Reading you under the table since 2012

Brainstorming an Idea into a Story

by Julie Eshbaugh


JulieBefore today’s post, a quick announcement:

Happy March! Starting this month, Pub(lishing) Crawl will be moving to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday posting schedule (though we may occasionally surprise you with a Tuesday, Thursday, or Weekend post.) Of course, only our schedule will change; our content will stay the same! Also, to those of you who commented on Alex’s recent post asking what you would like to see on the blog – thank you for your input! We are working through your suggestions and plan to enact some of your ideas soon. Stay tuned!

Now, on to brainstorming…

We’ve had a few good posts here recently about coming up with solid ideas. JJ had a really good post about idea generation here. I also posted on this topic here.

But what does a writer do once they have a kernel of an idea? How does a one-sentence seed grow into an 80,000 word novel?

I’m a planner (meaning I outline my stories, as opposed to a pantser, who writes from the seat of their pants.) I never start a new story if I don’t know (or think I know,) how it will end. But how do I discover the story within a new idea? How do I take an idea like, “It’s about a boy and girl trapped in an elevator during an earthquake,” and find the beginning, middle, and end?

One method you can turn to when it’s time to flesh out an idea is to brainstorm. If I have a new idea I think has potential, I’ve probably walked around thinking about my characters and their situation. I try to find the main character’s voice, to connect with something that the character is trying to tell me. Sometimes this works, and I begin to discover a real story within the idea. Something starts to form without force. When I feel this way, I begin to think I may have discovered an idea for a story worth telling.

In October of 2013, Kat Zhang and Savannah Foley hosted an online event they dubbed NaNoWarmUp. They invited writers to “warm up” for NaNoWriMo in November by writing about half the NaNo word count in October. I had only the spark of an idea for a NaNo project that year, so I decided to use NaNoWarmUp to try to find my story.

Each day I had a word count goal of about 800 words. I had an idea I called “Prehistory Story,” which was really just a few characters and a premise. I had a vague idea for a plot. But I still felt very far away from the characters, their world, and the core of the story. Sometimes when you’re early in the story discovery process, it feels as if your story is a diamond that has fallen into a barrel of flour. You need to sift (and sift and sift) to find it. In October 2013, the process of brainstorming helped me with all that sifting to find the story that eventually became my novel, Ivory and Bone.

There are probably as many ways to brainstorm as there are writers, but here’s what works for me:

  • I open a blank file and give it a name (like Elevator Story if I were going to write about the premise I mentioned above.)
  • I begin writing an informal narrative about my idea. I don’t worry about the prose; I just tell the story. If the first thing that comes to mind is a character, I start there. Amanda got on the elevator in a hurry, since she was running late for her interview. Her high heels were killing her feet. Or I might start with the setting. The highrise was an ugly mishmash of concrete and steel. No one in the lobby smiled or acknowledged Amanda as she dashed for the elevator. Everything about this place felt cold.
  • I keep writing, introducing everything I know so far about the story. I bring in all the characters I’ve been thinking about. If I have an idea for the start of the conflict, I write about that event. My main interest at this stage isn’t to make it good; it’s to get it down. If something new comes into my mind, I’ll add it in, but I’ll probably do something to set it off as something I’m just beginning to test out, like type it in italics or red. I also might type out questions to myself in bold or another color, so I can go back later and deal with issues that pop up without having to interrupt myself as I put the idea down. How many floors does the building have? Do all the elevators go to the top, or do different banks of elevators go to different floors?
  • The next step is the most difficult to describe. I guess the best way to say it is I read over what I have and look for the truth in the story. I’ve started brainstorming a lot of ideas. Most of them end when I see that the story is something I’m forcing. This might sound ridiculous or pretentious, but I look for the idea that feels like I’m relating a character’s true story, rather than making it up. If the character’s voice is clear and real to me, I start to hope that maybe I’m on the right track.
  • If the brainstormed idea on the page doesn’t pass the above test, I start sifting. What’s wrong? Am I listening to the wrong character? Should I let the boy tell me the story? Am I in the wrong place or wrong time? If I change the source of the conflict, does the real story here begin to reveal itself?
  • Once I have a sense for a tweak that might get to the truth of the story, I start again, but without deleting a word. I just move down the page, type a line or write in bold type: OR, what about something like this: and keep going. I might copy and paste from above what I want to keep, or I might start from scratch.

