Tag: ideas

The Importance of Writing It Down

My morning routine was a little out of whack yesterday. On Saturday, we made a long day trip to Lancaster, PA, about a 2-1/2 hour drive north. We spent the day at an amusement park for the Littlest Miss’s birthday. We left the house at 8 am on Saturday and were home just before 10 pm Saturday night. It was 300 miles of driving and 7 hours on my feet at the park. I was tired. So I slept in later than normal, and didn’t head out for my morning walk until 7:30 am, an hour and a half later than usual.

When routines go sideways, that’s when things get missed. I left my Field Notes notebook and pens back at the house. I realized this on my walk. I was listening to Episode 528 of the Tim Ferriss Podcast, listing to Tim interview Jimmy Wales. Something was said and I pulled out my notebook to write it down–and my notebook wasn’t there!

So rare is it that I am without my notebook that the feeling I had was the same feeling I get when I feel for my keys and suddenly realize they are not in my pocket. It is that sinking, uh-oh feeling. It latest for a millisecond but it was there. I was annoyed that I’d forgotten my notebook. I pulled out my phone and emailed myself the note I was going to take and continued walked.

My walks are often punctuated with stops like these. Something I am listening to will trigger a thought, or I’ll get an idea for a blog post, or remember something that I have to do later in the day. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to always stop what I am doing and write down the thought. If there is even a question of whether or not it is worth writing down, I err on the side of caution. I have never regretted jotting a note in my notebook, but I have often regretted not writing down some idea that popped into my head, thinking I’ll remember it later. I never remember it later. Often, this means stopping half a dozen times on a morning walk to jot notes. This is true at any time of the day or night. If I wake up in the dark with an idea, I’ll grab my notebook, which is always on the nightstand beside me, and jot the note. Sometimes I’ll turn on the light, other times I’ll do my best in the dark.

My Field Notes notebooks are filled with things that would otherwise have disappeared from my short term memory forever. They are the way I remember things for later. Thus, the importance of writing it down. Sometimes, I feel silly. When meeting new people, I am terrible with names. I’ve tried the trick of saying the person’s name and that never seems to work for me. What I do instead, is casually pull out my notebook and jot down the names as soon as I can. That helps immensely. But people sometimes look at me funny when I pull out a notebook. I’ve gotten over it. I’ve had to, if I want to remember these things.

When I go to the store to get, say, milk, and ask Kelly if there is anything else we need, if she gives me more than 2 things, I write them down. At the amusement park yesterday, I jotted a list of all of the rides we went on, so that I could write in more detail about them later. Just seeing the list helps to trigger memories of the events.

The page from my notebook, describing the rides we went on Saturday.
The page from my notebook, describing the rides we went on Saturday.

Being without my Field Notes notebook was much more uncomfortable than those rare occasions when I forget to take my phone with me. Being able to write things down in the moment helps me continue with my day, and come back to those things later, when I am ready. Whenever I hear myself saying, “I’ll remember this,” alarm bells go off in my head and I’ll write it down. The worst come when those alarm bells go off while driving. Then, I’ll lean on Kelly, and ask her to jot something down for me.

Stephen King has said he doesn’t write down ideas because the good ones will keep coming back and the bad ones will disappear. I see value in that, but jotting down notes and ideas, for me, is quick and easy, and takes up little space in a notebook. So why not write them down, even if I never come back to it?

It reminds me of that old piloting adage: I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there, than up there wishing I was down here. When it comes to writing notes, I’d rather write it down and never use it, than not write it down and lose it forever.

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When I Have No Idea What To Write About

At least 60% of the time when I sit down to write one of this essays, I have an idea in mind. Sometimes I think it is a particularly good idea I am nervous that I won’t carry it off the way I want to. Other times, it seems like a worthwhile idea, but not a great one, and I fear that it will show through in the final product.

The other 40% of the time I have no idea what to write about. I have a list of ideas, but often they don’t hit the right buttons for me at that moment and I am left staring at a blank screen. What to do?

