Sunday, June 30, 2013

Poll: How Do You Discover Books?

As everyone knows, I'm trying to transition from writing my book to selling my book.  That's hard for me, because I'm not a salesman and I feel about as wise as toe jam in this arena.  So this week has been all about gathering information.  But as I sort through platform-building and agent-researching, a more simple thought has caught my attention.

How do people get their books?  How do they find them and what makes them buy them?

It's not like buying soap after all.  Books are extremely personal.

I always start by analyzing myself, in this case, looking at the way I buy books.  But that only goes so far.  So I'm going to try something different and do a quick poll of my friends and family, especially those who read within my genre.  I'll collect data and try to analyze it.

I've never done this before, so I guess it will be an experiment.  :)

Poll!  Poll!  Poll!

1. How many fiction books/ novellas do you read a year?

2. How do you find new books?  Be as specific as possible and list websites, if any.

3. How does a book first catch your eye?

4. After getting your attention, what makes you decide to buy/ read a book?

5. Is feeling like you know the author important?  If so, what ways do you get to know them?

6. List your top 10 favorite fiction books at this time and how you discovered them.

Thank you.

Example Answers (Filled-In By Me)

1. How many fiction books/ novellas do you read a year?

Sigh.  I used to read more.  Right now, I'm probably lucky to read 1 a month.  So, 12.  (Hangs head in shame.)

2. How do you find new books?  Be as specific as possible and list websites, if any.

The Brea Library and used bookstore.
Barnes and Noble bookstore.
Recommendations and loans from friends.

3. How does a book first catch your eye?

If I'm browsing, the cover art and title are important.  Same thing for Amazon, except I'm also paying attention to the star count.  If someone is recommending a book to me, I listen to the summary (to see if it's something I'm interested in) and gauge the enthusiasm of the speaker.

4. After getting your attention, what "seals the deal" for you to decide to buy/ read a book?

I want to know what makes the story different or interesting.  Once I bought a book that talked about the children of Lucifer and an angel and promised "an epic custody battle."   On the other hand, if I come across too many cliches, I put the book back.

The author's prose is also important.  I like to scan the first few pages.  If the prose seems unprofessional, confusing, or dull, I won't read it.

If someone recommends a book, I want as many details about the story as possible.  My mom actually gave away the ending to the Lord of the Rings and it only made me want to read it more.

Four-and-a-half star reviews on Amazon.

5. Is feeling like you know the author important?  If so, what ways do you get to know the author?

If I happen to be friends with an author or if hear them speak and find their premise intriguing, I'm willing to at least give the book a glance.  But I'll usually only buy/ read it if it's something I'm interested in.

Other than that, I don't care.  I get to know the author through their writing.  A good story is the most important thing.

6. List your top 10 favorite fiction books at this time and how you discovered them.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Recommended.  My mother basically gave a (brief) summary of the novels during car rides.  I dug it up at the library in 6th grade and was a fan ever since.

2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
Recommended.  Again, this came from my mother.  She told me about it.  Later I found it in the library in junior high. Read it and loved it.

3. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Browsed.  I found this book in the public library in high school.  I liked the title and the cover art intrigued me somehow.  The summary sounded iffy, but since it was just a library loan, I thought I'd give it a shot.  Read it in 2 days.

4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Amazon.  I think my Amazon account recommended it to me directly.  I was living in Japan and desperate for English books.  It sounded too much like Battle Royale, but the high star count persuaded me.  Since then, I've personally gotten a cousin and an aunt hooked on the series.

5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
Recommended.  My friend in college told me the plot (which, surprisingly, was not a fusty tome about racism but a cute little romance) and loaned it to me.

6. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Amazon.  In Japan, I browsed the fantasy section and I noticed this book kept coming up and that it had a high star count.  The back cover says, "Once a hero arose to save the world.  [...] He failed."  That struck me as different and intentionally playing against fantasy stereotypes.

7. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Inherited.  Found it among the books left behind by my predecessor in my apartment in Japan.  I liked the title and cover art.  A few pages in, and I was hooked.

8. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Browsed.  I was introduced to Agatha Christie by my aunt in 6th grade, but I found it too difficult for me at that time.  Later, I started reading her again.  I got on an Agatha Christie kick while in Japan.  I bought several of her books, but this was my favorite.

