Your Guide to a Weekly Creativity Time

by James Scott Bell

If I may riff off Brother Gilstrap’s recent post, I think there are generally two types of writers. There are “natural” storytellers. John is one of them. I think he’s shared this here on TKZ, but I remember him telling me about getting virtually the entire story for Nathan’s Run while on a long drive. How’s that for nice?

Other writers have to dig in hard ground to find, stimulate, and coax ideas. Then take the good ones to the workshop and figure out the best way to develop them into stories. That would be me. When I started out on this writing journey I dove into study of the craft. I devoured writing books and subscribed to Writer’s Digest. I read popular fiction analytically to unpack how successful writers did things. I studied movies with an eye toward learning structure.

And when it came to finding ideas worth turning into full-length fiction, I found I couldn’t sit there waiting for one to show up. I had to follow Jack London’s advice: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club.”

Early on I read How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz. He has a section in there on finding story ideas. Among his suggestions:

Read widely. Newspaper stories can present the germ of an idea. Nonfiction on various subjects, too.

Write narrative hooks. Just sit at the keyboard and type hooks (first lines) until “you find one that is so intriguing that you simply must find out what happens next.” One day Koontz wrote:

“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.

He had no idea who Roy was or what he meant. But he sat there looking at it and it came to him (“out of my subconscious mind”) that Roy should be a boy of fourteen. From there his imagination started chugging and he wrote two pages of a conversation between Roy and a boy he named Colin. When he was finished he knew the book was going to be about the duality of human nature (good and evil), that Roy was the villain, and that the book would be fast-paced and suspenseful. Indeed it was, and became an early bestseller called The Voice of the Night.

Titles. Write out titles by the bunch until one of them tickles your fancy.

Characters. Start writing about an intriguing character and pile on backstory details. When one starts to take on life, ask:

  • What does the character fear more than anything else in the world?
  • What would be the very worst thing that could happen to him?
  • What event would throw his life into complete turmoil?

So I scheduled a weekly creativity time. A half hour to an hour sitting in a local coffee joint doing these exercises, just letting the ideas flow. After a few weeks I noticed that my creativity muscle was growing stronger. Indeed, it began working “on its own.” I’d be driving down the street and see a billboard and suddenly I’d be asking What if? What if that happy couple clinking champagne glasses is about to be blown up by a bomb?

I kept all my ideas in a file. When one of them cried out for further attention I put into “development.”

My first step in the development process is what I call a “white hot document.” This idea comes from Dwight Swain’s classic Techniques of the Selling Writer. You start a document that is an exercise in “focused free association.” You just start writing what comes to mind, go off on tangents, explore rabbit trails. Ideas for scenes, themes, characters, plot developments—write them all down without any intrusion from your inner editor.

You put this aside and come back the next day to edit and annotate. You take what’s most emotional and exciting for you and develop it further with more free association. Do this for several days and you’ll have a solid foundation for a plot. Swain wrote: “The important thing, always, is not to sit idly waiting for the feathers to grow. Don’t just hope for ideas. Hunt them down! Find a springboard! Develop a plan of action!”

So unless you are a natural storyteller, make it a point to exercise your imagination on a regular basis. Play games. Go wild. You’ll find good ideas soon enough and your creativity synapses will grow stronger.

Then all you have to do is write the novel. And the one after that. And the one…

What kind of storyteller are you—natural or a digger in hard ground? Where do your ideas come from? Do you wait for them to show up or do you light out after them with a club?

39 thoughts on “Your Guide to a Weekly Creativity Time

  1. Thanks, Jim, particularly for the wonderful quote from Jack London which I had not previously encountered.

    To answer your questions, I tend to dig in the hard ground (though sometimes the shovel needs to be replaced at Home Depot). I light out after my ideas with a car. I drive into unfamiliar (to me) areas of my metropolitan area and take mental snapshots of the guy with the barbecue pit in his front yard or the woman in the window of a boarding house with a smile on her face, singing to a group of small children sitting around her in the midst of uneasy squalor. I don’t recommend this method to everyone or even anyone, but it works for me.

