Thursday, June 29, 2006

Creative Writing: Getting Story Ideas When Truth Is Stranger than Fiction, Part 2

Last time we talked about getting ideas from the news. As a recap, we used the Reuters news story, "“UFO buffs say official denial 'alien to us.'” We also came up with a few fiction ideas. Here are some nonfiction ideas on the same theme:

Investigative Reporting: If you care to, delve into the truth behind the report. Why was it released now, when the Freedom of Information Act was put in place 6 years ago? Could the report be slanted? Is there really a cover up? Or is the MoD on the up-and-up?

Human Interest Feature: Visit a UFO convention and interview the participants. Find out why they think the report is bogus and discover what personal experiences have led to their fascination with aliens.

Technology Feature: Interview scientists and researchers who search for extraterrestrial life and find out what new technology they use, and how that technology could someday be used to prove the existence of life in outer space.

Hopefully this process got your creative juices flowing. I challenge you to do this same exercise, either coming up with more ideas for this story, or finding another story and repeating the whole process. You’ll quickly discover that there truly is a story everywhere you look.

Creative Writing: Getting Story Ideas When Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

This blog has already covered several ways to stir up story ideas when your creativity is at an impasse. Here’s another one: use the news.

Many times the stories you read in news sources really are stranger than fiction—and they offer good inspiration for both fiction and nonfiction stories.

To prove the point, I visited and found a news piece on their home page.

To see the entire piece, go to

The headline says, “UFO buffs say official denial 'alien to us.'”

The teaser copy reads, “SHEFFIELD, England (Reuters) -- Last month, the British Ministry of Defence made public a top secret report on UFOs, concluding that three decades of sightings had failed to produce evidence of visiting extraterrestrials.”

The story goes on to say that, despite a 500-page report released by Britain’s Ministry of Defense, UFO enthusiasts are still sure there’s a conspiracy in the works. So, how can you use this to create a new story?

Come on; this one’s easy! Here are some (to me) obvious fiction angles.

Sci-Fi: A skeptical reporter and UFO believer team up to delve deeper into the MoD’s report and end up having a close encounter of the 3rd kind, proving that years of UFO sightings are for real.

Suspense/Thriller: Same as above, but instead of discovering aliens, the pair discover a man-made secret far more sinister than any UFO cover-up—a secret that soon has them running for their lives.

Note: If you have a flair for the romantic, either of the above could also be turned into a cross-genre romance—you could even have someone fall in love with an alien…hmmm?

More next time on nonfiction ideas from this source.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Creative Writing: What I Did with a Starter Sentence

A while back, I gave an example of a starter sentence using lemonade, and promised to show how I'd used that sentence to create a story. You'll find the story at the link below.

I hope you enjoy it. I'd love feedback!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Creative Writing: Turn Everything into a Story

In my very first post on this creative writing blog, I mentioned the importance of observation in creative writing. There’s even more to the connection between observation skills and creative writing. Good observation skills will do more than add dimension to your writing; they’ll also help you come up with creative story ideas.

Using observation to develop story ideas requires a whole new mindset. You have to stop thinking of your life as ho-hum routine and start thinking of new angles to every action and event.

For example, one morning I had to be at work early, but I also needed to drop a video at Blockbuster to avoid a late fee. At 5:30 in the morning, it was still dark, and I was the only person in the Blockbuster parking lot. I started letting my imagination run wild—what if a cop car pulled into the parking lot, lights flashing, and the cops arrested me for something I hadn’t done? What if somebody had planted evidence in my car, link me to a crime I knew nothing about? What if the cops were in on it, and it was a big conspiracy to frame me and cover up something bigger?

Okay, so that’s a little extreme. However, see how I took a simple, everyday action (dropping of a video) and took it to remarkable lengths. You can do that too. Of course, this was a fiction example, but you can use it for nonfiction, too. You just need to reign in your imagination (a little!).

A nonfiction example for the same scenario (again, dropping off a video in pre-dawn darkness): a story on different professionals (bakers, garbage collectors, restaurant servers, whatever) who have to be up and at work before dawn every day. Interview them. Describe the world as they see it in the morning…dark, silent, almost ghostly.

With a little bit of practice, you could be seeing stories wherever you turn—and you may even wish you could stop!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Time Management

Most freelance writers have to find ways to overcme the problem of time management. I recently ran across this article on time management, and I thought it had some really good advice...wish I'd written it myself!

Hope you find it as insightful as I did!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More About Creative Query Letters

Query letters are you first impression on the editor, your customer. That’s why you need to use all your creativity to write an effective query letter. Telling an editor you have an idea isn’t enough. Writer’s Digest editor Thomas Clark has identified five essential aspects that should be in every query you write:

1. A working title
2. A projected length
3. Your idea’s place within the publication’s departments (where it will fit)
4. Reference to previous articles
5. Results of some initial research done for the project

Remember, at this point you haven’t actually written the article. You’ve come up with a unique idea, researched publications until you found one that fit, and done initial research—both to prove you’re serious and to show what direction the article might take.

As I mentioned before, the query letter needs to fit on one, typed page. If it exceeds one page, you need to go back and rework, or tighten, your story angle. Write your letter in traditional, business-letter format, on professional letterhead if you have it. If you’re a novice, you probably don’t, but computer programs like MS Word come with several templates you can use in a pinch.

Your first paragraph is the most important, a creative, curiosity-arousing first paragraph hooks the editor, just as the first paragraph of your piece hooks the reader, and gets the editor to read more. Then outline—briefly—your story idea, in a way that makes it sound exciting and fresh. (If that’s hard, you probably don’t have the right idea yet.)

Aside from that, your letter needs to contain:

1. Address, email and phone number
2. Your background as a Writer (If you’re a beginner, don’t reveal that. Act professionally and you will be treated professionally.)
3. Your particular qualifications to write on your chosen subject
4. Your availability and prospective timeline for completion if you get the assignment
5. A request for a response.

There’s more to writing query letters, much more than I can put here, but there are lots of excellent reference books that can give you more details. I use Professional Feature Writing: Third Edition by Bruce Garrison (which is now in its fourth edition), which also contains excellent advice on feature writer in general.

Visit my website at

Friday, June 02, 2006

Communicate WIIFM with Creative Query Letters

If you’re a new writer, you may be confused about how you’re supposed to convey to the editor what’s in it for them. Maybe you’ve heard of query letters, or have read guidelines that say “query” or “query with clips,” but you don’t really know what that means. Or, maybe you’re like me and know what it is, but find the whole concept frustrating. Well, we’re both going to have to get over it, because query letters, or queries, are a necessary part of selling your writing.

True to its name, a query letter is a letter asking an editor to publish a particular piece or series. Though you may find exceptions, queries are generally used for nonfiction pieces and sent to magazines or other periodicals. The query letter serves two main purposes: to find out if the editor needs a piece covering your topic and to sell the editor on the idea that he or she needs a piece covering your topic.

The query letter saves both you and the editor time. For you, you haven’t wasted precious time researching and writing an article that won’t be published. On the other hand, the editor doesn’t have to wade through a series of manuscripts and read each one to see if there’s something there. He or she can pick up your one-page query letter, see if the topic is suitable or if they’ve recently done something similar (if you’ve done your homework, they haven’t), and judge the writer’s skill at a glance. So, what are the editor’s needs?

• Brevity—editors are busy people, so they don’t have time to read five-page missives
• Topic—they want to see a topic that fits with the theme of their publication and that is timely and interesting
• Skill—editors want to know how good your writing is

Next time I’ll go into more detail on how to use query letters to sell editors on the idea that you have what they’re looking for.