9. The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
Browsed.  Found it in an English bookshelf in Japan.  (Did a lot of reading there.)  The cover art intrigued me.  The snarky voice of the narrator on page 2 and the weird but wonderful footnotes sealed the deal.

10. Ella Enchanted by Rachel Carson Levine
YouTube.  I randomly stumbled upon a YouTube video of a girl reading the first chapter.  The whole thing was a cover of the book and a disembodied voice.  But the prose was so lovely and the first chapter was so good, I got hooked.  I had to buy the book for myself to see what happened.

After I get the results, I'll post it in one of my blogs.

By the way, if any of my readers want to participate, you can email me your answers to my poll at  Or you can post in the comments, if you like.  I'm especially interested in any out-of-the-ordinary methods, but any info is useful.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Weekly Update: 6-28-13

This is my excuse for not writing: it's hot.  The heat languors and without air-conditioning, all I can do is plant myself underneath a painstakingly slow-moving fan, hoping for the mild wafts of relief.  My sinuses are blown, the house is a mess (we're cleaning out the garage), and I have yet to actually put together a work schedule.  How on earth am I supposed to get anything done?

Whine, whine, whine.

I can give all the excuses I want, but the truth is that life has been barreling at me full-speed ahead, and I'm doing everything in my power to slow it down.  To that end, I've been reading and reflecting. I've gone through several writers magazines and websites in search of advice, I've re-read and re-organized my 500-page rough draft of my second novel, and I've done pages of self-reflection on my future.  Even so, I don't feel like I've actually been productive. 

Thinking is hard.  Trying to take an honest look at your life is painful and deciding your future is scary.  It's so tempting to play Candy Crush or watch Chopped and not deal with these issues, to stay up late, sleep in, and let myself be lazy.  It's so hard to motivate myself when I'm hot and sweaty and I don't want to move.

I guess I'll have to keep at it.

On the bright side, I got to watch Monster's University today.  While I don't think it has the same heart and humor as the first one, the climax was pretty awesome.  When Mike and Sully had their big heart-to-heart moment, I was touched.  I would recommend it.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Fears of Finishing

Just about 10:00 PM on Monday night, I finished my novel.  

What sort of emotions would you expect a young writer to feel about her first great accomplishment?  Joy.  Relief.  Maybe a tinge of sorrow.  Well, I felt none of those things.  I felt like I was just finishing up another chapter.  I was hollow and a bit perplexed as to what to do next.  So I went to bed.

That night I couldn't sleep.  My insomnia gave me the first clue as to what my real feelings on finishing were.  Anxiety.

And why not?  After 9 1/2 years, 7 workshops and an independent study, 2 dozen reference books, 7 completed fanfictions, 14 short stories, 2 NaNoWriMos, 100 blog posts, thousands of pages, and countless mistakes, I think I know how to write.  But I knew nothing about publishing.

Two things you should do after completing a major project: celebrate and reflect.  While I've yet to celebrate, the wave of barely-suppressed panic told me I needed to reflect.  So, in this last week, I've been taking a close look at my fears and trying to form a plan.

What comes next isn't pretty, organized, or helpful.  It's just me dealing with my fears in their raw, natural state.

Fear # 1: What if no one wants to read my story?  

Some people write for themselves.  I don't.  I write because I want other people to read my stories.  And it kills me when people don't.  The worst insult you could give to my story is to call it boring.  And so I crammed my fantasy with as much epic-ness as I could squeeze into it.

But what if it's not enough?

Or maybe it's too much.  It's too long.  It's too complex.  It's too confusing.  People don't want a gourmet meal, they just want candy: something bright and shiny, easily consumed and thrown away.  Maybe I was too ambitious.  Maybe my soufflĂ© fell flat.

My mom can't seem to read my story.  She tries and puts it down.  But she likes happy little stories in the vein of Anne of Green Gables.  My dad, on the other hand, who actually reads SF, raves about my story.  He says it goes down quick, it's full of twists, and its spoiled all other fantasy for him.

So I know there is an audience for my book, but that it's probably not for everyone.  This fear is nonsense.  What I really want to know is whether all my close friends and family will enjoy my book.  The answer is probably no.  But I have to get beyond that.  If some people don't like my book, it doesn't mean my story is bad or fundamentally flawed.  It just might not be their taste.

