You’re seven years old, curled up in the backseat of the family Jeep with a blanket bunched up around your neck and a purple gameboy discarded beside you. The road stretches out in an unending river of asphalt and gold paint, and the cars floating along somehow look like the lily pads in that first level of Frogger you gave up on an hour back. Kicking your feet against the seat, you stare out the window glass. Rolling waves of maple trees whiz by. You watch them. Absently.
Until you see eyes staring back.
Two dark pupils made from holes in the branches. Dappled green irises. And a bushel of scrappy, silver-backed eyebrows. A great big face made of great big trees on a great long road to Grandma’s house.
Amused, you sit up in your seat and press your nose to the summer-blushed glass, looking for more.
The human brain is a fascinating thing. Its capacity to pattern-make is one of the cornerstones of creativity, and more than that, it’s one of the cornerstones of being human: finding meaning in the chaos.
Human beings are especially designed to see people. Evolutionarily, our brains prefer them. When we’re young and vulnerable, we make faces out of everything—trees, furniture, clouds, bathroom tiles—which some think is an adaptive trait: a way to find people to take care of us, to ensure our survival. We seek out faces, even when there are none.
In a lot of ways, that’s what stories are to me too. Seeking out faces that aren’t there, yearning to connect with people who don’t exist.
In the introductory post of this series, I talked about how I believe observation, analysis, and synthesis can function as a literary method—a series of questions or stages of thinking that can help us engage critically with stories, regardless of which phase of their literary life they’re in.
Observation is the first step.
Take a second to let the meaning of the word settle.
Observation is an act of looking, of seeing, of noticing.
When we read a completed text and go to disassemble it (i.e. think critically about it, whether that’s just talking to our friends, writing a blog post, or writing a scholarly paper), observation is the noticing of a striking moment: something that happens or how what happens is relayed to us, the reader. Observation is seeing what puzzle pieces are there and then pattern-making—clumping the pieces together based on edges vs centers, like colors, similar lines or objects, etc.
Likewise, when assembling a text out of nothing (i.e. turning an idea into a book), observation is the noticing something striking—and the looking for more.
In the first tableaux of this post, observation is noticing the eyes staring back from the trees, and it is pressing your nose to the glass to look for more—finding the friend that goes with the first face, noticing the arm that stretches across the telephone wire, seeing the way the wind playing with the leaves kind of makes him wink.
Noticing. Looking for more. Finding meaning in the chaos.
Like I said in the last post, stories don’t come out of the earth as fully formed redwoods. They start as seeds. They don’t blow you over in a forest fire. They start as sparks.
So where do sparks come from?
That depends, honestly. I’m not sure I’ve ever conjured a project out of the same seed. The most common for me is noticing something that intrigues me, usually when I’m just sitting in the proverbial car. I’m not looking—it just jumps out at me. Other times, I’ve taken a cutting from a different project and put it in water so that it will take root.
Sometimes it’s a dream (Painted), sometimes it’s something I saw on Pinterest (The Moon Tells No Lies), sometimes it’s an off-shoot of an idea (the other Whitehill stories), sometimes it’s something I’ve been itching to do (a crappy road trip romance), sometimes it’s something I’m afraid of doing (a college romance I wrote as a high school senior), sometimes it’s inspired by a piece of media I’ve consumed (Project Cosmic).
I’ve pulled from images, from music videos, from dreams. I kid you not, I came up with the summer story in the Whitehill series when I was watching something… ahem… naughty.
So let me take you through a couple of my projects so you can see just how small these seeds really were, and how I decided to germinate them.
When I was in seventh grade, I had a Hunger Games meets Harry Potter sort of dream. You chose your “hogwarts house” by stepping on the jungle gym from my elementary school (yellow, blue, red, green), and then those houses would fight each other to the death in this massive medieval battle royale while the Hogwarts faculty watched. (Idk, man, fucked up. This was before Hunger Games existed too, so kudos to me for that idea). Our one saving grace was a mythic soldier who could never die (and who I happened to be in love with, of course). But when the battle started, that soldier showed up fighting for the faculty, and he had no memory of who I was or why we were trying to end this chaos. Only when he almost killed me on the battlefield did he remember who I was, that he loved me, and that we had bigger fish to fry.
That dream sat with me for a little over a decade (thanks to my seventh grade journal cementing it in my mind), and then when I started writing again after grad school, I came back to it. A soldier who never dies is our only hope. But he shows up fighting for the enemy with no memory of who he is or who he loves.
That became the spark of a five book epic fantasy series (two of which I wrote, one of which I queried… too early, but still. Someone at JABerwocky held it aside for a second look, so it wasn’t total trash haha). I put 450,000 words into a dream I had about a playground battle royale.
