How to Write When You’re Not Writing

by James Scott Bell

The Boys in the Basement

We’re writers. We know what that means. We’re always on the job. Our minds, often apart from our intentions, keep the story wheels churning.

Like when we go to comfort a loved one in a time of need. We take their hand and issue words of consolation, while our writer mind is thinking, This would make a great scene. I wonder how I can work it into a book?

Nothing to apologize for. It’s how we roll. We write even when we’re not at the keyboard. So why not be intentional about it? Here are some of the methods I use to incentivize the Boys in the Basement:

Mind Mapping

We all know about brainstorming. That’s where we let the mind run free, without judgment, generating as many ideas as possible. The best way to get good ideas is to get lots and lots of them and only later cast aside the least promising ones.

I have found that a great aid to brainstorming is the mind map. Mapping is a way to visually link the random thoughts you jot down into some level of coherence. (A good book on this process is Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico.)

I use mind maps in two ways. First is to get ideas for flash fiction and short stories for my Patreon community. I often use a nifty set of cards called The Storymatic. Their ad line is “Six trillion stories in one little box. Which one will you tell?” It’s a set of 500 cards of two types. One type is a setting or situation, the other is a kind of character. I’ll draw one of each at random and put them together to see what comes up.

The other day I drew the cards “Survivor” and “Message in chalk on sidewalk.” I wrote those down on opposite sides of a page and circled them. Then I began the map. Here’s what it looked like (click to enlarge):

As I went along I kept coming back to the doodle of the chalk drawing. The Boys were trying to tell me something. I listened, and an idea for a short story popped up. As I pondered a little more I dropped the Survivor part altogether (you’re not wedded to anything when you mind map) and in a few minutes had the complete concept.

The other way I map is when I have a particular plot problem to work out. I’m finishing up a novelette in my Bill Armbrewster series about a Hollywood studio troubleshooter in the 1940s. As I closed in on the ending I realized there was a key element earlier in the story that needed clearing up. It involved the filching of a photo from a movie star’s dressing room (Bette Davis’s, to be exact.) So on paper I wrote “Who stole the pic?” and started mapping. In a few minutes I had my answer.

Sound and Music

I know some writers who want silence as they type. But for creativity there is research that suggests a little ambient noise helps. When I’m in my office I usually put on Coffitivity or New York street sound.

Often I’ll do my mind mapping while listening to music. If I’m thinking of suspense—which is most of the time—I’ll put on a playlist of suspense movie soundtracks (my favorite being the Hitchcock scores of Bernard Herrmann). I have other lists of soundtracks that stir up other emotions.

I don’t usually use music with lyrics for this, but I understand a certain Mr. King used to crank up the rock for his work. So I’ll make occasional use of the greatest rock era of all time—the 1970s (go ahead, try to prove me wrong).

Bedtime Prompt

Nice thing about the Boys is that they don’t take time off. So give them direction at night.

If you’re working on a novel, spend five concentrated minutes just before shut eye thinking about the plot, characters, or a scene.

Sometimes I’ll write a problem down on a pad on my bedside table. What is Romeo going to do about the bomb?

In the morning, as soon as possible, write down whatever is bubbling in your head, even if it doesn’t make sense at first. Somewhere in there is a message to you, though it may be in code!

Quiet Mind

I wonder if you’ve noticed a slight increase in stress levels these days.


We’ve all been there. We’ve all had days when we make the coffee nervous. As I pointed out in a previous post, all the mental effort that goes into navigating the mandate marshlands takes a toll on our creativity and writing energy.

Add to that the constant stream of vitriol spewing out of every communicative orifice in our civilized nation, and you’ve got a recipe for potential creative shutdown.

So what can you do? You can quiet your mind a couple of times a day. A popular practice for this is mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t some mystic practice that requires a robe and the lotus position. You won’t end up in a Tibetan monastery (unless you really want to). It’s just a way to practice calming down. In old movies the usual step was some guy saying, “I need a drink.” Many follow that path even now. Better is 10-15 minutes of mindfulness. Plus, instead of a hangover, you’ll get a burst of creativity afterward. Four ways I’ve done it:

Sitting: Sit in a comfortable spot, with your back straight (not leaning against the backrest). Feet flat on the floor, hands resting on your legs. Breathe easily in through your nose and out through your mouth. Listen to your breathing. Note the way your abdomen and chest move. Find an object in the room to concentrate on. Look at it, noting everything about it. Don’t analyze it, just look at it. It’ll be hard to do this at first. Your thoughts will easily distract you (“I have to remember to go to the store…Where did I leave my reading glasses?…Did The Rock really make another movie?”). When that happens, recognize you’ve had the thoughts and gently return to breathing and concentrating.