    • I like your method, Joe. What a great idea to “capture” unique characters and then let the imagination take over. When I lived in NYC to pursue acting, I loved to go to Times Square (not like it is today!) or Wash. Square Park and just people watch for character studies. Endlessly fascinating.

  2. If either a digger or natural, I guess I’m the latter, because I certainly don’t go looking for ideas. Character names, beginnings and endings, titles, first lines – these just pop into my head. Once realized, my mind can’t let them go. Scenes come on road trips (hubby and I do a lot of traveling), while cooking, gardening, or even while shopping for groceries. As far as I can tell, nothing around me triggers the ideas, they’re just there. I’m not very good at writing them out, so they just simmer. I do have a spiral notebook I sometimes use for the scenes or conversations that I see or hear. One page in it has scenes from six different stories.

    I’m sure I need to just pick one and get it out on a computer. Each of over twenty stories has its own spiral notebook, with a style sheet drawn inside the front cover, characters on the facing page, and whatever notes I’ve jotted on the following pages. Last week, I sorted piles of notes, cut the sheets with several different story ideas so they could go in the appropriate file, and got it all neatly organized. Will I settle in and start typing? I don’t know, but I hope to.

  3. Thanks for this, Mr. Bell. I just turned in the wip to my editor, and now it’s time to plan the next book. All I know so far is that it has to be set in Croatia, or at least enough of it to satisfy the IRS. And, it’ll probably be another “International Mystery Romance” so I can connect it to Heather’s Chase which I wrote after my British Isles trip. Staring out at the snow-lined yard this morning might be a tough stretch.
    Overall, I guess I’m a “entice the ideas to come into range, then grab them and lock them in my office” kind of writer.

  4. Great post, Jim. I love the creativity subject. My favorite way of constantly exercising the muscle is looking for ways to do things better, inventions that would be an improvement on what we have, something new that could be useful – necessity is the mother of invention. And it drives my wife crazy. She tells me, “There are those who never stop thinking about how to do the job, and others who just do it.” I’m a dreamer.

    I think ideas come to me fairly easily, but I still love to dig. Growing up, I was constantly repairing fences that had been damaged by the horses my father kept. I dug hundreds of post holes, and went off to college, before I learned what a spud bar was. It’s gold for digging.

    In my current series (fantasy adventures), I start with a topic that has a lot of conflict associated with it – cell phone addiction in my last book, equity and CRT in my WIP. I choose an appropriate anatomical body system, then I start digging (using my literary spud bar) for a concept (Larry Brooks), then a premise. I used to do this in a notebook or on scrap paper, but found I can type faster than I can write (and I can read it later). So, now I start Swain’s “white hot document” on Google docs. As I write, move, copy and paste, it gradually morphs into an outline.

    Sorry for the verbosity. Creatives love to talk.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Glad you haven’t chosen anything controversial, Steve.

      Ha! I’m reminded of Bradbury’s advice from Zen in the Art of Writing:

      “The writer must ask himself what do I really think of the world, what do I love, fear, hate? And begin to pour this out on paper….You, the prism, measure the light of the world; it burns through your mind to throw a different spectroscopic reading than anyone else anywhere can throw. Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”

  5. Superb as always, Jim. I guess I’m a little of both. I have plenty of ideas for standalones, but when I sit at the keyboard to write the next book in either one of my series, I have to dig. Reading the previous book helps. This advice reminds me of how I jumpstarted my creativity to write Book 5 of my Grafton County Series (my WIP).

    I wrote: The blinking cursor was literally driving me insane. If I had to stare at it another second I might be tempted to whip the MacBook across the room.

    Then I posed questions. Those questions made me realize I wasn’t writing about me, I’d slipped into my MC’s skin and her frustration at the blinking cursor. Worked great!

