Inspiration is a tricky thing. I’ll always remember the night I finished my first novel. It was a meandering, unplanned, angsty beast I spent most of my high school career working on, and I really had no idea where I was going. Then, one Friday night, I watched Empire Records for the first time. As soon as the credits started I turned off the TV, walked over to the computer, sat down, and finished my novel.
That ending took me nine hours and came out to about 15,000 words. By the time I finished, the sun was already shining on Saturday morning. I went to bed, woke up sometime in the afternoon, and realized with a feeling of great accomplishment that, after four long years, my book was finally done.
Waiting for Inspiration
In college I started on a second book. Same genre, same universe, but a much better story. It had real characters, too, but not a lot more planning. And once again I found myself getting bogged down, averting my eyes from the shameful reminder of my abandoned writing desk. Instead of writing, I spent a depressing amount of time watching movies, waiting for the one that would work its mysterious magic.
I never did. Instead, while I was still waiting, I learned from my Sophomore Creative Writing class that everything about my approach was wrong. Serious writers don’t wait for inspiration. Serious writers can’t afford to. They work on their projects and find a way forward — delighting in inspiration when it happens their way, and making dogged progress on sheer perseverance and craft the rest of the time.
That’s a powerful lesson in terms of writing. It certainly made me much happier with my own work. It came with a cost, though. Instead of chasing after inspiration, I’ve got a responsibility to pursue my work in progress, and that means sometimes when the lightning does strike, when the magic does happen…I don’t have the time to go traipsing off after every shiny new idea.
So what was I supposed to do? Just let the idea go? Give up on those magical moments, and let the precious ideas evaporate because “I’m busy”? There was no way I could settle for that, so I went searching for an alternative.
Once again, the answer came from those college Creative Writing classes (now ten years in my past). I was trying to help my dad and sister write their first novels, and neither of them had ever had the benefit of writing courses, so I decided to try and capture the essence of prewriting in a couple detailed assignments for them.
I made up a series of worksheets, asking them to prepare a Mock Table of Contents, some Character Profiles, and to think through their stories’ Conflict Resolution Cycles. For each exercise, I included a short description (short for me, anyway) telling them the purpose of the exercise and how they would use that information in the writing process.
By the time I was done, without ever really planning to, I’d designed a pretty comprehensive prewriting package. I worked through it with more new writers over the next couple years, and kept updating my descriptions with examples from my own projects.
I started putting it to use in my own projects, too, and discovered how much easier it made the writing process. Then a funny thing happened. I was gearing up for my second National Novel Writing Month, already finished with the prewriting package for an idea I’d been working on since March, when a new idea hit me.
Inspiration, big and strong. And I didn’t have a work-in-progress at the time, so I latched right on to it. I threw together another prewriting package, then and there, and when November hit I dove right in.
That became Gods Tomorrow (my first published novel, and the foundation of a major series I’ve been working on ever since). I fought my way through NaNoWriMo, stopping in December to pant a little and catch my breath, and then realized with a little disappointment that, even though I’d made this beautiful new thing, I’d abandoned an older, better developed project to make it happen.
Disappointed, I went back to the prewriting I’d done before, just to mourn the loss…and quickly realized how wrong I was. That package had everything I needed. It was tailor-made, not just to make the writing process easier, but to capture inspiration. Ten pages long, maybe fifteen, but I could read it through in one sitting and by the end of it be just as ready to sit down and write the book as the day the idea first hit me.
I make that a habit now. Whenever inspiration strikes, I take the time to commit it to a prewriting package. I think of it like capturing butterflies, pinning them perfectly preserved in a decorative case. It takes some time, and a little bit of care, but if you know what you’re doing, if you’ve got the writer container, you can take something ephemeral and beautiful, and keep it forever.
Aaron is founder and president of the Consortium, a non-profit organization supporting artists to focus on their craft. He is author of sci-fi thriller Gods Tomorrow and maintains a writing advice site at www.unstressedsyllables.com.