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.

How to Start Writing: for Beginners

Photo by Valentin Antonucci from Pexels

“Even though the future seems far away, it is actually beginning right now.”  -Mattie Stepanek

The scariest thing about writing is getting started.  I hope that this post helps mitigate some of those fears you have, and if you found it bolstering, comment and let me know!

I’m one of those writers who has been writing since I was a kid, so I consider myself “self-taught.”  But you may be a bit older, in your teens or well into your adulthood and you want to try out this “writing thing.”

I’ve made a list of tips to help you start on your writing journey.  And it may be helpful to our veteran writers, as well.

Buy a notebook and get to work filling it up.

*Take into consideration that this notebook should be a) something you can carry around with you easily in case opportunity arises and b) something you can easily write in i.e. hardcover v. softcover, 3.5” x 5.5” or 5” x 7”

But, fill it with what?

  • Ideas — character sketches, descriptions that come to you, plot points
  • Lists — things you like (in stories, in life, etc.)
    • A neat warmup exercise is Ray Bradbury’s association technique. This is also a great way to build up a repository of descriptions.  It can also double as inspiration pages.
  • Doodles — let your brain relax for a minute, you never know what’ll happen
  • Quotes — from TV, books, or (my favorite) life

How often should you write in it?

However often works for you.

I don’t write in mine every day; I never make a point to, because that doesn’t work for me. Instead, I have it at hand when I’m reading or watching a show so that if something comes to me (a snazzy piece of dialogue, a line of description, or a plot idea), I can write it down.

Try making it a goal to write in it every day in the beginning, though, just to get a feel for it.

How should I organize it?

I organize mine by date. I found that I really liked the satisfaction of flipping back through and seeing when I came up with an idea.

I also use highlighters to categorize things, but right now, I only have one highlighter color in use: green, to make it easy to find things I’ve marked as “potential titles.”

Final tip: Make it something appealing to write in

This means that, if getting a notebook with gilded edges psyches you out, don’t get the gilded edges.  

This means that you can dip into your childlike impulses and decorate the hell out of it with stickers.  And who needs much more of a reason to use stickers?  (I personally use stickers and washi tape.)

Don’t be afraid to use different colored pens, either.  I don’t like the pressure of making it “look good” with the different colors and I also don’t like discontinuity, so I have a single pen that I use for writing in it.  It’s a dark, bold ink pen that gives me a deep sense of satisfaction when I flip through the pages.  But if you want a rainbow, taste the damn rainbow.

Join NaNoWriMo

This may seem a weird piece of advice to one who hasn’t written much before, but here’s why doing NaNoWriMo will help you:

    • There’s a huge community to keep you accountable and encourage you to keep going
    • You can’t take yourself too seriously if you’re trying to write a “novel” in 30 days and this is essential to beginning life as a writer
    • By the end of it, you will have a huge pile of writing you didn’t have 30 days ago, which is a huge confidence booster if you’re just starting out
    • By the end of it, you will have a huge pile of writing to do something with, which is considerably more comforting a thought than you might think
    • By the end of it, you will have a huge pile of writing you can do absolutely nothing with, which is also incredibly liberating
    • NaNo is so inherently messy that–believe me–the mess you’ll make will go completely unnoticed
    • It’s the perfect chance for you to stretch muscles you’ve never used before and a way of getting all the soreness done with on the front side

Go to your favorite authors’ websites and start soaking

Sometimes you won’t find their websites, or their websites are crap.  That’s fine.  Don’t linger; move onto the next one.  If you’re a writer, odds are you’re a reader, so you have a whole backlog of other authors to choose from.

A lot of websites I go to have a section “For Writers” or “Writing Advice.”  Check those out.  After a while, you’ll start to realize that they’re all giving mostly the same advice.  You’re now becoming familiar with the fundamentals of writing: the things those on the “inside” know.

A few other, small ways to Soak

On your preferred social media platforms, start following some writers you admire and writing advice accounts that appeal to you.  I used to do all this on Twitter and Instagram, but then I got into Pinterest and haven’t looked back since.  Talk about idea fodder.  I have hundreds of pins on my “writing inspiration” board and I separate it out into different sections, one for story prompts, story mechanics, aesthetic, etc.  

Visit your local bookstore and take a look through the writing reference section.  Browse the table of contents of ones that appeal to you, making note of the topics they cover.

Start going to book signings in your area.  It doesn’t really even matter if you’ve heard of them or not or what genre they write.  Go, get a feeling for what they’re like.  Ask some questions like, “What’s your writing process like?”  Or “How did you get the idea for this book?”

Write as often as you can

This doesn’t have to be every day but if you want to be a writer, make an effort, because you won’t learn anything in theory.

Pay attention to your emotions and mindset as you approach writing

Frustration is part of the process.  It just means you’re in between what Elizabeth Gilbert calls “the bright spots.”  The sum of it is that you will have great days, but more than likely, they will be few and far between.  Show up to your creative work anyway.  You didn’t sign up because it was going to be easy; you signed up because you believe it’s worth it.

You’ll soon pick up the language of your emotions.  By writing every day one summer, I realized that there are two things behind “I don’t want to write today.”  The most common one was I was just lazy or afraid, and I deemed those excuses not good enough to keep me from writing.  Then I started realizing that, sometimes, “I don’t want to write today” means I shouldn’t write today because otherwise, something bitter will start to grow in my attitude towards my project.  I found that I had to take a day off every 10 days or so, otherwise I started to burn out and something would start to fester in my creative soul.

Establish a routine and/or find someone/thing to hold you accountable

This may not work for everyone.  For me, now, it isn’t a question whether I’ll write, it’s how quickly am I going to write.  I use alpha readers to keep myself accountable.  Having a pack of bloodthirsty close friends that hang around me asking, “Where’s the next chapter?” is the perfect amount of motivation for me.

If you’re just starting, discipline will seriously help you out.  The faster you learn discipline, the better.  What shape this takes is up to you, but the result should be that you Show Up–whatever works that gets you to the pen, the keyboard, even when inspiration is sunning itself on a beach somewhere.

Prepare for the marathon

Quantity alone doesn’t beget quality, but is, IMHO, a major ingredient.  Like anyone who’s tried to master something knows, you have to practice a ton before you start getting good.  And!  You have to mess up a ton, too.

There’s a beauty in this, though, because it means that all the mess you make when first start is completely normal and everyone does it.  It probably won’t feel that way at first.  It’ll feel like everyone writes better than you do.  Truth is?  Not true.  Think about all the people right now who aren’t writing, who aren’t working on getting better.

Not only that, but the published writing you’re reading is like magazine covers: edited to within an inch of its life and bears only a passing resemblance to what it was before.  This doesn’t mean that your writing can’t get that way: it just means that your writing won’t look like that on the first go.

I hope this post has helped you!  Take a deep breath.  Go ahead and write.  You’ll be okay. :)

If you want a reason to write right now, check out my 30 Day Restart Challenge prompt list and see if anything there takes your fancy.  I’m right there with you, stretching those writing muscles.