What are your bare necessities?

The hardest part of writing is writing,” said the legendary Nora Ephron. To me, the hardest thing about writing is getting started.

Word count: 303                       Reading time: 1-2 minutes

When I finally get down to work, the walls recede, the rat stops gnawing the door, and I forget everything but the characters in front of me. Why is it so difficult to get out of the starting gate? Are there physical things that draw a person to the desk? Over the past week, I made a list of things that seemed essential to writing on different days:

  • a cup of green tea
  • a mug of strong coffee
  • a glass of wine
  • none of the above – water only, please
  • a tidy desk
  • a desk heaped with notes and reference material
  • a free writing warm-up
  • jumping right in
  • a good pen and a friendly notebook
  • a laptop
  • sunshine
  • rain
  • reading a couple of poems aloud, listening to the diction, tripping out on the images, enjoying the poet’s playfulness
  • reading no poetry
  • a quiet corner
  • music
  • complete silence
  • incense
  • open windows and fresh air

So the list revealed nothing more than the lack of a magic formula. In the end, the main thing that gets me working is a looming deadline, usually a self-imposed one. Without it I could and would avoid the pain and the joy forever. After all: writing is 90% procrastination, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. ~ Paul Rudnick

What makes you get started? Do you have a favourite spot that gets your story spinning? Or do you like variety, somewhere new every time? Do you have routines or physical comforts that that entice you to work?

So what's the big idea?

If you go to writers’ festivals and sit through enough Q&A sessions, it’s likely you’ll hear this question posed to author panels at some time: Where do you get your ideas?

I’ve heard answers that ranged from the vague to the slightly sarcastic, “Ideas 101.”

Word count: 315 Reading time 1-2 minutes

Where do ideas come from? Here are some places:

  • First hand experience
  • Visual images
  • Tactile experiences
  • Music
  • Dreams
  • Conversations overheard
  • Stories in the news (TV and the movie industry tap this resource constantly)

If the above fails you, here are some are fallback techniques to open the mind and spark the creative flow:

  • Retell an old story
  • Write fan fiction (it worked for EL James)
  • Use an idea generator like the Archetype Writing. This helpful site doesn’t just give story prompts, it also offers assistance on developing character depth, and breaking writer’s block.

Lynda Barry reminds us, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits.” We can use our digits along with the rest of our senses not just to infuse a story, but to deliver one.

Seven years ago my senses ganged up on me when I walked into an old farmhouse. The former owner had been moved suddenly to a nursing home and her threadbare socks still hung above the Aga stove. The room smelled of washing powder and neglect. The curling family photographs, the dull afternoon light, and the chilly air stirred something deep inside me. That night I wrote the story Constant Cravings which you can read here.

So I’d like to know – where do you get your inspiration? Do your ideas find and possess you until you’ve captured them on the page? Are you often bombarded with so many ideas that the real challenge is in selecting just one? Or are you like Samuel Johnson, turning over half a library to make one book?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Can your work survive a tough cycle?

For years I’ve worn the same pale blue Gore-Tex raincoat, a wardrobe essential in the BC rainforest. Recently it started to look worse for wear, kind of grubby. I didn’t like the replacement options so, with nothing to lose, I threw it into the washing machine one last time. I selected a heavy duty, warm temperature wash (instead of the usual regular and cool). Result: a coat that looks bright and new again.

Word count: 264                    Reading time: 1 minute

That’s very much like writing. When I have a piece (one particular novel comes to mind) that feels shop-worn and tired, I need to put it through a course of no-holds-barred rewriting. I need to stop treating it as a fragile work that will fall apart if I’m too rough with it. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the end of Farewell to Arms 39 times before he got the words right. Based on that standard, my weary novel needs a few more revisions.

Kurt Loder urges writers to give their work stronger treatment: “The most important thing you can to is learn to edit yourself. Then go back and rewrite.” I blog on this often because I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that writing, like any meaningful endeavour, is full of repetition and hard work until it’s finally right. We have to turn up the heat and pummel it hard if we’re going to produce something that is shiny and appealing. 

What is your old blue raincoat? Is there a neglected manuscript sitting on your shelf? Would throwing it into a heavy duty cycle bring it back to life?


 Photo by: Elana Elisseeva