Now I have something where I didn’t have something before.

My friend Cory Doctorow says that he can write simply by sitting down and opening up a vein. It doesn’t matter where he is, or what’s going on around him. When it’s time to write, it’s just his brain and the place he puts the words.

I admire that, and wish I could do it, but it’s just not possible for me. I need to be in a calm and quiet place, both emotionally and physically, and depending on what stage of a project I’m in (rough draft, last mile, rewriting, outlining), I may need other existential things, particular bits of music, types of coffee or tea, things like that.

I guess it’s different for every writer, but I have these — you know, I sat here for almost a full minute typing and deleting the word “silly”, before deciding that it isn’t silly at all — rituals that let me open the creative vein that Cory can tear open at will.

The important thing, I guess, is that the words get written and the story gets told, and what the specific the steps are from idea to publishing don’t really matter, at long as you take them.

Today, I had the barest hint of an idea, and I wanted to know what it would turn into, if I worked on it. Imagine seeing something far away, though clouds and haze. It could be a mountain, it could be a thunderhead, it could be a tumor pressing against your optic nerve. The thing is, you don’t know what it is until you get close enough to see it clearly. You have to take the steps.

So I put on my running shoes, and I went out for a jog, letting my mind wander around, until that hint of an idea began to coalesce into something more tangible. After about forty minutes, I had enough to write down some broad strokes, knowing that once I started writing the actual thing, I’ll know how to fill in the gaps that were left today.

I took literal steps to get my brain going, and to start the process of turning a few scattered “what if…” ideas into something that may turn into an actual story. I don’t know what will come of it, and I don’t know when it will be finished, but I took the steps, and now I have something where I didn’t have something before.

63 thoughts on “Now I have something where I didn’t have something before.”

  1. Moving helps so much. My best lectures are worked out when I’m walking. The ones I work on while sitting at my desk are never as good.

  2. I think I’m somewhere in the middle; I can open-up a writing idea when it’s the smallest, but I often don’t have any pencil or PC around, largely due to never knowing when “the moment will strike”.. (I actually have a character described & named for my next play I’m writing currently on/in the “Drafts” area of my phone’s text messages.)

    Though I am a HUGE fan of your acting work (“Leverage & Big Bang”, mostly; Not sure I saw you in anything before those), I hope you proofread your writing better in the future… What were you seeing “…THOUGH clouds & haze” that covered that typo?!

  3. My issue is that can have lots of thoughts, and I always think “I should write this down” but then I never do….and yet I can still remember 90% of it when I go back to thinking about it. I had this story I started planning out about 4 years ago but hadn’t done anything on it in about a year. Then while I was walking to distract myself from a panic attack it all came rushing back and I remembered and solved a few story problems I’d been stumped by….I can have this whole intricate story with back stories for all the characters in my head but if I sit i front of something to write it down it’s like my brain says “um…no I think I’ll just hang onto this for a sec”

  4. I work out story ideas in my head when I’m running ALL the time. It’s a win-win: I get a lot of outlining done, and it makes the time pass much faster (that middle stretch, you know?). Also, the shower. It’s always been habit for me to take long showers, because I do so much mental writing in there.

  5. Wil, as a RPG player and fantasy reader, you should recognize that you are a (writing) mage who needs certain devices, motions, and auditory components to work your particular magic spells. Your friend is more of a sorcerer, who wills his creations into existence without the ritual motions, etc. Same results, just using different schools of writing magic to get the words to (magically) appear out of thin air.

  6. I go through stages with writing (or any creative project). For most of my literary stuff, I need to have background noise. Usually it’s the drone of a crowded restaurant/bar. I’ll sit for a few hours (annoying waiters and waitresses who just want to fill their tables … but I do tip big when I do stuff like this, so those that know me don’t complain too much). For artwork, it’s mostly melancholy music and sounds, usually from the 1930s-1940s, with an occasional blockbuster movie soundtrack thrown in (yeah, a really weird dichotomy there, but it works).

    One thing I’ve learned is that when an idea strikes, just grab a pen and paper and start “moving.” Let the pen flow on the paper, regardless of what happens. Sometimes it’s just an inane doodle. Sometimes it’s an unusual word that suddenly appears.

    I just wish it would be something that the public would want to see :)

  7. I need background music. I always think back to that Ally McBeal episode where she breaks the fourth wall and realizes the background music is actually happening and controlled by how fast or slow she walks. While I don’t remember anything else about the show (except lawyers) that has always stuck with me. I listen to fast music to make things come faster and slow music to really make sure I’m getting detail. I think everyone has a different thing they need and I’m glad you have yours figured out!