Fear # 2: What if I fail to sell it?

There are people out there who will definitely want to read my story.  The question is, how do I now deliver that product to them?  Also, is my audience large enough that I can actually make a living off this?

I never felt guilty about the idea of making money of my work.  My dream is to be a full-time writer, and that means getting paid.   Lately, my life is a seesaw between making money and reserving enough time to meet the demands of my stories.  As a sub, I have flexible hours, but I do not make a livable wage.  I depend on the rent-free habitation of family members' houses.  That can't last.  So I might have to become a teacher.  But that means that my extra time will first go to obtaining a credential and then grading/ prepping for class.  If I do find time to write, it will be limited.

Unless, of course, I can sell my story.

But can I sell?  I cringe at that.  The idea of forcing a product onto someone is just repulsive to my personality.  At the same time, the American culture not only condones this sort of behavior, but actually snorts with derision if you are unable to do it.  And here stand I, utterly incompetent at money-making.  I feel ignorant and pathetic.

I have actually been researching marketing for a while.  But nothing seems to stick.  It's like that time in college when I stupidly signed up for a class on quantum mechanics.  I could comprehend the words and faintly understand the ideas.  But when I tried to imagine how, for example, string theory applied to the universe and to me, that's when my brain exploded.  That's the same thing with sales for me, except without the "smart person" gloss to make it less humiliating.

I'm afraid I'm not good enough to get this done, and I have no real-life experience to dispute this assumption.

Fear # 3: What if I succeed at this book but can't get the sequel out fast enough?

Ten years is too long a time to push out a book, even if it is an 800-page monster.  Fortunately, I can attribute some of that wasted time to mistakes and learning experiences.  Hopefully, I'll be faster the second time around.

But avoiding old mistakes is no guarantee I won't make new ones.  And now the clock will be ticking against me.  What if I cave under pressure?  What if I break?

As much as I fear failure, I also fear success.  I fear the expectations.  Raising the bar too high and too publicly, only to trip and crash and be laughed at.  While still a nobody, I'm anonymous.  If I become somebody, then all eyes are upon me, waiting for me to fail.  I don't want to disappoint anyone, but that too will be inevitable.

Fear #4: More hard work  

Who's afraid of hard work?  It seems laughable.  Maybe hard work is unpleasant, but you grit your teeth and do it.

And then they give you more work.  And more work.  Until the vibrancy of life leeches away and you feel like you're caught by the throat, choking, your freedom buried under a mountain of tasks.

I think my generation has a good reason to fear too much work.  I, for one, have witnessed my mom watching kids from 7:00-7:00 at our home daycare and then working a part-time job at Mervyns after that.  My dad still does crushing two hour commutes each way to work, leaving the house at 5:00 AM and return at 7:00 PM.  

The culture just seems to demand it.  If you aren't working twelve to fourteen hour days, you're just being lazy.

I don't mind work.  I get antsy when I'm not writing.  Still, when I think of the grueling demands of publicizing--blog everyday, tweet your fans, social media, book signing, etc.--I start to feel dead inside.  I imagine myself running from meaningless little task to meaningless little task, all my energy and intelligence ground to dust, and I cringe.

Fear # 5: Loneliness

I know others have gone before me.  I'm even lucky enough to know published writers.  And yet, when it comes to me and my specific book, I feel that none of it applies.  I feel alone.

It's not that no one has ever published a book.  It's that I've never done it.

I'm like a mountaineer.  Before me lies a rugged, yet neatly kept trail, marked with signs at intervals.  In my backpack, I have a map, a guidebook, and as many supplies as I can hold.  I'm prepared.  Yet, as I stand here, all I can feel is the vast expanse of wilderness between me and the top.

My guidebook has told me what to do if I meet a bear.  But I can't envision myself plucking up the courage to scare one off.  What if I get lost?  What if I run out of water?  The mountain has sent many home in defeat?  Will I be one?  I wish I had my own personal guide, to show me how its done and protect me from harm.  But I don't.  The wind whips through the long grass, and I'm alone.

* * *

Interestingly enough, allowing myself to feel and manifest my own fears gives them less power over me.  After reflecting, I found I could take action, whereas before I was paralyzed.   I took out all my notes and resources and realized I knew a lot more than I realized about publishing.

In the days to come, I will continue to plan and prepare myself.  I know it will be long and difficult, and I will make mistakes.  I just hope I have the determination, persistence, and courage to pull through.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Manzanar Picnic

Twenty-eight rice balls,
Packed with spam, wrapped in nori.
A bucket of cold KFC.
Grapes, chips, and cold lemon tea.
Hisashiburi, ne?
How many ages have passed
Since the last family picnic?
Swapping licorice on the park bench,
Shaded by river trees,
While the rest of the desert crashes
Into the Sierra Nevada mountains.

But in the hot, cramped mess halls
Of Manzanar,
They ate "Slop Suey" and cringed
At Jello dumped on steamed rice.
The chatter of plates and chewing teeth
Shattered that civilized ritual.
Conversation died.
Children shunned adults
And ganged up in their own tables.

How strange then
That this quiet tragedy
Of broken families
Has brought us all together.
On a sunny Saturday,
We eat riceballs
In a place where barbed wire
Lies on the other side of the river.

--June 22, 2013

Friday, June 21, 2013

Weekly Update: 6-21-13

It's done.

My novel.  The baby I've been nuturing for nine and a half years.  On Monday, I finished editing the last chapter--which, ironically enough, was Chapter 1.  I feel I've gotten as far as I could go with the story by myself.   Any other corrections will require help. So, with a twitch in my stomach, I send it off to my Beta readers.

There's been a lot of conflicting emotion with finishing my novel.  I've been reflecting on it and I'll probably write more extensively on it in the next few days.

In the meantime, school's out and I've been torn by the desire to do nothing and the desire to do everything.  My aunt and I have started cleaning the garage, rendering the living room a mess.  It is part maze, part fort of cardboard boxes and all I can say is that I really hope I'm not standing in the middle of it when an earthquake strikes.  I've also done Beta reading and brainstorming.  Today I'm celebrating my dad's birthday and tomorrow I'm going to Manzanar.

It should be fun.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Character Archetypes: The Banished Prince

Sometimes, when I read or watch movies, I come across a character I think is awesome.  And then I notice a character in a story I'm writing is actually very similar.  And maybe I see another character in a T.V. show.  Clearly, I'm attracted to this type.  But why?

Last December, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey arrived in theaters, and being a Tolkien buff, I had to go see it at least twice.  Though I liked Bilbo and Gollum, as expected, the real break-out character for me was Thorin, the dwarf prince.  I found his tragic backstory, regal demeanor, and growing friendship with Bilbo compelling.

Then, this spring, I sat down to watch the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Naturally, I noticed Prince Zuko, the scarred firebending prince, who starts off pursuing the protagonists with Javert-like intensity, before slowly evolving into an anti-hero.

What do these very different characters have in common?

They are both fit he archetype I like to call "Banished Prince."

And what does that mean?  Well, before I explain it, let's take a closer look at the characters.

The Characters In-Depth

Thorin Oakenshield 

Thorin's grandfather was once the dwarf King of Ereborn (aka the Lonely Mountain), until the dragon Smaug flew, burned the lands, and stole the treasure hoard for himself.  Forced to abandon his home, Thorin has carved out a decent life for in other lands.  But his long lost gold calls to him.  He begins the principle quest to reclaim the long lost treasure, enlisting thirteen dwarves, a wizard, and one lucky hobbit.

Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation 

Zuko is the son of Fire Lord Ozai, a bloodthirsty conqueror bent on world domination.  When he innocently questioned his father's methods, Ozai scarred his son and banished him.  Zuko's only chance of returning home is to capture (or kill) the elusive Avatar, a boy named Aang.  Zuko pursues Aang and his friends relentlessly, convinced that this is the only way to restore his lost honor.

Both characters are born into prestige and wealth.  They expect to continue their way of life, at the very least.  Then, all of a sudden, everything they had, everything they hoped for is lost.  They are ejected from their home, striped of power, and left to fend for themselves. But rather than sit and sulk, they decide to reclaim their birthright.  The obstacles they face seem insurmountable--yet they plow into them headlong.

This is the "Banished Prince" in a nutshell.

