By Jeff Wheeler
One of the fun parts of being a writer is the chance to let your imagination run wild as you dream up new places, new characters, and how to mess up their lives. But how do you know when to stop daydreaming and start writing?
By realizing there is a time and a season for chaos.
When I started working at Intel Corporation a long time ago, Andy Grove was the CEO. He wrote a book called Only the Paranoid Survive. Catchy title, right? He explained that in the business of making computer chips, you have to stop designing them in order to actually manufacture them. It’s the same thing for writing a book.
Grove used a principle and a clever turn of phrase to illustrate his idea and it’s stuck with me for years. There are times when you let chaos reign. And there are times when you rein in chaos. Notice the play on words? They sound similar, but a subtle change in spelling changes the meaning. An emperor reigns over an empire. One uses reins to control a horse.
At Intel, when it was time to create a new product (a microprocessor for example), Grove let engineers use their full creative faculties. What things would customers want? What capabilities could be created that customers didn’t even know about? Nothing was off-limits. He wrote in the book: “Resolution comes through experimentation. Only stepping out of the old ruts will bring new insights.” This is the point when creativity is permitted its full expression. Try out new ideas and new combinations, even silly ones.
For my new book, Knight’s Ransom, I re-watched movies I’d seen before like A Knight’s Tale (I really wanted to see some good jousting scenes) as well as older movies I’d never seen before, like Ivanhoe. I binged documentaries on knights, medieval sword fighting, armor making, and even a college seminar on the history of Arthurian legends taught by Professor Dorsey Armstrong (which I watched on Amazon). Music also inspires me. I love the soundtracks of favorite movies, but a specific song helped with the inspiration, You Are the Reason by Callum Scott (although I like the cover by Mat & Savannah Shaw better). That song helped inspire the mood and tension I wanted between the main characters Ransom Barton and Claire de Murrow. I also looked at images on-line to try and find ones that could represent my characters. I found several awesome ones which I saved to an image folder on my computer to look back on regularly for details which I could use in the stories.
While I go through this process of immersing my brain with tons of ideas, I look for nuggets that will inspire ideas for scenes, characters, or places. But then, after about a month or so of this free-wheeling, intensive creativity, it is time to apply the second half of Grove’s method. It’s time to rein in chaos.
A horse is controlled by the reins. Even though it’s a powerful animal, much stronger and faster than the rider, it yields to the direction given through the reins. A friend of mine who loves to compete in rodeo events and has been to nationals for roping, says that the reins don’t need to be pulled very hard if you’ve trained the horse well. When I was figuring out this process early on, I had to be more aggressive at reining in my creative impulses or the ideas would keep running away from me and it was hard to focus and concentrate. Now, it’s a lot easier to bring things back under control.
I set aside a certain amount of time to let chaos flow. And then also have a fixed time of when that part will stop and when it’s time to start writing and sticking to a schedule and my writing goal. For me, I write three chapters a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. No excuses. No exceptions. Even when I got Covid. I’ve found having a set time to write helps a lot, but many authors have their own way and what works for them.
I usually start the brainstorming process (let chaos reign) and determine what series I’ll write next when I’m finished writing the current series I’m working on. If I go into creativity mode too early, for example, it robs enthusiasm for my current project. By the time I’m on the last book of a series, I’m already getting a little weary of it, and so I don’t want to injure the ending by diverting my attention to something that feels more fun. Staying disciplined is crucial to hitting deadlines for authors and for computer companies. I haven’t, up to this point, ever missed a deadline with my publisher. That’s because I’ve learned to rein in chaos and focus on the journey ahead and wait until I’m finished before letting the horse run free.
I’ll describe an example of how this worked in my new book. One of my favorite characters to write in Knight’s Ransom was Claire de Murrow, who is based on a historical person, but I don’t reveal who until the end of the series. Although she’s a nobleman’s daughter raised during a civil war as a hostage to the king, she has a lot of spunk. I found a series of images for a stock photo gallery that captured her expressions, the dark hair with streaks of crimson in it. The pictures just oozed with personality. Because Claire is from a fantasy version of medieval Ireland (based in my Kingfountain world), I listened to narrators speak in an Irish brogue and researched sayings that the Irish are known for. They have tons of witty quotes. At Intel, I used to work with several employees from our site in Ireland, so I was already familiar with these traits. There’s a form of teasing that they like to do (called ‘slagging’) and I wanted to make sure this series had that as part of it. Claire is a big teaser. Doing this work in advance helped make it so much easier to write her part of the story.
While you cannot predict what ideas will come from letting chaos run free, you can predict that ideas will come. The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote: “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”
Jeff Wheeler is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Knight’s Ransom, Warrior’s Ransom, Lady’s Ransom, and Fate’s Ransom in the First Argentines series; the Harbinger and Kingfountain series; the Grave Kingdom series, and the Muirwood, Mirrowen, and Landmoor novels. He left his career at Intel in 2014 to write full-time. Jeff is a husband, father of five, and devout member of his church. He lives in the Rocky Mountains and is the founder of Deep Magic: The E-zine of Clean Fantasy and Science Fiction. Find out how to submit stories to Deep Magic at https://deepmagic.co, and visit Jeff’s many worlds at https://jeff-wheeler.com. The story of his writer’s journey is published in Your First Million Words.