From My Mind To The Page

It should be no surprise that writers spend a lot of time in our heads. After all, that’s where ideas are born and stories take shape. And when we write something as long as a novel, well, that adds up to a lot of thinking, imagining, creating, brainstorming…. You get the idea. So how do we get those stories from our heads to the written page?

For me, coaxing the full story out of the characters is a long, complicated process. Sometimes they’re helpful—too helpful when competing voices bombard me with ideas. Other times, they wander off with my Muse to enjoy tropical drinks and beaches. At those times, I’m on my own.

Like other writers, I spend a lot of time in my head. And as a true introvert, I probably spend more time there than many others. So maybe it’s no surprise that one of my techniques to draw out those ideas takes place there. What do I do? I imagine that I’m speaking in front of a workshop group about the areas that are giving me trouble (or even “real life” problems). Yes, in my head I’m giving a presentation—something that is way beyond my comfort zone in real life. That happened two weeks ago with Summer at the Crossroads.

(Let’s skip over the fact that I should have been thinking about Death Out of Time. Sometimes we have to go with the characters who, unlike children, might storm off if we ignore them too long.)

My imaginary workshop took place during a morning workout and was an interactive one on rebuilding a novel. (Hey, timely, right?) And, as in real life, when participants can ask questions, sometimes we go down side streets that at first feel like detours. But unexpected insights often appear on those detours. And I found myself summing up a detour about Kat Donnelly’s new story line in one succinct sentence.


My workout was interrupted as key elements for the new story line flooded my mind. I had to run upstairs and write down those ideas before the torrent rushed away, leaving only the devastating half-memory of “the right” story. Ideas for a new character and Kat’s interactions with him/her. That character forcing Kat to keep going despite her exhaustion and the life-altering events of the day. Ideas for Kat’s flaws and struggles as her normal self-confidence faces first an unimaginable turn of events and then the potential fallout.

Now I have a clear image of the new story. And when the time comes, I’ll be prepared to write the new scenes. If I get stuck, I have a one-sentence reminder of what Kat is aiming for in this version. All because I held a writing workshop in my head.

And now I’m calling on Madeleine and her cohorts to help with another workshop for Death Out of Time. Because it’s time we nail down exactly what some characters are after and why our unassuming archaeologist (or is it her brother with the big government contracting firm?) is so interesting to them….

Does anyone else do anything like this to bring your ideas to life? Writers? Non-writers? Or are you slowing stepping away from this blog and heading for the nearest exit?

52 thoughts on “From My Mind To The Page

  1. What an interesting idea. I do have to do presentations in my job, and preparing for them always helps me distill things down to their essence, so I’m wondering if this might work when I’m stuck with writing. I shall need to ponder on that!

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    • When I’m stuck on a problem, I’ll try various techniques for breaking through to a solution. Despite the fact that I’m not comfortable speaking in front of groups, it seems to work in my head. And I don’t go easy on myself by having “participants” ask only simple questions. They tend to get to the core problems that I may not recognize consciously. Through these “workshops,” I’ve realized when I’ve written myself into a corner or have included some logical inconsistencies. Best to get rid of those before sending out a work for review!

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  2. Your presentation idea is cool. I think we all do what we have to do to get the ideas down. I’m also plagued with ideas during my workouts. Sometimes I’ll pop in my earbuds and go for a run or walk just to coax the story or characters along. Music is another one. I’ve created playlists that remind me of certain characters, a scene I’m working on, etc. But during writing time, silence is a must.

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    • There’s something about the flow of blood to the brain during a workout that triggers creativity. Carrie discusses that below, too. Or maybe the body is trying to get us to ease up on it by triggering those thoughts that will get us sitting down again. 😉 I’m not listening if that’s the case. Despite my love of music, I’ve never thought of playlists for my characters or a story. But like you, I need it quiet when I’m writing. Otherwise, I’m too distracted by the music. Other writers, of course, swear by it. Whatever works is good.

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  3. I love your thought process; it intrigues me, because it’s so different than my own. I usually let the story play out several ways in my head until I figure out which way I like best, then write it down. When it gets to my beta readers, they sometimes leave comments that make me see a new way to take the plot. I might play around with their ideas for a while until I find the perfect fit (in my mind, at least) for the story. My betas are my workshop, I guess. I’m too scatterbrained to do a workshop in my head–it would be very one-sided.

