The Practicality and Morality of Being a Magpie

I advise you to keep your writer’s notebook handy when you’re reading, because you want it right there when inspiration strikes, and if you’re a writer and a reader, odds are you’re most likely to be the receiver of the inspiration fairy when you’re reading.

Some people are probably feeling some low level panic right now. “But I don’t want to steal someone’s ideas! I don’t wanna be a copy cat!”

Okay, I hear you.  I used to worry about the exact same thing.  I’d worry about “stealing” ideas or of being “too influenced” by a particular author or book.

My short response, dear hearts, is this: don’t worry about it.

There are two aspects to this pressing concern: the practical side and the intellectual/moral side.

On the practical side, ideas change so much from conception to final product that the original idea will most likely be unrecognizable.  I, for one, find it highly unlikely that you’ll be able to recognizably replicate the book that inspired you.

On the moral side, I find it admirable that you place emphasis on originality and responsibility for your own ideas.  As writers, we’re bred to seek after the previously unexplored.  We’re expected to unearth the buried.

On the practical side, this expectation of Absolute Originality is unreasonable, because even in Biblical times, there wasn’t anything new under the sun.  And, paradoxically, anything you generate will be original anyway (at the very least in execution) because it came from you and not anyone else.

On the moral side, I think the emphasis ought to be placed on authenticity.  Instead of the aesthetic details of your world or your characters or your magical system, consider them vessels for your personal meaning.  Because without something Deeper, the aesthetic will be empty and essentially meaningless.

On the practical side, you are a human being, which means you are graced with the remarkable ability to discern minuscule details from one another.  So consider this difference:

  • I like this idea of two mismatched eyes, one totally black, the other normal, and how it signifies they have blood magic that can transport them between worlds.
  • I like this idea of wands.  I’ll do something with wands.

I’ll bet–and I’m confident that I’ll win this bet–that you are able to discern the degree to which these two thought processes are different.  The first example is very specific to the world and plot of the story from which it came (A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab).  The second example, however, is a general concept that could apply to any number of stories, including my current WiP.

I would personally consider the first example worrisome and yes, edging too close to the idea of “copying.”  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the second example, though, because it leaves the limitless question of, “What about wands?” hanging in the air, leaving you to answer it however you please.

On the moral side, you probably want to continue to grow as a writer and a creator.  So I urge you to ask yourself this question when you come across something shiny that catches your eye:  “What more can I do with this?  What else is there to explore with this idea?”

On the practical side, writing down the spinoff inspired by the story you’re reading in no way commits you to doing anything with that idea.  You’re a writer.  Like magpies and ravens, we collect shiny things to add to our hoards.  It’s a Thing.

I’ll leave you with this.

I’ve found that the more confident I became in my own writing and storytelling abilities, the less I coveted the ideas I found in published works.  This tells me that the problem does not lie in the copying itself, but of the lack of confidence that causes it.  Instead of worrying about being a copy cat, consider instead your confidence in yourself.  The more confident you become in yourself, the less demand you will feel to claim someone else’s work as your own.


Drawing up Battle Plans: Weekly Update

It’s not that I have a million things that need doing this month, but the items on my to-do list feel so big and insurmountable that it feels like there’s an army of to-do soldiers charging at me.  (Something akin to Mulan facing down the Hun army on the mountain.)

First step to dealing with stress:

The space around you is your first line of defense.  Armor up.

The first thing I do when I’m getting ready for battle to write is clean up my space.  Doing this on the front side minimizes the occurrence of “Well, I can’t think of what to write next, but look, that pile of papers could use a sort-through, that’s very doable.”

It also makes me feel more prepared.  Exercising control over my environment makes me feel more in control of myself.  Which is a good feeling to have when sitting down to write IMHO.

Desk clean, I get into it.

Current battle: the dreaded synopsis

Now there are those of you out there who love writing synopses.  You’re all freaks.  That’s fine, but it isn’t my thing.  Especially when I have to write a 2-5 synopsis for a story I haven’t outlined yet.

This is the to-do item that has taken on Godzilla-like proportions, and of course it’s making a feast of my fear.  Thing is, I’ve never written a synopsis before.  And whenever I approach something I’ve never done before, there’s the possibility hanging over me that I won’t be good at it.  Fortunately, I’ve gotten to the point in the last few years that I acknowledge I’m scared but do it anyway.  In this case, the only thing getting my butt in the chair is the fact that I have to do this.

