The Importance of Inspiration

From the 2014 archives at ShadowSpinners, here are some of my thoughts on inspiration:


Thomas Edison famously said “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” While the spirit of this quote is most certainly true — it takes a lot of hard work to excel in any endeavor worthwhile — this saying has been used far too often in a manner that downplays the vital importance of inspiration.

Depending on how well Edison did his calculations, he may have exaggerated his point by quite a bit. After all, Nikola Tesla, Edison’s chief rival, not so famously said, “a little theory and calculations would have saved him [Edison] ninety percent of his labor.” You do the math.

In a practical sense, inspiration is not a magical feeling that randomly overwhelms you, or a fairy who whispers in your ear. These things are more usefully cast as motivation, which can be disciplined, and skill, which can be learned. Inspiration, on the other hand, is a thought that gives rise to form. It is the very reason a work comes into being the way it does.

As a writer, it’s important to figure out what your story is really about. What idea, or feeling, or effect do you want to convey to the reader? If you haven’t figured out what you’re trying to do with a story, your chances of succeeding are pretty random. Hence the need to understand your inspiration.

Whether you’re a person who likes to write first and figure out the story while rewriting, or the type who likes to figure out a few things before starting, a conscious examination of what inspired you to conceive of such a story will go a long way toward shaping what you’re trying to write. Inspiration gives focus and vision to the creative process.

A story might be inspired by any number of thoughts, ideas, images, or characters, but the more clearly you understand your inspiration, the greater your chance to realize its full potential. Edgar Allan Poe thought a short tale ought to be inspired by a singular desired effect, preconceived by the author, and that every sentence should work toward building that idea.

Inspiration can be found anywhere, if you look for it. I found the inspiration for this piece in an interview with Horacio Pagani, a designer of hand crafted super high performance cars. His parents were bakers in Argentina, and while he certainly worked hard to create his dream, what struck me most was the specificity with which he described his inspirations, and his passion for turning them into amazing cars.

Many great artists can clearly articulate their inspirations, and this is probably not a coincidence. So yes, there will be perspiration, and I dare say there will be blood, tears, and sacrifices along the way too, but don’t underestimate the importance of inspiration, especially if you aim to create something extraordinary.

*First Published on ShadowSpinners, February 2014.

A Picture is Worth (x) Words

Everyone’s heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but does it hold up when you’re actually counting the words?

Among writers, the subject of outlining seems to be a fundamental ongoing process question: to outline or not to outline, and also when, and in how much detail, in what form, and how closely to follow it. For the record, I’m a firm believer in outlining, and tend to make progressively more detailed outlines as a project unfolds. I also tend to sketch various ideas for the scenes I’m working on, and collect photographic references.

Visual references may not be talked about as much as outlining, but I think it’s a great tool, and at the recent Wordcrafters writers conference in Eugene, I noted both Terry Brooks and Elizabeth George talking about the use of visual references in their work. Mine tend to take the form of little maps or sketches of characters, visual details, or dramatic moments. I also look for ideas and take photographs at various locations, and use image searches on the internet.

Today I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few sketches from recent chapter outlines and do the math to figure out how many words a picture is really worth. In most cases there were multiple little sketches per chapter, so I took the number of words in the completed chapter and divided by the number of sketches. Here are a few pictures with their associated word counts.

2014-04-09 09.52.41

481.8 words

2014-04-09 09.54.39

298.4 words

2014-04-09 09.56.57

509 words

2014-04-09 09.57.45

410 words

2014-04-09 09.57.58

679 words

When I averaged everything up it turned out a picture is actually worth about 445.33 words. It was a lot less than a thousand, suggesting that pictures, while incredibly useful, may be slightly overrated. However, this was a very limited study of only a few sketches made by a single writer for a small sample of chapters. More research is needed.

Surely this doodle is worth a thousands words, but I haven’t written the chapter yet.

2014-04-09 09.59.25

*First published on ShadowSpinners, April 2014.

A Strange Habit

writer's deskThere’s a story that Robert E. Howard used to envision the ghost of King Conan behind him, ready to lop off his head with an axe if he didn’t keep writing. Never mind that this is probably an apocryphal story. It’s still a great image, and whatever Howard was doing to get his stories written, it worked!

