“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.”
– Peter DeVries
Great quote, right? But what if you sit down at the keyboard every morning at 9 a.m. and nothing happens?
How can you make sure that you’re inspired on a regular basis?
You’re probably already familiar with the technique of incubation, where you set a project aside and give your subconscious time to transform your ideas and experiences into something new. Sooner or later, your subconscious makes connections that your conscious mind didn’t, and voila, you’re inspired.
But waiting for inspiration–known as “passive incubation” to psychologists–wastes a lot of time. While you’re waiting, it’s easy to get frustrated and start worrying that the muse has abandoned you. Frustration and worry can block your creativity, delaying inspiration. The longer it takes to get inspired, the more frustrated and worried you get. Next thing you know, you’re in a downward spiral and haven’t written for weeks. Or longer.
Active incubation to the rescue!
Thomas Edison was a master of active incubation. He discovered early in his career that inspiration struck much sooner if he:
- Clearly defined the problem he was trying to solve.
- Examined that problem in great detail, absorbing as much relevant information as possible.
- Once he was sure he’d considered all the angles, he deliberately set the problem aside, ignoring it while he slept or worked on other things.
By pre-loading his mind with a clearly-defined objective and a mass of data, he was often able to incubate with a twenty-minute nap and wake up with the solution he was looking for. I can’t promise it’ll be that quick for you every time, but active incubation significantly shortens that frustrating waiting period.
So how can you apply active incubation to fiction writing?
Here’s the two phase process:
Start with whatever you know about the story. Maybe all you know is that you want to write a novel set in that castle you visited on your trip to Scotland. Or maybe you’re sure your heroine is a demon-slayer, but you’ve got no idea why or how she came into her unusual career.
Dig deeper. What captivates you about this idea? Is it the possibility of discovering secret passageways and finding ancient treasure sealed up in a castle wall? Are you fascinated Scottish history?
Do you have a yearning to write a kick-ass heroine who believes that she’s damned? Does your demon-slayer have a magic sword you’d give your left arm to own?
Are you dying to write about something that happened to you, exploring how you might have handled it if you were a different person? What emotions do you feel when you think about this idea? How does this character or setting relate to you and your life?
Now broaden your thinking. What other story elements might be appropriate for this setting/character/etc? Does your initial idea suggest a certain type of plot or theme? Have you read books with similar story elements, and if so, how would you like yours to be different?
Identify what you know and what you don’t know, but don’t worry that you don’t have a complete picture yet. When you feel as if you’ve explored the story idea as completely as you can right now, set it aside for the rest of the day.
Sleep on it. Your brain uses sleep time to process everything you were exposed to during the day, and this is when your subconscious gets busy.
PHASE TWO (repeat daily until inspiration arrives)
Keep your subconscious on track. Take a few minutes to review whatever notes you made, and if a new idea pops up, jot it down. As soon as you feel ready, pull out your usual story development tools—conflict grid, GMC charts, ten-scene plot diagram, whatever works for you—and fill in what you can without forcing it.
Reserve a few minutes each day for quiet time, to listen for inspiration. If your mind is filled to overflowing with the mundane details of your life, your thoughts can drown out the voice of inspiration. Schedule five minutes of “muse time.” Meditation, daydreaming, a contemplative walk, and freewriting are all ways to clear your head and bring messages from your subconscious up to the surface, where your conscious mind can access them.
Seek out new information related to what you already know about your story while you incubate. If your heroine’s major trauma is that she was molested as a child, read a book or article about the psychological effects of childhood molestation on adults. If your hero is a kendo master, watch videos of kendo tournaments on YouTube. Research how castles are built or take a class on life in medieval times. The more relevant information you can give your subconscious to work with, the richer your story will be.
Give yourself some encouragement. Before you go to sleep, thank your subconscious for working on your story overnight, and let it know that you’re looking forward to seeing what it comes up with. Don’t forget to keep a notebook and pen by the bed, so you’ll be ready if inspiration hits in the middle of the night or when you wake up in the morning.
Be patient with the process. Trust that inspiration will come, and don’t let yourself fall back into the old habit of passively waiting. The more consistently you practice the phase two techniques, the sooner your subconscious will have all the pieces it needs to construct that killer idea you’re looking for.
Make it a habit. Don’t wait until you get stuck. Incorporate active incubation into your routine now to keep your creative juices flowing and avoid future blocks to your writing success.
Is there any aspect of your work-in-progress that you’re stuck on or unsure about right now?
How might you apply the process of active incubation to get clearer on that aspect of your story?