The Idea Vat (A Post on Writing Process)


One of the most frequent questions I get as an author is “Where do you get your ideas?”

As though there’s some central Idea Vat into which we writers dip in and pull out ideas.

I’m always puzzled when it comes from people who claim they want to write, but don’t know what to write about; most writers I know have far more ideas than they’ll ever be able to explore.

Non-writers are fascinated by the writing process (so are writers, but for different reasons). Writers tend to be fascinated by anyone’s process to do anything, because it’s all material.

There is no Magic Writing Bullet or Potion that will suddenly make one a creative genius churning out best-sellers and winning every award. Even the innately talented have to put in the work. I’ve had many talented writers in my workshops who were not willing to put in the necessary work. The ones who could outwork the more talented are the ones who usually end up sustaining a career.

I find the world an interesting place. Almost everything can be interesting, if approached from the right angle. Everyone has a unique story, which can be interesting, but too often is spewed out there for catharsis without being crafted. Catharsis is great, but sometimes it makes more sense to keep it in your private journal until you find the best way for that unique piece to be shared.

Where do I get my ideas?

From everywhere around me. A line in someone else’s story gets me thinking, “What if?” A fragment of an overheard conversation gets me thinking, “What if?” A news story or something heard on the radio or seen on social media gets the wheels turning. Visiting a new place inspires.

For me, setting is an additional character, and emotional geography is just as important as physical geography.

Paintings inspire me. If I’m stuck or feeling frustrated in my work, I go and look at paintings. A beautiful painting will inspire me to go back to the page — either because I’m no longer stuck or because the painting inspired a short story. Edward Hopper’s work, in particular, has inspired several short pieces.

Historical places and people inspire me. History is comprised of people and what they do. It’s not just events and dates — it’s the struggles, joys, and sorrows of those immersed in those events at those dates. Visiting an historical site often inspires me.

Soundtracks DO NOT inspire me. Soundtracks are created to support someone else’s creative vision. If I use a soundtrack when I’m writing fiction, unless that particular piece has relevance to the plot or character, it derails my work and bleeds into it.

I can always tell when my students have written something with a show or movie soundtrack on. I can usually tell what it is. Because it warps their writing.

If I have music on while I write, it’s instrumental, unless I’m listening to something specific to the plot or the character.

After the inspiration comes the work. Research, what I call “percolating.” I get an idea. I jot down notes.

I usually work from character first. Even if it’s inspired by a painting or an historical site or event, until I have my central character, I can’t do anything with it. Character, more characters, situation, then “what if?”

Then, I can work.

I usually write my way in to a new piece for about four chapters (if it’s a long work; if it’s short, I usually know within ten pages and can adjust). Four chapters (40-80 pages) gives me a good handle on whether or not this idea is viable.

Then I percolate for a bit, thinking about the idea while I’m doing other things. That negates the mindfulness in which we are supposed to do all things, but I often get my best ideas in the shower, or driving to the store, or cooking, or doing yard work.

Once I’ve percolated for a bit, I sit down and do my Writer’s Rough Outline.

For those blank-pagers (I loathe the term “pantser”) who are moaning — hey, do what works for you. This is my business, not my hobby. Writing is how I keep a roof over my head and food on the table. In order to do that, I have to juggle multiple projects. My time is as limited as anyone else’s. I don’t have the time to stare at a blank page or a blank computer screen. When I sit down in a work session, I need to be able to drop into whatever project I’m working on and produce my quota for that work session. Having a detailed Writer’s Rough allows me to do that.

It also allows me to move from project to project without losing the individual project rhythms, or having them bleed into each other.

Once I have my outline, I research what’s necessary and gather research materials to which I might need to refer as I write. I prefer to do that than put in a placeholder and look it up later for a different draft. Right now, I’m on too tight a deadline schedule for that to be viable.

I have X amount of time each day where I’m reading research for any number of projects, taking notes, making my bibliographical lists. This is separate from writing time.

Then I write. When a fiction or script project moves into “Primary” position, it means I do my first 1K/day of it first thing in the morning, at least six days a week. If I fall behind and have a deadline looming, I raise the quota to whatever it needs to be to get it done.

Once I have that first 1K done, I can move between whatever other projects are on contract and deadline and client work. If I can or need to have another fiction or script session later in the day (often on a different project), I add that in.

At the moment, I’m doing 2K/day on one novel, first thing in the morning, and then 1K/day later in the day on a different novel (with a slightly later deadline). And pulling together research for a play, while researching something that came up for one of the novels.

I prefer to edit in the afternoon. It needs a different approach. When editing/revising a novel, I do 3-5 chapters a day. And there is always more than one revision. before I turn it over to my editor. We usually have at least two rounds of revisions before it goes into production, and then as many rounds of galleys as needed or as can fit in to the schedule.

Because galleys are for copy edits and catching mistakes, NOT for major revisions. You have to train yourself to catch what needs to be caught in each phase of book production. Because it’s not just about YOU. It’s about the entire team working to make the book the best it can be.

Every book has its own rhythm and process, but the overall structure I talk about here is working for me right now. When it stops working, I’ll change it. Creativity is a process, and each piece you work on teaches something and makes it possible for the next to be better, artistically and in craft.

In a way, I suppose I do go to the Idea Vat, dip in a ladle, and pull out an idea. The Idea Vat is another name for the Creative Unconscious.




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