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    • I’ve been doing something like this for as long as I can remember. Maybe not as formal as a workshop, but even as a child I can remember running ideas and questions past imaginary versions of my friends or the subjects of homework assignments and such. I’ve long recognized that I don’t see the world in quite the same way that most people do. 😉 Betas are great real-life workshoppers, though, helping us see ideas or problem spots we’ve missed. I’m all for going with whatever works to get our ideas onto the page. And so I thought I’d offer one of my techniques as another possible tool for other writers’ toolboxes.

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  4. “Or are you slowing stepping away from this blog and heading for the nearest exit?”—Haha. Good one. 🙂 (But we’re still here!)

    I work out many things in my head like that but maybe not so specifically as conducting a workshop. But your post now makes it clear why I once dreamed about you giving a lecture on writing while making a salad. You were holding a cerebral workshop that I somehow got caught up in. 😉

    So many times ideas have come to me while I’m exercising. I’ve even drafted blog posts in my mind. I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I should be focused on my moves and muscles, but the brain wants what the brain wants. I think that’s why I’m more productive when I work on my treadmill. Even though it’s a slow speed, the movement increases blood flow to my brain, and I think better.

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    • I don’t know—this post hasn’t generated many comments. Maybe readers are stepping away. 😉

      You have some awfully entertaining dreams, although the thought of Miley Cyrus in the role of Meghan Bode borders on disturbing…. 🙂 And I’ve never made a salad in one of my workshops, although maybe I should give it a go. In real life, I guarantee you there’d be a mess on the floor by the time I was done if I tried to combine those two activities.

      Workouts are a great place for ideas, and I’m good about going back to the exercises once I’ve written down those ideas before I lose them. But I think my workshops help keep me from thinking too much about how much time is left on the stepper. And that’s an added benefit besides the story and character help. 😉

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      • Funny you should mention the Miley Cyrus dream, because I just got back from dropping my son off at his music lessons, and on the way back, her latest song came on the radio. I thought of you. And Meghan Bode. 😉

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        • Meghan just lost her appetite for dinner, I think. 😉 And to think anyone would have any reason to link my name with that of Miley Cyrus… The mind boggles!

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          • Haha, I just realized the search terms you might find in your dashboard after these comments. Sorry to forever link you and Miley. I don’t blame you if you’re never hungry again!

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  5. No, no, I’m just coming back! I’ve been finding this type of question time is happening in my head sometime around 4 in the morning … it’s about life, not a novel, but it shows how little control we have over our thought processes, especially that elusive muse – our creative selves. I’ll slowly catch up, JM and see you again soon … 🙂

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    • Great to see you here, Wanderlust—you’ve been missed! Nothing too exciting has been happening around here, so I don’t think you’ve missed too much. Especially since I needed a break from writing the Meghan Bode stories live on the blog. 😉 I hope you’re getting settled into your new home, and I’m glad to see you posting again!

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  6. I’ll join you on the crazy train, JM. I don’t conduct workshops per se, but I talk out loud to help myself through blocks or whatnot. I’ll even role play or ad lib dialogue to get my ideas flowing. Sometimes I’ll pretend that someone is interviewing me with a specific question regarding that one spot that’s giving me trouble. By talking it through I’m able to figure out my next step.

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    • Your interviews sound very similar to my workshops. 😉 And talking through the problem really can help. I’m hoping Madeleine will help with one soon because I need to figure out some major plot points and character motives before I can continue with the writing. There are some scenes in my head, but I need them to include elements that move the story forward—and that’s what I still lack. I’ve realized I can’t use as much of the original story as I’d thought, so the enormity of the task is hitting home. Some breakthroughs would help hold back that demon of self-doubt!

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  7. Now that sounds like a great way to go. I frequently use visualizations of various types, including presentations in my head, to prepare for real-world challenges. For me, this includes training and giving actual presentations. For writing, I play a movie in my head, visualizing action and “hearing” dialogue. When I’m really stuck, I walk away from the computer and do something else completely–go for a walk, do the dishes, anything to get my head out of the muddle it’s in. Usually when I return to the WIP, something has shaken loose.