Media: Project Cosmic
When I was writing Moon, I watched the music video for SYML’s “The Fear of Water.” In it I saw things I liked: cool dancing, grass coming up through the floorboards, blood on rocks, dilapidated urban spaces meeting pacific northwest looking wilderness. That music video affected me. I liked it. I liked it for a year. After that year, I went onto Pinterest and started saving images of dilapidated urban spaces, of nature encroaching on manmade objects, of dancing. That became a story idea for an urban fantasy novel where the magic system involves human beings using kinetic energy to tap into the forces of the universe.
Character: The Stars See All
One of the side characters in Moon is the MC’s grandmother, Dordelia (DeeDee) Graeme. She’s tough, she’s quick, she makes you want to eat your vegetables, and she sweeps the baking competition with her tarte tatin. I liked her. I liked her sense of humor. I thought she would be fun as an MC. So I decided to give her a companion story. I had no clue what it was going to be about; I had no clue what was going to happen in it. All I had was her. And so I started to tease out the logic of her character and what I could juxtapose against her in order to say something interesting (we’ll talk about that more in the Early Plotting post, since that’s more analysis than observation).
Trope & Pinterest: The Moon Tells No Lies
When querying Painted crashed and burned (my own fault—I pushed it out too soon with too big of a word count when it was in too rough a shape), I wanted to write something just for me, just to rekindle my love of writing. Book 2 in the Painted Saga was done, and editing it seemed like it would give me ocular migraine after ocular migraine, so I wasn’t about it.
I was missing fall, so I started pinning fall images on Pinterest. Naturally the spookier / halloweenier ones occasionally had witches. I like witches. Cool. Pin more witches. I want to write a fall feels story with witches. Cool. I also want to write a forbidden romance with a tragic backstory because I like those. Double cool. We’re off to the races.
Literally, I went from pinning something like the art on the top here to then pinning the images that would become Whitehill in my mind forty pins later.
As a total surprise to me, that quaint little story accidentally turned out to be the best thing I’d ever written. So guess what we’re querying next?
Story seeds are small and nonsensical.
It’s just a spark. A flicker in the night. Tossed up into the sky by something else, floating in a galaxy of other sparks just like it. You dream every night. You consume media every day. You feel emotions or are drawn to emotional tropes every day. But one of those sparks might land on your coat and burn a tiny little hole through the fabric. It might force you to pay attention to it. After it does, you can look away if you want. Or you can keep observing. You can look for others that might burn just as hot, and you can see if blowing on them might make them catch flame.
The spark’s caught your eye. You’ve decided to keep looking. Now what? How, exactly, do you practice observation in the creative sense?
A lot of people call this phase of the writing process the “collection phase,” meaning that your job in this moment is to collect inspiration, to collect the puzzle pieces that you can then assemble together into some sort of complete picture. How you do that is completely up to you, but here’s what I do.
Cultivate the Headspace
Inspiration images are everything to me. They’ve given me story ideas, they’ve made me sit back and think about what I like and what I don’t like, they’ve provided emotion behind characters and texture behind settings. When I write, I keep inspiration images up on my desktop so that I can tap their vibe for my story. That being said, Pinterest is my number one favorite observation writing tool.
With Pinterest–and other big apps or websites–the algorithm is designed to try to give you more of what you want so that you’ll stay on their platform.
So make the algorithm work for you.
If you have something in mind, search it. Search it multiple times in multiple ways. Search things that are close. Search elements that are adjacent.
Remember that the algorithm tracks your engagement. Use your clicks to your advantage. If you see something that is close but not actually on the money, click on it anyway. Generally you have to inch Pinterest closer and closer to the thing you actually want before you have a feed of dope inspiration images just waiting for you to open the app.
Make use of similar images. If you find something you like, scroll down past the image; Pinterest will populate images that it thinks are connected to the one you like. It also has a search image function that can work similarly, but I never personally use that. And once you actually get the algorithm to recognize the vibe of your story, check out the “more ideas” button on the top of your board.
If the algorithm strays, course correct it with clicks. For The Stars See All (my winter Whitehill story), for instance, I started by saving images from The Moon Tells No Lies that I felt were close to the vibe that I wanted; but because most of those were fall images, I then searched a lot of different winter related things. Winter. Winter Decorations. Antique Christmas. Ice Skating. Snow and Trees. Winter Fantasy. I got a lot of good material from that, but pretty soon, my Pinterest feed was nothing but Basic White Girl Christmas (white chocolate mochas and twinkly lights and snow and modern outfits). So I had to go back into my boards and click on the witchier, more book inspiration-y sides of things, scroll down beyond the image, and save things that were similar in order to course correct the algorithm.