I repeat this process until – if I’m fortunate enough to be on the right track and there really is a story inside this idea – there’s finally a breakthrough. It might take 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 words, and I may end up with just a collection of paragraphs, but if things are working, I begin to see why this story matters. (If not… back to the drawing board!)

Brainstorming can be an incredibly powerful tool for sifting through all the scattered thoughts and bits of other stories to find the true story you are trying to tell. It also can be maddening and frustrating! So far, though, it is the technique that has worked the best for me.

What are your thoughts on brainstorming? Have you ever tried this technique? Do you think this would work for you, or do you have a completely different approach? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh writes young adult fiction. She is the author of the upcoming Ivory & Bone (HarperCollins, 2016.) You can add Julie on Goodreads and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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Interview with Patrick Jennings, Author of Hissy Fitz!

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by Julie Eshbaugh

featuring Patrick Jennings!


Patrick JenningsAs readers of this blog already know, PubCrawl is excited to help spread the word about Egmont USA’s spring 2015 list, a group which has banded together under the name Egmont’s Last List. It’s my pleasure to welcome Patrick Jennings as our guest here at PubCrawl today! (And we are giving away of one of Patrick’s books! More on that below…) I’m so thrilled to interview such a prolific writer of children’s books! Patrick’s website lists 25(!) titles. If you’d like to see all their beautiful covers, you can click here. Patrick’s latest is HISSY FITZ, which came out last month from Egmont. Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

hissy_frontcoverHissy Fitz lives with some two-legged creatures who are destined to serve him in every possible way and understand his every whim. Sadly, these creatures are sorely lacking in their skills. For one thing–they touch him when they want to touch him. Don’t they know that the two-legged are there for him to touch when he wants to–meaning when he wants food? Petting wakes him up! They speak to him–don’t they know the two-legged should be seen–so Hissy knows where to order food–and not heard?! It’s becoming intolerable. What is this irascible cat to do?

I understand that, although you generally write for middle graders, this book is for younger readers. What made you decide to move in that direction?
My publisher wondered if I’d be interested in writing a chapter book. The book fairs and clubs had been asking for them. I told my editor about my insomniac cat idea and she liked it.

What changes in your writing process when you target a different age level? Do you write for a certain age, a reading level, or both?

I think the story dictates the reading level, the audience. When a story is right for a seven-year-old, the language often takes care of itself. In other words, if you want to engage with a kid, you should talk about something they care about, and in a voice and vocabulary that makes sense to them. That’s not talking down; that’s talking to.   

Hissy Fitz is your first illustrated chapter book in in a long time (over ten years, correct?) How is an author matched to an illustrator? What is the process involved in creating an illustrated book? Other than providing the text, do you have any other input as to the illustrations?

When a book is submitted without illustrations, the art director looks for an artist. They have many illustrators’ portfolios on file. I work on the book with my editor while the artist is found. Usually the text is nearly finished before the illustrating begins. For Bat and Rat, a picture book, I ended up retooling my text, cutting out what was rendered visually by the amazing Matthew Cordell. I did a little tweaking for Hissy after Michael Allen Austin’s hilarious pictures came in. There were textless spreads in Bat and Rat, so, some notes were needed, but, in general, one tries to leave artistic decisions to artists.  

I also understand that this is your first cat book! Yet you’ve had pet cats for 20 years? What took you so long to write a book about a cat?

I never had a story to tell. I’ve considered that this is due to cats not really doing much of anything. Mostly they just sit around the house. Dogs go out and play with their owners, protect their owners, rescue people, hang with their friends. Cats nap on average eighteen hours a day. It was when I struck upon the idea of an insomniac cat that I finally had a cat story. 

