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Weekend Writer: The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier – Chapter Three: Once Upon a Time – Your Best Idea

Hey all, Sam here.

Okay, we are back to the deep dives of this book about beginnings. I’ve already figured out that we’ll get all the way through this book by the end of April, and then I can move on to another book. So, at the end of this month, I’ll probably give a couple options from the books I currently have, and put it to a vote for what will be getting the deep dive breakdown next.

And if you’re new around here, hello and welcome to the Weekend Writer series here on Free State of Geek. On the first Friday of each month I will discuss some element of creative writing and then offer up a few different writing prompts. Then, for the last Friday of each month, it’s time to share a little bit of what we’ve been writing. Every remaining Friday is dedicated to diving into a book on the craft of writing and creating. The book gets broken down into sections or chapters, and I read each chapter, take notes, and present the information here to help all of us consider craft when it comes to our creativity.

For The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell by Paula Munier, you can find Chapter One and Chapter Two already posted. And you can find the March prompt post and the February writing share post up already as well.

I guess we should get started. I think this is going to be a very long post.

Give your story its best start!

The best beginnings possess a magical quality that grabs readers from the first word and never lets them go. But beginnings aren’t just the door into a fictional world. They are the gateway to the realm of publishing–one that could shut as quickly as it opens.

In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors, and captivate readers. You’ll learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on page one, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques, and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot. You’ll also examine the best-selling novels from different genres to learn the secrets that experienced writers use to dive straight into a story.

With thorough examinations of voice, point of view, setting, dialogue and conflict, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings is a must-have tool for luring your readers in with your opening pages–and convincing them to stick around for the ride.

“Writing a book? Hard. Writing the beginning of a book? Rocket science! Strap on your spacesuit, because thanks to Munier’s nuanced, actionable breakdown of every possible aspect of a gripping opening, authors everywhere can now take their books to the stars.” —K.M. Weiland

Chapter Three: Once Upon a Time – Your Best Idea

I’ll be completely honest with you all: this book is starting to feel a little bit like a slog, and there have been several disheartening moments in these first few chapters. If I were reading this just for myself, I would probably toss this aside and move on to something else.

Ideas are the currency of publication. No matter what kind of writer you are or what kind of format you’re writing in–short form or long, print or digital, fiction or nonfiction–if you want to get published, you need good ideas to write.

pg 45

Munier says that ideas have to be strong enough to:

  1. stand apart in a crowded marketplace
  2. sustain a book-length narrative
  3. keep the reader’s attention for hundreds of pages
  4. attract a large, definable audience
  5. justify a profitable price point
  6. compete successfully against best-selling competition
  7. appeal to reviewers, bloggers, and the like
  8. support a long shelf life
  9. lend themselves to follow-up titles
  10. help build the author’s brand

That’s a lot to put on an idea. And Munier continues to say that when she worked in acquisitions she would work with her staff to come up with ideas, and they would come up with thousands of ideas in the hopes that perhaps a couple hundred would be good enough to lead to something that could be sold and printed.

I feel like she has said this a few different times already in this book…that someone could read thousands of beginnings and maybe only find a handful that are worth anything, or come up with thousands of ideas in the hopes that maybe a percentage of them would be good enough. And sure, while it might be nice to be so straightforward in talking about how difficult this path can be, at the same time this just seems very discouraging.

Okay fine, I was going through a filing tote with a bunch of old story ideas I had from 10-15 years ago, and out of the like 100 files I had in there, there’s maybe only 3 or 4 that I’d want to pick up and work on again. The rest don’t have enough meat to them for me, especially where I am in my life now. So I can see where those statistics make sense.

But I was reading this while sitting in Panera the other day and it just really bummed me out. I’ve read over some of my writing, projects that I had shelved for several years, and you know what? They’re still good. Yes, sure, I can see where I can write certain plots or characters or scenes better now, but overall, the story is still good. Actually some of them I got drawn in and wanted to just keep on reading. I’m not a bad writer.

And yet this book is making me feel really bad about my writing.