I’ve actually got a great example of the work that goes into this because a new plot bunny popped up this week: Project Weaver. Something adjacent to Moon came up as I was scrolling for Project Cosmic; I wanted to save it because it was cool, but it didn’t fit in with Moon’s board. So I made a new board. After a few more pins, I had a story idea:
However, I hit a snag. A), Pinterest didn’t totally get what this board was about, so it was 100% off in its suggestions for it, and B), I was really struggling with my searches because I couldn’t exactly put into words what I wanted. My solution? I clicked first on the middle left photo and then on the top right photo. After digging deep into the related images underneath the ones I clicked on, I came upon this:
This is from a modern art installation, and it was close to what I wanted: artistic representations of knot magic and spell weaving with a dark fairytale vibe. This single image broke the whole board wide open for me. I managed to find some crazy cool artists that were doing really odd things with yarn and thread like this artist was that totally gave me the brand of witchery I was looking for. Imagine this as a witchy horror dark fairytale a la Gaiman’s Coraline:
It took a couple of hours and a whole lot of clicking and digging, but Pinterest finally caught up. Now it gives this kind of material to me on my main feed. It just took a little time to coach the algorithm so that it would work for me, the way it was designed.
Likewise, try to use Spotify’s algorithms to your favor. Try inching your way through chains of “people who like this also like this.” Make song and artist radios to discover other songs that match the vibe you want. Raid the Recommended Songs at the bottom of your playlists and refresh as many times as you need. Raid soundtracks from movies that have the same vibe as your idea (I especially loved The Village and My Cousin Rachel for my witchy horror romances).
If you listen pretty religiously to the writing playlist you’re developing, then Spotify will give you more songs every Monday with your Discover Weekly playlist. That usually is where I get a lot of the golden new songs, rather than Fridays’ Release Radar, which sources music from artists in all of your playlists instead of checking in on what you’re listening to at the moment.
A well cultivated writing playlist will take you miles, so it is very much worth your time!
I have about 10 million candles and maybe 5 million lotions. Okay, the latter is definitely an exaggeration, but seriously, you should see my office closet. The candle addiction is real.
I’m a big proponent of finding scents that transport you to the world of your choosing. The Havana candle from Bath & Body Works (for some unknown reason) smells exactly like fly spray and oiled horse tack to me (scents I cherish from horseback riding at my grandma’s place in Maryland), which means whenever I was writing a travel scene for Painted, I’d light that. The Moon Tells No Lies is a total fall feels story, so it gave me permission to buy ALL the fall candles (who am I kidding, I would have bought them anyway). But eventually the vibe crystalized around Autumn and Pumpkin Clove, as well as the juniper/cardamom aromatherapy lotion from BBW. Within that universe, though, I associate my love interest, Ford, with Old Soul from Evil Queen Candles.
Whatever it is, find a scent that matches your story’s vibe. It helps so much with transporting you into that world, that headspace.
Research & Comp Titles
Sometimes it helps to wander off in the direction of your story spark and see what others have done with it.
Project Cosmic relies both on dance as a form of magic and scientific phenomena that make up the laws of nature. So as I was telling my sister about the idea, she told me the dance magic sounded a lot like Suspiria. I watched it that night. Likewise, a friend suggested I watch the Cosmos docu-series, since I was thinking about things like the big bang and gravity, erosion, electromagnetism. She also gave me the song “Saturn,” by Sleeping at Last, and GUYS. That song was like a poetic interpretation of my story idea.
Not every element is a direct inspiration, but these comparable works kept me thinking about my world, my magic, my characters. And that’s all you really want to do in the collection phase: chase down the things related to your spark that you find interesting. Look for more. Pattern-make.
Figure out what about what about the spark is compelling and follow your heart through a breadcrumb trail of similar sparks until some kind of meaning emerges from the chaos.
Spend Time in the Headspace
Once you’ve cultivated a headspace–a vibe of related puzzle pieces or sparks–then spend time there. Daily, while you’re inspired. If you can.
Weave your vibe into your daily life. Watch or read your comp titles. Listen to your Spotify playlist while you’re making coffee, taking a shower, or doing the dishes. Scroll through Pinterest during your lunch break or while you’re not really watching Netflix. Put those headphones in or just focus your mind on your project while you spend time in nature: go hiking or walk your dog. Light the candle you associate with your vibe and journal whatever comes into your mind.