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    • Exercise, watching “The Big Bang Theory,” reading a book…. Those definitely help clear the head when I’m pressing too hard for ideas. So does housework, although doing the dishes might be a last resort for me. 😉

      Your movie approach sounds like a great one, too. Not just for dialogue, but also for seeing how actions might play out and seeing if the written depiction makes sense. It’s reassuring to hear that you and a few other writers have “internal sessions” of some sort to bring ideas to the page. Now I just need Madeleine to cooperate and give me a hand on this….

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  8. I play Beach Volleyball for my workouts JM and if I my mind wandered off into my book, my opponents would thrash us and my partner wouldn’t be too amused!! I do get inspiration when I walk though, like Gwen. I loooove to walk, with my dog, and often look like a crazy women as I’m sure I mutter to myself whilst I’m sorting through problems with my manuscript!! It always seems to work though and I return fresh and full of ideas. Great post 🙂

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    • Yes, some exercise requires far too much attention to let the mind wander off with our stories! And sometimes that absolute break is really helpful, too. I saw that this summer when life took some unexpected turns on me. The unexpected rush of ideas for revisions was amazing.

      I will talk to myself when I’m home or in the car when I’m thinking about the WIPs. I do try to avoid it when I’m out in public, though! I don’t want the neighbors thinking they should keep their distance. 🙂

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  9. I definitely spend a lot of time in my head. I have many ideas bouncing around, being added to as I research or just sitting there stewing waiting for the right moment to make an appearance.

    Sometimes I just have to write about something to get it out of my head. Then I have room to concentrate on other ideas.

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    • It would be helpful if the characters and story ideas could politely take turns, wouldn’t it? But sometimes they just won’t behave. And then, like you, I’ll have to physically work on an idea so I don’t lose it.

      At times I wonder what it would feel like to be more outwardly focused like some other people are. And why aren’t we all focused the same way? I suspect there have been more than a few studies on that question, but I doubt I could understand them!

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  10. I’ve held circuses and parades in my head, but never writing workshops. 🙂 Usually sentences and paragraphs will pop in while I’m trying to sleep, and I’ll go over them a few times so that I’ll remember them later. Sometimes whole stories will develop that way. I’m usually reading while exercising but maybe I should try it your way so that the stories will have more of a chance of coming through. That’s great that you have some new ideas to work with. Watch out for those new characters – they change everything!

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    • Kat’s whole story is shifting drastically. It’ll be more action-oriented and less “in her head.” The basic idea is still the same as in the original, but this new character will indeed make a difference!

      Rarely do the story ideas hit me at night. I suppose I wouldn’t want them keeping me from getting enough sleep, but some help now and again would be nice. Once in a blue moon I might have a writing-related dream, but even those aren’t common. Although, last night I did have one where I was showing my husband all the “don’ts” in a book I was reading and wondering why that author could get away with them when I couldn’t! 🙂

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      • Hahah – I notice those don’ts all the time too and usually end up ranting about them to my husband! Then he’ll reply with something like, “So?” and that doesn’t exactly help things.

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  11. Oh, good it’s not just me.
    I seem to always end up giving presentations in front of large groups and prepare by doing them at home and actually walking around and answering questions from the “audience”. But story wise..I write a lot in my sleep which is very productive usually..although I’m tired, but excited to get things worked out by morning.
    My characters, though, tend to discuss things in “interviews with people who do exist in real life but don’t know of their secret interviews” while I stare into space or walk around as they direct…mine don’t like to sit still.
    (And I still can’t manage to actually write while on a treadmill like Carrie – get lots of rewriting done in my head, but would definitely crash and burn if tried to actually put down ideas)
    Excited the story is recharging and running down the road at top speed (nice they left you a key sentence as guide)
    (Oh, readership seems to be down right now…maybe the nice weather?)

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    • I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve done a few interviews in my head. 😉 And they’ve helped with problem areas, too. Sometimes I wish my characters would show up while I’m sleeping, but then I might suffer during the day from lack of sleep…. So maybe it’s best they focus on my waking hours, even if they sometimes distract me from “real work.”