Work habits are a subject of endless conversation when it comes to the creative process of writers. Numerous books and excellent teachers suggest various methods of accomplishing the noble goal of putting words on a page, and offer plenty of encouragement along the way. The most consistent truth, however, is simply that writing is hard work and the methods for getting that work done vary from writer to writer.

I have a lot of tricks to keep me writing: new locations, graph paper, computer setup, a cup of tea, timed sessions, word counts, and so on. We develop habits, of course, particular to our individual sensibilities. Sometimes these habits become rituals, even obsessions. There’s plenty of room for eccentricities.

Hemingway wrote standing up. Nabokov wrote everything on notecards. Ibsen wrote in the presence of a giant oil painting of his greatest rival. Hugo wrote naked, and had his valet hide his clothes to ensure he wouldn’t go out. The ancient Greek writer Demosthenes accomplished the same thing by shaving one side of his head before beginning to write. The list goes on, from Balzac’s coffee and lucky monk’s robe, to Dickens’ ritualized desk arrangements, from Dumas’ fresh apples to Schiller’s rotten apples.

As it turns out, there’s even some neuroscience to explain why these weird rituals work. Like a Pavlov’s bell, rituals associated with writing may cue creativity and productivity. (See “Why Weird Writing Rituals Work” by Rosanne Bane)

Most of the habits of writers we will never know, because they are done in solitude. But the purpose of some seemingly strange behaviors is almost always the same, and that is to help one engage in the most important habit of all: actually writing.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, June 2013.

Plain Text for Writers, Part I: An Argument for the Use of Plain Text

Writers have a vested interest in the tools they work with and the preservation of their work. Today, almost all writers use a computer at some stage of their work, but in the age of ubiquitous word processors, few have considered the benefits of plain text. When you use a word processor or save a file in .docx, .doc, or even .rtf format, your file is unreadable without the software to decode it. It might look something like this if opened in a text editor:


or this:


Good luck reading your brilliant work. In contrast, a .txt file (plain text) can be opened in a readable format by any text editor or word processor on any platform. It can even be accessed from a command line.

Without getting too political (software companies control the decoding of your information), or philosophical (WYSIWYG is not what you think), or ideological (plain text is free text), the following will argue for the use of plain text for writers on the basis of its simplicity and content oriented focus, cross-platform compatibility, and benefits for long term archiving.

Writing is the logical and artful arrangement of words to express thoughts. It is not choosing fonts, indentations, headers, footers, gutters, and margins. Formatting is best done when preparing a document for a specific purpose or publication. Writing in plain text offers a simple environment focused on the task at hand. Your manuscripts will stay clean and free of unnecessary code. Plain text can be easily pasted into other applications, and can always be formatted later using a word processor.

Everybody knows there are compatibility issues with word processors. Even software that claims to be compatible with .doc or .rtf, for example, sometimes have issues. Writers need to know that they can access their files from any computer or device, use the text in other applications, and share them without worrying about compatibility issues. No other file format is as cross compatible as plain text.

Now more than ever, master documents are likely to be stored in electronic format. Not only are plain text files more compatible than any other file format, they take up less disk space and avoid a lot of the data storage problems encountered with other file formats. Say you need to access a short story you wrote on a computer in 1985? If you saved it in plain text, it’s no problem. Want your files to be readable in the year 2185? Again, save them in plain text.

Alas, there are some obstacles to using plain text as a writer. The first is finding a good text editor. Most word processors can save documents in plain text, so you could really use anything, but a text editor is designed to work with plain text. Most text editor are made with programmers in mind though, and many lack features that are important to writers, like spell check and word count. There are some good free ones though, and some even better commercial ones. I recommend NoteTab Pro for a feature rich environment and Q10 for simplicity.

Acceptability is also an issue. Standard manuscript formats are based on typewritten manuscripts and can only be formatted using a word processor. Unless plain text formats are adopted, editors are still going to want manuscripts as an .rtf in standard manuscript format. This means it’s necessary to format the text file before sending it out. An extra step, but it’s easy to do, and worth it for the benefits of working with plain text.

Plain Text for Writers, Part II: A Proposal for a Plain Text Manuscript Format

Plain Text for Writers, Part III: A Quick Guide to Working with Plain Text

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