Top Ten Reasons Ideas Don’t Pass the Pub Board

  1. The idea is too derivative
  2. It’s an article, not a book
  3. It’s a short story, not a book
  4. The idea is too niche to attract a large audience
  5. There’s something too similar out there in the marketplace already
  6. There’s something too similar on the publishing house’s list already
  7. It’s not an idea that people will pay good money for
  8. It’s not an idea that will be easy to market and/or promote
  9. It’s not an idea that will appeal to reviewers, bloggers, etc.
  10. It’s not an idea whose time has come
pg 48

From here Munier goes into a section she says she wrote specifically for the people who got this far and realized that they don’t have a strong story. But let me just take a moment to look at these two lists she’s given us so far this chapter. And look, they both talk about standing out in the market and being unique in comparison to other titles…….BUT I have seen so many books that have a bunch of similarities and only a couple differences, and all of the books seem to find some semblance of an audience.

I can understand saying no to something because the publishing house already has something similar in the pipeline, but that doesn’t mean that my writing or your writing isn’t still good and worthy of being out on the shelves. I think it just means that we might want to look at marketing it differently. Or okay, sure, you could look at the story overall and see if there’s something that can be added in to elevate the story even more.

Munier takes us into this brainstorming section and one of the first methods she gives us–and she does say that some of the ideas might feel a little offbeat–is to simply Pay Attention.

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” – Neil Gaiman

pg 49

I actually love this quote, because it is true. Ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere; we just have to recognize them when we see them or hear them or feel them. Munier gives us a writing exercise on Page 49 that tells you to go to a coffee shop or a diner or a bar, spend 10 minutes sitting and watching, and then spend 10 minutes writing down everything you noticed. This is especially useful in a group setting, like getting together with your writing group, because then you can compare observations.

Munier then also gives the suggestion to meditate, as it will boost creativity. It forces you to pay attention and to focus your mind. She even references a study that suggests that meditating for a half-hour before doing something creative is beneficial because it will improve your idea generation as well as your problem solving abilities.

The next tip is honestly kind of super obvious: Always Have a Notebook Nearby. Of course, this is made a lot simpler these days because we can always open up a notes app on our phones and type up any ideas we have. However, I will say that I prefer having a notebook and a writing utensil. At least, for me, it seems to help the thoughts stick better when I write them more than it does by typing them.

Next is to Take Stock of Your Writing Self. Basically with this one, it isn’t just knowing who you are as a person, but also knowing who you are as a writer. There is a chart on page 52 to help with this part of the process, if you are so interested.

After that, the next brainstorming tip is to Mix It Up. This can be as easy as taking a different route to work or school or to go shopping, or it can be putting different story options on slips of paper and drawing different elements out randomly to put together a story you might not otherwise have come up with. Like have 10 different characters, 10 different settings, and 10 different starter plot ideas. Have each in a different cup or hat or whatever and randomly draw one slip from each hat and then bring them together to start a story.

The following tip is to Play Around.

It’s impossible to be creative when you’re miserable. So many of us are so busy and so stressed and so burdened with too much to do in too little time that we forget to play. We may not even value play much anymore. This is a kind of sabotage, a hindrance to our creativity, a betrayal of our writer’s self. And there’s only one cure: Play!

pg 53

Honestly, I think this might have been part of the issue that started to plague our last D&D group. The Dungeon Master started to go all in on his “side hustle” selling cards and collectibles and he basically let it take over his whole life. He was stressing over things and then he would be tired and get sick and would end up cancelling D&D over and over (at the last minute), and he seemed really stressed and irritable. I think it’s because he started uber-obsessing over work and stopped giving himself time to play and have fun.

Munier recommends setting up “Artists Dates,” where you get together with a friend and just do something fun. It could be as simple as hanging out at a coffee shop or going to a museum or taking a walk in a park. Just remember…bring a notebook with you in case that creativity sparks on the adventure.

The next idea is to Get Silly, and I think that sort of goes hand in hand with Play Around, except this idea is all about bringing the humor. If the ideas don’t flow, find a way to add humor. Stuck in the beginning of a story? Rewrite the scene as a funny scene. See if that shakes the ideas loose. Munier also suggests spending time with little kids, and if you don’t have them you probably have friends or family who do. Play with the kids, make jokes, blow bubbles, play make believe. Being silly is fun and important.

Then Munier gives the brainstorming idea of Keeping an Idea Box. This could be an actual box or a file folder on your computer or a bunch of sticky notes slapped up on the wall…whatever. Basically if you see something or hear something or smell something and you think you might be able to use it in writing later, jot it down. This can even extend to Pinterest and creating idea or mood boards. Go wild. You never know when some random scrap of conversation you heard while waiting in line at McDonald’s might somehow fit perfectly in something you’re writing.

