Wintering With WWW will be back this winter. Registration for the first Wintering With WWW Zoom Speakers Meetings opens on November 1. These events are open to all WWW members and their invited guests. For more information visit the Women Writing the West website under Events.
Could you use six ways to find your best ideas before you start writing? K. M. Welland may have some answers for you.
For writers, ideas are the primal matter. No ideas, no stories. But sometimes trying to figure out how to find your best ideas is like catching butterflies. They flit in; they flit out. If we aren’t paying attention, sometimes we don’t even recognize that they’ve been there. Even when we do stop short in awe of their beauty, we risk damaging them if we get too excited and try to capture them too quickly or too forcefully.
Not all ideas are this fragile, of course. There are different kinds of ideas. There are solid, logical, left-brain ideas. These are the ones we feel in control of. We come up with them. We guide them. We get to decide whether our protagonists take Road A or Road B because we are the ones who have also decided what’s going to be at the end of those roads.
But other ideas—the butterfly ideas—are more ephemeral, spontaneous, right-brain ideas. These are the “inspired” ideas, the ones gifted to us from beyond our own conscious understanding. These are the ideas that happen when our subconscious takes over. The story writes us rather than us writing the story.
Although both types of ideas are crucial to the process of wrangling a story into cohesion and resonance, I’d argue the right-brain ideas are really the true substance. Inspiration, after all, is every writer’s absinthe. But inspiration cannot be forced. Indeed, inspiration can’t even really be caught. When the left brain tries to take over a new idea and tame it, the idea may either die in captivity or fade to a pale version of itself. As Natalie Goldberg laments at one point in Wild Mind:
“[The] problem was that I froze the inspiration into an idea before I even began to actually write.”
Subconscious ideation can only be observed, appreciated, and recorded carefully. We must each find our own balance for making sure our ideas don’t leave the preserve, while still letting them run wild on the page. But this can be easier said than done, since all creative spontaneity and no conscious control doesn’t lend itself very well to the true craftsmanship of writing.
6 Ways to Find Your Best Ideas—Before You Start Writing Them
In the 20+ years I’ve been writing, I have noted that my best process is never one that hurries ideas. It lets the ideas come to me—as gifts, surprises. And then it waits, patiently, to see if another idea will come and perhaps yet another.
A motto that has served me well is:
“One idea does not a story make.”
The rationale behind this is that if I try to sit down and write an entire story based on just one idea (or perhaps even a small handful of ideas), I inevitably end up filling in most of the story with left-brain ideas. The stories can be still be pretty good this way, but in my view neither the process nor the product is the same as the stories with a higher ratio of right-brain ideas.
I feel this holds true whether your preferred process is to discover your story in the outline or to discover it in the first draft. Regardless, it’s about getting our conscious brains, with their know-it-all tendencies, out of the way long enough for us to tap into the zone and see what might be waiting for us in a deeper reservoir of inspiration. Goldberg went on to say:
“The initial subject matter might not have anything finally to do with what we really need to say. Just keep your hand moving and let whatever is about to happen unfold. Let writing do writing. Don’t manipulate it with your ideas about what you think should happen.”
Obviously, there is a time and a place for doing exactly the opposite. For example, this is not the approach you want to take when troubleshooting your plot. But it’s also true that it’s difficult to truly discover a story when your conscious brain is determined it already knows what it’s going to find.
If you’re like me—with an inordinately loud and bossy conscious brain—then you might benefit from the following six ways to find your best ideas as you cultivate, channel, and honor your deeper inspiration.
1. Treat Ideas Like Butterflies—Just Watch at First
I still believe the best part of the writing process is the daydreaming. That’s how it all started for me, as I imagine it did for many of you, just lazily watching the “movies” in my head—random images, characters, and scenarios that would present themselves to my mind’s eye. It’s the adult(-ish) version of playacting in the backyard. There’s no forcing, no pursuing—just watching and appreciating.
2. Capture With Care—Don’t Touch
When I was young, I would catch butterflies—Monarchs and Yellow Swallowtails. I’d pinch their wings between my fingers for a moment, just to get a better look. But then I noticed the colors of their wings flaking off in my hand and learned that my gentle inspection might just have crippled those delicate butterflies. I let the butterflies alone now.