  6. Good morning, Jim, and thank you for this great information.

    Although ideas occasionally drop by uninvited, more often I “go after them with a club.” For me, one club is in the form of listening to podcasts, books, or writing courses while I’m out for a run or doing chores around the house. An even larger club is reading. (For example, your post gave me an idea for a future one 🙂 ) I find one sentence or phrase can spark a thought that turns into a flame.

    Now that I think about it, writing itself seems to nudge my imagination into action. I’ll sit down to write a scene and find things happening that I didn’t plan for. I don’t understand how that happens, but you know what they say about gift horses.

    Have a good day!

  7. Getting ideas generally is super easy. At any one time I probably have 30-40 fiction ideas on my list (plus a smaller list of non-fiction ideas). 95% of my story ideas come while doing research because there’s no stopping those “What if” questions from popping into mind.

    But molding those “what ifs” into a plot takes quite a bit of digging & going over. It’s like being a rat in a maze–you start on chasing one thread then hit a brick wall & have to go back and start over. To flesh them out and come up with the right plot you do have to go after them with a club. 😎 But it’s so rewarding when you nail down a plot that you know is going to work.

    • I agree completely with your comment, BK. “What if?” is a writer’s best friend. Then there’s the hard work to give it full sway in a compelling plot. But hey, we love this work, don’t we?

  8. Happy Sunday, Jim, and thanks for yet another insightful post. While inspiration can strike out of the blue, I’m absolutely a digger, and learning to apply writing craft to my digging made all the difference. I’m a fan of the white-hot document, outlines, especially high-level ones that look at the major story beats, simply beat sheets, etc.

    Whenever I run into trouble, either before drafting, during, or in revision, it’s because I’ve neglected to uncover a key story point–what is the villain up to here, what clue is missing, etc. Speaking of villains, it’s amazing how often I can solve a problem by figuring out what they want, how they react to the hero, etc.

    Have a great Sunday!

    • Yes, Dale…I especially love the technique of knowing what’s happening “off screen.” IOW, what is the villain doing now that we don’t see? What is he planning for his next move? So often that results in things we can drop into the plot that will make the readers go, “Wait, what?” Then we’ve got ’em.

  9. Can I be a combination of the two?

    Sometimes the story germ has to be dug out of what’s encasing it. Other times it flows like a faucet. My first two novels (unpublished) flowed. Once I knew who the characters were, and what the story was about, I sat down and produced. So did the short stories in my first three published creative non-fictions. I can’t really explain it.

    But the ones I’m working on now sent me flying to Home Depot for shovels and pickaxes. They’re stubborn. It’s kind of frustrating, but I know they’re in there somewhere. Does this make sense?

    Scheduling a creative time . . . sounds like a combination of highly organized and flying by the seat of your pants. I like it!

    • Sort of like planning your bungee jump on Tuesday, isn’t it?

      Actually, Ray Bradbury, who I am always quoting, said something to the effect of jump off a cliff… and grow wings on the way down!

  10. So far I wait for my ideas, and so far it works for me. I get an idea about once a year, and it takes me that long to write a draft. But now, I’m stuck with a first draft that doesn’t work at all, but I still love the idea, so I do need to try some of your strategies.

    • I discovered early on that a lot of this writing game is about trying new ways of doing things. Eventually you hit on a fresh approach that works and it becomes part of your tool belt.

  11. I would say I’m a natural storyteller. However, I really have to work on making things work the way I need them to.

    I get most of my ideas from my work experiences. I used to work and live in a massive gas plant in the Unit Arab Emirates. There were constant jet planes overhead, and they liked to go supersonic. Sometimes I would be in my room and the windows would shake.

    One story idea starts off (as a true event) when the windows rattle a little harder than normal. However, I didn’t realize we just blew something up.

    The one I’m working on now stems from the idea of what would happen if a jet crashed in a oil and gas facility. That’s also based on a true event where we had jet parts hit a critical area. Nothing happened but it could have been the end of me and a lot of other people.

    It’s the subplots give me trouble. ☹

    Have a safe week.

    • Ben, we are here to help. Try typing “subplot” in the search bar and you’ll find several good posts on the subject. Subplotting is a wonderful field to explore.