As they start their quest for restoration and redemption, they start to exhibit similar characteristics.  Qualities that they will help and hinder them on their quest.

Personality Traits


When you start off as one of the privileged few, pride is a natural quality.  But even if you take away all the titles, a residue of arrogance remains, a defense mechanism of sorts.  If they didn't feel they deserved their former life, they wouldn't fight so hard to reclaim it.  So they stick their noses in the air just a bit and are aloof if not rude to others.  The universe, of course, does not allow such blatant pride to go unpunished.  Expect lessons in humility to be thrust upon them.  Whether or not they learn from them, is up to the character.


Their honor is what justifies their pride.  It's what makes them princes.  They have very high standards of behavior, which they hold themselves and others to.  Like pride, this is one of the very few things salvaged from their former life.  Unlike pride, honor tends to be a more positive trait.  While the audience might cheer for the prince's loss of pride, they secretly want them to hold onto their honor.  It's what makes them sympathetic, even admirable.

Stubbornness/ Determination

If you choose to pursue an impossible quest to regain your throne, you'd better be determined.  On the positive side, determination usually goes hand in hand with persistence and these characters will stick to their quest, come hell or high water.  On the negative side, stubbornness can also cause the character to fail to learn from his mistakes, to stick to bad decisions, and to fall into the same blind spots over and over.  It may also grate on those trying to help him.

Haunted by the Past

This archetype comes standard-equipped with a tragic backstory.  There is no way to happily lose your home.  Though the character may or may not bring up the past, it is clearly important to him as it drives all his decisions.  But can the past really be restored?  And if it can, is it worth the years of pain and suffering?  This can easily lead to an internal conflict.  Will the character accept that some things can never fully be reclaimed?


On the surface, you'd think this character's ending would be simple: either he regains his throne or he doesn't.  Either he fails or succeeds.  But if you've read The Hobbit or seen Avatar you know that rarely is it so neat and tidy.  The banished prince is a complex character.  Depending on where his journey takes him and what lessons he learns, his story could end with:

Redemption: Hard work and sacrifice pays off.  The prince restores his position, regains his honor, and possibly becomes king. 

Epiphany: The prince realizes that he is seeking the wrong thing.  He turns off his path and goes after a new goal.

Tragedy: The prince cannot let go of his past and/ or pride.  By stubbornly clinging to it, he loses everything all over again.

Growth: The prince is able to adapt to his new situation.  He is stronger, more humble, and/ or wiser for it.

My Thoughts

From a writer's point of view, the banished prince hits the character development trifecta: an interesting background story, clear motivation, and internal conflict.  Oddly enough, though, they are rarely the main character.

I have my own reasons for being fascinated with the banished prince archetype: I'm writing one myself.  Not to give to much away, but his mother's the head of a crumbling regime and he anticipates losing his position soon.  What actually happens, though, takes him by surprise.

In the end, though, the banished prince is more of a situation you put the character in.  It does not and should not fully define the character himself.  Who the character is and who they become depends on their choices and their personality.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Weekly Update: 6-14-13

Thursday was my grandma's memorial service.

It was a little strange coming to Desert View without Grandma.  Normally, we went with her in little pockets to clean Grandpa's "grave" (actually a plaque--he was cremated) and put flowers in the vase.  Afterwards, we'd usually go out to eat, and Grandma would treat.  It seemed odd for her not to be here.

The service began at 6:00.  By 5:50 every chair in the room was taken and the cousins (me included) all had to stand by the wall.  My uncle was mc.  My sister read Grandma's personal history, and Mom gave the eulogy.  Her voice cracked at the end.  The cousins--all grandkids of Alice Toyama--put red roses at vase near her frame and gave testimonies of her, tales of eating out with her, playing games, living and bickering in the same house, admiring her.  I read my poem.

At the end of the ceremony, everyone was invited up to place a red rose in the vase or at the foot of her framed picture.  I felt really touched, seeing all the roses. They were were favorite flower and seeing so many really symbolized to me how much she was loved.

Afterewards, we went to my aunt's house for the reception and it was sort of like a block party or a family reunion.  We filled both living rooms, the kitchen, and the front yard, eating meatballs and cookies and crescent roll sandwiches and little pies stuffed with mushrooms.  In a sad yet poignant way, Grandma had brought us together.  I could hardly remember the names of half the relatives, yet there was no need.  There was a good feeling in the air, a time of closeness and memory.

