Standard Creative Writing headgear. Please exercise caution while using.

I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to write professionally for almost twenty years. Perhaps 80% of that writing was creative, in the form of game proposals, supporting stories, blog articles and dialog scripts/screenplays.  However, a much smaller fraction of that work wasn’t actually doing the article writing itself, but writing to merely to generate ideas and solutions to problems that arise.
Very rarely, an idea pops into one’s head fully formed – that is, ready to be put to paper without any further thinking or development. It is so rare, in fact, that you may as well assume it never happens. More often, an idea pops up that is much less than you thought – the words that describe it amount to a few sentences, or less. Panic sometimes ensues, but inevitably so does a sudden loss of enthusiasm for the idea. I believe this comes from the human mind’s ability to abstract concepts. Within your mind, the idea seems fully formed, even flawless, but once committed to some form, either writing, or drawing, or what have you, its issues are brought to light.

Within my own work process, this happens all the time.  The ideas flow thick and strong, but ultimately prove to be sketchy, with holes in their logic. These holes are problems, needing to be filled and threatening to literally undermine the rest of the idea. When writing a story especially, each idea usually needs to connect to another and a small discrepancy with one can derail the entire thought process.  To avoid loss of enthusiasm, I feel its important to keep up the momentum.

My solution for this sort of problem has always been, reluctantly – more writing! (or drawing…)  There are several methods I use, but they all share the same general principle.  Rather than sitting, scratching your head and trying to think the problem through, you should keep writing to maintain your thought process and manipulate that process to solve your problems.

Technique one – Ask questions about the issue

In a separate document, write down the issue as a statement, then ask questions about it. Don’t worry about how appropriate they are, but obviously, the more pertinent they are to the issue the more useful they’ll be. Once you’ve asked a question, try to answer it as best you can. Often, this will lead to more questions on that issue – so keep asking them… and answering.

So, if the issue is “Why does Zoltan keep losing his zarglewhoop?” Answer, “he’s forgetful”, or “someone keeps trying to steal it”, etc. To the last one, this may lead to “Why are they trying to steal it?” or “what is special about the zarglewhoop that someone would steal it?”.

Your ability to answer will fluctuate based on your knowledge of the issue.  That is, if you have written a story and it is 90% complete, but that missing 10% is holding up the whole thing, it is likely that you already know the solution and really just need to focus on the little details. In your mind they may be lost, perhaps in your subconscious, but if you see them in front of you, even hints of them, they may surface and take shape.  If your questions are focused by established knowledge, then so will your answers. If your questions are indiscriminate, your thought process may lead to destinations you might not have thought of.   Follow the trail as quickly as you can. If you spend too long thinking about what a question should be you will derail your thought process.

Technique 2 – List it out

Write out the issue, then list out possible solutions to it.  As you type/write each solution, your mind will think about how appropriate it is. You may feel confidence grow as you type, believing you have found the solution. If so, keep writing – don’t stop there, as it may be “just another idea with a problem.” Once you have a few things down, or exhausted the list, consider them. Or pick one, then list out the solutions or thoughts about it.

You will find that the list will be full of connected ideas. This thought led to this, then this… then that. Hopefully, after some brain bashing, you will have enough to use.

As with technique 1, brevity and speed is the key. If you spend too long trying to hash out the ideas, you will likely lose them. I prefer bullet–points and short sentences. I don’t bother to try to capture correct english or proper sentences, just enough to highlight a thought. When my list is done, THEN I stop and review, throwing out the points that don’t fit or are ludicrous. (sometimes I pick the ludicrous ones, but only when I feel they are appropriate – this is why I have monkeys and other odd things in my writing!)

Technique 3 – Write a story about it

Or any kind of writing really, but I like stories, simply because they force you to ask and answer questions.  I find this approach is more useful for generating ideas to use, rather than solving problems.  Let’s say your SF hero is aboard a spaceship, but you know nothing about it: its crew, its purpose, its name… Nada.  So, rather than sitting there trying to slap details onto your story hoping they’ll stick, write a story about that spaceship. Start with what you know – its a battleship, or a freighter, or a mail-boat, then sketch out a story aboard it. If you’re lucky ideas may surface quickly, filling out the story and even leading to more ideas. Keep going until you have a complete story. Once this is down, you should have lots of material to draw upon in the real piece of writing you started. I believe that most people in this situation have the solutions already, but in order to realize their potential, they must be brought out into the open.

Certain problems may require a different form of writing. Trying to figure out what life is like for someone? Write a journal entry, or a daily timetable for that person. This last one can be useful for plotting the actions and positions of characters in a complex event, helping you maintain a logical and consistent narrative. Trying to uncover a mad scientist’s methods? How about writing a laboratory experiment journal, with failures/successes, observations, etc. Or a newspaper article about their new discoveries. Or a paper about their theories…

This technique is very work intensive, so you should do it separately from your main story. That is, don’t stop writing your main story, then try to write the brainbash, then go back to the main piece without taking a break. If you’re like me, this switching of gears might not help and you’ll mix up the styles and inherent “flow” of what you  were writing, but then this could be what you want. Instead, set aside a period of time to focus on this new creation, perhaps an hour, then sit down and do it. After it is complete, go take a break, then return to the problematic manuscript.

Relax… Everything’s going to be fine.

One step program for Creative Resuscitation: the Hemingway Regimen.

As you write, you will likely find your own methods to exploit your mind in the idea development process and likely more personal and appropriate for what you intend to write. Whichever you choose to use, it is important that you not get caught up in the negatives – forget about “this is wrong” or “this won’t help”, “I don’t have time for this – I need answers” and so on – it is important to keep the mind ticking, thinking, getting into the flow of things.  Try to relax and realize that even bad, or ludicrous, ideas may result in a good one.  Just disengage yourself from the issue and keep plugging away.

If all else fails, there’s always refined ethanol.

Image credit:Christopher Walken in Brainstorm (1983)/MGM; Beer drinkers, unknown.