Monday, January 22, 2018

From Story Spark to Story Blurb



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.



Last March, my writing path took an unexpected turn.

The thing is, many historical writers "mine an era," as my agent put it, meaning most of their books are set in the same time/place. Medieval Germany, Edwardian England, Civil War in the South, etc. Because I loved all of the research I did for my 1920s era novel, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I anticipated hanging out in the Jazz age for the foreseeable future.

Early in March, as I was moving about my house, getting things together for our family's spring break trip, I was listening to a Stuff You Missed In History podcast. It was a two-part episode about Executive Order 9066, which allowed the U.S. government to force Japanese Americans into concentration camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

I was fascinated by the history.

Every Story Begins With a Spark

You've probably experienced the same thing I did that afternoon. As I listened, I had a spark of a story idea flit through my head. "What if there was a teenage girl who was in love with a Japanese American boy, and he was taken away?"

I felt really excited about the idea, but I knew better (or rather, I "knew better") than to get too excited. 1920s was my era, and I had already pitched my next book to my editor, so as fun as this new idea was, I would have to wait a few years before I tackled it.

But barely two weeks later my agent sent me a text saying that my editor wondered if I had any WWII era story ideas.

I just stared at the message in disbelief. I mean, technically I had an idea, but...

I wrote back, "Kind of. I have a blip of an idea. But it's really not much. I listened to a podcast about the Japanese American experience during WWII, and I wanted to write a story about that."

She said, "Do some brainstorming and get back to me."

Good Ideas Are Sticky Ideas

The pattern I've noticed with story sparks that evolve into actual novels is they tend to be sticky in nature. They naturally attract other pieces of ideas that I've had before, or they gain momentum quickly when I press into them a bit.

While I used to insist on doing this part of the story creating process alone, in the last few years I've realized how helpful it is to brainstorm with a trusted writing friend. If you don't have writing friends, or you prefer to work out story ideas on your own, Shan wrote a great article last Friday about the way she works with ideas early on. If you're looking for writing friends and you're a teen writer considering joining the Go Teen Writers Community Facebook group. It's helpful to us if you also email us at GoTeenWritersCommunity(at)gmail.com so that we know you're legit.

My trusted brainstorming friend is author Roseanna White. Once I caught her up on the odd turn of events, she said, "That's funny. I once had a blip of a WWII story idea, but I'll never use it." She proceeded to tell me about how she read that the U.S. government worked with imprisoned Italian mobsters to gain intelligence from them, and her idea was based on that.

I basically said, "If you're not going to use that, can I?"

We spent two-and-a-half hours bouncing ideas back and forth about how my original vision for the story of a Caucasian teenage girl in love with Japanese American boy would fit together with the Italian mafia plot. Whether you're brainstorming with a writer or two, or you're working on your own, this is the time to let ideas fly. Write it all down. I have several pages of half-baked thoughts and ramblings from that brainstorming session. You just never know what might be useful down the road.

All the Ideas Get Boiled Into A Sentence

The next step for me is taking what I have and creating a sentence or two.

Why just a sentence or two? If you're anything like I used to be, the thought might make you groan. There's a reason we write novels, after all. Here is why I make myself do this:

  • My agent needs it for pitching to my editor, and my editor needs it for pitching it to her publishing house. The sales team needs it for pitching it to bookstores. And I need it when people ask me, "What's your new book about?"
  • It helps to guide the rest of the story development process. Having the heart of the story documented somewhere is very useful as I move into developing the rest of the plot.
At the end of the morning's conversation, I sent my agent the following hook sentence:
When an Italian American girl's sweetheart is packed off to a Japanese internment camp in the early days of World War II, she decides to tap into her family's Mafia connection and venture to Alcatraz itself to try to bring the war to an end.
Not only was my agent excited about the idea, but my editor adored the concept and asked me to send her a blurb, a synopsis, and some sample chapters so she could show the others at Blink.

Growing the Sentence into a Blurb

Even when I haven't had a direct request for one, the blurb is the next step for me in the idea growing process. It's a great way to explore what I think the story is going to look like, even if I haven't yet done much research.

