Tuesday, February 18, 2014

8 Seven Steps to Help You Evolve Your Best Version of a Book Idea by Mark Huntley Parsons

Need a little inspiration for your inspiration? Here's a great guest post on one of the more magical aspects of writing craft. Enjoy! : )

Getting to Aha!

Mark Huntley Parsons

Even though I like the term ‘Writing Craft’—because craft is such a huge part of writing, and because newer writers are better off thinking of it as a craft to be practiced rather than some sort of mystical talent—it may not be the perfect descriptor for what I want to discuss. But ‘Writing Secrets’ sounds like it should come with free steak knives. And ‘A Brief Overview of Engaging the Parts of your Mind which May Lead to Enhanced Creativity’ hurts to say, let alone write.

In my opinion, there are two major aspects to the writing process. (Please add an imaginary “in my opinion” in front of every statement in the rest of this post.) The “what to write” and the “how to write it”. I think of these as the macro and the micro of the writing experience, and it’s primarily the macro under consideration here… although it really applies to both plotting and implementation. (This isn’t a diatribe on plotting vs. pantsing, by the way. Those arbitrary points exist at either end of a continuum, while most of us typically exist somewhere between them, sliding back and forth as necessary during the course of a project.)

So, some ideas for your consideration…

1. The real writing happens away from the computer. I’m talking about the aha! stuff. The stuff that comes flooding into our brain, seemingly from the ozone, exciting us and solving our problems and making us think this damn book just might work after all. There’s still the significant issue of effectively conveying these ideas on the page (the ‘craft’ part), but having raw material that fires you up provides a massive advantage when you do sit down to write. And of course, that level of inspiration/motivation also helps solve another fundamental problem—getting our ass in the chair and keeping it there. It’s sometimes hard for us to sit down when there’s nothing we’re dying to say at the moment, but just try keeping a writer from her computer when she’s truly inspired.
2. Those inspired ideas come from your subconscious. I’m not given to extreme mysticism, and there’s plenty of science behind it if that matters to you, but the bottom line is that the subconscious is a machine that’s constantly programming itself: taking in, re-arranging, processing, and then (if you talk nicely) delivering something worthwhile. The important thing here is that while you might not be able to directly control the subconscious…

3. You can at least help steer the programming. There’s been a lot said about trying to get your muse to pay attention: turn down the lights, put on some soft music, pour a couple glasses of wine, and hope he/she/it decides to show up. (And if that regularly works for you, then by all means—go with it!) But if not, try this two-step plan to help bring the big guns to bear.
            Step 1: Think about your project.  A lot.
Step 2: Don’t think about it.  A lot.

4. Think. By ‘thinking about your project’, I don’t mean sitting at the computer trying to force yourself to squeeze out some great (or good, or even serviceable) ideas. I mean mulling it over in your brain, away from the keyboard. Ideally in the more typically right-brained fashion.

Daydream. Feel, vs. think. Go for the visual, vs. the textual… try to imagine it as a scene in a film. (I find that if I can see it, I can more easily write it. It’s when I can’t clearly ‘see the scene’ that writing becomes a struggle.) The reason you want it to be as visceral as possible is that the subconscious responds to this much stronger than to rational, Boolean thought. (Have you ever gone to the movies and watched a horror film that scared the crap out of you? On the face of it, this makes absolutely no sense. I mean, you know you’re sitting in a theater, watching something that was created on a sound stage, using actors and special effects, etc. Yet your pulse pounds and you can feel the fear—with all the attendant physiological symptoms—building within you. This is because your subconscious doesn’t know it’s observing a construct. It simply responds to the programming it’s taking in. It cannot delineate between fact and fiction, hence the need to try and place your project in a right-brained, sensory-oriented context. It won’t just ‘seem’ like reality. To your subconscious, it will be reality.) Then…

5. Don’t think. In a perfect world, we’d all think long and deep about our writing projects, then immediately drift off to sleep, letting the subconscious process all the various story elements until it arranges them in a way it finds satisfying. And in fact, it’s a great idea to set aside a little time to visualize your project right before you nod off at night. But what if your most opportune time to do this is on the train in the morning, going to work? (You’re going to have a hard time convincing the boss that your morning desk-nap is part of some sort of productive process. Don’t ask me how I know…) The answer here is to consciously stop thinking about it when the available time is up, and make a decisive switch to another subject. Then, when another block of time opens up (lunch?), you can go back to daydreaming about your story. The specifics aren’t as important as the overall concept of feeding the subconscious, then giving it some ‘alone time’ to digest.

