On New Blood, Next Books, & Tending the Well (and Self)

Turning in a book is like graduating, or making a purchase you have saved and scraped for, or (this writer imagines) achieving long-schemed revenge: victory followed by a fog of purposelessness. You go from hell-bent, immersed, and productive to…not in the time it takes to send an email. Then, slowly or with evil speed, the real demon rises:

What now?

The next book is a logical answer. But what if you aren’t one of those writers blessed with constant ideas as you go? What if to start a novel you, like me, need that one enchanting, concrete detail of something that sings to you so deeply you cannot help but write a story around it – and don’t have it yet?

You start looking. Digging. Mining for that glint of a diamond. But if the gems are half-cooked? If all you find is coal? You can carve and hack and try and try and try to cobble pieces together, reverse engineer something, and still come back empty-handed.

What now?

In writing, this is where you’d turn to showers or a walk or some activity, place your thoughts can go to simmer. But calling up the heart of a novel is thornier magic than summoning names or a plot fix, and doesn’t come from nothing. A potion is only as good as its ingredients, and if something’s stale or lacking, all the stirring in the world won’t make it act right. So how do you enrich the pot – or, as I am trying to work on – keep a fresh stock roiling in the background?

You add to it.

You pour new life into the well.

The creative well: that’s what I hear it aptly called. The confluence of our inputs, from the wealth of our own lives and experiences to those we curate: favorite shows and reading and music, what we do, live, consume. Writing this, I wonder if that’s not just the subconscious: that dreambed of parts and possibilities we all carry, ever soaking and swirling.

So why is it so damned hard to harness sometimes?

In my limited, but growing experience, I’ve found ideas need at least two things to manifest:

  1. influences – parts of stories, art, research, experience, pop culture, events, etc. that excite us – and
  2. leisure. The time, and a space where your mind is relaxed and not looking for ideas – but has the luxury to wander, consider and connect. Sometimes right into them.

So if I’m feeling creatively stagnant, I’ve learned, and aerating the cauldron isn’t working (hello fodder folders, short works, journals of meandering freewrites), it’s time to mix things up. That might mean reading more, a new show or music, going out of my way to do or see something that interests me. Like cooking, there are endless ways to make a dish, and sometimes it’s more about intuiting needs than the recipe. What am I missing? What do I crave more of? What would I like to try, or haven’t I tried before?

Recently, I turned in a draft and felt something greater lacking. I was hungry – and not just for a new podcast or genre. Incidentally, I kept seeing people talk about hobbies and the importance of pursuing something regularly, for fun, not related to your vocation. Play. And maybe that’s where the magic happens: when we free ourselves of constraints and expectation and do something just for us. At a minimum, I figured, a new activity would be refreshing – and maybe operating at a different wavelength would rake the well.

So I turned to art, my longest-neglected hobby. And currently I’m beginning something I have dreamed of for several years: making art on a tablet, and taking art-related classes on Skillshare. (See new banner!) Is it turning up new story leads? Not measurably, not yet. But it is:

  1. feeding the well, as I can listen to audiobooks, music, shows, podcasts, etc. while drawing
  2. a thing that occupies me and isn’t writing, which is where I tend to find ideas
  3. soul nourishment
  4. giving back to me. I’m learning something new, plus efforts yield visible fruit at the end of the day. I love that every finished piece is something you get to keep, share, enjoy — perhaps put to purpose (and I have one in mind – keep an eye out in the coming months, or catch glimpses of work over on Instagram & Twitter!)

But can we focus on those last two a minute? Number three in particular?

This post has taken weeks to write, because when I set out to, I think I felt this latent pressure to justify how this new venture I was pouring time and self into was helping my writing. But that’s just it – I think that’s the whole point. People, but perhaps especially creatives, need a non-work hobby that nourishes the soul, period. It shouldn’t have to help writing or whatever your vocation is. In fact, having no bearing on the writing is what makes it self-care, and therefore specifically by virtue of not helping writing IT IS HELPING WRITING, because it helps me function as a human being. It is grounding, meditation, an anchor when I need one. It is wonder and joy.

It is a thing that makes me okay with not yet knowing or throwing myself at my next passion project—

Which is exactly what I think I need to find it.

7 Things I’ve Learned About Coming Up With Ideas

Traditionally, I’ve always entered the brainstorm stage with equal parts dread and thrill: thrill because the slate is clean, the world is wide, I can write anything; dread because the page is blank, and so is my head, oh god, why did I choose writing?*

Between different drafts of projects this year, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out, trying on, mocking up and tearing down ideas. Emphasis on the tearing down part (There’s a reason that this

ideas 1

is a writer stereotype.).

