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An author's secrets to creative flow
You've got an idea? Write it down!
If your characters start talking to you in the middle of the night, or a plot pops into your head while you’re in line at the grocery store, you’re not alone. You're in good company. Me too.
DO NOT trust that you will remember later, because there's a really good chance that you won't.
That means if you're in the car, pull over to write just a few keywords, or ask a passenger to write the keywords for you.
I know this seems a bit crazy, but what if that one idea is worth millions? What if it's just worth $50k? $5k? If you saw that kind of cash laying on the ground, would you leave it there?
No matter what it is, no matter how small it is, no matter where you are, no matter what time it is: WRITE IT DOWN.
J.K. Rowling: Never leave home without it!
J.K. Rowling told Oprah in October 2010 that the ideas for Harry Potter flooded into her mind while she was on a train--and she had nothing to write with!
Can you imagine if she hadn't found a way to jot it all down?
I don't like to use my phone to write down ideas, so I always carry a notebook and pen. ALWAYS. (Except for when I forget or the pen dies. I’ve literally borrowed a pen from a grocery store cashier and written on the back of my receipt!)
I keep paper and pen next to my bed too, so I can write a couple of sentences and go back to sleep. If I get up to go to the computer or find something to write with, I risk not going back to sleep and then I'm cranky.
Put into ideas file ASAP
The next possible moment I can type, I transfer the ideas into a simple MS Word document WITHOUT changing anything. No surfing the internet, no social media, no distractions. Just get the notes into the computer.
I keep all of them in a file called "Brainstorms & ideas". I save them by subject/topic, and whether they are meant for blogging, poetry, short story, or book idea.
If ideas start flooding in as I’m typing the notes, then I open a second document and type because the original notes are already written down.
Experiences, conversations, and dreams...oh my!
A conversation or a news broadcast can trigger an idea. What if this or that happened? WRITE IT DOWN. These little inklings are idea gold mines for later.
I've incorporated weird dreams and meditation experiences into my current book, The Recollection of Trees. Some are really personal, but only I know which ones are my own and which are completely made up. I keep a journal of dreams and messages I get during meditation. Best stuff ever.
New experiences are wonderful for adding richness to a story.
For example, I attended an exclusive pre-opening party for a new restaurant. As soon as I returned home, I described the entire experience, to be used at some point in a future story. I included descriptions of the restaurant's design, decor, lighting and music, the staff's appearance and demeanor, the appearance and feel of the menu, the customers at surrounding tables, the appearance, smell, and taste of the food and drinks we ordered, and how special we all felt at the end of the night.
Initially, I write freestyle--no editing, self-criticism, or worrying about structure--I just write the bit of story, conversation, or description.
The secret is NO EDITING or judging yourself. If editing creeps in, it kills the creative flow. I try to do this for at least 15 minutes, if not 2-3 hours daily. It doesn't matter if what you're writing turns out to be crap, or whether you don't use it, or if it has nothing to do with your current project. Just write.
Best advice: Hemingway
My best secret is to never stop at the end of an idea.
I stop mid-sentence or mid-action so that I can easily start up again later.
“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” –Ernest Hemingway
More help on creativity interruptions:
- Door Knockers Beware! (13 secrets to interruption-free writing from home)
How to keep the creative train from turning into the crazy train.
Some of my editing secrets:
- If you're in editing mode, edit something you wrote yesterday or a week ago. You'll have fresh eyes and a bit of detachment.
- I try not to ever write and edit the same section on the same day.
- If you find yourself hating the whole thing, put it into a "I hate this file" and let it sit for a few days, a week or more. Every once in a while, I don't hate it anymore or I find a pearl in it I can salvage.
- If you're over thinking, over critical, frustrated or any other negative: stop editing right now. Were you trying to convey sadness? Humor? Action? Watch your favorite movie clip with that feeling in it, to help yourself reconnect with your original intention. Were you trying to remember how you felt at a certain age or in a specific situation? Listen to music from that time in your life.
- Still can't get it how you want it? Go for a walk. Bake something. Cuddle with a person or pet. Play a board game with friends. Take a nap. Meditate. Swim. Listen to music. Do anything but write or edit.