6. Think again. Here’s the part (after following the above think/don’t think process) that most often yields the good stuff for me. I think of it as ‘constructive distraction’, as it involves engaging in some sort of simple activity that requires just enough attention (from the conscious mind) to allow the subconscious to kind of peek through and start spouting off a little, like an unruly kid pulling a prank when the parent is looking the other way. For me, running works exceptionally well in this regard. (But not on a twisty mountain trail, where you have to watch your every move lest you twist an ankle.) Driving also works well. (But not in busy city traffic… see a pattern here?) Doing the dishes. Walking the dog. Taking a shower. Mowing the grass. Sweeping the driveway. You get the idea—choose whatever version of ‘verbing the noun’ puts you in that semi-hypnotic, meditative state where your thoughts can flow freely.

Then, as you’re engaged in the mundane activity, you gently steer your inner film projector toward the story, letting it play whatever version of whatever scene it wants, with as little direction from you (the conscious you) as possible. Just watch and wait—like a kid at the movies—and you may be pleasantly surprised at what pops onto the screen.

Again, it can’t be forced—you have to let it occur naturally. It may sound a little like the ‘trying to seduce the muse with wine and cheese’ scene described earlier, but it’s more than just waiting on random chance. When I follow this process (and I hate to think of it as something so clinical as a ‘process’… it feels completely organic to me) I have some sort of success fairly often—at least half the time, I’d say. Not always, and almost never if I feel rushed. But if I’m willing to prime the pump and then just wait for it, without any expectations, I’m frequently rewarded with a little aha! moment.

They’re not always earthshaking revelations, but often enough to get me past a little sticking point, which is all we can really ask for. (Although I can vividly recall once being ten miles into a twelve mile run with absolutely zero success. I’d pretty much given up on it when, out of the blue, I suddenly blurted out, “Holy smokes, Sam is gay!” And the whole story instantly made a lot more sense.)

And finally…

7. Engage the mouth. I know, right? Conventional wisdom says to engage the brain first. But maybe it’s worth trying the other way around. When I’m on a long car trip with my wife (also a writer) we usually ‘talk plot’—brainstorming about any writing issues either of us might be having at the moment. Typically one of us describes the issue, then we bounce around plot ideas which might help. And a lot of times one of these ideas provides a path to success, usually refined over several back-and-forths. But I’ve also noticed that sometimes, the one laying out the initial issue will then turn around—often before they even finish describing the problem—and say, “Or, maybe I could just…” 

And poof—there’s the solution. 

I have a hunch that verbalizing your ideas engages a different part of the brain than just thinking about them. Regardless, this is definitely worth exploring. The other person doesn’t have to be another writer, just someone who’s willing to listen and offer suggestions. And then your job is to listen and consider without criticism, even if the suggestions don’t seem like a good fit at first. (Even the goofiest of suggestions can spark something good.) Put your editor hat away. Remember, the goal is to create a flowing, back-and-forth dialog about the story—without a lot of left-brained self-editing going on—in an attempt to harness some of that extra horsepower lurking under the hood. 

Is there scientific validity to these concepts? That determination is more of a job for the neuroscientists and psychologists than for fiction writers. But it doesn’t really matter if it works for you, right? And right now, I’m stuck on chapter 32 of my current project… and the lawn needs mowing. Aha! 


Mark Parsons is the author of the YA novel Road Rash, published by Knopf/Random House, Feb 2014.  View the book trailer here.  Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkHParsons


Road Rash
by Mark Parsons
Hardcover Giveaway
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Released 2/11/2014

A teenage drummer finds out what life is really like on tour with a rock band in this funny, funky, bittersweet debut YA novel. For anyone who loved Almost Famous or This Is Spinal Tap.

