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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

WHEN … do your ideas come to you?

“My best scenes strike at the worst time to write them down.”

“My best dialogue comes to me when I’m on the toilet.”

“My best ideas come when I’m in the shower!”

“My best edits come when I’m walking down the street.”


The easy answer to these laments is to have a notebook at your side at all times. But in the shower? Okay, a tough sell, perhaps, but I’ve done it (near the shower, not inside). Let me assure you, wet paper and the idea secured is better than no idea.

However, this post is not about HOW to keep that idea no matter what the circumstances. My focus here is to get you to allow your mind to be fresh and ready for ideas at any time … and ALL THE TIME.

I say this because, for many novice writers, keeping the story strong—and fresh—is a struggle. Ideas wrap around us like the wind, often enough, but the wind is made of millions of particles. Within all those ideas is the ONE you need, not the dozens that don’t have glue, or sense.

Part of correcting when your story ideas come, and how they come, develops through story preparation and consistent writing progress. Here’s what I mean.

When we work on a story, our minds need to continually ask our “story brain” particular questions. What is the story about? What is the purpose of this scene? What can this character say, and what shouldn’t he/she say? When does this moment take place? How do these characters connect to the overall story? When should this scene end? How should the next scene begin?

Such questions are not only appropriate for the opening days of story development. They are questions that need to be asked of yourself each day, before you open the file to start the day’s writing. Here’s what I’ve learned works for me. I print a pamphlet that lists the major characters and their background, their motivations, and where I expect them to be by the end of the story. Then I list the minor characters, who they are, and how they connect to the major characters AND to the story (if you have trouble answering the questions, or haven’t an answer, you probably shouldn’t be writing the story yet). I also have “notes” on story progression, lists of possible scenes (already developed in some fashion, or a 2-sentence “nudge,” a snatch of dialogue, or a developed scene that needs fleshing out and MORE development), and other “lists” that are part of the development of the story in my mind … that might or might not get into the written story.

Notice the layering of this plan: characters, overall story, scenes or scene-by-scene development, dialogue, lists of ideas about story/place/sensory perception/character traits & etc to keep in the forefront of your mind before, during, and after the writing day. When this “plan” is followed (and in many ways, I’m not even talking about the day-to-day story-development process) I always have my story with me.

When your story is always with you, day after day, all the hours in the day, and even in your dreams, ideas for that day’s writing AND what you wrote yesterday OR the day before (or six weeks before), or what you intend to write tomorrow or next month (or haven’t even thought about writing yet!) becomes first-nature, becomes intuitive, becomes part of your life, becomes part of your thoughts as much as the thoughts of crossing the street, or sitting down on the train, or waiting at a stoplight or opening up a book or making a cup of coffee … or sitting on the toilet.

One the other hand, IF YOU DON’T WRITE EVERY DAY OR MOST DAYS IN THE WEEK, your story is simply not with you enough to encourage strong and consistent story ideas … no matter where you find yourself in a given day. I could be wrong on this, but after 15 years of teaching fiction writing and 25 years of writing fiction, I’ve found consistency in my observations.

So then, the big lament: “My best ideas come when I’m in the shower!” Maybe, but what really matters is that your ideas come at all, and, if you’re prepared, they’ll come at you like decks of cards, not birds shitting on you.

BTW … most often during the day I stop myself before stepping off a curb, wherein I turn my mind to the present and the REAL, or else risk being run over by a bus.

BTW–BTW … have a notebook and pen in your pocket at all times. It only takes a minute to jot down a sentence that should jog your memory at a future time. Also, have an ink refill in your bag.



What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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