Our guest today is Kathryn Craft , the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling  and The Far End of Happy . Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com  follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads writing workshops, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers.
After publishing two novels in two years, it may look like novel ideas spring forth like mint in my garden. They don’t. For one thing, both of those novels were the result of many years of thought and development. Secondly, my homeowner’s association doesn’t even approve of rapidly spreading plants. As I fumbled through seed packets looking for a way to grow my next novel, I wrote this post to remind myself of what worked for me in the past.”
Increase Creativity with Random Elements
A car mechanic, a midwife, and a 13-year-old Girl Scout walk into a bar…
No, really. What are they doing there? Did they arrive together, and if so, why? If they met in the bar, why did they interact? What if they all spoke different languages? What if, while wrapped in their own concerns, each of them had been powerfully drawn to this place—what might each of them say or reveal?
[pullquote]Three unrelated elements created the alchemy that spawned both of my published novels.[/pullquote]
Such jokes always include a setting, a situation, and three disparate people whose reactions allow for just enough repetition to set up the final punch line. But tossing together similar random ingredients can also create fertile soil from which to grow a novel.
Three unrelated elements created the alchemy that spawned both of my published novels.
The Art of Falling was inspired by two situations and a trend:
- A news article I read of a woman who walked away from a 14-story fall with only a broken arm
- An anecdote I heard about a man with a never-say-die spirit whose body was failing from heart disease, and whose hospital roommate was a young man with a flagging spirit whose body would not succumb when he put his head in the oven, blinding him instead
- Our society’s obsession with the body beautiful.
The Far End of Happy took shape from a memory, a novel structure, and a complicated relationship:
- The true-life bones of my first husband’s suicide standoff
- An idea to write a novel in a 12-hour structure
- Thinking about how hard it would be for lifelong friends to protect their relationship when their children were divorcing each other.
For each novel, I put these three starter notions in the mental pot and let them stew, where seemingly on their own they sparked the kind of creative leaps necessary to integrate them into a story. Of course I added much more over time, as I defined my premise and fleshed out my characters. But to start a new story, I look for three things.
According to Katherine Ramsland in her book Snap!: Seizing your Aha! Moments, adding disparate elements to your brain stew allows both halves of your brain—the right side that seeks metaphor, nuance, and emotion, and the left side that analyzes and seeks patterns—to contribute to the creative process. I love her description of that eureka moment as “the magical link between impasse and enlightenment.” As if a timer has rung, the stew is done and you simply must start writing.
How is the scent of honeysuckle like a sunrise?
Random elements encourage mental agility through a sense of play. By giving us something new to chew on, unexpected pairings pull us from our self-conscious attempt to “create something new” and embroil us in the playful-yet-workmanlike state of seeking relationships between the known (our memories, knowledge, and typical ways of thinking) and the unknown (this random element and a new story).
People who take my “Healing Through Writing” workshops want to come to terms with traumatic pasts that might include anything from tragic loss to sexual abuse to addiction. Yet on-the-spot writing can seize the pen of many a seasoned pro, let alone those on the verge of unlocking an emotional tsunami. To get them writing, I offer the gift of a random element.
Each participant draws from a jar a phrase that evokes conflict all on its own, and they must use it in writing about their situation. Their brains arc from “broken camera” or “thin ice” to their personal experience, seeking metaphor and patterns and meaning—and in moments they are writing.
Over to you. Anyone ready to give one of these techniques a spin?
- Random story starter. A car mechanic, a midwife, and a 13-year-old Girl Scout walk into a bar. Tell us more about them and why they inhabit the same story world.
- Random setting. Would the plot of your work-in-progress allow a scene in a wildly different setting that would challenge your character? If so, give it a try and see if you find out something new about her.
- Random character. Scan a newspaper until you find an interesting character, drop him into your WIP, and stir. Anything interesting happen?
- Random word. This is author and writing guru James Scott Bell’s favorite. It works great if you’re stuck in the middle of a story. Close your eyes, open the dictionary, and point at a random word. Use it in your next sentence and see where that takes you.
- Random conflict phrase. When writing about dangerously charged personal memories, try adding in something similar to the following:
- broken camera
- red tugboat
- thin ice
- shattered glass
- grandmother’s house
- discarded newspaper
Feel free to report back on how it goes in the comments. If you use other random element techniques in your writing, please share!