      Isn’t it reassuring to know that other writers are holding conversations or gatherings in their heads? I wasn’t sure how readers would react to this post. And maybe non-writers are thinking maybe we’re not quite right in the head…. Honestly, we’re no threat to ourselves or others!

      I could never write and walk on a treadmill at the same time. That’s far more complex than chewing gum and walking. And since I hate wearing my glasses while working out, that really limits my writing and reading options all together. So my characters can have nearly free rein with the workouts, which helps keep me motivated, too.

      Views are definitely down. I haven’t begun to recover from the regular summer drop. Part of that is the fact that many bloggers seem to have disappeared. But I think I’ve lost other readers too. Oh, well. It’s about the quality of the interactions—not the numbers!

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  12. I can’t get lost in my mind when I exercise – I’m too busy cursing in my head at the video or counting or thinking “a few more minutes” 🙂 But when it’s quiet – shower, driving, falling asleep I can see and hear my characters. Much like Jagoda Perich-Anderson said, it’s like a movie in my head. At least it’s like that when things are going well – when it’s not, it’s a blank screen. A presentation sounds interesting. I do them in my real life so maybe that will work next time I’m stuck. I’ll have to give it a try!

    That was an exciting tidbit that came to you — it’s a great sentence! Intriguing 🙂

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    • I was hoping someone would comment on that sentence, so thank you! 🙂 Showers are another time when my characters enjoy chatting. Trying to hold onto those ideas long enough to finish and dry off can be challenging, can’t it?

      That blank screen has to be as difficult to face as the blank page. I’ve never been able to force my characters to talk with me like some people can, so I am at their mercy most of the time. Luckily, they don’t treat me too badly. 😉 And I do try to be good to them!

      There are so many ways to help nudge our creativity along or solve nagging issues and problems. I hope you’ll find the workshop idea a good one for you. 🙂

      One reason I can hold mine during my workouts? I don’t do videos or “counting” exercises every day. So when I’m on the stepper or doing simple dances, my mind can wander. 😉

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  13. Hey JM. Thanks for sharing what worked for you. My WIP is about two married women with lots of marital problems. I had very strong, well-rounded characters put together, but I had no idea what types of obstacles to put in their way. With each chapter I’d stare at the blinking cursor and the white screen. I’d rack my brain for scenes to put them in, sometimes for hours. But, their character development was so strong, once I typed out a paragraph, the characters personalities took over and the scene would flow. BTW, the story turns to where each woman in the troubled marriages meets a man that treats them better. The moral question comes up, should they find solace in the other man’s arms? One woman does, one woman doesn’t, and the consequences of each are shown. The novel is written. I’m on my first full edit and then off to beta readers. Didn’t mean to go on, but I’m engrossed in it for several hours a day, and your blog topic got me going. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about writing.

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    • Hey, Lori, don’t ever worry about comment length or going on too much about writing—this blog is meant to be a place where we can share our thoughts, ideas, highs, and lows about the craft. And occasionally “real life,” too. 🙂

      It’s fascinating to me to see how different writers interact with their characters and approach their stories. Some writers insist they’re in total control of their creations. Others view the characters and stories as their children. And some, like me, are convinced the characters exist “out there” and have a way into our heads. Given how different characters treat me differently, I’m never sure what to expect when I sit down at the computer. Sometimes those “blank” moments extend into hours, days, or even months. But so far, the characters always come back and we move forward. My fingers are crossed that I’m on the right track(s) with the WIPs this time.

      Great to hear your story is going well! Those beta reads are nerve-wracking and difficult. But they really help us make our stories the best they can be. And that’s what we should be after!

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  14. Great technique you’ve got there, JM. I like how you let your subconscious ask the questions that need to get answered.

    I use a similar technique with stories giving me trouble: I let the characters talk for themselves, in their own voices. I’m sure I must sound funny doing a Cornish accent or Iowan drawl while standing in front of the kitchen sink! 😀 Those conversations sometimes don’t go anywhere substantial, but sometimes they start down an important path I hadn’t considered before.