Fortunately, somewhere between all the desperate searching and lists and freewrites and plotting and summaries and metaphorical and actual crumpling of pages, I’ve managed to learn a few things about brainstorming and developing ideas efficiently. Things like:

1. Don’t wait until you’ve finished writing Project A to begin looking for/developing ideas for Project B. In the three novels I’ve written to date, I’ve always worked very one-project-at-a-time. While I think that’s productive in terms of keeping your head in the right story, it’s also a bit like going cold turkey off exercise or coffee or your favorite TV show whenever you get to a stopping point: suddenly a major part of your routine is gone, and you’re left dizzy and wanting and yes, probably even a bit cranky. You’ll save the stress if you have the core of another project (say, the logline) ready to go before you set the current one down.

2. Keep track of what interests you. Anything in this category has the potential to bleed into the important question, What is a story I’d want to read?, and its faithful companion, the story I want to write. Create a collection, real or virtual, for this express purpose, and if you’re ever in need of a starting point, just open it and play with its contents.

3. From one certainty, the world (Look for ideas in likely places). I’ve talked previously about sparks, the thing entire stories unfold from. While I still believe that sparks cannot be made, I do think we can be smart about where we look for them (see #2). And if we’re willing to mine away in a likely place, working at it even when we can’t see that first edge that glitters, chances are we’ll strike something precious eventually.

4. Think big (picture). Zoom out. When developing ideas into stories, start with overarching elements like concept, plot, conflict. Your spark might be a smaller detail, but the big stuff is fundamental. A good test to see if your story is ready to write (indeed, objectively sound and interesting enough to be worth writing): can you write a compelling synopsis in 100-250 words? How about a logline?

5. Legos, and let go. Here is why I’m suddenly feeling like I’ve learned something in this game: In playing with the bigger pieces first (attaching items that intrigue me to different characters, situations, formats, etc., and experimenting/rearranging them like Legos), I feel I’ve become able to recognize early on ideas that don’t sing: aren’t compelling enough, remind me too much of another story, would work better in another genre, etc. And when I do, I can swiftly set them aside and try something else.

6. There is value in knowing what you DON’T want to write, too. Seriously. Just crossing items off the list of endless possibilities (“not fantasy”; “not romance-based”; “no suicide, no road trip, no manic pixie dream girl”) is grounding and steers you in the right direction (or at least, away from the wrong ones).

7. If you’re focusing on a specific category, do recon. Ideally, you’re well read in that category already. Whether you are or not, one quick way to learn about it and maybe even generate ideas is to make a trip to the bookstore or library and spend time reading jackets. Reading the premises of many different stories in your genre, you’ll get a better understanding of what’s been done before and what hasn’t, what compels you and what doesn’t, not to mention find potential comp titles and additions to your TBR! All of which feeds into your idea pool.

Other things you’ve learned about finding and developing ideas? Share away!

Finally,

*I could not help but notice that part of this sentence formed a haiku:

The page is blank and

so is my head, oh god, why

did I choose writing?

Active Daydreaming: When do your thoughts fly?

So today I was working out– running and listening to music– with a new book idea in the back of my mind. At some point, I started thinking about that book. I started thinking about the main character and who she was and how she behaves and what’s in her past and these scenes, these tiny glimpses of her life just began to reveal themselves to me. I started seeing relationships between things, characters, picturing events. After a while I looked up and was stunned to see 30 minutes was nearly up. I had totally tuned out my music, though my body was still running in time with it. I had been in THE ZONE.

One of my biggest rules for idea development is to spend time in places you can hear yourself think. This invites the mind to wander, to slip into domino thought streams and envision and invent, but I must admit, getting into active daydream mode (where your ideas freely leap from one to the next for any real stretch of time) is something I find much harder to do on command than not. Near impossible to do before a word processor.

The reason I wanted to share today’s experience (other than sheerly marveling that wow, that actually happens sometimes) is that to ask other writers: Do you notice any pattern about when your mind seems to open up the most (e.g., when you do dishes, exercise, read, etc.)? When parts of the story come at you of their own volition? I once read that Stephen King walks for three hours every day, thinking about his books. Maybe there’s something to it.

Ideas: Throwing Out vs. Digging Deep

Ideas are work.

