Most of us get this question and when I answer, as I sometimes do, “The newspaper,” I’m often met with incredulity. They legitimately ask, “‘Stoner & Spaz’ came out of the newspaper? No, but a decade or two ago ‘Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright.’ And after that ‘Margaux With an X.’ When I wrote for that TV cop show, everyone read the Metro section; we couldn’t think of crimes and capers as bizarre as the ones in the Times.

I was brooding about this the other day after an half hour in the library prowling the Teen Section, reading first pages, and feeling my spirits sink. So I made up a little exercise — I started with a middle-grade kid. He has a mouthy younger sister, and he suspects things aren’t going to well between his parents. At school, a best friend he shoots hoops with has started hanging out with a guy our narrator can’t stand.
Conflict, right? One(s) we’ve all seen before. I’d have to be a better writer than I am now to turn that story into anything. So I opened the newspaper to a heartwarming story about a ten year old, blind baseball player. Hmmm. Heartwarming makes me want to slit my wrists. What if my narrator’s sister was blind and a pain in the butt. He has to look out for her and she doesn’t like being dependent. Now I’m interested. The problem with the parents and the narrator’s best friend issue glide into the background.
I turn the page: a young woman who’s gone missing turns up. She wasn’t kidnapped; she just ran away, unable to face her parents and friends who thought she was a UCLA student when she really wasn’t.
So our narrator senses his parents aren’t connecting anymore, his younger sister is acting out, his best friend has abandoned him and then he gets a call from his missing sister who says, “You have to help me!” I’m interested again.
Everyone knows the apothegm about trying: There’s no such thing. You’re either writing or you’re not. So maybe not so much thinking. Are you floundering? Open the newspaper.