And in their early iterations, I treat my ideas the same way. I don’t let my conscious brain anywhere near them. In the very beginning, I won’t even scribble down notes. I relate strongly to what Goldberg reported about “freezing” inspiration before it even has a chance to fully emerge from the cocoon and reveal to me its true (and often surprising) potential.
3. Keep Watching—Add More Ideas to Your Collection
The longer I’m able to wait and watch my growing collection of ideas for any particular story, the richer the trove I end up with. Some stories have matured, undisturbed, for years. Those are almost always my favorite ones to write. When I sit down to outline, the plot is usually all but complete. All I have to do is tweak a few things and add a few scenes. Other stories, with far fewer organic ideas to draw from, are still rewarding to write, but they’re almost always a lot more work—and, interestingly, not always as logical.
Of course, you don’t have to wait years for ideas to mature. Indeed, if your best writing process is to use writing itself to ideate, then just letting rip in the first draft, as Goldberg suggests, can afford you a deep, almost meditative brainstorming safari. Regardless your process, your right brain is usually a better judge of a story’s readiness to be written than is your left brain. I often gut-check myself with Margaret Atwood’s pithy notation:
“ …you know when you’re not ready; you may be wrong about being ready, but you’re rarely wrong about being not ready.”
4. Seek Them Out—Purposefully Dreamzone
Even when you’re trying to get quiet and let your right brain speak to you, nobody says you have to wait for ideas to come to you. Jungle expeditions are always valuable. Discovery writing, as noted above, is one way of doing this. Just… write. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and see what you find.
One of my favorite exercises is one I’ve discussed before. I call it “dreamzoning.” Basically, it’s daydreaming on steroids. Make a date with yourself to sit down, zone out, and intensely focus on imagining your story. You’re not logically creating a plot or solving problems. Rather, you’re visiting that same place in your brain where you go to daydream—where pictures and ideas arise spontaneously. For me, semi-darkness and music is helpful for tapping into that place.
5. Let Your Subconscious Write More of the Story Than Your Conscious
Even if you’re a heavy-duty outliner who plans all the big-picture twists and turns of the plot before writing the first draft, you will still want to approach the actual writing of the story from a place of curiosity and surrender. One of the chief pitfalls of writing with an outline can be the loss of spontaneity and inspiration in the actual writing. Instead of methodically plodding from known plot point to known plot point, seek to access that same “dreamzone” when in the throes of hammering out the words of your story’s first draft. Even if you need to stop and check your map every now and then, focus on the lived experience of dreaming the story onto the page.
6. Brainstorm to Fill in the Gaps—Carefully
None of this is to discount the importance of consciousness and logic in crafting your story. Story is both art and craft. At a certain point (probably many points) in the process, you will need to step back from the heady rush of writing from the zone and examine your story logically. Everything from spelling and sentence structure on up to plot structure and character arc will benefit from a conscious organization.
The trick is to do this carefully, to use your knowledge and understanding of story technique to help you fill in blanks and guide the story on its most resonant path—without disturbing your connection to your deeper creativity. We’re unlikely to find all the ideas or guidance we need in the dreamzone. We have to surface for air and orientation every now and then. But we should be seeking a balance between the raw flow and the careful course-correction. To the degree we over-correct, we often end up feeling, as Gail Carson Levine put it, that:
“Ideas are ideas, and words on paper are words on paper; they’re not the same thing, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves.”
The amount of time you need to spend in the wilds will be different for any given story. But returning again and again to this primal inspiration will keep your compass straight and help ensure you’re writing the stories you really want to tell. In relation to all this, I also found the following quote from Goldberg to be resonant and inspiring:
“[I realized] I wouldn’t be so afraid to die because I would have been busy dying in each book I wrote, learning to get out of the way and letting my characters live their own lives.”
To me, this speaks of tapping that deep, raw creativity and letting the stories write us as much as we write the stories.
A great headshot makes a world of difference when it comes to marketing. If you are attending the 2022 Women Writing the West Conference in Oklahoma City you will have an opportunity to update your portfolio with a new personal photo.
Photographer, Creel McFarland, of Limerick Studio will be on hand to take your fabulous new headshot. Included in the fun and unique photo session are online proofs to pick your favorite, and an edited and released digital photo.