It feels like a transitional time.  My grandma passed only a week before my youngest cousin was to graduate high school.  My brother's having a baby.  I'm finishing up my novel.  I really hope that sadness has passed from this year, leaving the best yet to come.  As we go through these changes, I know Grandma will be looking down on us, hand in hand with Grandpa, smiling.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

To Grandma, From Becky

All those times you sat waiting so patiently
At the bench outside Barnes and Noble while I
Read through three books. I just couldn't decide,
So you slipped me money and said to "Go buy."

Thank you.

And thank you for telling me the secret trick
To your cucumber salad. I'll never forget
It's to soak them in salt water for an hour.
Mine will never taste as good as yours does, I bet.

I'm grateful.

At restaurants you piled your food on our plates,
And we never could wrangle the check from your hand.
You display all our art, and you say you're so proud
Of my story, which I know you don't quite understand.

I love you.

Your voice on the phone sounds so bright as you say
"Yasashii mago."  And I call you "kawaii."
For years you took care of me. I only hope
To take care of you, make you smile.  I'll try.

Thank you.
I'm grateful.
I love you.

In Memory of Alice Hisako Toyama, October 28, 1928~June 8, 2013

Weekly Update: 6-8-13

She didn't feel dead.  When I picked up my grandma's hand, the skin was not stiff like I imagined or cold.  Her fingers moved as I held them, just a bit.  She didn't seem pale, either.  She looked like she might have been sleeping, except for her eyes.  Maybe it was the way her black lashes formed dark slits, but it made her face look like a mask, with no one behind it.

My grandma's death was not a surprise.  On Sunday, Mom called and told me that Grandma was fading fast.  The whole week I listened to my phone with a sense of dread, waiting for that call.  The anxiety hit worst in the still of the night.  As I tried to form my schedule for the week, I wondered if I ought to plan for her death.  It seemed callous.  I instead decided to carry on as if nothing was wrong.  When I wrote my weekly letter to her, it was as if she were healthy and nothing was wrong.

Then on Thursday, after a long day of subbing, writing, and volunteering, my mom called me and my sister and advised us to come up at once.  The whole family was gathered at Grandma's house like it was a very solemn get-together.  Grandma lay in bed.  She wasn't lucid and couldn't really talk, so we held her hand and talked to her about the good times.   

Grandma passed away on Saturday morning.  We said our last goodbyes as the hospice workers took her away.  "Goodbye, watshino itsumo kawaii obaachan," I said.  (Goodbye, my always cute Grandma.)  I didn't cry when I saw the body, but stepping in her empty room, I did tear up a bit.  She kept all our artwork on the wall: pictures of her and grandpa with letters saying how much we loved them.  

I looked at the pohoto of when she was healthy: with her salt and pepper hair pinned up in 50s curls, her bright eyes, and dazzling smile.  That's how I will always remember her.  Not as she died, but as she lived.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Brainstorming, Part 4: "I Have Nothing to Work With"


For the last three weeks, we've looked at ways a writer might get stuck and how to use brainstorming to get un-stuck.  Two weeks ago, we discussed how to find your problem and last week we looked at ways to come up with a solution.  Where can we go from here?  Well...

The Problem

You don't really have a problem.  A problem implies elements of your story aren't cooperating.  You don't have those elements to begin with.  You have nothing: a pristine notebook and a white flickering word document.


At this stage, you need to gather as many ideas as you can and find ways to integrate them into your story.  Ideas can come from anywhere.  Whenever you learn or play or think or feel--that's when an idea is ready to hatch--and I encourage you to search for your own sources of inspiration.  Below are some of the methods that have worked for me.

Define Your Aspirations

What kind of story do you want to write?

A good story, you reply.

Well, what's in a good story?  There are, of course, the broad strokes: fascinating characters, a compelling plot, tight prose.  But this is about the specifics?  What elements do you like?  Romance?  Family drama?  Dragons?  What gets you excited?  What makes you want to keep reading?