After being dropped from one band, 17-year-old drummer Zach gets a chance to go on tour with a much better band. It feels like sweet redemption, but this is one rocky road trip. . . .

Zach's in control on the drums, driving the band, keeping things moving at the right pace. But when the show is over, his timing is all off. The jealousies and rivalries within his new group keep him off-balance. The awesome original song he recorded backfires. And the girl he left back home is suddenly talking about this other guy . . .

Mark Parsons has written a fast-paced, feel-good novel about a boy finding his place in the world, in a band, and in the music. Zach is a character teens will stand up and cheer for as he lands the perfect gig, and the perfect girl.

Author Question: What is your favorite thing about Road Rash?

Wow… good question. There were several things about the writing of ROAD RASH that I found wonderful, or enlightening, or humbling. (Or frequently all three.) But my favorite thing about the book itself is that now there is (or very soon will be) a book out there that “Gives the drummer some!” I mean, he/she is the dude in the back, sweating it out, laying it down, holding it together, all while driving that damn bus down the road every night. And what do they get for it? Uh… drummer jokes? The chance to haul more gear than the rest of the band combined? Blisters and a bad back? A stunning lack of respect/attention from the media, the crowd, and the world at large? (All of whom seem to fixate on the lead singer or occasionally the lead guitarist. But never the drummer.) Even the second-best rock ‘n roll film of all time—“This is Spinal Tap”—had the drummer as nothing but the butt of a running (umm… exploding) joke.
So yeah, among many other things that I’m thankful for, I’m pretty stoked to have a book out there that gives a little love to the people who’re the true heartbeat of the music.

Purchase Road Rash at Amazon
Purchase Road Rash at IndieBound
View Road Rash on Goodreads


  1. This is all so true. Plan to share it with my new group of writing students. VErbalizing my ideas helps me so much to figure out what I'm trying to say! Thanks for putting this all down--makes me realize I'm on the right track!

  2. Excellent post. Thanks for some very good ideas and a lot to consider. I like the idea of verbalization and have a couple of people with whom I kick around ideas, and every now and then I just talk through things all by myself. It can work. I am really looking forward to reading Road Rash. It's been on my radar for awhile.

  3. Oh, this book sounds amazing! I'm definitely going to read it.

    Thanks for the great advice. You're so right about inspiration. Sometimes it hits when we least expect. I've learned to not sweat it so much if I can't find a solution. I'll walk, run errands, etc., knowing the kinks will be worked out. Of course I always carry pads of paper (or my phone) for these moments of inspiration.

  4. Wow, wow, wow, this is exactly what I needed to read. I've been struggling with my WIP, and this post helps a bunch. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for all the positive feedback - so glad to know this was helpful!

  6. Absolutely! Yes to all of this. Great advice and a great reminder.

  7. I have a few book ideas that I play with in this manner, letting them mostly ruminate in my brain until I have enough material to begin work (I've got one I'm actively writing, and for the others, I'll occasionally make notes of the ideas). Seeing the process laid out is helpful, especially since I'm a little stuck right now. Looks like I might need to go for a long hike and do lots of chores this weekend!

    For one of my other ideas, I had a similar "Wow, he's gay" moment for one of the characters. This happened pretty early on in my thought process, so I only have the broadest idea of the main plot. How far were you into the book planning when you figured that out? Did you have to rework anything you'd already written?

  8. Interesting question, Jessica. I was way beyond any planning at that point - I was at least halfway through the book. No, I didn’t really have to change anything, because it wasn’t like I’d decided “hmm… it might be interesting if I MAKE that character gay”. It was more like he WAS gay, and he knew it, only I hadn’t realized it yet. Once I tripped to it, a lot of things fell into place naturally, plot-wise. So I guess this is a good example of what I was discussing, regarding an organic approach to story development. (Not that there’s anything wrong with detailed plotting, of course!)


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