on the hunting down of ideas

I've been struggling lately to turn a lot of ideas I have into actual stories. I kind of feel like my writing mojo has taken a temporary leave of absence, and the harder I look for it, the harder it is to find. It has been incredibly frustrating.

This morning, in Warren Ellis' BAD SIGNAL e-mail, he said:

At least half of all writing involves just sitting and staring into space. Letting your brain out to hunt down ideas, bringing them back all warm and bloody between its teeth.

This is something that I knew to be true, but had temporarily forgotten. As writers, it's vital that we meet our deadlines, of course, but we also have to build time into our work schedule to read books, take walks, visit doctor whisky, play with our dogs, and do the other things that may not look or feel like work, but are integral to our creative process.

Thanks for the reminder, Warren, I needed to hear that.

45 thoughts on “on the hunting down of ideas”

  1. A great book that discusses this is “In Praise of Slow”, by Carl Honore’. It argues that trying to do too much, too fast, will kill your creativity. Instead, it suggests that one should take their time and let their mind wonder around in itself, bouncing off thoughts and coming up with ideas.
    As a writer, I find this to be true. I no longer drive, but take transit. It’s longer, but it’s “me” time, giving me a chance to think, read a book, self-discuss ideas or just let the mind loose. Even simple stuff like coooking a hearthy meal for the clan can be quite useful in figuring out how to write a conclusion to an article I have been working on.
    Of course, don’t forget to carry a notepad and a pen to write down the brilliant ideas that your mind will shoot out.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, more often than not I will be sitting at my desk at work and then my mind wanders off to whatever project I’m on. Then, after a few moments in the Bahamas, I come back with a brand new idea, ready to write!

  3. I’m not a writer, by any stretch of the imagination, but I know a few. What you said rings true with their words – take the time to do something else than write, so you have a source to write from.
    For what it’s worth, as someone who’s reading your books for the first time (Yah, yah, I’m coming to the party *LATE*) – your writing mojo may be taking a slight break to relax and rejuvinate, but it definitely exists. It’s been a significant while since this bibliophile has been as moved by non-fiction as I have reading “Just a Geek”.
    Thank you, sir.

  4. I feel your pain. When the words flow it can be magic, when they don’t you feel like Frodo and Sam did when they were climbing Mt. Doom. A good book that helps keep my mind flexible enough to create is “Zen and the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury. He had a way of inferring instead of telling a story that no-one else can match. Jeff Shaara, author of “Gods And Generals”, is another who inspired me by suggesting living in the story, making the reader live, taste, and smell your words. Which probably all comes back to the old adage, write what you know. Trite but true.

  5. Have you read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way? She too professes the same idea. Including “Artist Dates” a time to take yourself out and experience new things to fill your creative well.

  6. I love Zen and the Art of Writing. “Stay drunk on writing so that life doesn’t kill you.” A Great Truth.
    Been in down mode myself, but feeling the resurgence coming in…

  7. I don’t think your mind could blank out even if you wanted it too. You have had too interesting(in a great way) of a life. Everyone should be as lucky to be as talented as you Wil. Your stories of childhood, and the 80’s in general are what started my love for your blog many years ago. I have all your books lining my book shelf where everyone who walks in can see them. I tell everyone I can about your website.

  8. It’s the same in my line of work (translation). Sometimes, your brain is just too full of things, you forget your native language (mine is German) and the result is a literal translation rather than a rewrite in the other language.
    Completely off topic, have you seen the first tabletop wargame ever? Our hobby isn’t as young as we might have thought…

  9. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before…but just start writing! Allow yourself to write something bad. As you progress through your story it will start to get better and you’ll find your footing eventually.
    Then you edit and fix all the parts that sucked.

  10. Yep, it’s that oscillating between ‘producing’ and ‘germinating.’ It’s okay to germinate, too. You can’t just breathlessly rush in a endless flood of mania, where there’s a direct conduit between The Idea and what you write.
    The trick is learning enough self-discipline to know the difference between fallow periods and fucking around and procrastinating. They’re all needed… but you have to be careful about their ratio : creating. You’ve got enough experience by now, Wil, to know which one it is you’re doing; so trust yourself, and stop being afraid that every time your writing isn’t going smoothly, you’ve somehow lost the hang of it.*
    I forget which teacher of mine I scandalized by comparing writing to sex — the less you do it, the less you want to do it; when it’s going badly, you can’t imagine doing it again; and when it’s going well, you only stop after you’re physically exhausted. Oh, and every new thing you write is like a new partner; take slightly different approaches to each, with a baseline of Things You Probably Shouldn’t Do and Generally Good Things, because rules are useless in the end.
    And just like any other sort of mojo, the harder you try to get it back, the more elusive it is. Relax. Have a beer. Or coffee. I’m having coffee.
    *I’ll now wait for a lightning bolt to strike me. If you hear about a fire in Westwood today, you’ll know why.

  11. Drunk on writing. Visiting Doctor Whiskey. Do I detect a theme here? But yeah, it does sometimes seem like I’m tearing the world my mind creates from it’s hiding place and bringing it out into the sunlight for all to see but so often it gets ignored or unrecognized. But the winter months always gives me a creative charge. Something about the idea of sitting around the hearth-fires telling stories, although in reality it’s more like sitting around the glow of the TV nommin’ hot pockets while listening to your latest itunes mix. “No, no, I’m actually very busy. It just looks like I’m sitting here.”

  12. The other night I had a moment where I realized I was writing complete garbage — and I kept writing. I stopped at one point trying to figure out if it was worth writing if I felt so strongly that it was junk. But the thoughts were spilling out. They would either be a place to start, or something to mark as a path to avoid. It was something. It isn’t pretty when that happens, but it can be part of the process — just like staring at that wall.
    I keep being reminded that “there is nothing new under the sun” (which really irritates me when I’m in a mood to try and be unique), but the encouragement I try to take from that is that we need the outside inputs in order to get our own thoughts going. Watching a person walk their dog in the park could jar a random thought that ultimately leads to a writing binge at 2am.
    So I think the dry spells means we haven’t found the necessary inputs to get our brains going again.

  13. For myself, sitting and staring doesn’t work. However, sometimes just looking at the simplest thing, like some little dust catcher in the house, inspires a story about either the object itself or what the object represents. While my primary stories on my own website are based on 25-year-old gaming characters, one was inspired by the Segway. I have a number of story concepts based on decor in my house (admittedly mostly foxes… I wonder why?)

  14. Ah, the same thing happens to me, as a freelance graphic/web designer. Most often than not. I’m stumped for ideas and it actually seems to be worse for me to sit at my computer. I get most of my inspiration from watching TV/movies, skimming magazines, taking our dog our for long walks and bringing my camera with me.
    Thanks for the mini pep talk. :)

  15. Somehow Wil, I just don’t see you sitting and staring into space, at least not for very long. I do a lot of writing and when I am moved, it flows like a river. But I also know when I have hit a brick wall and it is time to take a break. Knowing when the most creative time of the day is for you and selecting activities for break time which totally get your mind off the subject at hand is paramount. Know that your subconscious is acutely aware of your dilemma and is working on the problem. When refreshed, return and the words will come. I recently read a study to this effect.
    Need more inspiration? Google: writer’s block study

  16. This is also true for those of us who are visual artists. Staring at a blank canvas is not always a bad thing, and staring out the window at the branches of the bushes bobbing about is even better. While crossing your eyes and tilting your head. Yeah, it’s not surprising I paint abstracts. :-)

  17. What Winnie the Pooh says I think applies to all writing: “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you.”

  18. Red Green said, “Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed.”
    That’s always how it felt to me, and I don’t meant the emo/goth mentality. Sometimes it’s a catharsis and sometimes it’s a blood letting. Sometimes what you pull out of you was meant to stay inside.
    Hooray for writing.

  19. In worrying about deadlines, remember the words of the late Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. ”

  20. Wil, I thought your readers would like to know that there is a film festival at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood tomorrow (November 7th) which will feature Leonard Nimoy as a guest speaker. I left you more details in your e-mail, but for everyone’s information I will just mention that they can go to http://www.calparks.org/ and click on “Hollywood Film Series” for more information. Tickets are only $19!

  21. Ahhh… Doctor Whiskey. Practitioner of so many of the healing arts. Reliever of pain. Bringer of sweet nepenthe. Restorer of charisma. The Great Beautifier!!!
    (And who could forget bourbon… brownest of the brown liquors… What? You want me to drink you? But we’re in the middle of a trial…)
    I was listening to your reading of Blue Light Special on the train yesterday morning, and everyone around me must’ve been wondering why in the hell I was grinning so wildly. Just remember that you’ve got the mojo — we all do. [Roll Growing Pains end credit music.]
    And remember what Woody Allen, as Boris, says to his wife in Love and Death: “Well, I hate to say I told you so, but some men have it and some men don’t. Fortunately, I have so much of it.”

  22. I totally agree. I’ve heard that’s why places like google that have such relaxed work environments. Stress can be debilitating to creativity.

  23. Thank you for this. I really needed to read that, right now. I’m attempting NaNoWriMo for the first time. Actually, I’m attempting writing anything over a page long (besides my senior research paper in college) for the first time. Even though I’m over 11,000 words into it, I sometimes feel like I’m not going to have enough ideas to get me to the 50,000 word goal by the end of the month. I guess I just have to take it one day at a time, and remember it’s all about quantity and not quality this month.
    BTW, I gave my heroine a love interest earlier this week. His name is Private William Wesley. 😉 I thought it fitting, considering I’m attempting science-fiction. For my first novel. I must be crazy.

  24. This is true. Another great way to bring fresh killed ideas home is to go out and consume great new things, things you might not normally be exposed to: modern art, gallery openings, museums, etc.
    And, Dr. Whiskey.

  25. The best writers take years! As a small book and comic store you have to read afew books. That and drink lots of coffee.
    take your time write a great book. Oh hay, have you thought of doing a ya book? You know something that my young mino… Um young reades can enjoy? There are alot of really good ya books out there now.
    Have you read “I’m a genius of unspeakable Evil and I want to be your class president”? We need more great ya books.

  26. Might be a good time to pick up a game…something that gets you in that autopilot mode where you play but the mind still does all sorts of fantastic wandering…
    When was the last time you played a game of Nethack? 😉

  27. Wil, I consider blockage a very integral part of the writing process, perhaps necessary on some deep level. I also feel it is a sign that a journey of some kind is required. A long walk someplace you never walked to experience things you never experienced. It’s a reboot period, a period of purging, of refreshing, of feeding. In this respect, sticking to the familiar may not improve the situation much.
    I am not saying the staring off into space is useless. It definitely has a lot of merit. However, if it comes to the point that this is not helping you, perhaps a walkabout is needed to give your brain something new to work with. It is like a 3 number combination. There is only so much you can extract. But add just one number and a whole new world of possibilities opens up.
    I wish you luck in overcoming it. One thing for sure, though… forcing it will only make it worse. But you probably already know this ;).

  28. Maybe you ought to give NaNoWriMo a shot this year, to help you get over the hump. 30 days to spit out 50,000 words, no editing, no judging, just tear down the floodgates and see what comes of it. Give yourself permission to suck – you can always edit later and make it awesome. Could be cathartic. 😉

  29. you’ll think of something to write about wil. i just finised ur book just a geek and if theres one thing that i have learned about you its that u are full of ideas.

  30. Christ. Just the idea of a deadline gives me a panicky feeling inside, so I can only imagine what you’re going through right now. I’ve been writing poetry for the past 25 years and have had dry spells that literally lasted for more than two years or more, and no amount of forcing the words to come out has ever worked because the end result was always lame and didn’t tap deep enough into my soul. When you’re trying to give your readers a sense of who you truly are and how you truly feel, you just have to let go and allow yourself to be vulnerable sometimes, as scary as that can be.
    I’m with all of the others who have said just let it flow, whether you think it’s crap or not, because you never know if something in that crap could be reworked and turned into gold later on. Don’t let the Voices of Self-Doubt or Prove to Everyone come bursting through the door and start running the show on you again, Wil. I was around back in the days when those fucktards used to show up, and I can say with 100% certainty that Wil Wheaton™ can kick both of their asses and knock them back to where they belong. For now, just enjoy a nice anniversary weekend with Anne, relax and let yourself have a good time. The yet-to-be-written material is in there, and when it decides to come out it most certainly will, usually at 4:00 AM because creativity is a tricky little bastard like that, as I’m sure you already know.

  31. ROFLMAO! Oh, so you’re going by my word now. are we? Obviously you’re not aware of my unofficial title over here at WWdN:IX, Annoying Chick from Philly. I kind of earned that title by being a constant pain in Wil’s ass (and the fact that I made it up because doing shit like this amuses the hell out of me), but I’ve been on my best behavior lately, honest!
    I’ve been hanging out here off and on for the better part of the past 5+ years, and I also have a friend that shares her birthday with Wil & Anne’s anniversary, so it’s kind of hard for me to forget about it. And I’m pretty sure that it’s today, or else I’ll be dealing with one pissed off friend today if her birthday was yesterday! Yikes!

  32. I have tried, on numerous occasions to explain this space-dust gathering to my darling other half. To him I’m “doing nothing” but it’s not “nothing” going on in the back of your brain. It’s a filtering process! Good luck!

  33. It’s not surprising. You’ve had a lot of creative and cool stuff going on. Now the dust has settled and it’s back to business as usual, and I bet there’s a bit of a comedown from that creative high.
    But it’ll pass when the next cool idea comes along, and it always does. :-)

  34. And thank YOU for passing that reminder along. Whenever I can’t get the writing mojo working, it’s usually because I haven’t been letting the ideas in – too much other thinking keeping my brain busy.

  35. This is a problem I frequently encounter when trying to write short stories. I find that my short stories always turn into bloated huge things, while stuff that I intend to be longer always runs into a roadblock when it reaches short story length. Perhaps I should just write instead of saying “this is going to be a short story”? Obviously, Wil, if you are writing something because you have been tapped to, this isn’t really an option, but I gotta try SOMETHING different. It’s really frustrating.

  36. Regardless of whether or not he was a likeable man, and there is evidence to support that he may not have been, Ernest Hemingway was one of the greatest writers of all time. While there are writers out there that can create a hell of a good story, it is rare to find a writer that can create the flow and eloquence that the classic writers had. However, the modern styles of writing are less stuffy. They are refreshing and real.
    With all that being said, to me at least, I think it is interesting how Hemingway looked at writing as being “work”. He was right in the sense that so many do not appreciate the difficulty in creating. In order to prove that writing truly was not only a mental exercise, but also “work” Hemingway made writing a physical chore. He wrote standing up.
    Just a fun tid bit I thought I would share.
    Hang in there Wil. I’m sure a stroke of inspiration will come to you.

  37. I am in dire need of some help, and I can’t find what I need anywhere.
    I have to do a business and marketing plan based on self-publishing and the statistics are so varied that I can’t find anything truly usable.
    I need to know a few things regarding averages (average cost of an ebook, average profit from said ebook, average costs to self-publish etc.)
    You can contact me through twitter @boshemia or through my website Sugarpatch.com my email is listed at both places, and I promise I will only need a few moments of your time just needed someone I trusted to give me some quick stats.
    That’s all, that’s it, I don’t want anything else from you and I’m not asking you to endorse anything or participate. I just need to get this business plan done to prove to my financial backers that I am a writer so I can go back to writing…
    Thanks so much!

  38. Try what I do.
    Whatever you’re stuck on – goto a bookstore and open random books. Assume the answer to your problem, or something that will spark a lead to it, is on the page of your birthday. Just believe it, believe it hard, and it will work…sometimes.

  39. This is off topic, and I think a day or so late, but Happy Anniversary to you and Anne. If my info (wiki) is right, than this is 10 years, good on you. Recently I was given a copy of the Just a Geek audiobook, and I can sympathize on many topics. While I’m not an actor, my wife of a year now is the most supportive and understanding woman I have ever known.
    Recently I decided (after a tanking career as a stage-hand due to my lack of desire to indulge in recreational plant abuse with my boss) to go back to college. I originally started off in a law enforcement track, but came upon a crisis. I have always love movies, and after a good healthy think, and many conversations with my wife I decided to change my major and go to film school to get the degree. We have a ten year plan to open my own studio and follow my dream. I have just listened to the section in JAG about your decision to focus on writing, and the amount of support you got from your family is an inspiration for me, as is most of the book so far, and a testament to to what we can do and how far we can go with people who love and support us.
    Thank you for being so open to you fans, thank you for continuing to be a icon of perseverance though all the bull and thank you for being just a geek.
    My best to you and Anne

  40. Thank you so much Mr. Wheaton. I totally took this advice to heart – I’ve been trying to work on my NaNoWriMo project (mostly to prove I can stick to a schedule) and could NOT come up with a thing to write about that I liked. Then I read your post, and let things be for a couple of days. Sure enough, I had an EPIC dream this morning that provided the inspiration for the novel I am now working on – I wrote a completed ten page outline in THIRTY MINUTES! (Thank god for 100 wpm typing.) I never would have done this, I think, without the advice you passed on. Thank you for being a damn good writer and slipping us not-so-accomplished writers a few hints along the way.

  41. You just finished writing a freaking book, don’t be too hard on yourself. :) But thanks for this reminder. Forcing the words to take shape doesn’t really work, we just end up with a lot of useless dribble.

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