  12. I have so many ideas I may never get to them all. I just finished a screenplay and a short short story. I’m working on another screenplay. There are still others I’d love to get to. Life is too darned short.

    • Ain’t that the truth? I have enough ideas for seven writing careers! The hard part is deciding which ones to pursue. I think there is Venn diagram place where commercial potential overlaps with what I love to write. That’s what I look for each time.

  13. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Jim. Fascinating to hear about the many difference processes writers use.

    Since I write both fiction and nonfiction, my antennas are always working, sort of like a horse’s ears twitching around, listening for story ideas. They come from the news, overheard conversations, images I see, memories, stories people tell me. In other words, everything everywhere is a possibility.

    When my spidey sense alerts, I file the idea away in my subconscious to ferment. After collecting two or three seemingly unrelated ideas that show potential, I start moving them around, asking “what if” and looking for connections to link them, like Legos or jigsaw puzzle pieces.

    I’m a pantser, depending on intuition and the subconscious do most of the work. Does that get me in trouble? All the time. The challenge is figuring out how to get myself out of the mess I created.

    • I like the horse analogy, Debbie. Sometimes there’s a twitch when an idea is just a pesky fly. Others are carrots and sugar cubes.

      You have also described a pantser’s MO!

  14. I have to dig and even with digging my ideas seem so lame. A lot of times I’ll have one or two pieces, but not enough to flesh out a story. I’ll mull it over and come up empty. Then, I’ll see someone publish a similar book with those missing pieces filled in and I wonder where I can find the extra pieces?
    Do you think if I continue to work at it and dig the quality of my ideas will improve?

    • Yes. Keep digging. Often the missing piece is something random. Unanticipated. Try things like opening a dictionary to any page and taking the first word you see and going with it where it leads. Or make a list of possible ideas and push yourself past 3 and 4 to dig down into your subconscious. Wake up and write the first thing that comes to your mind. Put everything in a mixing bowl. You’ll make something tasty soon enough.

  15. I’m a natural I guess, because strange sentences and people are always popping into my mind when I’m trying to accomplish something useful, like doing the laundry or cleaning out the refrigerator. Nah! Just kidding about the laundry and refrigerator. I’ve been blessed(?) with the characters living in my head since I can remember. That doesn’t mean they don’t all go on strike every so often. But I can usually scare them back to work by threatening to turn their lives into Victorian vegetarian zombie adventures. (They do so hate those corsets and stiff collars.)

  16. One of the best pieces of advice for generating a story came from you. I had done a lot of free writing about my protagonist. Then he needed an interior issue. I saw in one of your books or blogs, this question: What mistake did your character make when he was sixteen? (or ten years ago?), or something like that.

    My PoV was the son of a diplomat overseas. Diplomatic kids can’t make any “teenage” mistakes or their parents’ careers suffer. So I had a long list of errors to choose from. And what I chose hangs over that protagonist’s head to this day.

  17. I have a lab notebook in which I record ideas and wotifs. Example: What if it transpires during therapy that the patient has murdered someone and has the murder weapon with him? It didn’t take long to tag the patient as Hitler, and the therapist as Carl Jung (but really me.) The sessions unveiled a real-life locked room mystery.

    My current WIP identifies the subconscious as the creative center of the mind. But both “Unconscious” and “subconscious” are misnomers. As Jung said, “…The question arises: ‘Has the Unconscious consciousness of its own?’” ~ETH Lectures, Pg 212ff. The answer is, of course, yes, without a shadow of a doubt. It is of necessity an autonomous entity, and a scary one, that I call “The Guardienne.”

  18. Great post! Even though I turn in a paragraph for each book in a series proposal, most of the time, the first book is the only one that kind of stays on track. While I’m writing that first book, a character will pop up, demanding his story be told and it’s usually not the one I turned in. Since the books are stand-alones with something connecting them (like cold cses or a small town), my publisher is good with it. Thank goodness!

    As always, I learned something from your post–I’m going to start scheduling that half-hour of creativity time!

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