My early blurbs tend to be 2-3 paragraphs, though I don't worry too much about how long they are. Mostly it's about capturing the overall vision of the story. Here's the blurb I wrote for my WWII novel:

Evalina Cassano is a senior in high school when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. While she has always been tender-hearted, Evalina’s parents are surprised by how devastated she is over the attack and the Executive Order that soon follows. An order that makes it lawful to remove all Japanese Americans from the west coast and imprison them in concentration camps.
What Evalina’s parents don’t know is that over the last year, Evalina has fallen in love with Taichi Hamasaki, an American citizen of Japanese descent.
In a time when interracial marriage is illegal in California, Evalina and Taichi have always known that when their relationship became public, they would be fighting a battle. They just never realized that they would be divided in this fight, one of them free, and the other stuck inside the barbed wire fences of Manzanar Relocation Center.
This novel, tentatively titled Within These Lines, is a story about the gritty, exhausting side of love. The kind of love that seems to only invite heartbreak, but is tenacious and unrelenting all the same.
When I'm writing a historical novel, this is the point in the process where I have to stop for a chunk of research time. Next week, we'll talk about the research process!

Have you had any fun story sparks recently? Do you write them down anywhere?



32 comments:

  1. AHHHHHH I love the idea for this book so much!!!!! Japanese American internment camps?! Italian mafia girls?! Alcatraz?!!!! Holy cow! Stephanie, you are giving me the book I never knew I needed! But believe me, I NEED IT.

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    1. As far as new ideas: I just recently had an idea involving a young 1800s style teacher in a technologically advanced world who travels to the crime-ridden underworld to try to help the kids there procure an education and thus a better life. But then it’s going to turn into a kidnapping mystery, and it’ll be super fun. I’m excited for the day I actually sit down to write it XP

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    2. Oh, you're SO sweet.

      I love the mix of an old school teacher with advanced technology. That sounds like a fun challenge :)

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  2. Oh my goodness, Stephanie, that book sounds absolutely amazing! I look forward to its release. Definitely one I'll be putting on my must pre-order list!!

    And I actually had a story spark recently of a child that learns to speak in a mute society. I got the idea at work, which means I scrambled to write it down on the nearest scrap of paper. xD I have many scraps of papers lying around my desk at work and at home, but when I get home, I have an idea notebook I usually transcribe all my ideas into. Keeps me much more organized!

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    1. Ooh, I love that idea!

      And thank you! It was a bit heartbreaking to write, but I feel really good about what I turned in to my editor!

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    2. Wow, what a fascinating story idea!

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  3. I've never thought about the concept of 'sticky ideas', but that's a great way to phrase it! It's exactly how it feels!

    Blurbs are awesome. Usually, if I can write a rough blurb, the story idea is a keeper. Somehow, it turns a shiny idea into something tangible for me to work with.

    Your story sounds sooooooo awesome!!!!! I can't wait to read it! *mega fangirling in the corner*

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    1. Thank you, Sarah :) And I agree about the blurb. I used to write them after I was done with a book, but now I feel like it's a key piece of me discovering what the story will be about.

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  4. That story sounds really interesting!

    I have a story idea that I'm looking foreward to about a teenage artist who either moves from a tiny rural seaside town to a really big city, or who meets someone who moves into her town, or some other big change in her life that introduces her to Christian faith and her trying to decide weather to accept it or not as she learns more about it. It's going to be called Tangled Zen, which is a play on zentangle, a kind of doodley art, and her name will probably be Thais ( pronounced Tye-ees)because it is the name of a character from an opera who embraces Christian faith. It's still really a loose concept- I barely know anything about it- but I'm still very ecxited to see it form into more of a cohesive idea.

    ~Mila

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    1. That sounds very fun, Mila! Lots of great potential there.

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  5. Maxi oy that story sounds AMAZING!!

    When I first get an idea, I let it sit and see if it attracts other ideas, plots, characters, and such. They either grow (and eventually get written) or sit to the side until they can be stuck onto a different idea.

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    1. I think that's a great way to test ideas, Julian!

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  6. Your book sounds so interesting! I can't wait to read it! :))
    I have a note on my phone that I routinely update with story ideas. The most recent one was just a sentence that I thought of--"Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?" Something about a fallen angel who is forced to live on earth?? I don't know, I haven't really fleshed it out:)). I need to finish my other WIPs first. :)

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    1. It's so fun to be able to track story ideas over time. Sometimes I come across old ones that are just a sentence or two, and it's interesting to see ways that they worked their way into other stories of mine.

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  7. Wow! I really want to read this story now! It sounds perfectly fascinating!

    Story sparks delight and frustrate me--there are always one or two floating around in my head begging to be written. Right now I have one about a girl whose parents died of influenza and whose brother, a traumatized WWI veteran, lets her tag along on his barnstorming expeditions--but besides the general family struggles I don't have much of a conflict. There's also the reforming gunslinger I want to write about. I have a hunch one of my favorite historical heroines, Sr. Blandina, is going to show up in his story.

    Can't wait to hear more about the research process! I always get scared away from my historical ideas because the idea of research daunts me.

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    1. Megan, those sound fun!

      I completely understand. I stayed away from historicals for a long time for the same reason, but I believe you can do it!

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  8. Can I just say that I want to read this book SO MUCH now. I LOVE the WWII era, and this sounds amazing.

    Story sparks are fun! And a "spark" is a good way to describe how I come up with stories a lot of times, because often it's just an idea of an idea from something I see or hear. I definitely write them down so I don't forget them. Sometimes I find several "sparks" I've written down and try to find a way to combine them into one story so as to make the most of each of them. :-)

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    1. Thank you, Emily! I'm very excited about it :)

      I love when I can combine a few sparks into a real idea! (Or in this case, where I could steal one of my friend's sparks, ha ha!)

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  9. Cassano? Family Mafia connection? Why does that sound so familiar, I wonder... ;) So cool!!! I love the World War II era. A lot of terrible things happened then, but out of it rose all kinds of diverse and inspirational heroes. Can't wait to hear more of this idea!
    I like to bounce ideas off of my older brother a lot. He's not a serious writer, but he's a science nerd, which suits my purposes just great. I tend to like a little bit of both history and science in my books. A recent spark of mine was an idea for a historical superhero story. I originally wanted it to be a mystery as well and set in the Roaring Twenties (Lost Girl of Astor Street was too amazing, Mrs. Morrill, and now it's rubbing off on me), but I realized the mystery element would slow the story too much and that I might have to set it later, when superhero comic books actually existed. If possible, though, I'll make my heroes to be pre-comic book influence, because I really do like the Roaring Twenties era.

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  10. Oh, that sounds so fun, Olivia! I would totally read that.

    And, yes! Evalina Cassano is a niece of Mariano's :)

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    1. Well, thank you, Mrs. Morrill! I might count on your read some years from now.
      I think it's great how you're entwining your stories like that. I can't wait to read it!

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  11. Wow, your book sounds quite interesting so far. While I'm usually obsessing over fantasy and sci-fi, I always love reading historicals, then getting super excited and learning a ton more about the era they're set in.

    As for sparks, I love that term now, I think I'll have to start calling them that. Anyway, I've recently had one about some extremely messed up family. Basically, it's sibling rivalry gone crazy. The old rivalry between the constantly stressed out father and his reckless, go with the flow, identical twin brother, and the newer rivalries between the four kids (A daredevil tomboy, a by-the-book girly girl, a tall, incredibly disciplined know-it-all, and a rebellious boy who's extremely sensitive about his height). Then there's the mother, who thinks the whole thing is just ridiculous, and is secretly scheming to end this mess.

    Mostly, I just think it would be hilarious to play with all the sibling drama. It's also the only idea I've ever really had that didn't involve sci-fi, fantasy, or any of that jazz.

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    1. Wow, you should have no trouble finding conflict among that interesting batch of siblings. Your spark sounds like a fantastic story in the making!

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  12. I think that brainstorming session has to be, hands-down, our most successful EVER. Only time I can recall we threw a few random sparks together, came up with a blurb, and SOLD IT within weeks! LOL.

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    1. If only we could make that magic happen every time!

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  13. I can't wait until your book releases! Evalina doesn't happen to be a descendant of certain Lost Girl characters, does she? Or are we not allowed to know? ;)

    I really enjoyed reading about your development process. Thanks for sharing!

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  14. The reaction I had to your idea is the reaction I want people to have to my ideas lol. I thought, "Ooh! Now THAT sounds like a good story." I haven't gotten the blurb process down and I am nowhere near boiling down my story into one to two sentences. It seems like my story is a bit all over the place. Then again I did think of it a few days ago. I am getting discouraged since people keep on comparing it to other books. It's been compared to at least 5 different novels/series at this point. I really like my idea and I can see it going far, but it needs that extra something and I just can't figure out what it is.

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  15. I just did some book brainstorming, and I have to say, it felt awesome. I figured out an efficient way to do it in a short period of time. I've had some great ideas floating around in my head for some time now(I'm talking like two or three years), but they seemed like they needed something more. Then I decided to combine some of them. The result is epic. It's going to be a realistic fiction or fantasy(haven't decided yet). The original root for this one started in sixth grade when I sat down to start my first book(The first story I abandoned). Even though I thought I had abandoned it, the story followed me around and has been ever since. (I'm an eighth grader now.) My new one that I am SUPER excited about is a combining of stories with something missing(don't try to decipher the weird names I gave them): Anna Spring, Nature Girl, Hidden Valley, Life. And to be honest, this is really the first idea I've felt this way about, sooo.. I guess my current draft is being abandoned, but I'm sure I'll do the same thing with it as I've done with these ones. Thanks for the ideas on brainstorming a book!

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