Monday, July 6, 2009

The bucket's empty, but the well isn't dry.

I know, I know, two writing entries in one day. Such is life.

A discussion on a message board prompted this particular entry: "What do you write when there's nothing left to write about?"

In other words, what happens when the Well O' Ideas runs dry?

The short answer? It doesn't.

Look, when you drop a bucket in a well and it comes up empty, that doesn't necessarily mean that the well has run dry. It just means you need to drop the bucket a bit farther. Dig deeper. Try something new.

There are a million ways to find ideas, and I don't need to get into them here, but I will share my own method for coming up with a story when the bucket seems to be perpetually empty.

I have a folder on my computer that is full of pictures of people. Not celebrities per se, just people in general. About a year ago, I started saving any and all pictures that intrigued, adults, individuals, groups, couples...anything. At last count, it was well into the quadruple digits. (If you want to try this technique and don't have such a folder, just go on Google and do image searches with various random words and save a dozen or so pictures)

If I find myself twiddling my thumbs and thinking "now what do I write?" (which happens every time I finish a book), I go to this folder and scour it for about 12-15 pictures. Just random pics, whichever ones jump out and grab my attention. It's a different combination every time.

Then, I open a document in Photoshop and paste all of these pictures onto it (adjusting sizing, of course, so they're all roughly the same size). (You can print the photos, arrange the thumbnails on Explorer, use Paint, whatever works for you, I just happen to like Photoshop for this)

Once they're arranged so that they're all visible, I look at them and basically say, "Okay guys, tell me your story." I let my mind start drawing connections between people. "These two are together." "These two are brothers and they hate each other." "Their marriage is on the rocks." "They were friends until...." Such connections naturally breed conflict, and it doesn't take long before I have the catalyst for a story.

It's even possible to garner little tidbits about an individual from a photo: "I'll bet she's really shy." Sometimes, tidbits come out that have nothing at all to do with the photo, and God only knows where they come from, but they're often interesting character traits nonetheless: "She really likes martinis." "He has a motorcycle." "I think he has a German accent." (Ever wondered how Bastian in With The Band got his accent? Now you know.)

As connections and tidbits start coming out, some of the people on the "collage" no longer fit. Delete. Delete. Delete. Before long, I'm down to 2-6 characters and some conflict. Give me another few hours, and I'll have an outline.

It sounds insane, but really, it's just a form of electronic people-watching. You could just as easily watch a crowd of people and, just for entertainment's sake, start making stuff up about the faces in the crowd. "That guy is with the KGB." "That lady is an assassin and the toddler over there is actually a midget with the FBI." (If you've never tried this, I highly recommend's entertaining if nothing else)

And, insane or not, it works for me: This technique has resulted in With The Band, Breaking the Rules, The Best Man, Closer, and Between the Lines. Every single time I've sat down to do this, it's been a direct result of "I have no idea what to write". Instead of waiting for inspiration to show up on its own, I create my own inspiration. We're writers, folks, it's what we do.

Whatever technique works for you to get the wheels turning, do it. There is no wrong way to spark ideas except sitting back and passively waiting for the muse to strike.

Writer's block doesn't exist. The muse doesn't exist. If you want to find something to write about, you have to go looking for it...and sometimes, all it takes is a couple of Google Image Searches to get the synapses firing.

Just because the bucket comes up empty doesn't mean the well is dry.


  1. Ooh, fun method!

    I write any and all ideas that occur to me in a notebook, then later transfer the larger ones to a folder in my PC. When I'm in need of something, I hit the folder then the latest notebook.

    *cough* And I'm obliged to say that muses are real. Cos mine will beat me if I don't. :-(


  2. This is why being a historical novelist rocks. I don't think you can ever run out of cool history.

  3. There will always be people who whine about writer's block and say "It's all right for you." Do I get tired, wangsty, hate every word I write? HELL YEAH. You know it.

    The point is, I carry on writing. I can't NOT. Even if (I believe) it's shite.

    I've often hated my writing but I've never had nothing to write. It just doesn't happen. For as long as you're breathing, there's material there.

    The solution is simple. WRITE.

    Note, I didn't say easy. Simple solutions rarely are. But you don't write a book by gazing at your navel and crywanking on internet fora.