes listening to a song will bring back emotional memories of entire books.

If listening to music while writing is more distracting than helpful, it can still be a valuable writing tool. You can listen to it before you start writing, to get your brain into writing mode. If you write historical fiction, you can find songs written in that time period. You can even find song artists’ voices that sound like your characters. Unless you just really hate music (which would be sad), I highly encourage you to try using it for writing.

Music gives us something we couldn’t express or understand otherwise. All music tells a story, because every composer, every songwriter, has something to say. Much like authors write books because they have a message for the world, songwriters write music because they want to convey something to their listeners. I’m going to close with a quote by an author whom I love and look up to:

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

-Victor Hugo

How have you used music as a writing tool?

What’s your favorite music to listen to?

How to Find Inspiration (also known as How to Force the Muse to Pay You a Long-Overdue Visit)

I have read many posts and articles about how to find inspiration, or, in many cases, how to let inspiration find you. No doubt you have, too. And in this post, I’m going to try not to repeat the tips that are used over and over again. This post is not about how to let inspiration find you. It’s not about waiting for the muse to show up. This post is about how to summon the muse.

music-1874621_640Music. I’m listening to music right now… the organ is booming, and the chandelier is rising, and the opening notes of the prologue are just so inspiring because they are telling a story. Every note is perfectly timed, perfectly tuned. Every sound you hear, every breath you take, is in sync with this glorious unfolding story. The notes fill your chest, and the story itself takes root and blooms inside of you. If you close your eyes, you can see something… an inkling of something beyond your imaginings.

That was a little bit random. I wasn’t planning on including it in this post, but I rather like it. (Yes, I was listening to The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, if you’re wondering.) I hope to do an entire post or two about music one day, because I believe that music is one of the driving forces behind the entire universe. Don’t ask me why – I just do. There has always been something symbolic about music… Aslan created Narnia with a song in The Magician’s Nephew. Tolkien used music to illustrate the fall from perfection in The Silmarillion. And I use music to create my own worlds and my own characters.

Music always tells a story. There is always some sort of idea that the composer is trying to get across to his listeners, if not an entire story. There are always emotions that are carried in the music. So to find inspiration from music, simply pick a song that you like – one that has always grabbed you and taken you by the hand and swept you away to the realm of imagination that is reality in some abstract, mysterious way… Try not think about anything as you listen to the music. Don’t try to get inspiration, or it won’t work. Let the music itself guide your thoughts. In your mind you’ll start to see the story playing out. If you’re trying to get past writer’s block, you can think vaguely about your story you’re working on, but mostly let the music direct you. It’s surprising what you can come up with.

It is a little bit hard to get to that state of mind where you’re not thinking about anything at all (especially if your mind is always busy like mine), but even just listening to music helps me when I write.

book-863418_640Books. This one seems obvious: Read other people’s creative works to learn how to do it yourself, and to get your mind off your own book. But that’s not exactly what I’m going to say, because everyone else says that. I’ve discovered that rereading old books actually gives me more inspiration than finding a new book to read. Go back to your childhood and reread your favorite books. Those books that you loved so much because you weren’t quite old enough to fully analyze a story, and you were just there for the sake of the story itself, and you didn’t have that annoying voice in your head analyzing the author’s every word…

I find myself captivated by the story itself. There’s nothing wrong with reading new books, but I’m just more inspired when I reread books I’ve already read three times.

book-1209805_640The Gospel. I have gone to the Bible many times for inspiration. Most of the time I wasn’t even looking for it, but the inspiration just popped out at me. The first time something like that happened, I just happened to be reading in Romans and I realized that the character I had just created was a perfect illustration of some aspect of the Gospel. It was pretty awesome. Besides the obvious fact that the Bible is the greatest story of all time which contains absolute truth, sometimes you can get wonderful ideas for stories.

Sometimes reading the Bible feels only like a duty and you don’t really take the time to truly appreciate the words of it. The Bible is the Word of God, so it makes sense that we should hang on to each word as we read it, our breath catching in our throats as we see the story that is unfolding before our very eyes. And we know that every word of it is true, which only makes us doubly excited. And when we look at whatever we’re reading in context of all of Scripture… the feeling is indescribable.

(Normally I would take that as a challenge and attempt to describe whatever it is I had said was indescribable, but for now I am going to leave it for you all to discover.)

So that’s my take on where to find inspiration. Are there any important things I’ve left out? Is there anywhere you go to for inspiration that I didn’t mention? You can let me know in the comments; I’d love to hear from you!