After that, the next idea is to Research for Fun. Pick an element for your story, such as a time period or a setting or a character’s occupation or hobby, and just do a deep dive on researching all about it. Delve deep into all those details and see how that knowledge can help to expand your writing.

The next brainstorming idea is simply to Hang Out with Other Creative People. I feel like this is something that has been covered a few times already in this book, the importance of having a creativity or writing group around you, people who will challenge you and inspire you, people who you challenge and inspire as well. While a lot of writing is sort of solitary, it doesn’t all have to be.

I used to set up a lot of writing events during NaNoWriMo, and folks from my region would all come together and hang out for a few hours. It was supposed to be to write, and sure we did a good amount of that, all sitting together with notebooks and laptops, together but separate. And sometimes we would just talk, and by being around others going through the same chaos (writing 50,000 words in 30 days), we had people who could help us with any plot holes or speed bumps or who could just listen while we commiserated. It was a good time.

The next two ideas were Take a Walk and Exercise Regularly. The one is more casual and more about how studies show that walking can improve idea generation. I do like going for walks, particularly in parks, although now I live in a town that is mostly walkable, so I do a lot of walking to the store or the post office or whatever. And the exercise one talks about how regular exercise can actually help to literally strengthen your brain, which is useful for holding onto more thoughts and memories and ideas, so if you want to keep building on that, then you should focus on at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise a few times a week.

After that Munier talks about how we’re all getting to sedentary, and how writing is mostly seen as a sit-down activity…but her productivity has gone way up by switching to a standing desk and working that way.

Look, I’ve spent more than the last dozen years working in various jobs that were predominately standing and moving around…I’m talking on my feet for 8-16 hours a day. I don’t want to stand up at a desk in order to write my novels. That would be supremely uncomfortable to me. But I do think those desks that you can switch from a seated desk to a standing desk are very cool, and would absolutely be useful to someone. That someone just isn’t me.

Would you believe that after all of this that I’m only halfway through the chapter? Yep. That’s it. There was a lot to say in this one.

The next few ideas are: Relaxing Fuels Your Creativity, Do Something Else, and Go To Sleep. I’m going to group them together because that makes sense to me. But I also feel that we’ve basically touched on these already. When we talked about making time to have fun and being silly, I think that’s pretty much the same as relaxing fueling creativity. When we have fun doing other things then sometimes we end up sparking that creative desire in our minds and find ourselves wanting to write and create. And of course, sleep is super important. I’ll also say that I do some of my best plotting and brainstorming and such in the bathroom. Yes, sometimes that means long showers or baths, but sometimes it’s just me sitting on the toilet. No judgment. Do what works for you.

The next idea to help with brainstorming, according to Munier, is to Let the Sun Shine In, because doing creative things in nature helps to boost creative thoughts. I’ll also say that this one is one that I do sometimes use in my own life, even if I’m staying inside my home. I have changed all of the lightbulbs in my house to daylight bulbs. Research shows that this imitation sunlight is immensely helpful in getting rid of those winter blues, and I know that they definitely help boost my mood. I also like to have my screensavers on my computers and TVs be an album of various nature scenery photos.

Finally, Be Happy. Because happy people generate more ideas than unhappy people. Unhappiness impedes creativity. Look y’all, sometimes we just feel upset or hurt or sad…and we can channel those emotions out into writing too. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE HAPPY IN ORDER TO WRITE!!! I have had some incredibly moving and powerful short stories come out of me being very sad or very angry, and writing them all down, channeling the emotions into characters, helped me to process what I was feeling and move on. It’s okay to feel how you feel. And remember that earlier suggestion of an idea box? Maybe some of your feelings can be jotted down and recalled at a later time if you need it for a story.

There’s still 12 pages left in this chapter…but you know what, most of it is Munier taking examples from published works and showing off how to find great ideas for stories, and how to summarize those ideas in a word or a few words to come up with a title that will be informative but also grab interest…and if you pick up this book yourself, then you can check out all of those examples for yourself.

This post has already gotten SUPER long.

And that is all from me for today. Thank you so much for stopping by and I’ll be back soon with more geeky content.


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