In the hilarious comedy, “My Blue Heaven,” Steve Martin portrays an informer coerced into the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. Ever the scam artist, his character hatches a “get rich quick” scheme. When it fails, Vinnie (Martin’s character) is left with thousands of five-gallon water containers instead of “hot” merchandise to fence. Without missing a beat, Vinnie takes one look at his overstuffed van and exclaims: “Now the difference between us is that you guys see a mistake, but what I see is an opportunity!”
That’s what I’m talking about. Not fencing stolen goods of course, but looking at situations lopsided, cockeyed, upside down, sideways or askance. Any angle will do just so it’s different. Serious writers notice what others do not. They are keenly aware of alliteration, patterns, point of view, linguistics, and background. With a bit of imagination and skewed thinking, a writer may parley her interests into a clever query and score a top assignment. That’s the kind of inquisitiveness a writer must acquire to compete and thrive.
Thinking like a writer may entail taking notes, being observant, eavesdropping, and always being in the writer mode.
Even on vacation, writers are always writing (at least in their heads). Could this be a story? Does this fit into my novel? What magazine would be interested in this subject? And if we come up dry with our resources, then we network with other writers to get fresh opinions, shared experiences, and critiques.
Often when I think I am on top of my game, my husband will point out something that he feels would make a good article. That very subject in plain view has usually escaped me. Ideas are always circling us.
Like young children with butterfly nets, it is our job to catch a few and develop them into stories with strong leads, robust middles, and fabulous endings. Like Vinnie, we must be cautious not to think of what life brings as problems, but great opportunities.
If an “opportunity” seems just too much, consider collaboration with another writer.
“Strength in numbers” may be an old saw, but never is it truer than in writing. Editors are always looking for unique perspectives and a writer friend looking over the scenario may be just made to order. For most of us, ideas are not the problem. Taking the time to develop an idea, pitch the concept in a one-page irresistible query letter, and do the necessary follow up is where we fail. We may falter because writing is not our primary profession and time for it is limited. Time pressures mean that we must work smarter not harder.
One way we can do this is use the same set of facts, figures, quotes, and other research for more than one article. Recently I had an assignment to do a piece on autism from a personal point of view. My grandson was diagnosed as being on the spectrum. While doing research for one article I gathered more than I could use, so my writing friend suggested a compatible article for a woman’s magazine. I queried another source for an inspirational article based on autism. Thus, I was able to use my research notes for more than one project.
Working this way helps the subject ideas for articles take on many dimensions. Also, the doors that open could surprise you. At present, I try very hard to take my own advice. During the hurricane-produced rains, we experienced leaks – plural. First, a toilet then a shower. They trickled through the flooring, into the walls, and ruined the kitchen/dining room floor, a ceiling, plus the hall closet.
The shower had to be ripped out, the toilet repaired, and the dining room and kitchen re-floored. In the meantime, we found copper pipes that needed to be replaced and another floor with rotten joints. The cable and internet service went out at the same time, so my husband also replaced the modem and the router with still no service.
When I complained to my friend, she smiled and said, “If there is humor in there, you will find it.”
I am still looking for the humor that will emerge with time and perspective. When I’m ready, I‘ll write about it. My daughters used to say, “Mommy, is this one of those things that will be funny one day, but right now isn’t?” Exactly.
Meanwhile Vinnie takes his van load of five-gallon water jugs, pastes a charity name on them, and places them all over town. He proceeds to set up an operation to collect the jugs, roll the coins, and deposit the donations. With a little ingenuity, Vinnie turns what could be a disaster into profits — money in the bank. And so will you once you become proficient at translating problems into opportunities as you think like a writer.