Hissy Fitz is such a unique character – his voice really sucked me in. I know it’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of an idea, but can you say where the character of Hissy Fitz came from? What made you decide to tell this particular cat’s story?
Those twenty years with cats were spent wondering what they thought about, especially what they thought of humans. In recent years, I’ve led a young writing group at my house, and have watched the writers interact with my cats. I tried sharing with the kids all I’d learned about how to approach a cat, touch a cat, and treat a cat, but it didn’t make much of an impression. I suppose their treatment of my cats shaped my idea of how Hissy would view kids, as well as other humans. 

I know you do a lot of school and library visits with children. What’s your favorite thing about meeting young readers?

Their enthusiasm. They love to read, and they get very excited when they meet an author of a book they’ve read. They have tons of very good questions. They’re often also interested in writing stories. The whole day is filled with excitement. I’m thoroughly exhausted afterward. It’s the best.

Any last words of advice for aspiring writers, particularly those hoping to write for children?

Spend as much time as you can with kids. Volunteer to read at the library, or in classrooms. Read to nieces and nephews, grandchildren, whomever. Talk to kids about the books they love. Listen carefully. Feel their enthusiasm.

Thank you so much, Patrick! Also, I want to offer congratulations on the news that Lerner Publishing has acquired all of Egmont USA’s frontlist and backlist titles. We look forward to reading many more of your stories!

To celebrate the publication of HISSY FITZ, we’re giving away a copy of this wonderful book! Leave a comment below and use the Rafflecopter form to enter!

About the author:

Patrick Jennings’s books for young readers have received honors from Publishers Weekly, The Horn Book, Smithsonian Magazine, the PEN Center USA, the Woman’s National Book Association, and the Chicago and New York Public Libraries. The Seattle Public Library awarded his book, Guinea Dog, the Washington State Book Award of 2011. His book, Faith and the Electric Dogs, is currently being adapted for the screen. His new book, Hissy Fitz, will be published in January 2015. He currently writes full time in his home in Port Townsend, Washington.

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Volunteering: Marketing’s Best Kept Secret

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Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy RGB 72I’ve met very few writers who got excited over the idea of marketing and promotion–and those who did, were typically folks who did that for a living. Maybe it’s an aspect of a creative soul, but it’s not usually something that comes naturally to us. And the thought of pushing our work on others? -shudder-

I’ve always advocated that the best marketing strategies are the things we enjoy doing. Good marketing is all about making connections, and a great way to do that is by helping others. Volunteering is a fun, rewarding, and beneficial way to “promote” without promoting. For example, conferences need volunteers:

  • To pick up presenters from the airport and assist them during the conference
  • To help register attendees
  • To moderate panels and introduce speakers
  • To work book sale and refreshment tables
  • To help promote the conference through blog interviews or guest posts with presenters

All of these provide opportunities to meet and network with other local writers as well as industry professionals.

I’d belonged to various writers’ organization prior to selling my first novel, but it wasn’t until I joined my local chapter of SCBWI that I realized how valuable such groups could actually be. Up until then, I’d always been “on the outside,” paying my dues (literally) and attending the occasional conference, but never taking advantage of what the organizations had to offer. In fact, I was so clueless then I didn’t even know there were local chapters of the national groups.

Then I met a fellow author at one of my first book signings, and she encouraged me to check out Southern Breeze, which happened to be having their fall conference a few weeks later. I figured, why not? It was only a two-hour drive away, reasonably priced, and had a fun workshop schedule.

As I was registering, I noticed there was a box marked “want to volunteer?” Again I thought, why not? and checked it. Shortly thereafter someone contacted me, and I was signed up at the registration desk to help folks as they checked in. I spent the morning meeting and greeting other writers in my area and had a fantastic time. I was at that conference alone, but after that one hour I knew the names and faces of half the attendees (those in the M-Z section). What could have been a lonely conference was suddenly more welcoming, and guess what–a lot of those people went over and bought my brand-new book when they found out I was brand-new author.

That experience led me to volunteer to moderate the peer group critiques, then I helped out at the conference bookstore, then I became the bookstore liaison, and eventually the publicity coordinator for the region. Along the way, I’ve met some amazing people–from writers to editors to agents and other industry professionals I wouldn’t have been able to meet had I not be a volunteer. I’ve also had some wonderful opportunities offered to me. Best part of all of this–I had fun. Tons of it.

There lies the beauty of volunteering.

Obviously, volunteering for the sole purpose of promoting and shoving your work down everyone’s throat isn’t going to work (we can all spot a poser, right?); you honestly have to enjoy it. But ultimately, networking is what a professional conference or organization is for–to help the members of that organization advance their careers. You get out what you put into it.

Reasons to Volunteer: The Good Deed Side

Volunteering feels good, it’s helpful, and much appreciated. Many local events run on volunteers, and the more people who help out, the better the event is for everyone.

  • You’re supporting other writers
  • You’re sharing the task burden so those who run these events don’t burn out and get overwhelmed
  • You’re helping your organization raise money to educate writers
  • It’s a way to pay back any good fortune you’ve received
  • It’s a way to be part of the community you want to belong in

Reasons to Volunteer: The Business Side

Publishing is a business and these conferences are networking opportunities. The more connected you are, the better your chances of encountering something that can help your career.

  • Opportunities to meet and interact with authors, agents, editors, and publishers
  • Opportunities to speak or present workshops
  • A chance to be considered first (because they know you) when career opportunities present themselves–speaking engagements, awards, writing jobs, etc.
  • Opportunities to meet other authors who can team up with you to market and promote
  • Opportunities to promote your own work

Conferences take a lot of work by a lot of people, and they’re wonderful opportunities to connect with fellow writers and industry professionals. Volunteering can be an enormous benefit on both a professional, and a personal level.

Do you volunteer? Share your experiences!

And speaking of conferences…

Springmingle banner graphic

Calling all kidlit writers and illustrators: Springmingle ’15 Writers’ and Illustrators’ Conference will take place on March 13-15, 2015 in Decatur, GA. Meet editors and agents from industry-leading agencies and publishing houses—and the friendliest, most supportive colleagues one could ever hope to find. Attendees will find nearly a dozen workshop sessions, including: 101+ Reasons for Rejection, Writing La Vida Loca, and Traditional Picture Books in a Digital Age. Visit their website for a complete listing of workshops: Presented by SCBWI/Southern Breeze Region.

Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

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And the Award Goes to…

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E.C. Myers

Eugene_ClaraLike many people, I’ve been thinking about awards this weekend. A couple of days ago, SFWA announced this year’s Nebula and Norton Award nominees, and as I write this blog post, the Oscars are happening. Not too long ago, the internet was flooded with “Best of 2014″ lists, which can be a fragile time for authors. Lots of authors check out those lists when they’re posted in the hopes that our books are among those being recognized — and sadly, we are often disappointed.

I think awards and best-of lists and sometimes even the NY Times Bestseller list are terrific; they’re some of the places I go for book recommendations, and they’re a good way to see what people are reading and what they’re excited about. I’m happy that people even get that excited by books, and it’s always wonderful to see that people are reading and talking about what they’re reading.

By Nathan Sawaya —

By Nathan Sawaya —

But while being listed or nominated for an award — let alone taking home the prize — can be a high point in a writing career, not winning recognition can contribute to the low points. It’s discouraging when your work is seemingly overlooked or ignored. Sometimes you even feel envy: Why is that terrible book getting all the attention instead of my work of genius? you might muse to yourself or Tweet publicly (not advised).

The harsh reality of publishing is that a lot of books are published every year and it’s incredibly difficult to get noticed by readers, reviewers, awards committees. My best advice for getting through awards season and readers’ polls and best-of lists is to remind yourself that “best” is an entirely subjective opinion.

