The Idea Machine, or, how to actually write a good story

A while back, a friend asked me how I get my story ideas. I told her I have a machine in my bedroom, and anytime I need a story, I crank the lever and it shoots out an idea. It's kind of like a pitching machine, so I have to get all geared up in my helmet and gloves and I have to dive for it to catch it before it vanishes into thin air and never gets told.

That's a total falsehood, by the way. I did not tell her that; I just thought it might make the story better if I took some liberties with it. Which, now that you mention it, is how I get most of my ideas anyway: I hear a story, a snippet of conversation, a characteristic, and I expand on it and fluff it out until it becomes something bigger, sometimes even bigger than myself, and I write a story.

I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that my most recent novel idea came from a news article I read about a woman who tried to kill her children. As little as I know about her story, it gave me the seed of Keira's story, and I've spent the past couple of months--and will continue to spend the next few months--delving into her life and seeing where it takes me.

Because the other part of that story I told that's a falsehood is the concept of the Idea Machine. There is no such thing. There is no magical machine, no fairy godmother, no fount of inspiration writers use to pull novel and short story ideas out. There is only life.

Which, frankly, is so much better than any magical water or glitter-blowing old lady. Life itself provides the inspiration for stories. And what more intriguing, mystifying experience is there than life? Created and woven together by a Master Storyteller, billions of insignificant creatures, moments, exchanges coming together to form a beautiful tapestry of a story. And us puny human storytellers, sitting in front of it, picking at threads and seeing if we can weave our own small replica of the Master Tapestry.

I think I just mixed about three metaphors there, which you're totally not supposed to do. But I like it, so I'm just gonna leave it there. Life is the only thing we've got to inspire us, but it's the best thing we could ask for.

Just think about how many times you've looked at someone else's life and wished it was yours, or contemplated how fantastic and unreal it seemed. You look back at your own life and all you see is a blob of tangled threads. But take a few steps back and you can see that your life tapestry is just as intricate and beautifully woven as your friend's. Multiply that intricacy and beauty by seven billion, and that's how many different tapestries you have to choose from when picking your story.

It's totally okay to mix and match when writing. Take your good friend's perfect hair, your best friend's skills, your sense of humor, your favorite TV star's problems, and voila, you've got a brand new story that's never been told before.

To write a great story you don't need a magic machine. You only need some creativity, a hefty amount of attention to detail, and a good bit of conflict. Mix it all together and start sharing. There you go: you're a storyteller. I can't wait to hear what you've got to say :)

The definition of success

Sometimes it feels like I can only process things if they are in writing. That's why, last Tuesday, I wrote down my personal definition of success...as far as the creative writing/publishing industry is concerned. Here it is:

Success is having the book published. Success is having it do well enough to be able to keep writing and selling. Success is enough to afford a small apartment somewhere in NYC, food for my table, and clothes for my body. Success is being able to continue Compassion...and more. Success is being able to help my family.

As a side note, I'd like to say that I believe that success in life is following God and honoring Him. As far as my goals as an author, though, this set represents a huge victory for me.

You see, for most of my life I've nourished the secret thought that success equals fame and fortune. To be a successful writer, I thought I had to be a famous writer, someone like J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins or James Patterson. Success meant thousands if not millions of followers on Twitter. Success meant being recognized on the street. Success meant multiple homes and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last summer, though, I was in a counseling session and my amazing counselor said that she thought this kind of fame and fortune would be the worst possible things I could experience right now. I stopped talking and stared at her, open-mouthed. "Huh?"

She explained: if I was finding value in success, and this was my idea of success, achieving it would do nothing but make me big-headed and impossible. And if I ever lost it, I would also lose any sense of worth I felt.

I've been thinking about her words a lot. And somehow, when I woke up last Tuesday, I understood. I understood why I write: not because it is the pathway to fame and fortune (cause it's not). It all goes back to story. Ever since I was a child, I have had an obsession with stories. I used to beg my parents to tell me stories of their childhood. As I grew older, I began reading. Then I discovered movies. Then TV. In the end I was filling my mind with as many stories as possible.

I write because there are stories I want to share with the world.

But I also write because the act of writing itself is something beautiful. It is cathartic. It makes me feel alive. It is the art form that I can do...I might even venture to say I am fairly good at it.

I write because I love it. Therefore, success as a writer means being able to continue doing what I want to do: write.

I've come to realize that I don't need fame or fortune, millions of Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those things would be awesome, yeah. And I'm going to do my best and if I reach that type of fame, awesome.

But success, for me...success is being able to keep writing, keep loving and helping people, keep sharing my stories with the world.