Walking: Don’t mistake this for taking a walk for exercise. Instead, you only need a small space outside. I walk around my pool. Do it slowly, nose-mouth breathing, noticing whatever is around you.

Driving: (Especially helpful in L.A. traffic.) Instead of grumbling about being late, breathe easy and focus on the taillights in front of you. Notice their design and texture. Make sure you’ve turned off talk radio and the news. Ignore bumper stickers.

Waiting in Line: Instead of grousing how long your line is—or how all the other lines seem to move faster—be grateful for the opportunity to have some quiet time. Don’t pick up a People magazine to see if Kim and Kanye are getting back together. Just breathe easily and note all the colors you see in the objects around you.

These are some of the ways I write when I’m not writing. What have you noticed about your own time away from the keyboard? When do ideas tend to pop up from the basement? Do you do anything to incentivize the Boys?

41 thoughts on “How to Write When You’re Not Writing

  1. Jim, this is HODL gold. Thank you. Storymatic is going to be my Christmas present to myself this year.

    When waiting in a queue or in a sit-down restaurant I dip into the conversations around me. People think nothing of spilling out all sorts of things. There’s no filter. There is a veritable treasure-trove of inspiration to be had. On the other hand…I was listening to a conversation at a table adjacent to mine when the speaker starts talking about tying a guy up and questioning him. I thought “A-ha!” and “Uh-oh” simultaneously until I realized that he was recreating Dennis Hopper’s famous dialogue with Christopher Walken in the film TRUE ROMANCE concerning the origin of modern-day Sicilians.

    Thanks again, Jim. Have a great week.

    • Thanks, Joe. Any overheard convo that is sourced to Dennis Hopper OR Christopher Walken is going to be an uh-oh!

      Best line I ever overheard was at Starbucks. Two guys were in a friendly but spirited debate about something, and one says, “Is that even logical?”

      The other, with complete sincerity, answered, “It’s so logical it’s ridiculous!”

  2. Great tips, Jim! You’ve given us yet another helpful ideation article. Like Joe, I think Storymatic is going to be my Christmas present to myself this year. I like exercise–yoga and Zumba, as well as a long walk, to help the boys in the basement. Often an idea will float into my conscious mind while working out. The same for a long walk, or working out with weights.

    Thanks for all the ideas about getting story ideas! Have a great Sunday!

  3. Ideas often pop into my mind when I am observing other people, especially strangers. Many times, I’ve witnessed odd behavior and unfinished bits of conversation and I wanted to know more those people and why they did or said those things.

    I use my daily 90-minute walks to brainstorm writing ideas or work out specific issues and I keep paper and pen handy to make notes. Usually, I will pose a particular problem or goal before I start walking and focus on that.

  4. Perfect timing, and golden advice, as always. My wip with my fixes goes to my editor this week, which means it’ll be only minor tweakage (and listening) so I have no excuse not to plunge into the new book. I’m a one-at-a-time person and have been procrastinating. I have a teeny map of some of the basic ‘why’ questions, but I need to sit at the keyboard and start WRITING, which is what usually gets things started.
    As for your other ideas:
    Living out in the mountain boonies means driving requires concentration. There’s no traffic, though, which I don’t miss about living in the cities. You still have to be wary of the occasional deer (or cow) in the road.
    Standing in line? Another relatively non-existent happenstance out here. Almost everything’s on line. At least now that it’s a little safer to go out, there’s some of Joe’s eavesdropping at restaurants to be had.
    Walking – my watch signals me to take at least 250 steps/hour during the day, so I get a little non-exercise walking and thinking done.
    Bedtime is my reading time. When I’m producing, reading what I’ve written that day triggers ideas. I think the boys in the basement/girls in the attic residents read over my shoulder.
    Happy Sunday.

    • Terry, I dearly love my bedtime reading…only problem is after about two pages I’m out.

      As for prompting, it’s a good idea for me to put my phone timer on for 30 minutes to remind me to get up and walk around for a couple of minutes after being on my caboose, typing.

  5. Great post, Jim. I see they even have Storymatic for Kids.

    I recently have returned to giving the boys an assignment at bedtime. In addition to rereading the day’s writing, like Terry, I explore the outline for tomorrow’s writing. I get more creative ideas the next morning, and it increases my productivity, because I’m not stopping to work things out the next day.

    You mentioned the mind wandering when we’re comforting a loved one in need. Well, those loved ones are part of a family. And, wow, family dynamics and histrionics is rich with conflict and crazy behavior. I’ve often said, when listening the latest update to “Days of Our Family’s Lives,” “Man, that would make a great plot for a book.”

    Thanks for the ideas!

    • I can see Storymatic being a great game with the kids…pick cards, one starts a story then the next one picks it up, etc. I’ll bet that will give you LOTS of possible young reader material!

  6. Jim, your note on the mind map “Illegitimi non carborundum” [don’t let the bastards grind you down] made me smile. Back when we were in business, that was a saying we repeated often in challenging times.

    It certainly is a good mantra for writers and, these days, for all of us.

    Walking is the easiest portal to the boys in my basement. But any physical activity in fresh air works. In winter, it’s snow shoveling. In nice weather, it’s gardening.

    Recently I started an air boxing class which surprised me with unexpected benefits. It requires intense focus and concentration. Afterwards, ideas burst like popcorn.

  7. Spot on. Just because we’re not pounding on the keyboard doesn’t mean we aren’t creating. Drive time is an especially productive time for me. I’m presently working on a sword-and-sorcery tale. My research into my setting’s culture, history, and folklore have coalesced nicely while driving, which I’ve done a fair amount of lately. On the return trip, I can’t wait to get home and capture the ideas that germinated on the road.

    • I tend to listen to music or audiobooks when I drive, to take advantage of that time. But if I see something out of the ordinary–like an accident or a guy staggering across the road (I saw that just a few days ago) my mind snaps to “What if?”

  8. The boys in my basement live rent free, Jim. Rightly so. Some of the stuff they come up with is priceless. Then again, some of their stuff is not fit for print. A lot of it actually… now that I start thinking about them.

    I’m with the other early risers on the good from a walk. I have a three-mile loop I do daily, and it’s the best creative time I can get. Sun’s about to climb here now so it’s time to put on the boots, hike, and come back to make breakie for the boys who were hard at work while I was gone. Happy Sunday KZers!

    • Garry, I imagine your basement is a real hub of activity. Maybe that stuff that’s “not fit to print” is them cleaning out some dark corners. Maybe one of them laughs it up as he shows it to the other Boys: “Hey fellas, look at this!”

  9. Love this advice! I’m afraid there’s going to be a run on Storymatic this Christmas.

    I seem to get most of my ideas when I’m exercising (outside running is better than the treadmill) or when I’m reading. Somehow a situation in a novel, short story, newspaper article, etc. will transform itself into something that I can use in a totally different context.

    I just realized blog posts get me thinking, too! After reading your post this morning, I started thinking about a story concerning a writer who’s run out of ideas. I can imagine some funny situations he/she gets in trying to rekindle the creative spark.

    • Thanks, Kay. There was a not so successful movie a few years ago called Gentlemen Broncos, about a famous SF writer who has run out of ideas and decides to steal a MS from a young fan at a convention. The best part of it was Jermaine Clement as Dr. Ronald Chevalier, the diva writer. They even had him do some creativity videos, like this one:

  10. Wonderful ideas for advancing my skillset such as it is (baby steps) and I thank you Jim.
    I’d never heard the term mindmapping but I’ve been doing it off and on as in my previous life as an aircraft mechanic studying schematic diagrams of hydraulic systems. It’s a graphic representation of a system, and that’s what we’re trying to construct in a story, a system
    You also refer to the power of the subconscious when we’re at sleep, and I often kept a note pad and pencil on the night table if I was working on a particular problem. Sometimes the solution would find me at an odd hour.

    These ways of thinking are what makes us do what we do.

    You’ve also touched on stress and tension and I have found that the greatest destructor in life is anger. It helps to let go of it.

  11. Jim, this post is great . . . as in Tony the Tiger GRREEAATT! And the comments only made it better.

    I always have music in the background when I’m writing. Preferably instruments only.

    As far as non-writing creativity: I don’t need to travel far to find conflict. We have several children and grandchildren who have strong personalities and provide all the tension I need. Little do they know that their drama does not upset me in the least (well, maybe a little bit), but that my ears are taking it all in, and my brain is busy trying to work THAT bit of nonsense into some dialogue.

    Also, I’m a vivid dreamer. Had a disturbing one last night in point of fact. I think a world in which it’s illegal and abnormal to be pregnant might be fodder for a disturbing story. 🙂

  12. I like to fill up my downtime with things related to writing. One of things I do is use a lot. I’ve mentioned it before, that I listen to you on great courses at night, even when I sleep. I have a habit of waking in the night, and will lie there listening to something different that will move me on.

    Christmas is a season filled with little tasks. I’ve put the earbuds in during my shopping trips and errands and listen to audiobooks too. One of the best things I listened to was Sissy Spacek read To Kill Mocking Bird.

    I know this might be 100% in the spirit of your post, but audiobooks take up a lot of concentration to stay on task (and multitask). However, it’s in that realm of training your brain. And when I hear something really moving I tend to think about my ideas with a different personal POV.

    • Ben, I like to listen to writers whose style I really admire–John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly–in order to get the rhythm of that language added to my vault.

      As for listening to me while you sleep…beware! I used to be a lawyer.

  13. My mind never turns off when it comes to story. It’s constantly churning through scenes, refining, making connections, adding in layers. The issue comes when I’m on the second half of my WIP and my mind goes “I’m tired of this story, let’s jump to the next.” Quite often, I put on music to keep that part of my brain occupied while I get other work done. Which I’m going to do right now because I have one final project to do before flying out on thursday. (Hopefully, the plane ride will mean more writing time.)

    • Yeah, AZA, many a time I’ve been midbook and thought, “Wait, here’s a better idea!” So tempting…but it’s usually a fake out by my brain, trying to get out of some hard work. Ha!

  14. This was just what I needed. I’ve been not writing for several weeks but have three books outlined and a couple short stories percolating. Remembering that taking time to relax and let the ideas come is also part of the work makes me feel better. Being stuck in the house due to a snowstorm doesn’t hurt either. Today I’m back at work, watching the weather and putting those ideas on paper. Thanks!

  15. I gotta try mind mapping. Thanks for the reminder, Jim!

    My doctor told me I had to leave the desk and walk around the house every twenty to thirty minutes. No excuses, no delays. At first I thought it was a pain to keep stopping. But what I soon discovered was how beneficial those short breaks are for creativity. As I moseyed around the house I thought about the storyline, where I was at or where I wanted it to go, and by the end of my short walk I discovered a cool new idea or twist. Those mandatory walks are now part of my process. 🙂

  16. Ya just had to go & do it–tempt me to go buy some other writerly tool. 😎 I just ordered the Storymatic. LOL!

    Actually–your mention of it comes at just the right time. In my Art League meeting yesterday, we were talking about whether or not to expand the league to at least occasionally including sessions for ALL forms of creativity (not just drawing or painting). So on the off chance that at some point folks might like an introductory class on writing, I thought Storymatic sounded like a really handy tool to help people jumpstart their brainstorming. Or even to be used with a group of creative friends.

    BTW, if any TKZ community members belong to an art league and would be willing to answer a few questions about your art league (concerning it’s purpose and how structured it is), I’d love to hear from you.

    Other Thoughts: Interesting how different people write when they’re not writing. I have a friend who keeps story ideas/components in her head and doesn’t write anything down until she actually starts writing the story. Works great for her. I can’t do that. I’ve got to be writing stuff down.

    In the thriller/suspense sense, walking yields another benefit–have you ever walked down the road and spotted a certain type of vehicle–like say a beat up van or ominous looking truck, and instantly thought to yourself “There’s a kidnap vehicle if ever I saw one!”

    I like the suggestion of having a certain story thought or angle in mind before you go for a walk–otherwise my walks are a bit chaotic in the brain. Although occasionally my walks do have new story ideas hit me out of the blue.

    • Yes indeed, Ruth. I use Scapple all the time! It’s a great little tool…I use it primarily for non fiction organization. I find that pen and paper is a bit freer for my wild fiction mind.

  17. A whiz-bang, sockdolager post, Jim!

    Since I believe that the creative genii in my brain is both autonomous and sentient, I remember to thank him when he comes up with a good idea. Be sure to thank your creative genii for inspiring your post!

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