Monday, July 28, 2008

What's Taking You So Long In There?

by Janine Ashbless

Okay, so this isn’t actually a picture of me. But if it was, I could tell you exactly what she’s thinking there:

"Hey. Wow. What if my heroes START in Damascus and GO to Baghdad? Oh yeah. That means they could visit the House of Wisdom. Cool! And I don’t have to worry about the princess having an actual historical, documented family: I can make it all up! Yes. Yes! Awesome!"

That’s because I do my creative thinking in the shower. Not exclusively of course, but often enough that I can more or less rely on that time to get plot details tweaked, and new elements will often come to me in that inexplicable ZAPP way that is the nicest thing about the creative process. Either in the shower, or sat on the bathroom mat wrapped in a towel afterwards. Sometime I don’t emerge until nearly noon. I’m not sure what it is about getting washed – the fluid play of the water, the familiar automatic movements that keep your body busy while freeing the mind – but it seems to work.

On occasions when I’m stuck for an idea or a solution to a plot problem, my other technique is to have a 10-minute nap and then force myself to lie there after I wake up. My mind has re-ordered itself during sleep and new possibilities occur – but not if I get up and start wandering round the house. On the other hand I never get ideas when I lie down at night, which I hear is fairly common: when I go to bed I fall asleep in nano-seconds and any muses out there just skip on past, giggling.

Creating a novel is 95% dogged work, but we all need those epiphanies, those little pieces of originality and inspiration, that seem to arrive from some other place (out of the blue sky, up from the depths of the subconcious) and blunder into our minds. Learning where they hang out, how to tempt them closer, how to lay traps for those elusive little creatures, is skill I’ve had to learn.
So I figured I’d ask some other Lusties how they did it too…



Is there a special place/time of day that ideas come to you ?

Portia : I quite often get ideas for plots and characters and stories while getting washed in the bathroom, or taking a bath or shower. (Hah! See! – Janine)

Olivia: I dream my way through my stories in the shower a lot (Are we spotting a thread here?Janine). I'm not much of a morning person and frequently forget I'm supposed to be soaping & rinsing & then getting dressed, so I end up staring out the window thinking I'm one of my characters. Long walks with my ipod are excellent planning time, and because there's no pen and paper handy, it stops me committing to ideas too quickly - much better, sometimes, just to let drift, see scenes unfold, and decide later if they'll actually work. I give myself a vague focus for the walk -- yup: vague focus, idea-finding is all about contradiction, thinking about a story without thinking about it, concentrating less on productivity to be more productive, etc.
Sometimes I find my mind has wandered completely and I remind myself of the focus, only to realise I've been thinking intensely about one of the characters and am so much in their head that I've forgotten it's a character's thoughts and not my own. Oxford's great for walking like that: you can criss-cross the entire city and barely touch foot on concrete if you don't want to. Yes: in Oxford, everyone can fly... And there have to be trees. The trees are in on it, and if they're not there, I can't think. Any automated activity helps me think, so when I'm planning a novel, I cook, wash windows, clean the house, take long baths, and garden. If all else fails, I sit in a coffee shop brainstorming. And if everything else fails, bring out the candles and red wine and the very loud music.

Madeline: If I'm not at my desk I can usually be found in my bed, so most of my ideas come to me in bed, usually at night. It's the idea that's the toughest part for me (maybe for everyone) and many of my ideas are too wacky for the genre. (Just don’t ask her about the Mad Cow story! – Janine)
The ideas take shape in my mind but the dialogue, etc. only comes when I'm at the computer. I may have jotted down a couple of lines but once I'm at the keyboard my fingers fly and the piece takes form, and not before.

Erastes: Usually I get my best ideas in that inbetween time between sleep and waking - this is usually the most dangerous because I think to myself that I'll DEFINITELY remember this when I wake up and I never do so I've started always having a pen and paper by the bed.

Kate: Usually as I'm drifting off to sleep or just waking up I get my best ideas-sometimes when I listen to lyrics as well

Do you ever get writers' block?

Portia: Not full blown writers block, but sometimes it's hard to summon enthusiasm.

Olivia: YES! I find it intensely irritating when some novelists, usually men, say rather smugly, "Well, I think writer's block is ridiculous, I mean plumbers don't get plumber's block!" And I think: yeah, which is why you write like you're fixing a u-bend. Every time I start a book I'm dumbstruck by my own presumption. When I lived in London, I was blocked for two and a half years - no trees, see - and it was terrifying.

Madeline: Unfortunately I'm the type of person who needs an ironclad routine in order to work steadily. Visitors, events, even a night out throw me right off. Christmas takes me a month to prepare for and two months to get over. I seem to be felled by illness a lot, in the last few years, and when I'm sick I collapse totally into an 'I'm dying' state that's probably harder to recover from than the actual illness.

Erastes: Not so much block but I just feel disinterested in continuing to write what I'm writing. When I first started out I used to get blocked because every time I finished something I got this horrible black veil which made me feel that I'd never be able to write anything else ever again but each time I found I could, and did - so I got out of that habit and don't get blocked. But when I get BORED that's lethal because I just put off even opening the file and looking at it.