Consider this weekend’s Academy Awards. I don’t know all the winners yet, but I can already tell you that The LEGO Movie was robbed of a nomination for Best Animated Feature. Think about the movies you saw this year and how few of them were nominated for anything. Then think about those that were nominated and what your pick for each award was. Chances are, some of those Oscars went to different films.

There are lots of reasons why one film might do better than another. It had better distribution or advertising. The director had been slighted for his entire career and it was time to recognize his work. The film covered a timely topic that spoke to people in a meaningful way, or the Academy is trying to make some kind of political statement. Or, maybe it really was “the best,” whatever that means.

Just like your sales numbers, you have little control over awards and recognition. Sure, you can spend enormous time and money promoting your work, but the most important thing is to write the best book you can, a book you’re proud to have published, and hope readers find it. Then write the next one.

What do you think about awards and best-of lists? Do they influence your reading? What are some of the unsung books you would like to see win all the awards?

E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and the public library in Yonkers, New York. He is the author of the Andre Norton Award–winning young adult novel Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, as well as numerous short stories. His latest novel, The Silence of Six, is a thriller about teenage hackers and government conspiracies. You can find traces of him all over the internet, but especially at and on Twitter: @ecmyers.

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Interview with R.C. Lewis, author of Stitching Snow and Spinning Starlight!

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by Julie Eshbaugh

featuring R.C. Lewis!


RC Lewis HeadshotToday is an exciting day for me, because I have the great pleasure of introducing you to R.C. Lewis, the author of STITCHING SNOW and the upcoming SPINNING STARLIGHT!

I’m currently reading STITCHING SNOW, and I’m loving it! If you’re a fan of exciting sci-fi, filled with original characters and set in an amazing world, you need to check this out! Kirkus calls it a “clever, surprisingly gritty science-fiction version” of Snow White. (That grittiness is what I’m enjoying most about the book!) And now is the time to read STITCHING SNOW, so you’re ready to read its companion book, SPINNING STARLIGHT, when it’s released this fall.

Here’s a synopsis of STITCHING SNOW:StitchingSnow

Princess Snow is missing.

Her home planet is filled with violence and corruption at the hands of King Matthias and his wife as they attempt to punish her captors. The king will stop at nothing to get his beloved daughter back—but that’s assuming she wants to return at all.

Essie has grown used to being cold. Temperatures on the planet Thanda are always sub-zero, and she fills her days with coding and repairs for the seven loyal drones that run the local mines.

When a mysterious young man named Dane crash-lands near her home, Essie agrees to help the pilot repair his ship. But soon she realizes that Dane’s arrival was far from accidental, and she’s pulled into the heart of a war she’s risked everything to avoid. With the galaxy’s future—and her own—in jeopardy, Essie must choose who to trust in a fiery fight for survival.

SpinningStarlightFantastic, right?! And just to add to the excitement, here’s what you can look forward to in SPINNING STARLIGHT:

Sixteen-year-old heiress and paparazzi darling Liddi Jantzen hates the spotlight. But as the only daughter in the most powerful tech family in the galaxy, it’s hard to escape it. So when a group of men show up at her house uninvited, she assumes it’s just the usual media-grubs. That is, until shots are fired.

Liddi escapes, only to be pulled into an interplanetary conspiracy more complex than she ever could have imagined. Her older brothers have been caught as well, trapped in the conduits between the planets. And when their captor implants a device in Liddi’s vocal cords to monitor her speech, their lives are in her hands: One word and her brothers are dead.

Desperate to save her family from a desolate future, Liddi travels to another world, where she meets the one person who might have the skills to help her bring her eight brothers home-a handsome dignitary named Tiav. But without her voice, Liddi must use every bit of her strength and wit to convince Tiav that her mission is true. With the tenuous balance of the planets deeply intertwined with her brothers’ survival, just how much is Liddi willing to sacrifice to bring them back?

Haunting and mesmerizing, this retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans strings the heart of the classic with a stunning, imaginative world as a star-crossed family fights for survival in this companion to Stitching Snow.