On the reverse end, what do you absolutely hate in a story?  Predictable prophecies?  Magic that's overly powerful?  Damsels in distress?  Do the exact opposite.  For example, I really hate stupid heroes who impulsively charge into danger and triumph because the story gods say they must.  My heroes are usually smart and thoughtful, they tend to be cautious, and they make lots of mistakes.

When you define your aspirations, you define what you want your story to be.  This creates a rough map to guide the direction where your writing will or will not go.


It goes without saying that if your story's main idea for includes a very tangible point, i.e., a scientific idea, a specific setting, etc., you really ought to research it.  But while you're out hitting the libraries for books on genetic engineering or Prohabition era New York, keep your eye out for any other books catch your eye.  These books might appear to have nothing to do with your story, but for some reason, they call to you.

Listen to their siren voices.

Pick them up.  Scan them.  Read them.

When your mind is in brainstorming mode, your subconscious will act as a compost heap.  It's not picky; it will accept almost anything organic.  If you think what you're reading has nothing to do with your story and cannot be integrated in any way, you've seriously underestimated the power of your brain to make connections.

I used research on 19th century pre-Meiji Japan to develop a character for my novel.  I used a psychology books on family secrets for an Inception-like short story.  Information on Byzantine Greece found its way into a children's fairy tale novel.

Everything is up for grab.  And the more counterintuitive the source, the more original the idea will seem.


Traveling to Japan midway through my junior semester in college inspired me like nothing else and transformed the way I wrote.  Living in a foreign country shattered my assumptions on what was normal.  I had to communicate on a primal level and observe the world with new sensitivity.  In the first two months, I wrote pages and pages of description.  In the second two months, I learned to hone in on only the most necessary details.

Now, obviously, if you have enough money to travel to a foreign country or find yourself with an opportunity to go abroad, lucky you.  If not, perhaps you can go on a local trip or find some way to make the same old place a new experience.  The point is to step out of your comfort zone.  Trigger that fear and excitement.  Observe with all your senses.  Learn not from a book but from an experience.

A few caveats.  First of all, be sure to immerse yourself in the process as much as possible.  Don't go to Yosemite and spend the whole time on a tour bus.  Get out and hike.

Second, be mindful and sensitive to everything you experience.  Especially, the negatives.  I distinctly recall the feeling of getting lost in a foreign country, over and over again.  It became a plot point in my novel.

But don't just rely on your memory.  Write it down.  Keep messy journals and take lots of photos.  While you're in the moment, experience it fully.  When you get home (or to your hotel), be prepared to commit to you've just lived onto paper.

The third caveat is that the trip might not yield immediate results.  Your brain needs time to stew.  It may take a month.  It may take a year.  That's what journals are for.  Once your brain figures out how to use your experience in your story, you can refer back to your previous notes to fill in some of those fuzzy details.

Make a Commitment

In brainstorming, as with everything in life, the greater the committed, the more you get out of it.  If you consistently pledge a certain amount of time and space to brainstorming, ideas will come steadily, because your mind will be always thinking of where to go and what to do.

This is not to say you should do nothing but brainstorm until you have every detail plotted out.  At some point, you'll have to start writing, ready or not.  I usually insert a deadline.  Otherwise, human nature takes over and I find myself going in circles.

The month before I committed to National Novel Writing Month last November, I spent all of October brainstorming.  I wrote 500 words a day (about 1-2 pages) for five days a week, four weeks.  Most of the time, I noted interesting things I'd read or seen and tried to find a way to link it to my story or else I'd muse over a problem I had.  After a month, I had enough ideas to get me through all of NaNoWriMo without losing steam.

Another, less intensive way to commit is to set aside a week every couple of months to brainstorm the next major chunk of the story.  If a week is too long, at least spend two days: Day 1 to clear all the useless stuff out of your head and Day 2 to uncover the good stuff.

Whether the commitment is short or long, I find that attaching goals to your brainstorming session is very helpful.  They can be vague.  Before NaNoWriMo, my goal was come up with 10 exciting events to write about in more detail later on.  Other times, my goal might be to discover the antagonists' motivation or figure out how magic works or come up with a backstory.  Break elements apart and tackle them piece by piece.

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With that, I end this very long, 4-parted entry on the many types and uses of brainstorming.  Writing is a personalized experience, so feel free to take the strategies that work and adapt them to your own style.  Discard all the rest.