Ideas from Your Notebook

If you can’t get started during a writing session, you might turn to a source of inspiration that can take you in unexpected directions. I’m assuming that you keep a pocket notebook, or the electronic equivalent, around you at all times. Writing is the art of observation, to a very large extent. William Burroughs once wrote: “Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it.”

As the day passes, listen to what your office mates are saying. Listen to the oddball everyday stories or incidents that someone inevitably comes up with. Go out at lunchtime and observe how the light strikes a building’s window or how the flounce of a hem reveals a bony knee. I have an old notebook filled with pages of observations of the Boston Common at different times of the year. The material that can fill your novel is all around you, at all times; you just have to pay attention.

Most important, keep a notebook on your night table. You are probably already aware that some of your most powerful thoughts come to you at the twilight margins of either waking or falling asleep. If your story is revolving in your head, never far from the front of your mind, you will find that these are crucial moments in which some of the best sentences in your novel come to you.

Because these notes are so random, they most likely do not pertain to the passage you want to write in today’s session. Yet if you’re really stuck, trying to write in sequence may be beyond your powers anyway. Go grab a notebook that you know has several pages of observations. Read through them and see if any would fit in any part of your novel. If one or more does, go to the place in the manuscript and see if you can insert it. You’ll find, if your writing is tight enough, that you have to rework the material around the insertion. You may have to fashion an entire descriptive paragraph to include it.

You can see what I’m driving at. That jotted-down note is firing up your creativity. You’re devising solutions, just as you do all the time as you write. Granted, the material isn’t making your novel move forward. But when you’re done with the draft, you’re still going to have that terrific sentence or paragraph in it. You may well decide that your writing session was worth the pain just because that one piece is so compelling.

Exercise: If none of the above options work, you should turn to your diary for inspiration. Reading through it can be a slog—did I really need to revisit that conversation I’ve had a thousand times with my mother?—but you may well find material that would work well in the novel. In other words, it is a slower means of finding applicable details.

“Words are often seen hunting for an idea, but ideas are never seen hunting for words.”
—Josh Billings

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.