Chasing Sparks--by Ellen Jensen Abbott

This has been a great month at YA Outside the Lines! I’ve gotten so much good writing advice through my fellow bloggers’ exploration of the idea of sparks. My two cents comes from thinking about the sparks you need when you’re in the midst of writing. You know, those days when it’s just not happening, no matter how long you sit in that chair and try to write through it. When that happens to me, I have a few techniques I use to reignite those sparks. Maybe some of these will help you!

  1. Go for a walk or a run. I find that moving my body can spark new ideas, new insights or new pathways through a problem. I try not to actively think about the problem while I’m running; I let my subconscious work on it. But I don’t listen to music! That keeps my subconscious just busy enough to ignore the problem.
  2. Journal. Sometimes I just do a mind-dump, writing down (long hand) all the issues that are on my mind: shopping lists, tasks I have to complete, a new idea for a lesson I have to teach. Getting all the clutter down on paper clears my mind and leaves room for my story to stretch.
  3. Write from prompts. Sometimes I get stuck because I don’t know my characters, main and secondary, well enough. Lately I’ve been working from Alan Watt’s 90-Day Novel. The goal of the book is to walk you through the writing of a first draft of your novel in 90 days, but the first third of the process leads you through getting to know your characters and world. Watt gives you 277 prompts to help you do just that. Yup--277. His advice is to do stream of consciousness writing for five minutes in response to prompts like “Something I tend to avoid is…”; “The last time I betrayed someone was when I…”; “My most painful memory is…”; “I feel safest when…” and on and on. You can respond to these prompts as your hero or antagonist or any character you think may appear in your work. In these prompts, I have found innumerable sparks to help me know and understand my characters and to know and understand the world of my story. Some of them are contradictory. Some of them are rich with images. Some of them are just plain weird. But all of them offer potential for what my story might become.
  4. Take a shower. I often write first thing in the morning, skipping my shower to get at my computer. But if I get stuck, getting into the shower can get the ideas flowing again. Something about the plain white of the tiles and the rhythm of the water can help spark my creativity.
  5. Research. Although I am a fantasy writer, I do a lot of research. For the Watersmeet Trilogy, I researched edible plants and medicinal herbs. For my WIP, I’m reading a lot about life in the 1900s both in England and America to inspire my setting. Reading about entailment or barouche carriages or the advent of the locomotive can spark new images for my story.
  6. As part of my research, I often also look at pictures. I love those DK Eyewitness books for kids that are more pictures than text. I have Titanic and Trains in my desk right now. As a fantasy writer, I don’t need to be historically accurate, but I like to use photos to spark ideas for my world.
  7. Read. If my trouble comes from structure, I reread parts of The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. His distillation of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey gets at the archetypal elements of storytelling and I often use his descriptions to diagnose issues in my work and to send me in a new direction.
  8. Take an artist date. This is an idea from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I don’t remember exactly how Cameron spoke about the artist’s date--it’s been a long time since I’ve read The Artist’s Way--but the way I’ve come to interpret the artist date is doing something that feeds the artist in me that is NOT writing related--going to a museum, having lunch with a friend who’s an opera singer and talking music, going to a movie or symphony or exhibit. It can even be taking time out to appreciate the sunset. 
  9. Sleep. Sometimes when I’ve written and run and taken a shower and read and researched and still nothing is sparking, I let myself sleep on it. I have great belief in the role of the subconscious. I feed it all I can and then let it digest--and sometimes that digestion needs a full night. I only let myself “sleep on it” if I’ve worked for a least two hours--or else I might be sleeping all the time!


  1. These are great tips, Ellen! I just ordered The 90-Day Novel. I'm also a big fan of The Artist's Way.

  2. I often find myself having to do one of those brain-dumps...


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