Writing a novel is a massive undertaking. Even a short one will consume hundreds, if not thousands of hours of your life. So it’s no surprise that so many people look for effective novel-writing strategies. What follows is the first post in my series on novel-writing. Through this series we’ll explore my current novel-writing process from conception to wherever the future takes us.
Writers write because they are inspired, don’t they? In film, writers struggle for that perfect idea, for that flash of inspiration. They struggle over a blank page, cursed with genius yet a lack of inspiration for they’re next novel. If we take movies at their word, no writer would ever write until they discovered the perfect, world shattering idea.
Lucky for us, writing doesn’t actually work that way. Good ideas are important, but they aren’t the crux that every novel depends on. Moreover, while inspiration may simply strike some people, most of us have to fashion habits that will coax ideas out of the back of our minds on a regular basis.
[bctt tweet=”Inspiration is important but it’s not the crux every novel must depend on. ” username=”SCBarrus”]
So how important is the inspiration behind your next (or first) novel? How do you create habits that ensure ideas come freely and with relative ease? Read on to dispel some common myths, learn a bit about the nature of inspiration, and build the habits that nurture ideas, generating them on a near daily basis.
The Prefect Concept
Do I need the perfect idea before I start writing?
You’re about to devote months, perhaps years to writing your masterpiece but it all starts with an idea. One bud of a thought can fuel countless hours of your life as you tackle the thankless task of sitting in a room, alone, writing. So you should wait to begin until you have the best idea ever, right?
No. In my experience, aspiring writers place too much importance on the idea behind their story. They seem to believe that if they think and think and think, they’ll come up with the perfect concept, and a book will eventually form. They will often say, “I’ve been working on a story for years.” But when it comes down to it, no words have been written.
What’s the issue with placing too much emphasis on the idea?
Some people will build their ideas for years. They may even change from one concept to another, developing ideas so thoroughly that they may as well have written their novel to completion. People I know and love have developed tons of ideas but have nothing to show for it. What they don’t realize is that an idea is only a fraction of the work involved when writing.
In reality there’s no need to labor over an idea until it’s perfect. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone has them. Even a really solid idea is worthless without the right amount of ass in chair time.
[bctt tweet=”Even a solid novel idea is worthless without the right amount of ass in chair time.” username=”SCBarrus”]
A Case Study featuring Tim
Let’s consider Tim. Tim spent years developing his idea, and it’s damn near perfect. If you could see the visions inside his head, you’d be brought to tears for it brilliance. When Tim finally sat down to write, an awful thing happened. The words didn’t sound right. They felt amateurish and sloppy.
The trouble is, Tim knows what good writing is. He’s read it over and over again. But Tim never practiced the actual craft of writing. He’s read great novels, read amazing books on story structure and character arcs. He knows when writing is good or bad, but he hasn’t spent enough time practicing the craft, so his perfect idea in theory is now a mess in execution.
Had Tim settled on a half-formed idea, wrote it out, and admitted it was bad, he would have had hundreds of hours of experience writing. Maybe his first effort will never get published, but by the time he gets to his second or third novel, his writing will be leaps and bounds better, the ideas will come easier, and his ability to communicate through text will mature.
In other words, don’t put too much emphasis on the idea of your book, especially your first book. Find something that interests you and start writing. The more you do this, the easier the entire process will become.
[bctt tweet=”Follow your interests & write even w/o inspiration. Do this & the process will get easier.” username=”SCBarrus”]
Fostering Habits to Encourage Constant Inspiration
Now that I’ve spent roughly 1000 words downplaying the spark that incites your novel, I’m going to admit that ideas are kind of important after all. Before you sit down to a blank screen and flashing cursor, you’ll want to start somewhere. So where does the inspiration come from?
Idea’s can come from anywhere, you just need to condition yourself to generate them. I’m a firm believer that anyone can be a good writer, talent be damned. Sure, in every walk of life there are some people who are inherently talented, but there are far more people who simply worked really hard to get what they want. Everything about the writing process will come easier if you put the hours in. That includes finding inspiration.
The three B’s
I once had a professor tell me that inspiration comes from the three B’s: bathroom, bedroom, and bus. What he meant was, there are certain points of the day where you’re doing nothing, and it’s these moments where you’ll find yourself inspired. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s likely while you’re commuting, falling asleep, or doing your bathroom business.
But if you’re a writer, you probably need more than that. You’ll want to create habits that insure you have constant moments to think, explore ideas, and hopefully be inspired.
Make time for contemplation
All of my best ideas come in times of quiet contemplation, which for most people doesn’t just happen. You need to create the times to think, which can unfortunately be quickly overrun by the busy world, much like a gym membership. This in turn forces you to be ever vigilant in protecting you thinking time, deliberately setting aside regular time for it.
Most people only reserve this kind of thinking time for the three B’s — and bathroom has now become the place of the smartphone so maybe the B’s are down to two. To be in a state of constant inspiration, or to at least aspire to that state, you need to consciously develop a habit of turning off distractions (including other people) and just think.
[bctt tweet=”Thinking time is too easily is pushed aside by the busy world, like a half used gym membership.” username=”SCBarrus”]
How I search for inspiration
For me, habits are easiest to maintain when they easily fit into my schedule. Let’s be honest here, creating new habits is hard, especially with my busy schedule filled with family, work, writing, reading, Muay Thai, video games, Harmonquest, Rick and Morty, and anime. You likely have things you’re passionate about too, so tailor your novel meditation schedule to work best with everything else you’ve got going on.
[bctt tweet=”Tailor your novel meditation schedule to work best with everything else in your life. #writing” username=”SCBarrus”]
Here’s when I do it:
Driving – At least a few days per week I spend my 40 minute commute to work listening to this playlist and just thinking. No audiobooks, no podcasts, no damn commercials. Just me and my thoughts for 40 minutes straight. It’s amazing how much will come out of these driving sessions once you make a habit of it.
If you have the privilege of a long commute, this is a viable option for you. It’s time you wont get back anyway, might as well invest is as a thinker rather than a passive talk radio listener. But if you don’t commute, find time where you’re doing constant, mindless things, and inject your mind into the equation. Walking, running, shopping, and for some people maybe while working.
Bed – About twice per week I’ll go to bed an hour early. I know that I can rarely actually fall asleep before 10:30pm, so I go to bed with the goal of mulling over current project. Since I’m already in the middle of writing Grim Curio (sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss it’s release) I’ll spend that time thinking on character motivations and arcs, plot points, and themes.
When one of the ideas feel particularly good, I’ll find a way of putting it to paper. Later I’ll work it into my book summary so when I get to the applicable point in the novel, I’ll remember exactly what I was thinking.
I feel like this is an easy option for most people. Do what you have to so you’re in a thinking mindset, lay down, close your eyes, and just think.
Writing – To be honest, a lot of great ideas and sparks of inspiration come in the moment during the writing process. Sometimes it relates to the current scene, but just as often what I’m writing will spark an idea for a future scene. These ideas can disappear quickly, so make a note of it right away.
These ideas tend to be on the details and continuity level for me, so their different from what I think of in the previous strategies. Because of this, I would not rely on this time to be your only time to think on your book. At the same time, don’t underestimate the value of simply writing, even if you have no direction at all. Ideas will come to you as you work through all the threads in your mind. So, even when nothing else is working, sit down and write.
With their powers combined
Don’t rely on just one of these times to contemplate your novel. Try a combination or come up with a few of your own. Best results come when taken together.
The personal risks of living in constant pursuit of inspiration
I’m not normal. You probably figured this out already. I’m pretty aloof, I forget a lot of important things, and I have a hard time maintaining relationships with many people outside my family — even inside my family if I’m being honest. For a normal person, this might sound lonely, but for me, it’s what I crave.
This personality flaw, as some might call it, is likely a result of my own pursuit crafting the perfect piece of fiction. I spend so much time thinking about my writing — and other creative projects — that when it comes time for the real world, often I’m a step behind.
For me, that’s ok. I enjoy being alone and spending time simply thinking on things. This is where my inspiration comes from. So be warned, transitioning into a life in constant pursuit of inspiration may come at a cost. Or you might already be an outcast, nerd, or other form of standoffish enthusiast. My people!
Don’t put too much pressure on your ideas
The idea generating phase never ends, so try not to stress about it. The more you allow yourself to think on things, the easier it becomes. Remember, it takes years to become good at anything. Don’t expect the first manuscript you write to be your masterpiece. You could be one of the lucky one’s who writes a classic on their first go, and to you I say fuck off.
It takes most people years to become great at manipulating a thousand ideas into a novel, so just make time for thinking and writing and let everything else go. There’s too much stress in the world already. Don’t make the creative process into a stressful one. Enjoy the struggle, take pride in your mistakes, at least you’re creating something out of nothing! Later on, those early mistakes will be obvious and you’ll find all new weaknesses to strengthen. So it goes.
[bctt tweet=”Young writers, enjoy the struggle, take pride in your mistakes, at least you’re creating something! #writing” username=”SCBarrus”]
When your expectations are too high, nothing feels good enough. Accept that not all of your ideas will be perfect. Some may feel average at best but will create a compelling story in execution. Others may feel great and in execution you’ll realize that they weren’t all you thought they were. It’s all ok. Pivot. Come up with new ideas. Think and think on it, massage it, and eventually something good will come.
Recognize that the initial idea will likely get left in the dust
When I wrote Discovering Aberration, my initial idea was inspired by a dream of a mysterious island with some hidden technology submerged under a lake protected by a dragon. The island and the ancient technology made it to the final draft. All the rest got written out. In the end I wrote a story involving gang wars, evil archeologists, a lost civilization, and characters driven to madness. Idea’s change, and that’s ok. Let them take on their own life, coax them along, adjusting when you need to.
Ideas and inspiration don’t strike anyone not actively looking for it. The right mindset, discipline, and practice will cause ideas to flow. If you aspire to being a great writer, then the best advice I can give you is to write and never stop. I hope you found this first post in my novel-writing series useful. If you did, I would very much appreciate it if you would be kind enough to share. I’ll see you next time.