Writing Fiction: How Authors Discover Their Best Inspiration
The short answer: By testing, tracking, and deciding.
Longer answer: it depends.
The key point is that no two authors write the same way. Because we are individuals, we choose our own preferences. Even writers born twins or triplets.
- In his “On Writing” Stephen King laid out his pattern he’d developed for writing (after he was able to quit his day job) which was writing in the am, answering emails in the afternoon, and reading at night. Before he quit his day job, he was writing nights and weekends.
- According to Ben Bova, James Blish wrote only one hour a day for most of his writing career. In this he produced a remarkable output of books, short stories and short fiction (See Wikipedia list and scroll down to get it all.)
- Dean Wesley Smith prefers writing in the dead of night (early am, actually) when he is less interrupted. (See that link.)
- Rachel Aaron in her “From 2K to 10K” sponsors the idea of keeping a spreadsheet that will enable you to track your time, location, and output to see which works best for you.
- Dorothea Brande, in her classic “Becoming A Writer” (book | course), lays out several practices you can try to figure out your most optimum times to write. A writer simply rises in the early morning without saying anything to anyone and begins writing. Her consistent point is that writers can apparently become bound by using words or caught up in the language. To such a degree that they simply can’t write with any efficiency. At another point, she recommends making an appointment with yourself to start writing at a certain time in a day, for a certain time period, and write whatever you can. There are other practices she recommends, such as learning how to “quiet the mind” so that inspiration can flow in.
Regardless, the best approach is probably to use all of the above and see what works for you.
The bottom line to these is to actually train your inspiration and imagination so that it produces content on demand.
See those three series where I exhausted everything I can find on this.
Some other notes have come up since, where I’ve worked to put what I found to the test.
King wrote about simply setting a word count and sitting butt in the chair until you make it. Shutting the door (and playing loud music) to shut off all interruptions.
Another writer I heard (podcast) writes in 30-minute blitzes, typing furiously as he can to get as much done as possible. He had three very young children at the time. Several such “blitzes” would fit into the day. And he recommended intentionally quitting in the middle of a sentence.
King tells of Anthony Trollope, who wrote precisely for two and one-half hours every morning before leaving for work. If he was mid-sentence, than that would remain incomplete until the next morning. Once he finished a book, he would simply being work on the next.
Louis L’Amour wrote at different times (mostly in the evening as I recall) and would also simply start the next story once the earlier one finished. He read non-fiction most of the day, doing his research for the Westerns. His house was filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, some on rollers like modern high-density filing systems. And one room was entirely devoted to maps (he had the complete topological maps for the United States in there.) So when he sat to write, he had all the details ready.
DW Smith has a list of titles ready for his inspiration. Often he would take a part of one, or combine them.
Ray Bradbury had a list of nouns he pulled from his childhood. And wrote stories concerning them. His Mars series were actually about the people he grew up with, putting their characters on Mars to see how they would react.
With all my graphics background, I found I can go to Pixabay.com to see their newest or most popular images and get a story swarming into my head based on it. (And get usable cover art at the same time.) Having the cover made up before you start is recommended by both Chris Fox and Geoff Shaw. Print it out and tack it above your screen so you are writing with the end product in mind.
During these last few months of watching my own writing, I find that I can write just about any time I want, about anywhere I want. (Smartphones and tablets are a pain with their small keyboards, though.) I’ve tried a lot of things. Waking up early in the morning is fine, or simply sitting/laying there in bed reviewing the dreams I’ve had. Or taking long walks help, particularly when I’m checking cows in the pasture (along with their fences and how much grass is left in the pasture they are in.) I’ve also started writing in the afternoon after my morning was eaten up with farm chores or other needful distraction. And kept going into the night as long as the words kept coming.
One point I recalled as useful was backed up by Smith and Brande both. Smith points out that you read to give your subconscious the training it needs to give you stories. Then you make your conscious stay quiet while you write it. Brande prefers the more accurate term “unconscious” and says your job it to get these two minds to work together as equal partners. She later refers to a third partner, “genius” that is part of the “magic” any author must find in themselves. Genius or Magic cannot be taught, but they can be discovered and trained like any muscle.
Once you do train your inspiration, you’ll find that it can both run in a furious flame and explosion where you must immediately write all you can as fast as you can to get it all down. Or (as Smith recommends) you keep a certain space just for writing, with nothing else in that room to distract you. When you sit down to that space, on whatever schedule works for you, then your stories will come on demand. This idea is similar to where you can lay down on the bed at night and pick up your dream from where you left off on waking that morning. Seriously. (See the Silva System to master all sorts of these tricks and mental benefits.)
The point is to work out a model by trial, error, correction, test. Use what works best for you.
Cycling – Over and Over
I agree that your writing should be one and done, mostly. DW Smith uses “cycling,” where he will back up to a point earlier and edit or revise this as he goes and then pick up where he left off. This isn’t all that novel. I’ve read of several authors who say to read and edit yesterday’s writing in order to get you oriented into what you need to write today. (Of course, when you write what you’re most interested in – as both Fox and Aaron recommend – you won’t necessarily be writing in sequence from start to finish. I’ve read of more than one author who will write up a book, print it off, then sort the pages according to where they best fit in the novel.)
And I’ve found that I’ll review my own non-fiction blog posts from three to five times each, until I quit finding errors or improvements I need to make. When 97% of it is acceptable (and you no longer find spelling errors or other obvious goofs, then you publish. And that is the four proof model I use (mostly) with the third one being a line edit using ProWritingAid.com, the fourth and final being a out-loud read-through (and recording this for your audiobook version.)
Some have recommended an 80/20 rule version, and coming back to correct errors after the (beta) readers have had a go at it. (There is another post needed where you have to train your beta readers, but I’ll let you know once I have enough to help me with this.)
That Smith pulp fiction model is a time-proven one. I’ve seen it show up over and over for the truly prolific authors. See Heinlein’s Rules and Smith’s take on these. Professional editors tend to sell editing. And vanity publishing houses sell their services (at high rates.) Because that’s how they make a living. The most successful and prolific authors write/edit/revise/proof and then publish. The multiple-draft model (incessant re-writing) were invented by Academia, apparently.
Adopt Your Long-Haul Mental Habit
Yes, its a long road. But you and I need to keep that long-haul mentality at all times. We are in this for literal decades of writing, reading, publishing, promoting. All in an integrated fashion. All your living and life experiences can be harvested at any time to bring you endless wordage for uncountable numbers of stories.
You stick at it. You keep writing each story better than the last. And your inspiration gets better trained as you go.
Too simple. But it’s got to be done. The next best time to start is now.
If you liked this article, or got something out of it…
PS. Sharing is caring – go ahead and send this on to someone you know.
Also published on Medium.