I’ve definitely wrestled story ideas into existence out of sheer force of will before (The Stars See All is a great example. For like two weeks, I fought with that bastard until it finally bore fruit because I was tired of having a giant blank in my understanding of the Whitehill stories). But living in the headspace I’ve cultivated generally is a more pleasant and a more fruitful experience. When I was making coffee last week, I put on music I thought might go well in the summer Whitehill story’s playlist, and then out of nowhere, BANG. I figured out the resolution. My brain just worked on it quietly while I was grinding my coffee beans.
You’ll be surprised what comes you in the quiet moments, in the stolen moments.
Dump it All into a Notes Doc
As you chase down your spark, you’re going to get more ideas. Some of them might be nonsensical. Some of them may lead you towards an element of story: plot, character, theme.
My phone is attached to my hip in a way my notebooks and my computer most definitely are not. So I use my notes app in the initial collection & early plotting phases. Random things will come to me at random times, and when they do, I write them the fuck down.
It doesn’t have to be pretty. It can be out of order or full of questions. It can say fuck a lot. My initial planning notes are usually a haphazard mix of everything: outlines, free writes, notes for later, thoughts on the themes I could tackle, sentences or scenes that popped into my head but may never actually make it on the page. It’s better to have them than to not, so write them the fuck down.
Above you can see portions of two of my notes docs. The Earth Remembers one (spring Whitehill story) literally is just random snippets of things that came to me while I was reading a witchy comp title. That’s the entirety of the doc at the moment (I ended up being good about using my notebooks and Scrivener for this one later). It may seem silly to put down quotes that may never even end up in the book, but they’re seeds that could bloom in ways you never anticipated. That last quote, for instance, led to me figuring out a giant lever of the entire universe—a magical element unique to Earth that has, in turn, impacted my revision plan for Moon because the former is a prequel. If I hadn’t written that sentence down when it came to me, I wouldn’t have been able to benefit from the ripple effects of it later.
In the next post, I’ll show you what I do with these kinds of info dump docs (not like it’s a big secret or anything, but I’m trying to keep some order to these posts and not let them bleed together too much).
Inspiration vs. Plagiarism
Sooooo I was an English teacher. Instructor. Whatever. And because of that, I do want to throw out a tiny caveat about the collection phase here that probably isn’t really warranted, given how much of a parasite imposter syndrome is in the writing community. But I do just want to say that there is a difference between being inspired by something and plagiarizing something.
As you’re consuming related works and researching elements that might make it into your stories, be careful about taking what’s not yours. Guillermo Del Toro was inspired by Bluebeard stories at large (and I’m like 95% positive he was specifically inspired by Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber), but Crimson Peak is its own story with its own elements. It is in conversation with Bloody Chamber rather than parroting Carter’s story verbatim.
I say this warning isn’t probably warranted because we are more likely to have the opposite anxiety going on: we are always constantly terrified that our stories aren’t original enough, that they won’t stand out amongst the throng. But sometimes the urge to lift passages from comp books or unique art styles from Pinterest is there (which I get is also super hypocritical of me given that I haven’t MLA cited any of my images here; my Pinterest account is linked elsewhere on my website–and also here it is–if you want to see the sources). So I want to just want to remind you that we’re all artists, and we all deserve credit for our own work and to live with a little less fear that someone will take what’s ours and try to monetize it.
So like. Just don’t be a dick.
So there you have it: the first step of writing a novel.
If something tickles your fancy, pay attention to it. Observe it.
And then go looking for similar moments of inspiration related to that first spark. Cultivate the headspace or vibe of your work and then live in that headspace until the muse leaves you and you plummet back down to Earth.
It’s tempting to think that we have to figure out our story ideas right away. Someone will ask us about our shiny new plot bunny, and we’re over here just being that Daniel Craig meme from Knives Out:
Well I’m here to say, it doesn’t have to make sense. Compelling is enough. If you are really attracted to a wardrobe styling or images of art deco architecture, if you have a trope you want to explore, if you have a character but no plot, themes but no character, or a really cool concept for a magic structure but no world built yet, that’s 100% okay! I don’t have Project Cosmic completely figured out yet; I’ve got a magic system and maybe a world, and that’s enough for me to consider it a for-real project right now. Like when I was a kid, I saw eyes in some trees, so I know there’s magic there.
A spark can be small, and it can make zero goddamn sense. That’s fine. That’s more than fine. That’s–in my opinion–the first stage of literary thinking.
Observation in critical lit scholarship is a commitment to letting the text speak for itself. If you want to think of creative writing in the same way, then let your story tell you what it is. You can chase it down and grab its shoulders and shake until it yells at you, sure. But you can also just sit quietly and wait for it to speak when it’s ready. And if you don’t know what to do once it does speak–what to say or what questions to ask back in return–well then don’t worry. I’ve got your back. Next time we’ll talk about early plotting, plantser style.
But moral of the story is this: