Are Rodents Eating Your Fiction?

by James Scott Bell

I hope you’re not munching a donut or toast right at the moment.

You probably saw the story about the closing of 400 Family Dollar Stores due to a rat infestation at one of their distribution centers. After a whistleblower’s report, the FDA went in and found a thousand “dead rats and birds” scattered inside.

Warehouse worker Robert Bradford says he was fired from West Memphis distribution center, Arkansas, after he shared footage last month of rats fighting together on the warehouse floor, scurrying up and down the aisles, and a dead rat that had been caught in a trap.

Kind of makes you want to run right out to a 99¢ store and buy a can of Vienna sausages, doesn’t it? The report also included this little item:

Bradford’s clip also showed an unidentified coworker trying to feed one of the rats a Pringle with his own bare hands.

Hey, the little fellas have to eat, right? And what else should you do with a Pringle anyway?

Family Dollar has since initiated a voluntary recall on certain products from the distribution center, with the comforting words, “We take situations like this very seriously and are committed to providing safe and quality products to our customers.”

Nice to know!

Never one to turn down an apt metaphor, I am now just as concerned about Rodents in the Warehouse operating right next door to the Boys in the Basement.

For review, The Boys in the Basement is Stephen King’s metaphor for the writer’s subconscious mind. Down below the conscious level the imagination always churns and gets ideas. Those ideas are stored in the warehouse part of our brains. There are things we can do to unlock the warehouse—like writing morning pages.

But what about rodents getting into that same warehouse? These are mental pests, and they’re real. If left alone, some of the best and most creative ideas and books will never make it to our mind, let alone the marketplace.

One big fat rat is fear. Fear that your ideas aren’t good enough. Or marketable enough. Or might offend someone. Or might make you seem like a drunken fool. Fear is always lurking around the writer’s mind, and needs to be dispatched forthwith.

One way to do that is by writing a half-page précis of your ideas. Not a synopsis, just your summary of why you think the idea might fly, who might like it, and—most important—why you are jazzed about it.

If you find, after doing this exercise, you’re not that excited after all, you can move on. At least it won’t be out of fear.

But do get a couple of people to give you feedback on it. Are they as interested as you are? If not, again, you can get along to the next idea.

Which leads us to another corpulent rodent—disorganization. If you leave your ideas lying around randomly, you’ll never give them the focused attention they deserve.

The answer is to clean up and organize your warehouse. Don’t leave any idea untended. When you find it, put it on a shelf. I suggest a master document just for ideas. I have one with opening lines, quick concepts (usually starting with What if?), possible characters, possible settings. I go over this from time to time and find the ones that still strike me and develop them further. These go into another file called “Front Burner Concepts.” That’s where I go when I’m ready to choose a new project to write.

Finally, a whole pack of rats like to strike when you experience burnout. If our brain gets tired from overwork, we don’t have anybody watching the warehouse. Lots of good stuff gets gobbled up.

I wrote about this in my book The Mental Game of Writing. Here’s a clip:

The thing to do about burnout is head it off at the pass. And the best way I know is to observe a Writing Sabbath. Just like when God knocked off for the week.

It can be on any day you choose. As I mention in the Discipline chapter, I choose Sunday.

On that day I do not do any writing or even thinking about writing (at least I try not to think about it. It’s the day when the Boys in the Basement get to work out in earnest).

It’s a good day to catch up on my reading.

And my relationship with my wife! We’ll take a trip to the beach, or go up in the hills and look at the view. We’ll watch a movie together, have a nice dinner….

If it’s football season, I’ll watch a game or two.

I try to get out in the sunshine.

What all this means is that the pressure is off.

Though sometimes my mind and my fingers want to write something. It’s sort of like the thoroughbred that is primed to run every day, but one day is just hanging out with a blanket and some hay. The legs tremble. The nose sniffs the air.

At times like that I keep my legs calm and my nose in a book.

What about during your writing week?

Two things if you can manage them: get exercise and get very quiet.

The benefits of even short bursts of exercise are well known. Walk around as much as you can, if that’s the least you can do.

Follow the Pomodoro Method. Write for twenty-five minutes, then take a five-minute break. Do some walking or deep breathing (with your eyes closed).

Also, I’m a big believer in the power nap. That’s a twenty-minute or so stretch of nodding off sometime during the work day. We all have a “zombie time.” For me it’s around 1 or 2 o’clock. My mind turns to jelly.

So I trained myself to get to sleep quickly and wake up twenty minutes later. You can do this, too. It will take you about two months to instill the habit, if you so desire.

In sum, your Boys keep at their work. Your job is to keep the Warehouse clean. Then what you bring to market will not have to be recalled.

Bon appétit!