(Which was the main appeal of doing an MFA, not gonna lie.  I need the damp breath of a drill sergeant on the back of my neck to get me to do things I don’t want to do–like write 25 pages a month and figure out a synopsis for a story I haven’t planned out yet.)

The Battle Plan

Obviously, I’m a list person.  So when I’m panicking about getting stuff done, I make a to-do list.  Only this time, that wasn’t enough.  I needed a comprehensive approach to exactly how I was going to tackle this Godzilla problem.

Fortunately, I know that when I’m stuck like this, the thing to do is bring in outside help.  So I’ve recruited one of the girls I work with, who has no previous knowledge of my story, to sit down with me next week and help me brainstorm the rest of this novel.  A fresh pair of eyes is just what this novel needs.

My goal is to make a first attempt at it myself by this Saturday.  And then work with my friend next week to see what we can come up with.

And of course, this isn’t the only major thing I have to do this month.  I have to write 25 new pages (versus my critique partners, who are working on revising their first 50 pages).  I have to read a craft book (Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig) and write a 700-word response to it.  And write a 700-word self assessment.  The 700-word responses induce only nominal stress.  The 25 new pages and the 2-5 page synopsis are the things that get me.

That’s just for my writing course.  I also have to read two novels this month and write essays for each for my reading course.

Until next week!

Currently playing: Side Effects (feat. Emily Warren) by The Chainsmokers

Currently reading: The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch

Where I’ve Been + What’s Next + Time Management Tips?

June MFA Residency

I had my first MFA residency in June and it was amazing.  Stressful at first, because I didn’t know anyone but everyone already knew each other it seemed, an my little introverted self was trying to look as small as possible without looking like I was trying to look as small as possible.  But by day 2 and with the start of classes, I was thrilled to find that I clicked with everyone in my cohort.

Residency was a week of fun activities–writing, discussing, debating the finer points of Harry Potter character arcs across the lunch table.  I didn’t want to leave; I wanted to hang out with these people forever.  I felt immediately and wholly supported in my work and that has been extremely comforting as I’ve started in on schoolwork.

Time Management

The biggest challenge of this Master’s program so far is time management.  Y’all.  I always rolled my eyes whenever this dorky “time management” thing came up in undergrad.  How hard could it possibly be to get everything done?  Seriously?

I should’ve listened.

In May, I started my job at a bookstore, and one of my courses started immediately after residency (end of June) so my first deadline was the end of July and between work and school, I was struggling.  

I struggled during July while I got my feet under me, and I struggled in August because my second course started, but finally, for this month, I managed to fine tune my time management system (*eye roll*) so that I’m getting things done in a timely manner.

That’s right.  The secret to my time management success?  Math.

For my reading class: I took the page count of every book I have to read for my reading class and gave myself 10 days to read each.  That’s page count / 10 = # of pages to read per day for 10 days.  That page count gets written into my daily log and highlighted yellow (for my reading class).  And when I get it done, I cross it off.  The daily page requirement is only between 35-60 pages depending on the book, and that’s so much more manageable than a vague “be done by this date.”

For my writing:  This was so much trickier, because my writing doesn’t like to get done consistently.  I didn’t want to set a weekly goal, because I’d tried that and it just…didn’t work.  So I told myself, “I can do a page a day.  That’s manageable.”  So in my daily log, I wrote “1/25,” “2/25,” etc.  It didn’t necessarily mean I had to write, but it gave me a rough estimate of where I’d like to be on that particular day going at the rate of one page per day.

This month it turned out okay.  I was still scrambling a little bit towards the end, but I still finished with time to spare instead of cramming right up until deadline.  It’s a process I’m going to repeat next month to see if it’s a viable method.  (Wow, that just happened.  I say “viable method” now?)

What’s Next

Right now, I’m in the last month of my writing course, but only second month of my reading course.  (It’s weird, I know.)  I have so. much. to do for my writing course final.  I’ve already made a list of everything I have to do for October (writing and reading) and broken each task down into smaller tasks.  Now it’s a matter of setting some smaller deadlines and sticking to the plan.

In terms of this blog, I want to share more about my writing life as I’m living it versus a recap every four months.  So I’m going to share weekly updates.  Also, since my writing course will be over at the end of October, I want to do some writing responses during November and December to keep my writing up.  Also, would you like me to do some Q&As?  I’m happy to answer any questions you have about writing or MFA programs!

Currently playing: Through Juniper Vale

Currently reading: The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch