[This is the continuation of the How I Write series, which began with Who Should Write? When Should You Start?]
If you want to listen to me read it to you, as you drive down the road, click below:
At some point while I’m just writing anything, an idea pops into my head.
It might turn into an idea that is quickly developed, which could be a blog article, like this one, or expanded into a series of articles, like How I Write, or it might be the Motherload: a book idea.
Articles and series are fairly easy to come up with, for me, and I suspect that as long as you are writing everyday, or nearly everyday, that you will find those ideas begin to pop up everywhere. That’s when you need some kind of system to keep up with them, and if one of them is a Motherload, you then need to develop that idea further.
This article will be focused on how I do this, which means that it’s mostly about non-fiction writing, but in reality, it could be about fiction, or any kind of art, for that matter: music, painting, sculpture, photography, whatever.
Here’s how Motherloads come to me.
First I roll the idea around in my head.
The kernels for Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth came out of my frustration with the state of the planet a couple of years ago. I got sick and tired of being in a negative mindset, seeing negative posts on Facebook and crap on the news, and decided that “something has to be done,” and so I did it. But it took a couple of other synchronicities before ‘Saving the Earth’ ran into ‘Be a Hobbit.’
The Hobbit part of the idea came to me during the process of doing the research on all the issues affecting our planet. One morning it hit me that there were loads of parallels between those issues and those affecting Middle Earth, and that Sauron’s One Ring was similar to our core belief that ‘The earth belongs to us, and we were meant to rule it’—the central thesis in Daniel Quinn’s books.
The idea for End of Fear Itself hit me as a result of discussions I was having on Anchor, in which I came to the conclusion that Fear was the root of all human-created problems. This was really an idea that I began to develop in Be a Hobbit, and is in fact, a chapter in that book.
It occurred to me, during the discussions on Anchor, that it was a great way to take an idea from my first book and move in a non-Tolkien direction. I don’t want to be known only as a Tolkien themed writer. I’m not a cubby-hole kind of dude; I write about whatever I want. I don’t restrict myself. It’s okay, of course, to brand yourself as a particular type of writer, and probably more lucrative in the long run, maybe. Stephen King has done okay as a horror-thriller writer, but he’s branched out some from that genre over the decades, if not too far from it.
I might even write some fiction, one day, but for now, I’m trying to find ways to affect change in the world via non-fiction. Fiction can affect great change as well. Harper Lee, Steinbeck, and Aldous Huxley come to mind as fiction writers who had immense influence on the way we now see the world.
The title for End of Fear hit me at breakfast one morning, like a bolt out of the blue. Bam! But of course, it wasn’t out of the blue; I had been cogitatin’ on the topic for a week or more before that happened. And just like peanut butter and chocolate coming together, the idea of writing about Fear, and the words of the greatest quote ever on the topic, from FDR himself, hit me, and the title was born.
Brainstorming & Note Taking: Mining the Motherload
So, now we have an idea: The End of Fear Itself. Sounds fuckin’ awesome! Now what? Uhhhhhhh
So now, I’m usually on fire at this point. The brain is humming a million miles per hour, and it’s all good stuff. Ideas begin to pop into my mind so fast it’s hard to put them all down. And that’s where it can get crazy, fast, if you don’t have some kind of system to capture them all, and I do mean ALL of them.
I questionized that subtitle because my system isn’t particularly systematic, but it works. I just start to jot notes down, everywhere. I mean just about everywhere. I don’t really care where I write it, and sometimes it isn’t writing at all, it’s recording. When I was working on Be a Hobbit, most of the notes were on PostIt notes, or legal pads—I went through a lot of them–or I wrote them down in my word-processor documents and grouped them into a folder in the computer. Now I use Evernote for the computer stuff, and I have it on my iPhone, too, so I can enter stuff on it when I’m out and about and sync it up with my computer later.
I try to keep a PostIt notepad next to my bed, because inevitably that’s when the best ideas come. And they really do come then, because I think it’s when the brain is allowed to rest that real genius is allowed to happen. So make sure to have something there to write on, and with, or you’ll be getting up in the middle of the night to find something, or you’ll say to yourself, “Fuck it, I’ll do it in the morning.” But you won’t remember that idea the next day, not usually. Sometimes it will return, but not always. So write it down!
My Folding Table Notepad
I recently developed a new way to write stuff down. Over the holidays I was decorating for our Annual Southern Fried Yankee Yule party, when I came up with the idea of wrapping one of our folding TV tables in my office, like it was a Christmas gift.
I wrapped it in brown shipping paper, and put a bow around it to spruce it up—the table is a bit rough looking from years of cat-scratching and water-rings. I know what you’re thinking; “Dude! That’s pretty Martha Stewarty of you!” Yeah, shut the fuck up. I used manly, packing paper. So what if I put a pretty Christmas bow on it. Don’t make me kick your ass.
What I discovered after the party, as I was sitting in my favorite chair, was that I had created an awesome notepad right on the table itself! So now I’ve gotten into the habit of re-wrapping it, so that when I’m sitting there, and an idea hits, I have a place to jot it down before it wafts away from my brain.
Lately, when I’m out of the house and don’t have a pen or paper, I make quick notes in Evernote, or if I really don’t want to type, or I’m driving, I’ll pull over to a curb [NEVER, NEVER, NEVER type or talk into your phone when you’re driving. Don’t fuckin’ do it!] and open up Voice Memo and record a short idea in audio. That way I don’t have to type on my phone, which I really suck at anyway.
The Initial Outline: You now have a bunch of notes; What the hell do you do next?
This is where I start to really put ideas together. I gather all those notes, from various places and start typing them up into the computer-machine. This is where I’m going to suggest the best writing software ever: Scrivener. Scrivener is a wordprocessor and self-publishing juggernaut. It can do almost everything you need to do to write a book, format it, and self-publish it, or send it off to a traditional publisher. You can use whatever software you want, of course, but check out Scrivener—it’s not free—but it is the best. The link above will take you to a free trial version, however.
Once I have the notes down, I start a second round of brainstorming. This is where I began to see a structure to the book, and outline.
Now, this is definitely where fiction and non-fiction usually part, or at least where the most controversy occurs. It seems split, just about even, between fiction writers, as to whether or not they outline their novels, or short stories. I think it occurs more often with novels, since they’re most complex and longer.
For example, Stephen King doesn’t like to outline much of anything when he writes, at least not beyond some character sketches and a basic overall idea for the book. He just comes up with fucked-up situations to throw his characters into, and sees how they react. If I were writing fiction, I’d probably do the same thing, and it’s hard to argue with King’s method, though it didn’t really work that way for his favorite author, and mine, J.R.R. Tolkien, who had enormous outlines and in depth sketches of the lands and peoples and creatures of Middle Earth, before he sat down to write The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings.
I don’t think it matters that much which direction you go, if you’re writing fiction, but if you’re writing non-fiction you better come up with an initial outline of where you’re going.
First Date Jitters
Don’t get caught up in your outline too much at this stage. It’s gonna change, and a lot most likely. Mine do. This is just a ‘first date’ if you will, not a ‘ball and chain’ relationship. We’re just gonna take this outline out for a night, hopefully a very successful one, not the kind where you have to chew your arm off in the morning to get away, but one where maybe you have breakfast together, and then say, “Well, I had a very nice time, but I don’t think this is gonna go much further,” and head off to work: to work on the next outline.
Just a reminder, while you’re doing all this brainstorming, note taking and shit, don’t forget to actually WRITE, too. This is not an exercise in procrastination. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!
“I’m researching right now. I’ll get to the writing part later.”
Bullshit. That’s procrastination. Don’t worry; I do that shit, too, but just because Steve Bivans doesn’t always follow his own advice doesn’t mean that it isn’t good advice; it just means that he’s fuckin’ up, and if you follow him down that path, so are you! So KEEP WRITING. But reading and writing aren’t mutually exclusive activities, though you can’t do them simultaneously. You can take a break from one to do the other.
If You Don’t Read, You Can’t Write
At this point in the outline stage, I do more reading and research. Now this goes for anyone who writes, or breathes, for that matter. Reading is essential to life, I don’t give a shit what you want to argue against that statement; you’re wrong. Read, read, read, and when in doubt, read some more. You CANNOT be a great, or even decent writer, if you don’t read a shit-ton. Read books, read articles, read the fuckin’ cereal box, but read.
And while your’e reading, take more notes. Oh yeah, that reminds me. One of the ways that I take notes, is to highlight pages in books, and that means on my Kindle, as well. If you have a Kindle, and this probably works for other readers, you can access all of those highlights on your personal Kindle page, online. Then you can just copy and paste them into your books, articles, or into Evernote or wherever you keep notes on the computer. Obviously, make sure to give credit to the original author, or you’re committing plagiarism, and that’s a crime of crimes.
Now, Go Write some more!
A Thesis: What the Hell am I Going to Say?
If you’re writing a book, or any non-fiction article, you MUST have a thesis. What is a thesis? It is the point you are trying to argue. I suppose that if you’re just writing about a news event, you could write what happened without a thesis, but not really. Because your personal bias will come across in that article, more or less—depending on your self-awareness—and any bias is a form of thesis, or argument.
A thesis isn’t a statement of fact; it’s an opinion, hopefully backed up with evidence.
At some point, you’re going to develop your central theme and argument. Sometimes this comes very early in the process, like it usually does with me, or it may come much later. But it must come. At some point, you have to be able to articulate what it is you’re tying to say, or no one is going to give a rat’s ass about what you write. They are going to get part way into your book, or article, and say,
“What the hell is this about? What is she trying to say here?”
and then put the book down, or click on a kitty video link on the side of the blog page, or on Facebook, and you’ve lost them: probably forever. So, HAVE A THESIS.
And once you have one, it’s very much like another first date. It doesn’t have to be permanent; it’s not marriage. This initial thesis is just like a plan for that first date:
- Where are we going?
- What movie are we gonna see?
- Am I gonna get lucky?
You know. It’s just a sketch of what you want to happen, not what’s actually gonna happen. Trust me on that one. Most likely, she’s gonna suggest a different restaurant, pick a chic-flic instead of Boondock Saints, and smack you when you try to do the Lambada instead of a waltz. So don’t get too excited about that first date, I mean, thesis.
Writing as Thinking
A thesis can change even at the last moment, sometimes during the conclusion.
When I was teaching writing at the University of Minnesota, I told my students that many times, many, many times, that they could find their REAL thesis in their conclusion. This is natural, because writing is a process of learning and thinking, as I mentioned in the first episode of this series. So, as you’re writing, you’re refining your ideas; they become more crystallized in your mind when you put them on the page. By the end of writing an article, or a book, you really know what you want to say. It’s weird, but true nonetheless. So, if you’re unclear as to your thesis at the beginning, that’s okay, as long as you have something there. The date might not end in the back seat of the car (they rarely do), but if that wasn’t in the plan to begin with, it definitely won’t. Well, sometimes it might.
Speaking of Plans, Let’s Refine the Outline
Once you have your thesis, and begin to write and do more research, it’s time to return to your outline and take some time to flesh it out and organize it.
And then you’re gonna have to keep doing it, because this outline is just the Second Date. It’s still just a plan, but maybe the backseat is looking like it’s more likely? But chances are, you’re gonna be singing Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, waking up, gnawing appendages. Like all good plans, they fall apart during the first few shots of the battle, or about the time you find out that her brother is an ex-con, who doesn’t read, and loves to pick on boys who write poetry and non-fiction.
Luckily, I don’t fit that ’squirrely, skinny, pasty, weakling’ writer model, so pretty much her brother’s gonna get his ass kicked, but you know what I mean. Second dates also don’t always turn into marriages, and the same goes for the second outline. You have to have them, but don’t fall in love with them, because you might have to chew your arm off in the morning…
Next time… Writing like a madman, or woman.
Steve Bivans is the author one book, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, over 100 blog articles, and is currently working on his second book, The End of Fear Itself.