    1. I don’t experience that.

      It often reminds me of that REM song that mentions the fourth wall & all that, “The Great Beyond”… Also, there’s a store in our Mall I now have a preferred-customer card I originally told myself I was only going into to see/watch people for book research.

  8. I have had this issue many times and found my way to break through was to make a commitment. I started a story in my head and gave myself 5 updates a week and told my wife who won’t let me fall behind. I use candles, seaside sounds, and my tea to write after the kids are in bed. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Wil, I do that when I am working on adventures for gaming, The idea starts, it worms into my brain, then I let it fester, eventually I get in front of a computer or paper and it pours out, suddenly a small wisp of wind turns into a hurricane of words and I have my adventure, my story, my world. It is only for gaming, it will never reach the masses, but it is my Picasso for those minutes and hours that I write, create, then share

  10. I hate to say it but I’m one of those types that can sit down and just type. But, I do tend to editorialize and go back once in a while to change something. Then again, volume and speed doesn’t not equate with quality. More about organization I guess. I suspect my writing is nowhere near the quality of Cory Doctorow, but I’m also fine with that.

    For me writing has always been cathartic even if I wasn’t unloading my innermost thoughts/fears/whatever. I actually would dread the idea of writing because I knew, especially if it was a significant document or piece, by the time I was done with a session or the piece itself, I’d be exhausted. Satisfied but exhausted. And then there would be the subsequent rewrites, edits, and self-loathing afterwards.

    As a person who had to manage programmers, though, I’ve seen a gamut of personalities that range from people who could code while under siege (well, that siege might just be an overly talkative coworker, though) to one programmer that literally could not deal with people walking by his cubicle…we’re talking wide, spacious cubicles with three-and-a-half walls.

    In the end, though, I think you realize that you’ve just got to figure out where you need to be in order to write. Inspiration comes from just about anywhere and is different for everyone. Just like prescription medication is a one-size-fits-all approach to something that really needs to be doled out in custom-sized, down to the microgram, portions based on each individual’s needs, any sort of writing advice in a book or a course that professes success with these easy steps is doomed to fail for many.

    Thanks for sharing, Wil. I hope others see your experience for what it is. Just find a way to get that one foot (literal or virtual) in front of the other and get your mind off failure or the potential of it. Failure is good, even if it’s frequent, because it’s ultimately a learning experience. Just like one fails many times before one figures out how to walk as a child, each experience ends up defining the parameters for you as an individual to guide you towards your goal and success in the end.

  11. I wish I could figure this part out. I seem to only be able to get the words out of my head when I’m severely manic (bipolar). Then I go back after time passes and hate everything. Writing is quite possibly the most difficult thing I have ever tried to tackle in my short life span. I, personally, love your writing and am very glad that you are able to find ways to make it work and the words come out. It is inspiring.

  12. Well, Mr. Wheaton, you have just given me a renewed purpose. I haven’t written anything in years. I have started & stopped several times, and just lost any equilibrium or enthusiasm I possessed. It’s nice to know there are others who don’t have that innate ability to just sit down and have the words just flow. The last time I had any momentum was in the mid-00s, when I lost everything I’d written. My computer was stolen, along with my backups on CD. I suppose I lacked the heart to start over. Thanks for this post. May your creative juices get flowing in abundance!

  13. Love your writing. It’s a really great talent you have so any way you need to start getting the literary juices going is never silly. One of the regrets I have is not being part of the original 300 for Dancing Barefoot. Another regret I have (there are lots pertaining to your career and work) is not being aware of your hawesome blog earlier and missing LOTS of possibilities to meet you. One hawesome thing though, is finding about Tabletop now so I got the absolute privilege of being able to have a Tabletop marathon viewing of all the episodes, gag reels and extended interviews instead of impatiently waiting for each new episode – like I’m doing now. :-) Thank you for bringing me back and for introducing my granddaughter to gaming.

  14. Always wanted to do a blog of my own and several stalled attempts decided to properly get into it this year. The problem is I always find my best ideas strike me when I’m nowhere near my blog and often when I’m in no position to get near my blog. Inevitably when I do finally sit down at my PC either I can’t remember the idea I had earlier or else what fragments are still lingering in my mind just aren’t enough to help reproduce the greatness of that previous idea.

  15. When I’m planning my lectures, I give myself fifteen or twenty minutes to do as much as I can in those fifteen or twenty minutes. I used to sit down and tell myself “I’m going to work on this for two hours,” and at the end of two hours I’d have fidgeted and frittered away my time, getting nothing done. Telling myself there’s a time limit on how long I am ALLOWED to sit there (rather than how long I MUST sit there), for me, helps me open up my brain to work as hard as it can for those fifteen minutes. Then I get up and do something else for a while. It’s the same when I’m working on research articles. My students who tell me that they can’t focus also find that if they limit themselves to fifteen minutes, three times a day or so, they get an enormous amount of work done, too. (And I get better papers out of them! Win-win.)

  16. My own process for creating (not so much the formulating part, but the part that gets the idea into print) is painfully restrictive: I pretty much need about four hours, a mostly empty Starbucks and a steady stream of chai.
    This is, admittedly, not the recipe for authorial stardom or even consistent productivity…but somehow my dream of writing professionally and desire to create endure.

  17. I actually write best when I’m walking. I wish we had the space to set up a treadmill in front of my keyboard so that I could do just that. (the space issue is actually more what to do with it when I’m not writing, I guess) With three noisy kids, I often wear headphones to reduce the distraction level, but that’s not always a choice. I do best with some music and walking, something to snack on, coffee and no other distractions (the walking thing is hard to do at a computer). I often end up with a toddler on one leg, calling out to the other two to stop the demolition crew… which is probably why my daily word count went from 5-7K average (when I started and my lovely husband kept the kids occupied so I could focus solely on the first book — which I finished very quickly as a result) to 1-3K average now that it’s obvious that I’ve found my groove and am really a writer (got tax stuff this year and everything, woohoo! and argh).

    So I totally agree that the process is different for everyone. But the ‘literal steps’ thing struck home for me.

    Some days, I stare at my document and get distracted by everything (I’m constantly fighting ADHD — for real, no self/misdiagnosis here), and some I can just sit down and have the words pour out. The second happens the most often when I can’t sleep because my brain just won’t SHUT UP. Those are also often the scenes that need the least rewriting and never get thrown out.

  18. I think most writers have their personal creativity-fuel that they need. I find sometimes I have a great idea, then on paper it somehow loses its spark, but if I go for a walk and find just the right music to listen to I can breathe life back into it. I read a book by Stephen King in which he suggested having your desk face the wall or corner – not working for me, I can’t stand having my back to the room. I also need to have a cup of coffee. Oddly, I don’t always drink it, but if it isn’t there on the desk, I need to go and get one – proof that sometimes what gets a person’s creativity going doesn’t always have to make perfect sense.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your experience, Wil, and whatever the something you now have is, I hope you really get to enjoy the process of bringing it to wherever it leads.

  19. I’m currently finishing the third book in the series I started writing last February. Yes, really, three books in one year. I have already started working on the fourth.

    I am Bipolar and I am not ashamed to admit that. Part of my particular flavor of Bipolar is something called Hypergraphia. All that means is when I write, it’s non-stop and sometimes it can last for days. I literally have to force myself to stop and do something else. The narrative just takes over and everything else vanishes. My therapist actually asks for a word count every week.

    I will say some weeks I write more than others. I do suffer from writer’s block, too. when it happens, I always see my characters standing around, looking at each waiting for me to tell them to do something. Can you imagine werewolves and Valkyrie standing around waiting for you to tell them what to do? It’s pretty funny :)

    When writer’s block does strike, I edit. Editing always helps me pick up the thread of the narrative again and sets me back to weaving.

    Tonight, I am forcing myself to step away from my writing and catch up on tv and tumblr. Sounds odd, but it’s killing me to be sitting here at the desktop surfing and not with my laptop writing.

    And yes, I did just realize, I had paused the show I was watching to write this.

  20. Opening up a vein? Yikes! I’m a writer, too, and yes, traumatized and depressed, and yes, a lot of my creativity comes from dark places. But opening up a vein? That’s the scariest metaphor for writing I’ve read in my life.

  21. Editing to add that I’m not a native speaker and do not live in an English speaking country. So if this is a normal idiom, I will broaden my comment to say that sometimes English is a scary language.

  22. When I was in university, I’d go to the gym once a week because I found that if I had an essay that I was stuck on, they would often coalesce as I ran around laps.

  23. Thanks for this, Wil. I’ve always had an interest in writing, and used to write all the time when I was younger. But now that I’m an older, somewhat more weathered human being, I find I really struggle with it. Conditions have to be just right, or I find it very hard to let the thoughts and feelings flow. But it helps to know I’m not the only one who struggles with this. I’ve printed out your words, and taped them to my wall as a reminder that it can be done. and that I’m not alone. Thanks, and all the best :)

  24. It has been years since I tried to write fiction, but when I did, it was just as you describe.

    “The day came when nothing in the world was wild except the occasional random rainbow.”

    That’s the first sentence of a story that I tried to start at least a dozen times. I’m not sure I ever got past the first page.

  25. As a university professor who writes “scholarly” books and articles, which can be constraining (i.e., must never generalize beyond the data!), I found this post liberating, and completey non-“silly.” As any writer will tell you, we don’t describe reality, we describe how we experience reality. The process by which we open that “vein” can be different for everyone: a catchy comment you hear someone utter at the subway stop, light that comes through some trees, a sunset on a beach, or a 40 min run. The point is to free your mind so that you can remain open to the possibility of being inspired. As Josh Ritter (one of my favorite musical artists) once wrote: “I’m on the verge of a great idea!”

  26. I’m a writer too (or I try to be anyway) and sometimes it flows easily and other times it’s really fucking hard for me to get down what I want to get down.

    When I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, I start with an idea and just let my brain throw in any crazy situation or dialogue or whatever might potentially work. Sometimes it turns out ok, sometimes it doesn’t. All that matters is I try to make that 50K word deadline by the end of the month.

    Right now I’m working on a series of articles about Star Trek: The Animated series for a website that I write for, TrekMate ( as well as just random things that I send in from time to time. The Animated Series articles are hard because I have to watch the episode a couple of times and then spend at least two hours crafting the article itself. It’s rewarding yet incredibly draining at the same time.

  27. Whoops, that was in reply to the typo comment.

    As for the actual post, I have such a hard time opening that vein. It festers, it swells, it poisons me until it finally opens on its own, and then it’s uncontrollable. It’s frustrating.

  28. Can’t say I go “running” my body is no longer built for that if it ever was, but I do go for long walks while I churn ideas in my brain. If I’m in the middle of a book, often I have my characters carrying on whole dialogs taking them places I never thought they would go, during those walks. The shower is another place great ideas and brainstorming seems to percolate for me. A good cup of tea the right music helps too. Keep on keeping on…..

  29. Inspiring! A friend of mine has a start-up comic company, and I’ve offered a few rough ideas for storylines. He always says “Awesome! Write it out, and it would make an awesome storyline!”, but I can never actually get the writing part done. For some reason, I hit a wall. Not that the idea fades, but putting pen to paper is just a hurdle I haven’t mastered. Life seems to get in the way. Perhaps I just need to find my trigger, find a method of closing out the world and focusing my mind on the task. Thanks for the push forward.

  30. I have read countless words about writing and by far the most commonly discussed question is “where do you get your ideas”. This is one of the best answers to that question I’ve ever seen.

  31. The title and conclusion of this post reminded me of the song “Finishing the Hat” from the musical Sunday in the Park with George. It’s about the painter Georges Seurat. As the song says, “Look, I made a hat. Where there never was a hat.”

    The first 35 seconds might not make sense without seeing the whole show, but stick with it. Also, yes–that IS Inigo Montoya singing.

  32. I’ve been facing some serious writer’s block all day….I’m right in the middle of writing a chapter and I can’t figure out how to get my characters from A to B and have it make sense. I went out to shovel snow, and worked through the problem in my head walking back and forth up my driveway. By the time was I finished I knew the direction I had to go….it’s amazing what the right conditions will do to spark some ideas.

    Your writing rituals are not silly at all! I have to have a dark room with just my lamp on, instrumental music (most recently it’s been the soundtracks from the two Hobbit movies), and some tea. It’s how I’ve always written, and probably how I always will at this point.

    I really needed this today, not only to tell me I’m not crazy that I have a ritual for when I write, but it also helped me beat my writer’s block. Thanks!!

  33. This idea of starting without knowing where something will take you reminds me of something a math teacher of mine used to say: “When you don’t know how to start, then just start.” I guess math is maybe not exactly an artistic process, but nevertheless, the approach is the same.

    Moving helps me get my thoughts going too. I don’t jog, but I pace or walk or shower and all that helps me immensely in bringing my thoughts into a meaningful pattern.

    I hope your ideas will take you someplace interesting!

  34. I love this. I have not-silly-at-all writing rituals, too, and they help.

    On another note, good on you for jogging. Physical activity doesn’t help me write, as I get distracted. Being calm is better for me. But I remember you saying on Twitter that you’re trying for a half marathon again (I think that was the distance), and I am still fighting to achieve the same. Run on, fellow human. Run on.

  35. The amazing Terri Windling had a blog post and comment thread on what rituals writers and other artists have to get them in the mood to create. You aren’t alone, Wil, I assure you. :) I couldn’t find that post but here is a recent one of hers that I know you will connect to: Terri’s posts inspire me so much and she loves her dog too. Win win!

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