Over the years I have developed a process for working myself out of these situations. It is straight-forward, if a little time-consuming, and always seems to produce a satisfactory idea or two. It goes like this:

  1. Pull one of my Andy Rooney essay collections, one E.B. White essay collection, and one Isaac Asimov essay collection off the shelf.
  2. Flip through them randomly to remind myself of the wise variety of topics that they wrote on in their columns.
  3. See what ideas pop into my head.

This procedure always seems to work for me. I did this, for instance, last Friday evening when I couldn’t think of anything to write about. In my flipping about some Andy Rooney essays, I came across something he wrote on weathermen. It reminded me of how we like to talk about the weather, and thus my piece on talking about the weather was born.

This procedure doesn’t always trigger an idea based on something I see. Sometimes the idea comes from a different direction. Today, for instance, at loss for an idea, and knowing what a busy schedule I had, I pulled various collections off the shelf (step 1) but before I even began to flip through them (step 2) an idea popped into my head (step 3). That idea, of course, what to write about what I do when I don’t have any idea what to write about.

It should surprise no one who reads this blog that Asimov, Rooney, and White are the three biggest influences on my in terms of style and subject matter. Asimov write mostly (but not always) on scientific subjects, translating them into something that a layperson like me could understand. No surprise then that I should occasionally write on software (technology) subjects and try to write them in a way that everyone can make sense of. Rooney (who was himself highly influenced by E.B. White) wrote on everyday things. So it is no surprise that I write on everyday things, now and then, trying to find humor or irony in them, and only occasionally succeeding.

White is more of an aspiration for me than an inspiration. He also often wrote on seemingly mundane subjects (chores around the farm) but his style made the pieces sing. I think I’ve still got a way to go before people start to say, “I detect some E.B. White influence in your writing.”

Coming up with a good idea when trying to write an original piece every day is something of a challenge. Quality sometimes suffers under the pressure of the self-imposed deadline. And yet I am surprised by how often the last-minute idea and the last-minute writing gains the most notice and comments. It just goes to show that there is no point trying to predict what readers want. I write what makes me happy, and hope that others enjoy it as well.

And now that I’ve finished this piece, I can begin the puzzle anew and start thinking of an idea for tomorrow’s post.

A Brief Writing Progress Update and Coming Soon News

I know I said that I wasn’t going to provide updates about my progress in this final attempt at writing this particular story I’ve been trying to tackle. But I figured it was worth mentioning that last night, I hit the 10,000 word mark. Considering everything else I’ve got going on, writing 10,000 words in 9 days is pretty good for me. It’s not all the most inspired writing, but whenever I worry about the writing or the story, I tell myself to worry about it in the second draft and just keep on writing.

For some time now, I’ve been wanting to jump-start things here on the blog. I enjoy the writing that I do here, and especially the interactions I have with readers. With that in mind, I have a new project that I plan to start here in the not-too-distant future. My working title for this project is “My Standard Answers.” I’ve often thought it would be useful to have a place I can myself (or point people to) for the standard answers to questions I sometimes get asked about–not just questions here on the blog, but questions I get asked in other areas of my life. An example might be “Who is your favorite audiobook narrator?” or “What, in your mind, makes for a good audiobook narrator?” These would be short, maybe 500-word essays, and the current plan is to post one per week.

I don’t want to start on a project like this until I have a list of the questions that I think would be interesting to answer. I am aiming for at least 52 of them, so that I can guarantee myself I’ll have something to write about for at least year. So far, I’ve jotted down 30 of these. If anyone has suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments. I think these are eclectic enough to be of fairly wide interest and not too centered on any one things. But, to make things more interesting, I’m also toying with the idea of a weekly companion essay that focuses on the subject from a different angle–meaning you’d potentially get two posts a week. I haven’t quite figured out this last part yet, and I still have to come up with more of my Standard Answer topics, then weed out the weaker ones and order them in a way that makes them interesting.

Ideally, I’d like to start this in July, but it all depends on how I can fit this into my current workload. In any case, I wanted to mention that this idea has been brewing with me for a while and I hope to be able to bring it to fruition here soon.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This evening, I solved a mystery that has been plaguing me for years, but in order to understand the context, we have to begin with the question that writers often get, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I answered this question eight years ago, but it is worth revisiting here. Harlan Ellison may have gotten his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, but I get mine in the shower. Of all the places from which to get ideas, the shower is the most inconvenient. I don’t recommend it. Usually, the idea rises like a soap bubble, just as I have finished lathering up my hair with shampoo. Under those circumstances, it is impossible to dash out of the shower and scribble the idea down. You have to fight for it. And like a soap bubble, the idea is clear but delicate, so you have to keep a close eye on it, and avoid jostling it lest it burst.

This is not as easy as it sounds. If the idea is strong and clear, it is one thing. But if it is a fleeting thing: the perfect line of dialog for a character, worded just right, then it becomes a lot more tricky for me. My shower becomes an exercise in repetition, and I can be heard muttering the line over and over, like someone trying to remember a phone number.

I have often wondered why a shower stimulates ideas at the rate that it does compared to just about any other activity. I think it is because it is the only time in my day when my mind is completely unburdened of other activity. My default idle is reading. If I am not doing anything else during the day, I am reading, whether a physical book, a magazine, a newspaper, or listening to an audiobook. There is no time in my day when I just sit and do nothing, just let my mind wander–except for the shower. I guess my mind, cooped up all day like dog, runs free once I hit the shower. It is remarkable how often I get useful ideas in the shower. These can be ideas for anything–blog posts, stories, dialog, working out a problem I’m having with something I am writing. The shower rarely fails me.

Of course, it is difficult to capture the idea in the shower. You have to treat it carefully. But I’ve learned not to worry too much about that. With the except of the perfect line (or dialog or prose), if the idea doesn’t make it out of the shower, I assume it really wasn’t that good of an idea after all. Or perhaps I just tell myself that to make me feel better.

How does this relate to the mystery that I have finally solved? Well, let me tell you… beginning a few years ago, I started to experience a strange phenomenon in the shower. At some point, I would reach for the shampoo–and hesitate. I could not recall if I had already washed my hair. Washing it twice is no big deal. It just takes more time. But it bothered me that I had been so preoccupied that I couldn’t even remember if I had washed my hair. This didn’t happen all the time, but every now and then, there’d I be, my thoughts drifting and I couldn’t recall if I had already washed my hair.

This evening, in a flash, it came to me–in the shower, of course–that there seemed to be a direct correlation between my absentmindedness and the abundance of ideas that come during the shower. When the ideas are ripe for the picking, I get into that same mental state that drivers get into when they leave the office, end up in their driveway, and have no memory of anything in between. I go on autopilot, my mind completely focused on the emerging ideas, and the lizard part of my brain taking care of the basic functions, like washing my hair.

If you are wondering, the idea that came to me in this evening’s shower–one in which I really had to focus because I wanted to keep the wording precise–was: “Harlan Ellison may have gotten his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, but I get mine in the shower. Of all the places from which to get ideas, the shower is the most inconvenient. I don’t recommend it.”

I’m pretty sure I washed my hair twice.

Where do you get those ideas?

At some point, every science fiction writer gets asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I got asked the question this past weekend and I thought I’d answer it here.  This is a question that has been answered and blogged about by writers, perhaps more often than any other.  But it is also different for each writer.  What works for me, may not work for others, but it may give some insight for other new writers, like myself, and therefore prove helpful.  So, where do I get my ideas?

The very general answer is: anywhere.  I think this is true for most writers.  As a writer, and in particular, a science fiction or fantasy writer, we look for ideas in everything we see and do.  I find that my mind is always on the lookout for ideas, even when this might prove inconvenient, as when your wife is asking you to do some chore, or you are in a meeting with your coworkers.  Someone will say something, and that will trigger a chain of thought that usually begins, “I wonder what would happen if…?”  Many of these ideas are fleeting and a large number of them are cast away.  But some of them stick in my mind, sometimes for a very long time, and it is those ideas, the ones that feel most compelling, that tend to make their way into my stories.  So, just as Isaac Asimov once said, I think and think and think and think and that’s how I get many of my ideas.

Thinking is good, but for me, at least, there has to be some raw material that feeds the thinking process.  I get this raw material from a number of places, but perhaps most frequently from these four:  (1) the news; (2) science fiction stories; (3) science magazines, (4) flashes or images

Often time I will watch the news (or back when I lived in L.A., listen to the news on the radio) and hear a story that piques my curiosity in some way that starts the thinking process and gets me wondering, “what would happen if…?”  The germ for the idea of my first published story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” came about in this way.  I was driving into work listening to the news on the radio and the Osgood File came on.  In this particular episode, Charles Osgood recited Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”.  I’d never heard the poem before, but I loved it.  While the poem is about a romance with the stars, my mind jumped to a romance with an astronomer, and a small alteration to the title of the poem gave me a title for the story.

New writers trying to break into the science fiction field often feel that their ideas have to be completely original, but ask any seasoned science fiction professional and they will tell you that original ideas are almost unheard of.  New spins on old ideas, however, can be very useful.  And so in my reading of science fiction stories, I occasionally get an idea that is based on something I read.  Sometimes, it challenges the notions in the story; other times, it extends them.  Perhaps just about every professional writer has attempted to write a story in defense or opposition of Tom Godwin’s famous story, “The Cold Equations”.  I wrote a story of my own in reaction to Godwin’s, one called, “Wake Me When We Get There” which I used to illustrate the phases of loss in a person doomed aboard a malfunctioning spacecraft.

More often than not, these day, I get my raw material from the science magazines that I read.  I have subscribed to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for close to 15 years now.  And I’ve been a subscriber to NEW SCIENTIST for almost a year.  SCIAM is monthly, while NEW SCIENTIST is weekly, making it hard to keep up sometimes (the photo above shows my current backlog of science magazines, that I am diligently working my way through).  I read these magazines cover-to-cover, letters and all.  Not only am I educating myself on all areas of science and technology, but I find a wealth of story ideas within the pages.  Still, you have to be able to identify the real nuggets.  I try to find one good story idea in each issue of a magazine.  Often times there are two or three useful ideas–ideas that can help to better explain a technology that I use in a story–but that don’t form the basis of the story itself.  But one good idea per magazine means roughly 64 good idea each year.

With 64 good ideas each year, am I producing 64 stories each year?  Of course not.  For one thing, I work fairly slowly at this stage of the game.  While I wish I were as prolific as Isaac Asimov, I’m not.  In the past I’ve been lucky to produce two or three stories each year.  This year I’m aiming for 10-12.  Having a lot of ideas to choose from is helpful to me, however, in several ways.

First, I can’t write a story based on one good idea.  I have found that my best stories require the merging of at least two good ideas.  In “Learned Astronomer” I had the idea for the title, and the romance with an astronomer, but I needed something more.  A few years earlier, I’d read an article in ANALOG about how one would go about finding a starship.  Many s.f. ideas focus on “first contact” with aliens.  Using the science of the article as a basis, I wondered, “what would happen if we discovered a starship going from star A to star B?”  Clearly the ship would be so far away, it wouldn’t be aware of us.  Furthermore, we don’t yet have the technology to talk to it.  Finally, at a distance of hundreds of light years, what we are seeing now took place hundreds of years ago.  There would be nothing we could do, but we would know someone else was out there.  I merged this idea with the romance with the astronomer and the two ideas formed the basis of “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer”.

Second, some ideas take a long time to develop.  I might have a list of 50 or 60 ideas, and I might be eager to work on one or two of them.  But I sometimes struggle, and usually that tells me that I’m either not yet ready to write the story, or I don’t yet have the ability I need to properly tell the story.  It is, therefore, good to have other ideas to turn to.  This year, at least, it has helped me keep writing, and avoid getting stuck on any one story or idea.

Last, but not least, I occasionally get ideas from an image I see either in the real world or in my mind.  The idea for my second published story, “The Last Science Fiction Writer“, came from something I saw in a Baker’s Square restaurant in North Hollywood.  There was a sad old man in a wrinkled, periwinkle suit, sitting all alone, scribbling all over his napkins in microscopic print.  That was the germ for the narrator of my story.

So, where do you get your crazy ideas?

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.