    I think being open to those voices is important. When we set down a route for the story to follow, sometimes we hold ourselves too much to that roadmap. And, as we all know, life is full of detours and sudden stops…even an unexpected turn or car chase.

    Good luck with both Kat and Madeleine!

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    • If only I could hold these workshops or Q&A sessions on demand. 😉 Unfortunately, my mind and characters aren’t always that cooperative! But when I can do it, I almost always come away with good insights and ideas for those problem areas.

      I love the idea of letting the characters speak through you! Mine have never expressed an interest in that exercise, but you may have them thinking now…. Anything that helps get the stories straight is good, right? And as long as we’re not talking to ourselves out loud in public, most people never need to know our little tricks and quirks. 😉

      Even as I try to spend more time planning these rebuilds before diving into the writing, I hope I’ll stay open to those possible twists and turns in the road. Those scenes tend to be the most fun to write and give us that rush of being “in the zone.” Hopefully I’ll be there again before too long!

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  15. Yep! I also find myself rehearsing what I’m going to say in 5 seconds to promote the story I’m working on. I’m looking for that crux statement that defines my story for me, not so much for an agent. Looks like you found your crux statement.

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    • I don’t know if this will end up as part of an “elevator pitch” when all is said and done. But even if it doesn’t, it will have served me well for keeping the story on track. And that’s a more important consideration, I think. We need to finish those stories before we can send them out the the world!

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  16. My exercise these days is walking the dog, but I tend not to think about writing – it keeps me in the moment, so its a source of new energy and tranquillity that charges up my creativity. I still find my best percolating time for stories is on the bus when the movement and enforced quiet time get the ideas flowing – two new short story ideas developed on the bus this week!

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    • New story ideas would make any trip on public transportation much more enjoyable! Sometimes I’ll have breakthroughs on existing stories while my husband is driving, but my Muse and characters do seem to prefer my workouts and showers. I am learning to better appreciate those times when I do concentrate on the moment rather than writing. The break from the stories does help me approach them with a fresher and more objective eye when I go back to them.

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  17. Nope…definately didn’t run for the exit! 🙂 I find discussions like this quite fascinating. I read every single word of every single comment, too!
    I can see how conducting a mental workshop or press conference could help organize thoughts in any area of life. Very interesting process!

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    • There are times when I seriously doubt that my mind works like most others…. 🙂 But I’ve held imaginary get togethers of all kinds for as long as I can remember. And as long as I remember they’re not real, I should be okay! And they do help, so I suspect I’ll be holding them until the end. 🙂

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    • I’m really glad to hear I’m not alone in this. I wasn’t sure if other writers did similar things or not. 😉 Anything (legal and not hurtful, of course) that helps fill up that blank paper or screen with good writing is worth trying!

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  18. JM, sometimes I will wake up writing a thought. If I get distracted, say brushing my teeth, and don’t write it down by the time I’ve poured my first cup of coffee the best parts of it are fractured or gone. I try to write it the moment it comes fresh to my mind.

    I think my mind is somewhat unique, strange in my case perhaps. Every day I decide my blog is of no worth and think I should abandon it, then I find myself sitting at the keyboard again. Writers, go figure.

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    • I hate it when I lose those ideas through distraction or lack of a way to record them. Some people say that if the idea is really good, we won’t forget it. But I’m not so sure of that. I think I’ve lost some good ones….

      I’ve had some very similar thoughts about my blog, but like you, something keeps me going. In your case, I’m very glad of it because I love your posts and stories. You should not quit!

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      • JM, I think I’ve lost some excellent thoughts as well. Trying to either write them down or type the gist of the idea in the computer for later.

        I’ll keep going because I love it and nice people like you keep stopping by to say hello.

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  19. I keep my cell with me on the treadmill so I can record thoughts about edits and changes or new ideas. When I lived in the city, I’d be walking my dog and suddenly get insight into a major change in the story. I’d leave myself a voicemail so I could remind myself of exactly what needed doing. 🙂

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    • I really should have my cell phone with me during exercises, too. It has a really good voice recorder app! But I’ve just never thought to bring it downstairs. It would be a quick way to records my “workshop” breakthroughs without disrupting the workout routine too much. Writing down notes is really old school of me. 😉

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