We’re so lucky to have R.C. Lewis here today to talk about fairytale retellings, the concept of a “companion book,” and so much more! (AND… there’s a giveaway! More on that at the end. :D)

Thank you for visiting us here at PubCrawl today! I’m excited to learn more about your books, since they interweave fairytale and science fiction so seamlessly. Have you always been drawn to fairytales? 

Actually … no. It was kind of a twist of fate that Stitching Snow came out at all. There’s a line in the Florence + The Machine song “Blinding” about Snow White stitching up a circuit board. I heard that once, and an image popped into my head. Before that, it never occurred to me to try a fairytale retelling.

Spinning Starlight is being described as a “companion book” to Stitching Snow. Does that mean it’s not a sequel?

Not a sequel at all. In fact, not even in the same imagined universe. However, they go together well because it’s another sci-fi take on a fairytale—this time Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.”

How did you decide to write a re-telling of The Wild Swans? Until I learned of your book I was unfamiliar with the fairytale. Was it your intention to retell a story that wasn’t well known?

This is basically the opposite of how Stitching Snow came about. My editor and I decided to have another fairytale follow up Stitching Snow, so I had to go out and find one. We didn’t want something that’s been retold to death (which eliminates a LOT of the most recognizable tales), but also didn’t want something too obscure. I got some fairytale anthologies and started reading, making notes about how I might put a sci-fi twist on it (not always an easy task!), and picked the one that called to me the loudest.

I worried that The Wild Swans might fall into the too obscure camp, because I wasn’t terribly familiar with it before I began. But as soon as I mentioned it to several friends, they said, “I love that one—it’s my favorite! I’ve always wanted someone to do a retelling of it!” That was good enough for me.

Can you tell us a little bit about the original story? What drew you to it? 

I mentioned a little of it above, but a big part of why I picked this one is the way it focuses on a family relationship. It’s about a girl trying to save her brothers, no dashing prince rushing in to save the day. In fact, in the original, a king rather randomly marries the protagonist while she carries on trying to help her brothers, which ends up getting her in trouble.

Not to say there isn’t some romance in my version…

Maybe I also welcomed a challenge, because I quickly decided one part of the original I wanted to keep (somehow) was the protagonist being unable to speak until her brothers are saved. Not easy!

It seems like the young adult book world has been dominated by series for a while now, but lately it feels like that trend is changing somewhat. Do you feel that the concept of a companion book is something your readers are excited about?

It seems like it from the responses I’ve been getting! A few readers of Stitching Snow were hoping for a sequel (which I never intended it to have), but seem willing to accept this as the next best thing. And a lot of people felt Stitching Snow being a standalone was a strong selling point, yet were eager for something in the same vein, so hopefully this will satisfy them, too.

What can fans of Stitching Snow look forward to most in Spinning Starlight?

Unfortunately, Dimwit does not make a return appearance. (Like I said, separate universe.) My main character Liddi is very different from Essie (the main character of Stitching Snow), but I hope readers will enjoy her journey as she goes from paparazzi-hounded misfit of a famous family to someone who must fend for herself and take risks to save her brothers when no one else can. She also makes some interesting friends along the way … some of them coming from VERY unexpected places.

SPINNING STARLIGHT sounds fantastic! I’m so excited for it, and I’m still reading STITCHING SNOW! Thank you SO MUCH for stopping by to talk to us about your writing process!

And now the giveaway! We are giving away an ARC of SPINNING STARLIGHT! Just fill out the Rafflecopter form below. R.C. will send the winner an ARC as soon as they are available!

About the author:

R.C. Lewis has taught math to teenagers for over ten years, including several where she found calculus is just as fun in American Sign Language. After a lifetime of thinking she didn’t have an ounce of creativity, she realized she just needed to switch to metric. When she escapes the classroom, she writes geek-infused YA like Stitching Snow (2014, Hyperion) and Spinning Starlight (2015, Hyperion).
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