Kate: Not really, I don't have time :)

If so, do you have special techniques to overcome it?

Portia: No, not really. Eventually I feel so guilty at not writing anything that I just grit my teeth and write *something*, even if it's rubbish.

Olivia: Apart from moving out of London and not letting wild horses drag me back? Yes - lots - mostly about getting back on the horse or not getting off it in the first place. As it's my living, I can't afford to just stop, however paralysed I feel. Writing in a different document, in italics, and without normal punctuation can help me feel that my words aren't committed in stone, and get the flow back; I switch to longhand if it gets dire; I change location (back to the coffee shop!); I chain myself to the desk for a specific length of time; I switch off the wireless connection; I write reassuring messages and stick them up on the wall next to me. One of my most helpful discoveries was that I can write through the teeth of terror thinking that every single word is shit and end up with a story that takes my breath away. My short story for Sex With Strangers, "Barely Grasped Pictures", was dragged out sentence by sentence, like blood from a stone, with my head halfway through the computer screen, and I still think it's one of the best stories I've written. Then, of course, the little voice says "You'll never write something that good again..." Silence the little voice! It's lies, all lies!

Madeline: There's nothing like a 'call for submissions' to get me going.

I've dabbled in all sorts of genres over the years but I started in the short story form and it's immensely satisfying to finally be able to write a good short story. The restrictions and requirements of erotica have freed me. Strange, but true.
All I really need to do is sit at my desk and pull up my work in progress, and the work starts. Sometimes it's incredibly difficult but that doesn't show in the work. Sometimes it's easy, and again, that doesn't show in the work. I'm finding that as I mature as a writer the first draft (which used to be my favourite to write) is by far the most difficult. Used to be that my pleasure in the process went downhill after that, but now I rewrite happily until the piece is in place. More and more, I get my greatest pleasure from 'turning words' as they say. (Well, I suppose my greatest pleasure as a writer comes from having my submission accepted, but in terms of the process, these days I'm really enjoying the rewrite.)

Erastes: I push myself through it. A good friend said that it was important to put the words down and if they weren't good words it didn't matter - they could be made better later and that's good advice. So I just write on, even if it's as dull as "Gideon woke up and got dressed" because as long as I'm progressing the story, that's good - I can go back and pretty the prose up later.

Kate: I do try and take some time off every week and a bigger vacation each year and do something completely different-I also use ‘The Artist's Way' by Julia Cameron if I really feel creatively drained.


Jonathan Swift said, I’m told: "Man is never more at thought than when he is at stool." Oddly enough our authors don’t subscribe to the Toilet Theory of Inspiration! - and personally I read on the loo. But go on, do tell – where do YOU hunt down those ideas? What do you do when the Great Ideas Famine strikes? And how does the rest of the family cope when you hog the bathroom?

xxx
Janine Ashbless
Blog : Website

18 comments:

magdalune said...


Is there a special place/time of day that ideas come to you?


I have to agree with Olivia on the walking bit. I walk my dog every evening for about an hour with my ipod on my pop list, and that's my truly cathartic time. Sometimes I work through a particularly nagging anxiety, and sometimes I think up a story idea and flesh it out in my head.

And like Madeline, I also tend to get my best stories from dreams right after waking up. When I can, I stay in bed for a while, toying with the dream to see whether it will work as a story.

Do you ever get writers' block? If so, do you have special techniques to overcome it?

YES! And I hate it so much. I'm always afraid that it's not going to go away. Sometimes I don't write at all and proceed to edit what I do have. Other times I try to write and get even more frustrated when I stare at the empty Word doc, not typing a thing. It's like there's a brick wall between the idea and seeing it in type. It's even worse when this happens right before an essay is due.

Unfortunately, I have no sure way of getting through it. I just have to wait until the pressure of something bursts enough for me to get past that brick wall.

I can relate with something Madeline said about a call for submissions being a good font of inspiration. I'm terrible with a general push to write something. So if someone tells me to write some gay erotica, I flounder - okay, what kind of gay erotica?! There's tons of gay erotica out there, how on earth am I supposed to choose an idea in an idea superstore the size of Ikea?! AAAAAAHHHH! But give me a solid prompt, not just the genre but the basic theme and atmosphere, and I'm off. I'm the same way with essays - I like to have something I can work off of, and that doesn't include a devil-may-care call.

Janine Ashbless said...

Funny how people vary, Magdalune: I can't plot or work with music on. I can't even think with music on. But I know what you and Madeline mean about having something to work off - deadlines and thematic restrictions ("It must be based around the concept of breakfast") really really help me too.

Olivia Knight said...

The music is permanently on while I write, but I have a special list called "Breakthrough" - forgot to mention that! As for the toilet theory - okay, every time I go to pee I have a great idea. That's why I drink so much water. It used to be that I'd go clubbing, disappear to the loo, then half an hour later my concerned friends would come banging on the door to find out if I'd passed out - nope, just writing poetry again...

Olivia Knight said...

P.S. Thanks for all the naked men in showers, Janine :-D
I like to think they're all planning their novels.

Madelynne Ellis said...