Pre-Book your conference photo session now to take advantage of the advanced booking price of $50.00. To make your appointment use the Pre-Book link or scan the QRC below.
Onsite/Walk-In bookings during the WWW conference are $65.00.
VIsit Limerick Studio’s gallery to view business headshots of some of their clients.
The special pricing offer is valid on October 21 & 22, 2022 at the WWW Conference held at the Sheridan Hotel, Oklahoma City.
Reach out to Creel if you have questions or require additional information
Are you attending the 2022 Women Writing the West Conference?
Whether you are a seasoned conference attendee or a first timer, these tips will be a reminder of things to do in preparing to attend, while you are there, and when you get home from the upcoming .
Robert Lee Brewer has eight tips for attending a conference include: Prepare Ahead of Time, Participate as Much as Possible, and Make Connections
Some of Jane Friedman’s suggestions for attending conferences are: Find Out the Conference Hashtag and use it in Your Social Media Posts, Research the Speakers, Items to Take With You, and Ideas for Post Conference.
Chuck Sambuchino created a section on what to do, and not do at a conference, as well as some tips to use when pitching to literary agents.
The tips Kristin Oakley would have you apply after you have attended the conference include: Review Your Notes and Handouts, Share What You Have Learned, Keep In Touch aka Network
If you have tips you would like to share about attending conferences, please leave them in the comments.
The 2022 Women Writing the West Conference is being held in Oklahoma City in October. Here is your opportunity to get acquainted with the Agents and Editors who will be in attendance this year.
Malaga Baldi ~ The Baldi Agency
Malaga Baldi has worked as an independent literary agent since1986. The Baldi Agency is an eclectic agency specializing in literary fiction, memoir and cultural history: work that takes you to places never visited before… Baldi graduated from Hampshire College and lives in NYC. She worked as a cashier at Gotham Book Mart, in the Ballantine Books Publicity Department, as an associate at Candida Donadio & Associates and the Elaine Markson Agency before going out on her own. Baldi believes the strength of the author’s voice and the heart of the story to be key when considering new work. Clients include William J. Mann, Kate Bornstein, Patty Dann, Glenn Kurtz and Kia Corthron. Please check out her website: www.baldibooks.com
Author Janet Key shares the feeling of not wanting to revisit the world she was creating and the tools she used to help make her fiction a place she wanted to be.
Last fall, I decided with great determination that it was finally time to finish that literary novel of mine.
At that point, I had published short stories in literary journals and been told that a collection could be published … with, of course, a novel to go with it. It was disappointing to put the stories on hold, but I wasn’t too worried. I wrote in many forms, including long-form narratives. I had finished full-length plays and scripts, along with other, early attempt novels, and had sold a middle grade book, Twelfth, that I was still doing intermittent edits on.
The literary novel I was trying to write had been picked up and put down a lot over the years, but I was certain there was plenty of good stuff in there, and I was ready. I had the time blocked out. I had my notes and plans prepared. Finally, I thought, I could sit down and finish my real, serious, literary novel.
Only, I couldn’t seem to do the “sitting” part.
I would open the file on my computer and then immediately open YouTube. I would catch myself skimming my own work. More than once I lay my head down on my desk, willing my writing time to evaporate out from under me. As someone who always considered myself unafraid of “doing the work” of writing, this was a new, confusing, and honestly embarrassing experience.
It wasn’t writer’s block. I definitely had a sense of what needed to happen on the next page, and I already had bits and pieces drafted to get me there. Nor had I lost faith in the story I was telling. I believed it was exploring some valuable, big ideas, that it was interesting and engaging, and had moments of well-written tension and tenderness (I still do, in case you’re wondering).
At first, I blamed my problems on the fact that I had picked up and put down the novel too many times, distracted by other projects and jobs, and now couldn’t find the cohesive narrative. There was some truth to that—it was Frankenstein-ed together, overstuffed, and stitched sloppily at the seams—but it didn’t account for how I felt. It didn’t explain the dread, the procrastination, the sort of white-knuckle “just do it already!” self-talk I had to employ to actually write. Those feelings all boiled down to one thing: I just didn’t want to go in there.
But where was there? And why didn’t I want to go in?