Lost in the words?

A marine inversion layer covered Vancouver in a blanket of fog for much of October. When I rode the SeaBus from Lonsdale Quay to Waterfront Station last week I couldn’t see six feet beyond the windows. That felt a bit like writing a novel:

  • I couldn’t see where I was going. 
  • I couldn’t be certain of reaching my hoped-for destination
  • There was a sense of being suspended in time and space with a cast of unknown characters  
  • The short commuter ride into the gloom was both frightening and exhilarating.

Word count: 433                                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Over the years I’ve collected some tools and practises that help me navigate past the obstacles that threaten the direction of my work:

  • Free writing. Ten minutes minimum. Don’t lift the pen from the page. Just keep going. Great prompts for free writing exercises can be found here, Sarah Selecky and here, Writers Write Daily Writing Prompt.
  • Copy type. I pull out work by a respected author and let his or her words flow through me. Ten minutes minimum.
  • Don’t worry about the big picture: look at what is in front of the bow. Write that one small scene. The next day, write another one.
  • Get on a bus. Go to a coffee shop. Listen, smell, taste, and feel. Give the brain a holiday from the screen.
  • Turn off the ruthless self-editor. Accept permission to write something truly dreadful. After that, there is no way but up.
  • Read a good craft book. There are tried and proven ways to improve writing; skills can be sharpened, new techniques can be tried.  
  • Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. Do something to wake the body up.
  • Share the work. On Questions Tuesday recently John Green said Curiosity is not the most important human trait. The urge to collaborate is. A second or third set of eyes are often the ones that find a critical weak spot and help a story shine.
  • Read the work aloud. From Neil Gaiman’s acknowledgments at the end of his book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane: As this book entered its second draft, as I was typing out my handwritten first draft, I would read the day’s work to my wife, Amanda, at night in bed, and I learned more about the words I’d written when reading them aloud to her than I ever have learned about anything I’ve done.  

What methods do you have for finding light in the darkness? How do you keep your bearings when the path ahead is unknown?

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 Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Burrard Street Bridge & Fog, DougVancouver

So what's the big idea?

If you go to writers’ festivals and sit through enough Q&A sessions, it’s likely you’ll hear this question posed to author panels at some time: Where do you get your ideas?

I’ve heard answers that ranged from the vague to the slightly sarcastic, “Ideas 101.”

Word count: 315 Reading time 1-2 minutes

Where do ideas come from? Here are some places:

  • First hand experience
  • Visual images
  • Tactile experiences
  • Music
  • Dreams
  • Conversations overheard
  • Stories in the news (TV and the movie industry tap this resource constantly)

If the above fails you, here are some are fallback techniques to open the mind and spark the creative flow:

  • Retell an old story
  • Write fan fiction (it worked for EL James)
  • Use an idea generator like the Archetype Writing. This helpful site doesn’t just give story prompts, it also offers assistance on developing character depth, and breaking writer’s block.

Lynda Barry reminds us, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits.” We can use our digits along with the rest of our senses not just to infuse a story, but to deliver one.

Seven years ago my senses ganged up on me when I walked into an old farmhouse. The former owner had been moved suddenly to a nursing home and her threadbare socks still hung above the Aga stove. The room smelled of washing powder and neglect. The curling family photographs, the dull afternoon light, and the chilly air stirred something deep inside me. That night I wrote the story Constant Cravings which you can read here.

So I’d like to know – where do you get your inspiration? Do your ideas find and possess you until you’ve captured them on the page? Are you often bombarded with so many ideas that the real challenge is in selecting just one? Or are you like Samuel Johnson, turning over half a library to make one book?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons