Where do you get your ideas?
Writers are asked that question so often by fans that it has turned into a standing joke. I have a dream that someday I’ll be asked that question in a panel or at a book signing. My answer will be to get the fan to list three words. Then I’ll take those three words and turn them into a one-paragraph story idea, which will be both coherent and interesting.
I can do that. Everyone writer has a superpower, and generative creative thinking happens to be mine. So why, if I’m so creative, have I spent the last month trying and failing to come up with an idea for my next novel?
Because a fixation on creativity is as likely to kill ideas as it is to germinate them. If you are a pathologically original writer you understand what I am.
Someone saying they are too creative for their own good might sound like an intolerably good-looking man complaining that he just gets too many sultry looks from sexy ladies, but it’s true. The problem isn’t that I can’t come up with ideas. The problem is that I always reject them.
They’re not original enough. Or they feel really interesting when I come up with them in the shower, but when I write them down I realize they’re not that interesting. Or I worry that someone has already done that before. Didn’t I run into a story about a psychic dog who set up a dream-based real estate company inside the collective unconscious of the world’s redwood trees? In a Russian weird tales magazine from the 70s? I’d better spend the next four hours hunting that down, instead of writing. Yes, that is definitely what I need to do.
Even if you aren’t quite this bad, many writers fall prey to this dangerous illusion. You don’t want to write something derivative, so you reject your ideas before they can blossom.
The fact is that your most original, fascinating, or out-there ideas won’t necessarily be the ones that will make the best stories. I love China Mieville and Phillip K. Dick, but when I think about most of my favorite stories, very few of them are terribly original.
A story is more than the sum of its ideas. 90% of the success of a story is in the execution. Characters, theme, relatability, and emotional impact are all—as difficult as it is for me to admit that—even more important that a pure measurement of absolute creativity. Don’t reject potentially good ideas as unoriginal before you’ve had a chance to develop them and see what they can turn into.
On the other hand, a story without characters, theme, relatability, or emotional impact would be really cool, wouldn’t it? Damn. How creative.
- I’m not quite sure where I am going with this story or article.
- I have research to do, and I’m not sure where to begin.
- I know how to do this scene, but once I’m done that I’m not sure what to do next and I’m worried I will start to flounder.
- I don’t understand these characters well enough to write about them believably.
- I could start writing, but since I don’t have my themes figured out, I’m just going to have to do a bunch of rewriting.
- I am worried that what I am writing isn’t interesting, original, or well-developed enough.
All of these problems produce the same highly obnoxious result: I don’t write anything. I freeze up, with that nasty, anxious feeling in my chest. It all stems from a single central problem: Being so worried about how far away the finish line is that you are afraid to take the next step.
In life, as in writing, you only ever have one decision to make. No matter how complicated your task, no matter how huge the project, you only have one single question to answer:
What am I going to do right now? What am I going to do next?
Big picture thinking and long-term goal setting is only important if you can answer Yes! to the following question:
Am I moving forward?
If looking at the big picture is keeping you from taking that next step, you need to stop doing it right now and take a step. While it’s true that momentum is not the same thing as progress, doing anything is always better than doing nothing.
However, that doesn’t mean you should be careless about it. For a long time I read this kind of advice and assumed that the solution to the writer’s freeze-up is always to do more writing. To just write and try to blast through my paralysis. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. That leads us to our next important point:
Sometimes, the next step is to figure out the problem.
Sometimes the way to move forward is to stop and figure out why you are stuck. The feeling of intimidating often comes in the form of a vague and indefinable sense of dread and helplessness. The task ahead of you seems so big and scary that your response is to freeze up and not deal with it. That way lies paralysis.
- When you find yourself stuck, take a deep breath and go through the following steps:
- Ask yourself exactly what the problem is. Be specific, be honest, and be brutal.
- Spend 10 minutes writing down potential next steps. If you don’t know what the scene after this one is going to be, maybe you need to brainstorm ideas before you start writing. If you don’t know how to do the research because it seems too huge, spend some time narrowing down the micro-specific area you need to research.
- Pick a single step that you think might move you forward. A single step you can execute right now.
- Execute that step! Do that research, or free-write about the characters that are giving you trouble, or write a brief outline or treatment of your next few scenes.
- Check to see if it is working. If it is, great! You’ve solved your problem! Enjoy it while it lasts. If it isn’t working, then either you have mis-identified the problem or you don’t have the correct next step. Start over! Trust me. It’s worth it.
The worst thing you can do in your writing is stop working on it when it gets too intimidating. It’s a natural reaction, and the best way around it is to have a careful and specific strategy for dealing with it. This is the one that has worked for me. Give it a try, and see what it does for you.
Let’s start with a universal question. Or, if you prefer, a cliché: What were you doing when you heard that an airplane had crashed into the twin towers?
Every generation has moments like this. The bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Kennedy assassination. The Challenger explosion. You’ve probably read dozens of articles that begin with this question. They are cliche for a reason.
Chances are you not only remember where you were and what you are doing, but that you remember it in exceptional detail. More vividly than whatever you were doing a week before that day or a week after. You have many memories like this crawling around your brain. Memories of moments of shock and intense emotional revelation.
Some are shared cultural experiences and some of them are personal. Maybe you have a similar memory of the moment you learned of the death of a loved one. Or the first time you bit down on a Twinkie, if you are a particularly intense Twinkie fan.
Experimental psychologists call these types of memories flashbulb memories, a term coined by Brown and Kulik in a 1977 study. They have certain features in common:
- They are unusually detailed, containing more small and inconsequential details than other memories.
- They often involve multiple senses.
- They have strong emotional intensity.
- They feel more real than other memories.
- They last in your mind longer with more clarity than other memories.
There are various theories about how flashbulb memories are formed and why they stand out so strongly. Emotional impact appears to be a major factor. Another is that they last longer because you revisit flashbulb memories and tell them to others over and over throughout your life.
As writers we all strive to create moments with our prose that stand out in our readers’ minds. A major reason that we put our words down on paper is so that they are remembered and discussed when we aren’t around, or after we are gone. As such, flashbulb memories have a lot to teach us about what kinds of things people remember most vividly.
When crafting a piece of writing, whether it be a fictional interchange between two lovers or a recounting of real-life drug addiction in Central Africa, the more your readers remember it the more of an impact it will have. It can be the most intense scene ever written, but if it is forgotten three minutes after it is read it might as well have been a listing of stamp prices.
Most of us try to make our scenes memorable by making them more emotionally impactful. This is important, but it isn’t enough. It has to have as many of the traits of flashbulb memories as possible so that when people try to remember it their brains can use the processes they already use when creating powerful memories.
That means important scenes need to have:
- Sensory detail. Our brains remember sounds and scents and the scratchy feeling of the wool sweater rubbing against our sweaty chest on a hot day. The richer the detail the easier the scene will be to remember. This doesn’t mean more detail. Just stronger detail.
- Little details. The more alive a scene feels the more the mechanics of memory have to latch on to. Two people can have a mundane conversation in a featureless room. But an important, life-changing conversation should take place in a room with a battered old desk and a night-light that looks like Oscar the Grouch.
- Emotional impact. Flashbulb memories are created when something happens that knocks you entirely out of your comfort zone. Nothing is the same after these moments, and you feel it.
- Re-tellability. That’s not a word, but it’s still important. If a reader goes over a scene over and over in their mind they will remember it. If they are so moved by the scene that they have to tell their friends about it, they will remember it, for the simple reason that repetition reinforces memory. Write and rewrite your most important scenes until they have that property. Easier said than done, but it’s vital.
Chances are there are scenes in books or movies that you remember with the kind of clarity normally reserved for important events in your life. Go back and look at those scenes. More likely than not they had most or all of the properties of flashbulb memories. Put these traits into your own writing and you won’t be easily forgotten.
We talked about how and why performing automatic activities such as writing and showering lead to creative thinking. Now we discuss specific ways to put this into practice. Many writers suggest that if you struggling to find ideas and not finding them you should go for a walk. That’s a great place to start. But once you understand the mechanisms that underlie why going for a walk launches you into a creative space, you can take some extra steps to make it work even better.
Here are a few good ones.
1. Prime the Pump Before Activity
The problem with letting your mind wander freely is that it wanders freely. Maybe you go for a walk hoping for a breakthrough on how your characters can overcome a specific obstacle, but instead you find yourself brainstorming about how to remodel your kitchen. So before you go, put yourself into the right head space. Read the last few pages of what you have written. Or spend 10 minutes brainstorming, no matter how unproductive it is. Then immediately go for that walk. Make sure to put your shoes on first.
2. Perform Automatic Writing Every Single Day
Automatic writing is another oft-prescribed trick for generating ideas. If you have tried it and it hasn’t worked for you it is probably for a very simple reason: it isn’t automatic enough. If you don’t write very often, or you are in a slump where you haven’t been writing lately (it happens to all of us!) you might be struggling just to force yourself to move forward. This makes the activity deliberate rather than automatic, and so it isn’t nearly so creative. Try doing 10 minutes of automatic writing every day. Because it is such a simple and natural activity (after all, you are a writer), it likely won’t take more than a few days to become automatic. Then you can just sit back and watch the creativity pour out of you.
3. Do Writing Drills
Writing prompts can be great, but they are the opposite of automatic. If you struggle with generating ideas writing prompts can often cause the worst kind of mental freeze-ups, because they start you from an absolutely blank canvas. A better way to use them is to flip the entire concept of writing prompts around. Instead of doing a new prompt when you need a creative boost, trying practicing the same prompt over and over again. It should be a fairly open-ended prompt with a lot of creative space, but not too much. It should also be fairly short. Here is an example:
4. Write one page of dialogue between two characters that hate each other.
At first it will be difficult. But once you do it 10 or 20 or 50 times, you’ll be amazed at how automatic the activity will become. Not only will you start to develop your own patterns and formulas for this specific task, it will lead to a place of automaticity where your mind can work on other, related things. You might find on your 50th repeat of this prompt that it leads to insight into an entirely different piece of dialogue you’ve been struggling with.
5. Try Structured Automatic Writing
This is a strange technique, so bear with me. Write a detailed outline of a very short story. Make sure that you know exactly how the story will play so that when you write it there will be no surprises or difficulty. Once you have done this, go ahead and write the story as quickly as possible, without taking your fingers off of the keyboard. Don’t worry if the story is any good!
When you do this a few times you will find that the act of writing the story becomes rather automatic. It is a lot like going for a walk, only you are writing. It will free up your creative mind in a similar way, and as soon as you are finished the automatic writing task you can jump straight into whatever piece of writing you were originally working on.
6. Combined Automaticity With Association
I find it even easier to be creative when the physical space or conditions are the same as they were last time I was creative. Walking is good, but walking the same path can be even better. You can enhance this effect by adding other sense. Start your creative activity by listening to a specific song, or eating an apple. Then, next time, when you listen to that song or taste that apple your brain will go to the same creative place it did before. When you want to go for a walk to think creatively about a different subject, listen to a different song or eat a different fruit. One theory about creativity is that it is associative memory that works quickly. Use your brains strong links between association and sensation to supercharge this effect.
When do you come with your most interesting and creative ideas? If you are like most people, you say “in the shower,” “while driving,” or “while out for a walk.” Or, if you are a particularly pessimistic person, “right before I go to sleep so I have no possibility of writing it down before it’s sucked up into my inevitable nightmares.”
Let’s ignore that last one for a moment and focus on the first three. What do showering, driving, and walking all have in common? If it’s raining and your car has a moon-roof that won’t close, the answer might be “it’s wet.” But assuming none of that is true, the important answer is that these are all physical activities that are easy for you. Your body and the automated parts of your brain on focused on an activity, but they don’t have to try too hard. You don’t have to think about how to lather up your hair or put one foot in front of the other.
It’s true that lots of things are easy. Sitting in front of your computer with your fingers on the keyboard is easy. Lying in bed on a Saturday morning is easy. But often those are the worst situations for coming up with ideas. So what else do showering, walking, and driving have that makes them such fertile soil for ideas?
They’re easy, but they aren’t effortless. They take actual activity, but you perform that activity automatically. That, it turns out, is the key. When you perform a simple activity that you have practiced so thoroughly it has turned into an automatic, mechanical action, something pretty amazing happens. Part of your brain is busy and part of your brain is free.
The part that is busy is the part that fiddles with coins in your pocket or tears up the corners of paper menus into tiny shreds that the waitress will have to deal with later. It’s the part that compulsively checks Facebook, not because you want to check Facebook three minutes after you checked it when all of your friends were asleep and there was nothing going on to make it worth checking the first time let alone again, but because it has nothing else to do. In other words, automatic activity occupies the part of your brain that is easily distracted.
Meanwhile, your higher functions are unburdened. On the one hand, they are not distracted by stupid things like Facebook and paper menus. On the other hand, they are not engaged by legitimately difficult tasks like math equations or character dialogue. This leaves your mind free to wander and free associate under the purest and best possible conditions. In other words, it is supercharged for creativity.
Daniel Coyle discusses the link between automaticity and creative thinking in The Talent Code. In his research into why Brazillian soccer players are so creative while they play, he discovered that the secret is, contrary to what intuition would suggest, rote practice.
The Brazillians practice the basic skills so thoroughly and under such ideal conditions that those skills become automatic. When the players are in the middle of the game the motor programs in their brain take control of the task of moving the ball, and their higher functions are free to analyze the field and the other players and devise with creative solutions to obstacles. If you’ve ever performed a high-intensity task that you knew so well that the world seemed to slow down in front of you, you’ve experienced this effect for yourself.
Automaticity has the powerful ability to shut down the parts of your brain that inhibit the creative process, and allow the awesome, creative part of you to go to town. In the next post we’ll talk about some specific ways to put all of this into practice.
Most writers spend a lot more time thinking about writing, or planning to write, than actually getting words down on the page. We want desperately to tell our stories, but we find reasons not to do so right at this moment. There will always be time, we tell ourselves. Or, my story isn’t finished yet. When the time is right, then I’ll do it. Then I’ll tell my stories.
I’ve been helping to take care of my mother in law for almost 5 years, ever since her husband had a stroke that left him paralyzed. During that time we’ve become very, very close. This is a woman who has hugged Desmond Tutu and debated music theory with world-famous composers—and kick their asses, to hear her tell of it. She has two masters degrees. She had a radio show on the same local station as Jeff Smith of the Frugal Gourmet, and hers was much more popular. She once crawled out onto a thirty foot high scaffolding to fix a radio antenna that had been knocked over by a lightning storm. All of the guys, the rest of the AV department, were too scared to go up there.
She’s now 74 years old, and she’s been scatty as long as I’ve known her. She often loses words or forgets which stories she has told to which people.Some time in the last six weeks it has blossomed into full-blown dementia.
She can still get around a bit and make herself meals. But when she talks she stops making sense after about a sentence or two. Six weeks ago she was playing word scramble games, and reading novels she had never read before. Six weeks ago we had long conversations about etymology and the way interpretations of the Bible have changed during her lifetime and the centuries before.
She’s an old woman, and she hasn’t been in good health for a long time. But six weeks ago she would have said that her story wasn’t finished. That if she wanted to, there was plenty of time left to tell her stories. Now she gets dressed to go out to appointments she doesn’t have, and can’t subtract seven from one hundred.
There are a lot of little truths about writing, but only one big one. But it’s so big that it’s been said hundreds of thousands of different ways, and every one of them mattered. It’s been repeated over and over, and for every writer all over the world, of any level of skill or success or passion, it needs to continue to be repeated until you can’t hear it anymore. You already know what it is. Every writer does.
You need to get writing.
You might think you have time. You might think you aren’t done learning or growing. You might think your mind will be strong and clear for long enough that there’s no reason not to put writing aside for just a little while longer.
Six weeks ago, so did she.
The goal of writing is to communicate ideas from one mind to another. But sometimes it’s difficult to find the right words. We all have these marvelous, complex, nuanced worlds inside of our heads. It is staggering that other people can’t see them. They’re so obvious.
Or sometimes you want to express to someone the depth and intensity of emotion that churns inside of you every time you see their smile. But the sensation is too big for words. So you stutter, and struggle, and stammer out “I love you” like you have eight billion times before.
You hope desperately that they understand that when you’re around them your blood cells become rose petals and the air becomes honey and when they smile that sweet hot wicked smile you feel like a dolphin must feel when it bursts out from the ocean after a deep dive and fills its lungs with tropical air. But the images hide under your tongue, and you don’t want to puree your metaphors.
Wouldn’t it be great if could abandon the clunky tool of language and pour our thoughts directly into each other’s open minds? Wouldn’t it solve all of the worlds communication problems if we could just ditch this inefficient talking nonsense and communicate telepathically?
If humans had telepathy there would be no miscommunication. Imagine that world for a moment. Every one of us would be able to convey to everyone else exactly what we thought, with no mistakes or errors.
Or subtleties. Or nuances. Or metaphor, symbolism, or poetic imagery. Because nuances are by definition ideas that are not conveyed clearly. They are tiny little things, clinging to the edges of our words and hiding in the shadows cast by our expressions. What is poetry but an attempt to communicate in small packets of words ideas that should take a thousand pictures?
The goal of writing is to communicate ideas from one mind to another. But the beauty of writing comes not from the perfection of communication, but from its flaws. The power of writing emerges from the way sentences planted by the writer blossom into great torrents of foliage in the reader’s mind.
Therein lies the paradox of writing. As a writer it is your task to communicate your ideas with purity and clarity. But the strength of your writing lies in its carefully sculpted use of miscommunication. It lies in the gaps between what you intend to say and the flawed and limited medium with which you say it.
There is no magic in the word sunset. Those six letters alone cannot convey the majesty of the pink light as it scatters across the cloud-laced twilight sky.Your writing cannot perfectly pluck the sunset from your brain and flick it into the eye of your reader. But somewhere in every reader’s mind is the memory of that moment when they looked up at a sunset and it was magical. If you choose your words with care, maybe you can reach in, touch that memory, and wake it up.
That is the paradox of writing. Not to achieve perfection, but to fail spectacularly.
I have terrible handwriting. Just god awful. If you compare my handwriting to that of a dyslexic eight year old, you’re likely to come out with a new respect for dyslexic eight year olds.
It sounds like a terrible thing. A character flaw that negatively affects my life. But it really isn’t. Having bad handwriting is great! It has gotten me out of so many jams over the years.
When I did bad on spelling tests in school, it wasn’t a reflection of my intelligence. Sometimes the teacher read my answers wrong, because I had bad handwriting.
Sometimes in my old job at the sandwich shop, the guy that normally wrote the trivia on the blackboard was sick and someone else had to do it. It was time-consuming and annoying and everyone was busy. But I never had to, because it had to look good, and I had bad handwriting.
So you see? Bad handwriting isn’t my enemy. It’s one of my oldest and most reliable friends. There have been many obstacles in my life that would have challenged and frustrated me. But instead of having to deal with them, I had a note from my friend, bad handwriting. All I had to do was whip out the note, and then I didn’t even have to try!
When you ask writers why they write, or how they find the motivation to keep going, you often hear an answer like this:
I’ve always written. When I was little I would sneak away from my parents and sit under a tree and just write and write. For me, writing is like oxygen. It’s like food. It nourishes my life and my waking moments. There’s never been a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. I couldn’t not write even if I wanted to.
For some aspiring writers an answer like this is inspiring, because they feel exactly the same way.
For others it’s terrifying.
If you don’t feel like this, is there any point in trying to be a writer? Do you need to wake up with story ideas swimming behind your eyes, bursting to flood out through your fingertips?
The idea used to scare the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong; I love writing, and I have from a young age. But I love a lot of other things, too. I’ve gone for years without doing much of any writing at all. Whenever I heard a writer talking about how “writing is like oxygen” and how they couldn’t live without it, my insides tensed up. Did this mean I didn’t have what it took to be a writer? Is it worth writing at all if it isn’t an all-consuming passion?
Those fears were thoroughly squashed by a panel I attended at a science fiction convention. The panel was called “Organic vs. Structured Writing,” and it was hosted by four published, successful SF novelists.
Someone asked the panelists the dreaded question, as someone always done in something like this. “Why do you write? How do you find the motivation to keep writing?”
The first answer came from a writer who was very much on the “organic writing” side of the equation. She gave the same answer I had come to expect. Writing was like breathing. She has never gone a day without writing. She has to either write or explode.
My heart sank. And then the next panelist spoke up, and changed everything.
“Writing is very difficult for me. I have to struggle to make myself write every day. When I’m between novels I can spend weeks or even months without writing, and without even thinking much about writing. It’s important to write as often as you can, but you have to be realistic. A good start is to write 500 words a day, and see where that gets you. I remember once I set myself a task where I tried to write 1000 words every day for a month, and I couldn’t do it.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. This was a published, successful science fiction novelist. She had written half a dozen novels and right now was addressing a panel full of fans who were desperate to replicate her success.
She didn’t write every day.
She didn’t feel that if she didn’t spend every free moment writing she would explode.
She didn’t have the all-consuming passion to write at the expense of everything else in her life.
And she made it anyway.
It’s important to love writing if you want to be a writer. Passion is certainly a part of the equation. But it isn’t the whole equation, and it isn’t the only option.
Professional writers have a wide variety of personality types and approaches to their writing. You don’t need an enormous wellspring of passion. You just need enough to make you care. Enough to make you keep going. You have your own reason why writing is important enough to you for you to pursue it, despite all of the difficulties. That reason, in all its nuance and complexity, is unique to you.
Whatever it is, it’s enough.