I'm often asked how I can find inspiration so quickly, especially when I'm working on a deadline. I'm often told by others that they could never work creatively on a deadline because they have to wait for inspiration to hit.
To the former, I'll explain my method for finding inspiration on a tight deadline. For the latter, I offer this quote from Neil Gaiman:
“If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not. You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next. The process of writing can be magical. …Mostly it’s a process of putting one word after another.”I really think the biggest hurdle you have to face in meeting deadlines and finding inspiration constantly is to be working every day and on different projects so you're always in a different phase on something. For example, right now, I'm working on outlining my next novel/serialized story project, revising my fantasy novel, and drafting a short story. I also have a slate of non-fiction articles I'm working on on a deadline.
It makes it easy to write every day, but how do I stay on a deadline? Especially a tight one?
- Plan to work on it. I make a checklist of projects I need to work on every morning in my notebook. When a deadline is coming up, I'll keep that project higher on the checklist. I try to get everything on my checklist done every day. If my deadline is far enough away and I've at least thought about what I'm going to write and maybe even scribbled some notes on possibilities, I'll check it off the list for the day. I need to get substantially more done to earn that check mark the closer I get to the deadline, though.
- Get Parameters. It's a lot easier to be creative when you have a better idea of what you need to be doing. When an editor gives me a project, I'll ask what they're looking for. For an anthology, sometimes they might only know the theme for the stories in the book. Robots, for instance. Or Space. Or Heroes. If they've chosen what direction you're going to start in, it makes it a lot easier. If you're closer to the deadline than a few months, you might want to try to narrow it down even further. It's okay to ask an editor, "What do you have too much of in the book?" If they respond, "None of these stories has any humor, they're all neutral or dark," you know that something lighter in tone will help your story stand out and it narrows your scope considerably. The more broad an assignment is, the longer it will take to do. The less time you have, the more you need to narrow them.
- Fall back on your notes. I can't stress how important this one is. I keep exhaustive diaries and notes full of ideas I have. I tend to try to only work on the ones that stick around for ages and I don't even need the notes for. But if I'm on a deadline and can't find the "inspiration" I need to start writing, I'll start trolling through my old notebooks. I'll find thoughts and ideas that I've obviously spent enough thought on to write down and start juxtaposing those ideas, hoping something sparks. In the documentary on Woody Allen, you can see him using this same process. He keeps a drawer next to his bed where he keeps scraps of paper with notes about characters, concepts, film themes, and any other idea he can come up with. And when he sits down to start writing he'll take those scraps of paper out and start puzzling out an idea with different combinations of them. It works.
- Give up other things. If you want to meet your deadline, you need to give up some of the other things you might want to do. Don't go to the movies until you hit your deadline. Don't play video games. Don't go to that party. Being a working writer means the writing has to come first when you're expected to produce. Anything less is unprofessional. But these are also helpful goals to work toward. "If I get this draft finished, I can go to that party tonight. Or concert. Or play that video game. etc."
- Ask yourself questions. If you don't know what to write, pull out your notebook. Start asking yourself questions like, "Why is writing so hard right now?" or "What sort of story do I want to tell?" Then answer these questions to yourself in your notebook. Pretend it's the sort of freewriting you'd do in an English class. By posing these questions to yourself in this way, you'll be forced to provide an answer.
- Talk to other creatives. Other writers love helping their friends and colleagues solve story problems. Call up a writer friend (text or email first and make sure they're in a place where they could take a call) and just ask them to help you diagnose your problem. Spitball the story with them. Spitball the idea for the story with them. They might be able to help you shape something based on your strengths as they see them. Or they might challenge you to come up with something outside of your comfort zone. Even if you don't end up with an idea as a result of the conversation, more often than not, you'll leave creatively recharged.
- Read. See a movie. Consume a story. There's something powerful about stories and something inspiring about them. You can draw inspiration from everything, and sometimes when I feel like the proverbial ink well has run dry, I'll find that I just need to refill it with other people's stories. And then I'll ask myself questions about them, and how I'd tell a similar story. Sometimes those rabbit holes lead to story ideas that can lead to great stories.
These are my methods and they've helped me keep a reputation where I rarely go over a deadline. And if I miss a deadline, it's usually on a non-fiction piece where the subject has been less than cooperative and I'm not in control of that. And if I am going to miss a deadline, the editor knows it before the deadline.
But I'm curious to hear about how you cope with these problems. What do you do to stay motivated on a deadline?
As for my writing, I'm still toiling away on the epic fantasy revisions. And I'm trying to draw people to my Patreon. If you want to vote on the next short story I'll be writing, there's still a few days left to contribute and vote.
StarWars.Com posted my latest piece for them. It was a Playlist about Jabba the Hutt. Fantasy Flight Games posted my latest piece for them as well, it was about mixing X-Wing and Age of Rebellion. It's called "We're Going In Full Throttle."
There are a lot of things going on, too. Hopefully I'll be able to talk more about it sooner rather than later.
As a reminder: You can join my short story Patreon here.
The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.
Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process.
As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you.
And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!