More than once I have started down the path of a story idea and come up against major obstacles. “Ugh, that’s too trope-y,” or “No, that reminds me too much of [other book].” And you know what it’s tempting to do when you hit a big picture snag like that? Write the whole idea off. Because, who wants to waste time developing something problematic at its very foundation?

But here’s the thing.

“Obstacles” can be gotten round. “Problems” can be solved. X has already been done before? Big whoop. What’s new? (Certainly not the grievance that it’s all been done before.) Y is a hackneyed cliché that you’ll eat paste and die before subscribing to? Clichés are as old as time raised your ancestors, but they still managed to invent things. So do we.

My point is this: when you recognize a problem with an idea, that is not just cause for casting the idea away. That is cause for putting the problem under your microscope, studying it, and accepting it as your first creative challenge.

If the core of your idea, if the thing that first sparked it is original and raw and excites you, it is worth breaking rocks for.

What is the spark/heart/core of your idea? The spark is often the first thing about the idea that came to you. It could be a concept, a scene, a phrase, a spoken line. It is the thing from which everything else unfolds. It is the one essential, non-negotiable bone of your story (And here is what has been a recent revelation for me: Especially in the planning stages, most of your story is negotiable). If you can isolate the spark, you can carry it through different permutations until you find the pieces it fits with.

That’s not to say you mightn’t need to put an idea down for a while and let it sit, get some distance and perspective—but if you have your spark, and you can pinpoint your concerns—even the big picture ones—you can creative your way around them. Give them a twist. Come up with something else. Try new pieces on, cast old ones away or rearrange them.

But if the spark of your story grabs you, for fiction’s sake, don’t throw it out!

Dig deeper.

Story ideas: Don’t scrabble for them. Dig.

It’s been a weird month, creatively speaking.

At the end of September, I was in serious doubt about the new book I was outlining. I had planned so much, could see certain scenes so clearly, and was so devilishly excited by them– but I had concerns, too. Big ones. Not only questions of POV and first or third person, but ones like: “Does this too closely resemble X?” and “Does too much of this ride on a hackneyed trope?” Instincts mean a lot in the arts, and these questions were enough to give me pause.

So I decided to let the story go. Or at least put it away for a while.

I went into October, then, with no project in progress– nothing I was actively working on, either writing or putting my head to. It was the first time I’ve experienced that since I started pursuing a career as an author.

It felt like this:

via Emily McDowell. And minus the “genius” part.

It was awful.

I racked my brain. I turned to old documents and file folders for interesting nuggets. I freewrote, made mind maps, compiled lists in search of a spark. I studied concepts, picked up books like Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, tried to jumpstart my subconscious.  I preoccupied myself, got out and away from the pressure; I deconstructed books hoping to learn something. But I had nothing.

I began to feel bleak, frustrated. Maybe even panicked.

Then, one day near the middle of the month, I had a REALLY COOL IDEA. Boom. Out of nowhere. I spent the morning and afternoon daydreaming about it, letting it run wild, taking notes. It had merit. I had something, and it felt good.

But by the end of the day, I recognized a familiar problem: though the premise was fresh (as far as I knew, anyway), the setup reminded me too much of other books.

I sighed and I put it away.

As a writer, you’re told everything’s been done before. Still, you burn to be original– or at the very least, not derivative (or anything that feels derivative, even if it isn’t). So I kept going.

Another week of creative purgatory– then, without warning, I found myself latched to an old idea I’d scribbled down months, maybe a year ago, but written off as bland, underdeveloped. But this time was different. This time it fused with another idea, and click– there was the spark.

I worked at it; began seeing scenes; connected more dots; loved it; came up against challenges; dealt with them. I WAS MOVING AGAIN. There was one point when I hit a wall (a big picture, scaffolding wall), but I couldn’t let the story go this time. Not this one, which I couldn’t stop thinking about and didn’t remind me of anything else. I told myself there was a solution; I just had to find it.

And after a few more days, I did.

There are two points to this post. First, sparks are unpredictable, but ideas are always work. You never know when you’ll get that flash of something bigger– but when you do, it is merely a matter of digging the story out. And digging can be done. Like solutions, stories are there; they have only to be found.

Second, however hopeless or creatively empty or absolutely, irrevocably certain you feel that you will never have another idea again, there are always ideas to be had. In less than a month I have seriously entertained plans for three entirely different novels (even if I ended up dismissing two). That’s a lot for someone feeling creatively frustrated.

Stories are all around us. Our job, when we catch a wink of one, is to write it down– and then come back with a pickaxe.