Do you find any other pests sniffing around up there in your brain? Do you have methods to organize your madness?

63 thoughts on “Are Rodents Eating Your Fiction?

  1. As always, Sir, thank you for an inspiring and encouraging post to kick off my Sunday…

    If I might add to your list of fears – the fear that you’re not good enough for the idea… that you won’t do it justice…

    My dad wrote one (unpublished), novel when I was kid, and multiple magazine articles (mostly non-fiction), notebooks of poetry. I knew he could write (a large part of what inspired me to pick up the pen in my [now quite distant] youth…), but he worked for years on an historical novel, gathering notes from the web, traveling to libraries, reading contemporary accounts, books on seamanship and antique clothing and all manner of writing craft books, reworking outlines and matrices and visiting sites where his protagonist lived or events of import to his story – but when we went through his office after he passed, it seemed Pop never got more than a couple of chapters actually written… His subject’s story makes MASTER AND COMMANDER look like the Hardy Boys, and yet, with all that “meat on the bone” Pop seemed to be focused on making sure nothing got left out of the stew that would do a disservice to the hero’s tale…

    Mom argues with me about that… but I can relate somewhat in my scribbling towards completion – “This is GREAT idea… am I worthy of it? Am I up to it? Can I do it justice?”

    If I don’t give it a shot, I’ll never know, will I…?

    But then, if I DON’T give it a shot, I’ll know the answer is, “Nope…”

    Enjoy your day off…

    • Totally agree, George. Fear that I’m not good enough to do the idea justice is a big one for me. I’ve got a historical series I’ve had in mind for a few years now & have written the 1st draft of the 1st book, but have been dragging my heels getting back to it. Assailed by thoughts of “Who do you think you are? Do you really think you’re good enough to combine some of America’s 19th century hot-button issues with political intrigue and family/friendship dynamics to write this series? Ha!” And then my inner voice gets really snarky and says “If you’re so good at assimilating national issues and writing about them, why haven’t you solved the world’s problems?” Ouch.

      But then I turned another year older last week and the question is: Which is going to bother me more? Not doing the series justice or regret at end of life if I DON’T write them.

      JSB’s point about disorganization can be a problem too. I’m generally organized, but you amass so many files the longer you write and research that it can get to be hard to keep a handle on. I still have not devised the perfect system.

      • There may not be a perfect system, BK (you should see my desk). But anything’s better than letting the rats have their way. Try things and you’ll come up with something workable.

  2. I love morning pages. These days I’m doing my High 5 journal, which seems to give about the same result.

    I keep a big sketchbook but instead of drawing, I fill it with ideas, characters, plots, writing quotes, craft articles. That way nothing gets lost. I check the characters, ideas, plots off as I use them.

    Happy Sunday!

    • I, too, use the sketchbook to capture ALL ideas, writing or not. Barbara Sher was a big proponent of that and calls it the Scanner’s Daybook (for those who are interested in many different things, Barbara Sher’s books are awesome!).

      I keep computer files too but there’s just something about periodically flipping through that daybook and seeing all the ideas & projects that have been brewing in my brain.

    • I like that idea, Cynthia! Esp. because at certain points in my development process I like to use pen and paper to create a “mind map” complete with doodles. Happy Sunday back atcha.

      • Your piece on mind mapping was a wonderful breakthrough for me and I thank you for it. I looked at some mind mapping freeware but then I though “No. This has to be done with pencil and paper because it’s the imprinting, the connection between mind and eye and hearing and seeing and the physical act of putting it on paper and the feedback from muscles and nerves that builds memory.” It’s like taking good notes in a class you really want to be in, and it’s what got me through the bar exam.


    • I did morning pages for several weeks. I found I was waking earlier and earlier to do them, then couldn’t go back to sleep. I started going out to the condo pool, tweaking the lock, and swimming two laps. Then I’d pull back the hot tub cover enough to soak and get warm. Then back to bed and sleep till dawn. I eventually stopped the morning pages.

  3. Great advice and terrific metaphors for a cold but sunny morning, John. Thanks.

    Re: the rats…many years ago (my first real job) I worked in a supermarket where we had a rat in the warehouse. Actually, we probably had several, but entertained the polite fiction that there was only one. We nicknamed him “Heritage House” after the name for the house brand of canned goods, etc. that were sold by that chain. He was fed Pringles by hand, too. Some things never change.

  4. Sorry. James, not John. I have John Gilstrap on the brain because today is his birthday.

  5. Facing writerly fears is one thing, but reading this post this morning makes me grateful that I do not have rats (eek!) and I do not shop at Family Dollar….

    • It’s sad, though, because so many low-income families depend on such stores. The profit margin of the stores must be thin, but sheesh! Pay to keep the warehouse clean.

