31 Days: Incubation and how to find your novel’s Eureka moment

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

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We’ve all heard of the famous Eureka moment when Archimedes was said to have stepped into a bath and realised how to calculate the volume of irregular objects (since the volume of water displaced was the same as their volume.) Apparently he jumped out of the bath and ran down the streets of Syracuse naked.

You might not want to do just that but writers, especially of longer works are often faced with knotty problems that sometimes are not easily solved. Writer’s sometimes describe themselves as plotters or pantser (making it up as they go along) but in any creative endeavour there are often elements that need to slot into place before the whole makes a leap forward and becomes something cohesive and multi-layered.

We’ve talked already, and you’ve given your own examples about how walking and running can aid in the process of untangling plot points and forming new ideas. We’ve heard how novelist John Boyne found a whole plot within an hours walk.

When we are busy and addled, how can we find the space in our heads to let innovative connections form, and pieces of the puzzle fit? The tunnel vision of stress counteracts the creative process, also focus and absorption can help it. Repetitive and somewhat mindless activities such as brushing the floor or cleaning windows might free the mind (a good reason to do housework!).


The unconscious process which engenders our best ideas is called psychologists term incubation. I’ve blogged at length about incubation in a previous post, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. I said…

Psychological research has identified incubation as one of the key elements in creativity. Incubation is defined as ‘a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time’ [2]. Seabrook Rachel, Dienes Zoltan (2003). Incubation in Problem Solving as a context Effect (Wiki)

Incubation is the period between your conscious and practical outlining of your piece and the point where you come up with the hook or the usual slant on your proposed story. It’s the time when all your ideas mingle and coalesce and form unusual associations.

Please go on to read the full Incubation post here

Our slightly geeky and aspergian family tremendously enjoys the comedy show The Big Bang Theory. In this clip, Sheldon, the ‘genius’ physicist takes on what he considers a ‘mind numbing, pedestrian job,’ in order to give space to his musings on a physics problem. Worth a look!


Which activities have helped you incubate and find your Eureka moments? Let us know in the comments.

Flash fiction Creative Comp

Don’t forget the 31/131 word creative challenge. Winners will be chosen Sunday 5th. Please comment on your favourite entries. Thank you!

Finding your keys: Creativity

I’ve written before about the process of incubation, about the subsconscious stewing and brewing. Writers recognise the feeling of tapping into the subconscious, the repository of half-formed ideas, distributed and layered memory.  As we move through life we lay down the experience of millions of hours, thousands of millions of minutes of conscious experience, peripheral experience and also dreams. I’ve had a couple of incidents recently of remembering exerpts from long ago, dreams that seem to have no relevance to current events, they just popped out as if an synapse had fired in a particular region of the brain and fed out the memory.  It made me realise the quantity of impressions that must be held by the brain, even when we don’t know they are there.  I think that is why the process of artistic expresssion can, when you get into the flow, sometimes have a magical or spiritual feeling. We are tapping into something that is elusive, unseen.

When we create a piece of art or writing we engage in a dialogue between concepts and ideas consciously thought of, real world events, triggers in everyday life and between the largely unconscious thoughts, emotions and memories that swim under the surface. I think, and you can argue with me on this, that the conscious ideas create the structure of the piece and the unconscious the long lasting resonance and beauty that makes the piece connect with others.

So we can gain inspiration from news items, anecdotes, unusual (and usual) people we meet, film, travel, science. It sets us thinking, makes us delight in novel juxtapostions that form exciting ideas.

But what triggers us emotionally, what untaps the inner resonance that makes our work more meaningful? Other writers have said that it was a particular book that moved them or changed the way they saw writing. In a wonderful article on her blog Nova Ren Suma says ‘ Sometimes I’m reading a book and a paragraph just slays me‘. She shows us a paragraph that had than effect on her and continues ‘After reading that paragraph, my spine tingled. Memories surfaced. Something came to me. Something I wanted to write.’ Sometimes it is a place, a lost love, a particular sound that is connected with the past, a powerful internal memory-event that is deeply etched and has many strong associations.

Music has to be one of the mainlines to memory and emotion.  On its most fundemental level it is a physcial thing that has a wave frequency that can interact with and affect the cells of the body. (Don’t get me started on the fundemental particles of life, we could be here a while…) The brain is a complex thing, memory is elusive, even to scientists; the interaction between the external and internal world, the magical study of neuroscience and particle physics. But we know the keys exist to unlock the fundementals of humanity that swim in our subconscious.

We know the feeling when it happens, the just rightness of expression, the story that writes itself, the book that comes out of nowhere, the perfectly formed line that we wake up to at four in the morning. One of my enduring memories of college was a story my Cognition professor told us about his Buddhist experience of climbing a mountain with his son who lost his Mars bar. Instead of fixedly looking for the bar, they kept a generally open mind on the descent, kept a casual eye out, so to speak, and finally it appeared. If we want to find our keys we may tear the place apart and never find them. We may keep going back to the same place and never do any good. So with inspiration, we can make ourselves ready for it, put ourselves in the landscape of music and rememberance and reach for the sweetness when it comes.

Do you write everyday and should you?

Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing‘ is a fabulous no-nonsense practical approach to being a writer and one that anyone serious about writing should own (in my humble opinion). From a previous reading I recalled that King said that he wrote everyday including Christmas Day and his birthday. On re-reading I see that he says that he told interviewers that because, when you are being interviewed you have to say something…However the nuanced truth is more interesting. When he’s really into a project, he DOES write everyday (including Christmas and his birthday). On the other hand, he says when he is not writing, he completely comes away from it and does plenty other things instead.

When we want to call ourselves writers, when we come to a point when writing is almost as vital to us as breathing, we can begin to eat, drink and sleep writing. We ponder plots and subplots, fret about wordcount, viewpoint, characterization. Sometimes we go to our writing day after day like inmates of an institution who don’t realise that they are free at any time to leave. During National Novel Writing Month in November, thousands of writers pledge to write 50,000 words. Why? friends sometimes ask Is there a prize? Is it a competition? No, we just do it, for ourselves. But producing the necessary 1667 words a day is a baptism of fire and there are days when you want to beat your head against the table and shout ‘No, no, no!’ You feel literally burned out. And the reason is that you are sapping every inch of your available subconscious and leaving no subconscious soup to bubble and brew and produce new rich and substantial ideas.

I’ve written before about the absolutely vital part of creativity called incubation (the psychological process whereby disjointed ideas stew and associate in new and startling ways). It famously worked in the bath for Archimedes and – as I’ve discovered this morning – for the inventor of the ATM (who unfortunately forgot to patent the idea.) At the moment I am itching to write a short story, I just love the form so much. I have plenty of ideas jotted down, some character development done, some paragraphs written but nothing, at the moment is jumping out at me. As indeed Stephen King puts it ‘good short story ideas come quite literally from no-where, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun’.  So my short stories ideas are reasonable but there is no spark to set them alight, align them in a unique and exciting way. All it will take is a moment, a chance remark, something seen on television (Gah!) or by listening to a song or reading something in the newspaper to make the difference. But that cannot always be planned and sometimes you have to work through the piece in the absense of inspiration hoping that the next time you come to it you will see it with a fresh eye.

Being committed we will write as much as we can, even when life is busy and emotionally demanding, even when we are sucked from all sides. ‘Sometimes, as King says ‘you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you are doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position‘. We need to be committed and ready to feel the fear that our work is going no-where and go there anyway. However we also need to be aware of finding a balance between word production, following through and giving ourselves the mental space to find new inspiration and drive.

Do you write everyday? Through difficult times or holidays? Or do you give yourself a day off every week? Or a break at the end of a project? What works for you? Would love to hear your comments.