My best flashes of inspiration are always in the bath. Taking a notebook with me is compulsory. I take very long baths.

Walking is good too, likewise swimming. The movement just seems to get the ideas flowing.

When I'm falling asleep - gah! I have lots of virtually indecipherable notecards which I've written in the dark, because I know I won't remember it come morning, but I don't want to switch on the light. What I find interesting, is that if you deliberately go to bed early, the muses don't bother me. It's only when it's really late and I have to get up early the next morning.

I'm not sure I get writers block as such. Generally, it's just a case of I haven't adequately dealt with something earlier in the story and I need to backtrack and flesh things out more to get everything moving again.

Portia Da Costa said...

I'll probably get tons of inspiration while I'm travelling to San Francisco, when I haven't got my lappie with me... Am hoping I can decipher any notes I take during the journey! :)

Au revoir, guys!

And to anyone who's going to RWA... see you soon!

Janine Ashbless said...

Have fun at the RWA you guys!

Madelynne Ellis said...

Right, I'm off on the first leg of the RWA journey. See you in a few hours, Wendy.

Bye, until next week folks!

Olivia Knight said...

I suppose someone has to stay behind to water the plants... Hey - Janine - they're gone! Fancy a shower?

Jeremy Edwards said...

Walking and shower, yes. Driving, too.

But what I really want to say is that I have a huge, instant crush on Janine's giggling, skipping muses. That image is enough to make a person feign sleep and lie hopefully in wait.

Olivia Knight said...

A few other things on managing inspiration... Ideas come in sporadic blasts, for me. I used to scribble them down in a notebook, but I go through those so fast that I'd end up digging through shelves of the things, so now I have a specific ideas-notebook, small enough to fit in any handbag (even an evening bag).

As I told Mandy M Roth, We can’t usually see it, but there’s a vast colorful swarming throng of feathered and scaly iridescent bodies, swooping and pressing around us all the time, and all one has to do is squint a little, reach out and… grab! Then I squash the ethereal critter between the pages of my small, gleaming Ideas Book, which I carry around everywhere. When I want to write something, I flip through the book and choose aspects I like of the different pressed ideas.

I've also found I need to work around my cycle. In the 10 days or so prior to ovulation, I can teem with ideas and write proposals very easily. In the week coming up to my period, it gets progressively more difficult - first I'm feeling too left-brain to let ideas flow and am constantly picking logical holes in them before they've grown, then I get too insecure to trust my own judgement and that this funny-looking THING will ever become anything, and then I'm just too stroppy and can only be trusted to make those difficult phonecalls and write those Strongly Worded Letters. That time is great for filing, editing, and tax returns. But not finding or developing ideas.

Janine Ashbless said...

Jeremy, you make me giggle. And skip.

Olivia - you make me want to take a shower...

Kate Pearce said...

God, my answers make me look like a seriously boring writer compared to the rest of you imaginative souls- a veritable hack even. :)

I only have to get in the car to get to RWA this year so I'm not in such a flutter right now.

magdalune said...

o now I have a specific ideas-notebook, small enough to fit in any handbag

Olivia, I have several notebooks all around me just in case. It's the equivalent of my mother buying lots of reading glasses and placing them everywhere in the house so that she can just pick one up instead of having to look for them.

My notebooks are good for just about everything - notes, memories, ideas, dates, lists...

Edie Bingham said...

My ideas come mostly when I'm lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep. It's about the only calm time I have on most days. It's so quiet at night and I've often gotten up at 3 or 4 in the morning and gone into my huge spare fronmt bedroom to plot stuff or write or sketch a character silently in the near darkness. I've a streetlamp just outside the window in there so I just leave the light off and try to work just with the light from outside.

The biggest block I get is from being overloaded with stuff going on so no time to actually write.

when I do have time, it'll usually be helped along by TV on low and low lighting with me on the sofa in comfy clothes.

Edie, from San Francisco (i'm just leaving for Portland tho so have a good one those of you arriving) Those of you not in a far off locale, hasve a grand time wherever you are. XX

Janine Ashbless said...

And the lesson is ... if you suffer from insomnia make the most of it!

Good luck on your stand-up tour Edie!

Madeline Moore said...

Great post! Interesting how no one is saying, 'I wait for the Muse.' We must be pros.

I should have said 'in the shower' for a time and place when ideas happen. I do that a lot.

Felix just walks in and talks to me, thus scaring me to death (did he not see Psycho?) I used to shower sitting down - and when asked why, I didn't have an answer, but I was afraid of showering when I was younger, and Norman Bate's in full mommy drag coming in to kill me. So I think I showered sitting down to give me that little element of surprise. HA! Got you with the loofah you twisted bastard! Take that Mrs. and Master Bates.

Helen said...

Fascinating! I always thought I was the only one who wrote stories in the shower. Not in the tub though. Doesn't work for a bath for some reason.

One thing I do when I've got writer's block is pull out a basket of laundry and start folding, or else go wash some dishes. For some reason, those humdrum chores really let my mind relax. I've learned to either keep a notebook handy then, or set up my palm pilot with attached keyboard so I can catch those key bits of story and dialog as they hit.