  6. I don’t kid myself and think rats don’t get inside warehouses, grocery stores, homes, and restaurants, but that sounds extreme! I’ll definitely have the girls in the basement be on the patrol.

    • Working as a waiter I saw things…most vividly the belligerent chef who came out of a bathroom stall as I was at the sink, zipped up, said, “I don’t got to wash my hands. My ____’s clean” and walked out.

      But he made a fine Rigatoni.

  7. Excellent subject, Jim. I use Notes on my phone to keep track of story ideas, cool names, one-liners, character ideas, a scene that emerges out of nowhere, etc etc. Most of my best ideas strike while I’m chillin’ with the hubby at night. The phone is handier than grabbing my laptop. Organization is key, as you mentioned. I keep a separate files for each heading in Notes. IPhone syncs with my Macbook, so it’s easy to expand into Word from there.

    Sunday is my reading day, too. Like many writers, reading is the best way to quiet my busy brain, which apparently has no OFF button. I’m also a big believer in meditation/self-hypnosis to tune out for a while. Enjoy your Sunday!

    • Thanks for mentioning the phone, Sue, and Notes. Great idea.

      I also use the phone when I’m away from the computer, mostly via Google Docs. Indeed, this very post was partially dictated to Docs using the phone.

  8. Great post, Jim. Fear – Disorganization – Burnout.

    Any other pests sniffing around up there in your brain? My family has manic depressive disorder. I was “blessed” to get the manic end of the stick, which means that there is always an abundance of ideas. And that abundance leads to idea overload. I’m blessed to have the boys wake me at 3 am and tell me what they’ve been up to. I lie awake creating the precis in my mind. I didn’t know what it was called. Now I know to write it out along with the idea in the morning. I also like your idea of a digital file to keep these ideas. I’ve kept them in written scribbles so I could shuffle the “better” ones to the top of the stack.

    And that same technique, shuffling, has helped me organize my madness. Each day I create a prioritized list of things to get done. Eventually, some of the less worthy ideas/projects get pushed off the bottom of the page.

    Thanks for the timely advice. Have a great Sunday!

    • Bipolar disorder is usually the result of a very large “Guardienne,” the protective and creative center of the brain. It’s a mixed blessing, bipolarity being, net, one of the downsides, creativity, athleticism, and (usually) an edge in general intelligence being some of the upsides. Do you get deja vu a lot, Steve? Or walk in your sleep?

  9. Just thought I’d share this quote since it’s John Steinbeck’s birthday:

    “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” — John Steinbeck

  10. Wonderful post, JSB! Copied and pasted into my JSB file.

    My problem now seems to be that I’m so busy doing other writing-related things, that I’m not writing.

    Like author group connections, conferences, discussion groups, yada yada yada. I think maybe organizing my work week to have just one day where I catch up with my group connections might work for me. My brain becomes distracted by responding to this or that comment, must listen to this speaker, etc. that my writing suffers. I want to learn and stay connected, but I also want to publish my next book.

    Anyone else have this problem?

    • Deb, YES!
      I have so many things going on daily (along with an 8-5 job) that writing time gets sandwiched into smaller & smaller pieces.
      It’s why I don’t often get to comment here the day of the post. (Today is a rarity in that I stayed abed with coffee instead of jumping up to tackle a dozen weekend chores.)

      So it’s a terrible irritation to realize that the day I DID set aside for active writing instead turned into “catch up” on everything writerly…except writing!

      I’ve cut several “writing-related” blogs & newsletters because I found I wasn’t even opening them anymore, much less responding.

    • Yes, Deb, though I”m not sure it’s 100% problem. Writing workshops, for example, are a major reason I’ve written novels. They provide extra eyes on my m/s, knowledge that I may not have, add a fixed omphalos to my week, and give mutual encouragement. All professions have these overhead activities.

      The danger is “squirrels,” random ideas for this and that, with no writing utility, letters to/from “Persons from Porlock,” looking up information that could be guessed at and qualified with an IIRR note, and general perfectionism.

      As I’ve said here before, my next book may be an anthology of all my first chapters of books I’ve started and never finished. The title will be: “Look! A Squirrel!”

  11. I love the metaphor! Rats in the warehouse.

    My biggest fear is the fear of failure. Although I’m somewhat a perfectionist by nature, I also like to experiment with my writing, and that sets up the possibility of failure. I try to keep Babe Ruth’s advice in mind: “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” Besides, I have the best coaches in the world here at TKZ and on my craft of writing bookshelf. What’s to be afraid of?

    I also have one day a week when I refrain from writing. Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is for rest and restoration. Abraham Heschel called it “a sanctuary in time.”

  12. Good morning, Jim. A very on point topic for many writers, including yours truly. You’ve also provided some great tips and techniques to deal with “the rats”. For my part, files associated with my current project ballooned to the point that, finally, last week, it was time to get organized. Many of them had long outlived their usefulness, so into the digital trash or physical recycling bin they went.

    Going forward I’m going with a master file for each novel, which will include characters, settings, plot etc. It will be organized and easy to search.

    I like to write every day, but I also like to exercise daily, and make sure I have a little quiet time away from the keyboard every day, too. Every so often I’ll take an entire day off from writing, but I like to play in the fields of my imagination, or, at least get some fun in the form of craft time, daily if I can.

    Have a wonderful day!

  13. Excellent thoughts & advice as always, James! (Or Jim? Do you have a preference? Or do you like JSB?)
    The rodent problem always comes down to management. It can be nipped in the bud if tackled early on, but that requires forethought & dedication.
    Same with the mind & writerly organization.
    I, too, keep open working files for various things. The organization soothes my AR brain.
    -Shorts are random ideas that hit me in the shower or while driving. I know full well I WON’T recall them later, so a quick jot into Shorts ensures there’s something to return to. I do this in Notes on my phone then transfer to my laptop file.
    -Cut Scenes: pretty obvious. Sometimes sacrificed Darlings.
    -Research has internal tabs for Weapons, Languages, Archaeology, Food…etc.

    I really appreciate and follow your suggestions for downtime: Sabbath, the Pomodoro method, and Naps! My brain turns to mush around 3pm. Coincidentally, that’s close to having just finished the work-at-home 9-5 job and wanting to get to writing. So, I either power nap 15 min with a timer, or tackle a quick task.
    (Oddly, laundry is a great trick to this. Start a load, and in 30 to 45 min, you’ll be hopping up to switch to the drier. Quick breaks to reset the brain.)

  14. Jim-
    I’m reminded of the uniquely strange seventies-vintage movies “Willard” and “Ben”.
    Did you reference them in a previous post?
    Rat references are distinctly memorable and an apt metaphor for the pests that can infest a writer’s habits.
    Unforgettable post!
    Thank you.

    • Tom, the first official date I went on– meaning I had my driver’s license and access to the family car– I took the girl to see Willard. Romantic, wasn’t it? All I remember is that I put my arm around her at the start of the movie and left it there, and when we got up to leave I could hardly move it. We never went out again.

      Dear God, I’m glad I’m not 16!

  15. Pantry moth infestations in food warehouses bother me more because they come home with me in a box of cookies or cereal, then spread.

    There was a psychology questionnaire that was passed around on the Internet, and one of the questions was “In a dream, a monstrous dog approaches you cautiously. What do you do?”

    A brief pause while you think about the answer.

    The answer reflects how you face your fears and all those boys in the basement.

    My answer was, “I’d make friends with it.” The boys in the basement can fuel your creativity once you face them but keep moving forward.

  16. Boys in the warehouse, rats in the basement–no, wait. Bats in the belfry? How’m I supposed to write about gansta doggs in Central Alamurder, L. A., with all these animals running around in my brain departments?

    If I sound confused it’s because weather.

    My nightstand notepad and pen may be old tech, but they work to preserve those precious presomnambient (hey, new word!) interludes until dawn. Might be a name, a phrase, a whole paragraph, a dialogue. But at least it isn’t lost like so many other things–glasses, grocery list, car keys, birthdays.

    Thanks, Jim, for the reminder–time to take out the trash. No wait, that was Friday. Ants in the kitchen. Gnomes in the garden…

  17. Good stuff, Sue…er…ah…sorry…Jim. I’ve developed an immunity to writer rabies after so many rat bites, especially bites by the Procrastination Rat. Speaking of fear, The Boys in the Basement reminded me of being fearless and I had to go look up a quote in On Writing. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.”

  18. All fear about writing—not starting, not writing at all or not finishing, finishing and being rejected, etc. etc. ad nauseam—is unreasoning fear. It’s real. It exists. But no harm will come to you as a result of ignoring that fear. It isn’t like someone’s gonna come to your house and shoot you.

    So turn the fear around. If you’re a writer, how will you feel if you DON’T write or finish? That’s what a writer should be afraid of. And maybe most importantly, how will you feel if you AREN’T rejected? Give the readers a chance to make up their own mind about your work. The only way to do that is to write it, finish it, and put it out there.

    Chances are, if you write fiction, the 20/80 rules applies. If you continue to learn and hone your craft, and most of all if you continue to practice (write, put new words on the page) a few readers, say 10%, still won’t like what you’ve written. Another 10% will love your stories. And probably 80% will think they’re good enough to read cover to cover and then go buy more.

    It all starts with believing in yourself and now allowing unreasoning, unthreatening fear to take over.

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