I’m currently working on securing a publishing contract for an idea that I originally had in 2008.
Lengthy gestation periods for my ideas is not unusual (I like to leave my subconscious to work on them awhile). Plus, it’s not easy to prioritise working on something when you’re not being paid for your time. (The example I opened with is on - I don’t know - the fifth or sixth edit. I have filled four notebooks with sketches and ideas and have many, many pieces of art to show - in part because it covers a tricky subject. All the same, that’s a lot of unpaid time.)
I’ve learnt the importance of immediately capturing these fleeting thoughts / incomplete ideas before they disappear into thin air. My favourite tool is an old school notebook; but I’ve recently started to dictate into my phone, using the apps, Otter (which transcribes for you) or Evernote. Wherever, or however, I capture these thoughts, I then gather them all into one place.
So on my computer (or rather, floating somewhere above me in a virtual cloud), I have a folder of documents entitled, Story Seeds. Because for me, that is what these ideas are like.
are tiny (often just a word or two).
probably look insignificant.
are likely to be lost if not kept safe.
need time to germinate.
may sprout a root or two - even a stem.
may flourish, grow and reach their potential.
may die and never see the light of day.
: the beginning of something which continues to develop or grow
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Story seeds are full of potential, which makes them precious. When we find one, we must look after it. It's our responsibility to curate it and cultivate it. Only then do we get to see what they might become. Just imagine if CS Lewis had never held tight to that mental image of Mr. Tumnus, carrying parcels through the snowy woods - Narnia might never have existed!
A farmer went out to sow his seed. Some of it fell on the road; it was tramped down and the birds ate it. Other seed fell in the gravel; it sprouted, but withered because it didn’t have good roots. Other seed fell in the weeds; the weeds grew with it and strangled it. Other seed fell in rich earth and produced a bumper crop.
- Jesus (Luke 8:5-8 The Message)
Examples from my Story Seeds folder.
One off lines, like this:
Old Stella’s Cellar was a funny old place.
And potential titles, like this -
Has Anyone Seen My Mouse?
Or this one:
It leaked through here;
It leaked through there;
It leaked through almost everywhere.
And Frog did not mind one bit.
I also have a list of potential character names in my Story Seeds folder, including Big Belly Joe and Agatha Custard.
Sometimes the idea comes as an image, which I capture as a drawing.
the Norwegian author, Karl Ove Knausgaard (whose writing I find totally absorbing), descriBes their elusive nature:
… I read the text I’d written again, cut and pasted it into my jottings file. I’d been working on a novel for five years, and so whatever I wrote could not be lacklustre. And this was not radiant enough. Yet the solution lay in the existing text … there was something in it I was after. It felt as if everything I wanted was there, but in a form that was too compressed. The germ of an idea that had set the text in motion was particularly important …
My StrugglE:1 - A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (©Forlaget Oktober 2009 / Don Bartlett 2012)
The germ of an idea.
: the origin or basis of something
: a very small amount of something
: the embryo with the scutellum of a cereal grain…
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
But where do they come from, these seeds; these germs; these sparks?
It sounds a bit of a cop out, but honestly, sometimes they just pop into my head.
I’ve no idea where they come from (I have discovered this is the plus side of having an ADD brain).
Other ideas are triggered by something I’ve read, or seen.
I do know that having free mental space (time to let your mind wander) is an excellent way to discover them (except it’s more like, they make their way to us). Which is probably why I often have my creative thoughts when I’m out walking or taking a shower.
Storytelling (in words or pictures) is a very organic process, which is why the analogy of seed works so well for me. If you probed a bit deeper, I would tell you that they came from God.
Here’s one given to me while staying at an old mill cottage in Haye-on-Wye, March 2018. (Inspired by the view from the kitchen window, and the hooting owls.)
The Owl Tree sits on a wooded bank above a tumbling stream.
It is home to a pair of tawny owls.
The top of the tree is a scarred mess - not supple and elegant like its neighbours, but jagged and crude, thanks to the storm that sliced through the sleeping giant so many winters ago.
But it is home.
It is home to a whole myriad of creatures - neighbours of the owls.
- Tim Warnes (unpublished)
That is what I’d describe as a story seed. A germ - the origin or basis of something. I’m just not sure what - yet.
And from time to time, I will take them out and look at them afresh, to see if I can make any new connections.
You could use cooking as the analogy for these fragments of ideas.
Let the idea percolate; let it brew.
Let it simmer.
Let it cook.
But don’t half bake it. No one wants a half baked idea.
Put it on the back boiler, let it simmer some more…
You add another ingredient later - another fragment of an idea.
Taste and see.
Do they compliment each other?
Yes, but it still needs something else.
So you add something more - and so on…
With this in mind, I am thankful to have such a wealth of ingredients put aside in my store cupboard!
Once there’s a bit more substance to the story idea, it graduates from my Story Seeds folder into my Story Ideas folder! Even then, patience is required, which is a tricky balance - at what point does waiting become procrastinating?
(C.S. Lewis waited forty years to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!)
Here’s an example of a story seed that did come to fruition, in the form of a picture book
The story seed - the germ of the idea - came to me in 2008. Jane had Non-Hodgkins lymphoma and was at the hospital getting a scan. I was sat waiting in the hospital, and this image came to mind. I was without a notebook (unusual for me), so I doodled on what was at hand.
Over the next few months, I sketched some more, and the seed became a collection of drawings featuring an elephant being scared by mice.
This drawing (made a few years later, on the page of a catalogue) was the pivotal moment - where the mice become thieves. Again, the catalogue was there. A pencil was there. It just happened!
And that’s how my story, The Great Cheese Robbery (Little Tiger Press, 2015) was formed.
I have several ideas in my Story Ideas folder that are more than ready to be dusted down (the folder itself is jam-packed). Some have already received a favourable nod from my publishers, and several are in the midst of this strange growth process.
Now it’s up to me to prioritise the time to give them the attention they need.
To add a handful of bonemeal; that teaspoon of baking powder.
To create a satisfying something - with substance!
The Great Cheese Robbery
by Tim Warnes
(Little Tiger Press 2015)
“A great book to share.”
“a delightfully off-beat and slyly funny story.”