Hand Me That Chisel

By Brett Battles

I find myself at a similar place as I was last August or so…thinking up ideas for the next book. Unlike last time, I don’t plan on going batshit crazy and write proposals for three different, potential novels. No, this time I’ll stick to one. Or, rather, two. One for a standalone, and one for the fifth in my Jonathan Quinn series.

“But, Brett,” you may say. “You have the two standalone ideas that weren’t chosen last fall. Why not use one of those?”

Believe me, I’m tempted. One, in particular, I really like, and, who knows, I might resubmit it anyway. But the truth is, I feel another story calling me. The interesting things is that I have no idea what the story is about.

I’ve heard the analogy that writing a novel (or, maybe, an outline for a novel) is like being a sculpture standing in front of a slab of marble. You know there’s a beautiful statue inside, you just have no idea what it looks like. That’s kind of the stage I’m at right now. I’ve got this slab of marble, I just don’t know what’s inside yet.

Now to get to that interior, to that story, there are a lot of different tools I can use. I can chip away, a little at a time by taking long walks and strenuous hikes. I can let my mind wander while I’m doing nothing. I can inundate myself with other forms or creativity – books, movies, TV, magazines, music – and see if I get inspired.

These are all things I’ve done in the past, and, actually, things I’ve mostly done in the past two weeks. But there are other tools, too, specialized tools that might work for me, but not for someone else.

The past couple of days I’ve been using one of those specialized tools more heavily than I’ve done in a long time, or perhaps ever.

I’m a visual person. I was big into theater in high school, so much so I even directed the musical version of THE HOBBIT when I was a senior…bet you didn’t know there WAS a musical version of THE HOBBIT. Here’s some photographic evidence:



(That’s me kneeling in both pics…apparently that was my chosen directorial style.)


When I went off to college, my interests had moved to motion pictures, and I majored in film and television history. (Got to watch a LOT of movies during class. My all time favorite course was one our own Steven Schwartz and I – I think – took together…The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, or something like that. Awesome!)

Quite by chance, when I entered the working world I happened to stumble into the arena of graphic design for television, or what we called motion graphics. No, I wasn’t a designer, but I worked with designers everyday for what turned out to be almost twenty years. And when you work with graphic designers, you will find that visual stimulation is a daily event.

So it’s not surprising that the visual can be very stimulating to me.

Back in grade school (or was it junior high?), I got an assignment in an English class to create an essay/story by using only pictures found in magazines. If I remember correctly, we could add short headlines, but that was it. The pictures had to make the story. It was a great project, and, if you ask me, very forward thinking on my teacher’s part.

To this day, I still remember that project, and, in a way, am still utilizing the lesson learned.

Almost everyday I come across images on the Internet that stimulates me for some reason. Could be I just like the setting, or the face. Could be I like the atmosphere. I save these images to a folder on my desktop that I call Inspirational Pics. In the past I’ve looked through them on occasion. But this week, as I set out to cobble away at that chuck of rock that someone unceremoniously put down in front of me, I decided to try something new.

I created a new folder, then opened one with my Inspirational Pics. Slowly, I went through them, one-by-one. If one made me stop or otherwise called out to me, I put a copy of it in the new folder. By the time I was done, I had about two dozen images (out of the, literally, hundreds I’ve collected.) I then put these selected images in an order that made sense, and started to play them as a slideshow.

And you know what? There’s something there. I can feel it. I don’t know what it is completely yet, but I have discovered a main character, and I’m starting to see events – though hazy still – that take place in the story. I even wrote a couple pages that might be the beginning of the novel. The pictures really speak to me. I can feel them pulled me in. I can see them knocking off the unnecessary parts of the rock as I hunt for the story I know is there.

I know I’ve found my tool of choice on this particular project, and for the next week I will undoubtedly watch that slide show over and over, letting it reveal more of the story to me.

Yes, I know. I’m weird. But I like it that way. (I’d share the pictures, but don’t want to tip my hand.)

So, what tools do you use to get rid of the unnecessary bits that are hiding your story from you?

17 thoughts on “Hand Me That Chisel

  1. Catherine Shipton

    I’m not a writer. Yet last year when I went searching through rental properties with my adult children I kept coming across things that still feel a tad seared in my imagination. There was the art deco apartment that got darker the further you went into the building. By the time I found the bathroom which had a surgeon’s glove hanging over a dripping shower head, it seemed pretty apt. Creepy, and dark and nothing good, but apt.

    There was another apartment that appeared very clinically modern, until you worked out that the odour from the refuse room next door was permeating the bedroom. That apartment had an overhang of balconies that was just rife with possibilities, as was the alley at the back of the courtyard linking it to the railway station.

    So if I was a writer I think I could tease out some possibilities by just looking at rental properties for an afternoon or two.

    Brett I do like your the idea of creating shifting snapshots to help outline a story.

  2. JD Rhoades

    I have a similar file, but it’s all pics of interesting buildings or landscapes. I also have a "clip file" on Google Documents of links and sometimes cut and pasted quotes from crime-related or bizarre news stories. That last one’s kind of a mess, though.

  3. Sylvia

    I love the similarities of the sculptor and the writer. I guess in both cases you can always chop a nose or a limb… just the writer has the luxury of putting it back.

  4. Ev

    Dear Brett,

    Yep, you _are_ weird, lol. I love it. How you use pictures for inspiration is amazing! (And now I want to try it.)

    "So, what tools do you use to get rid of the unnecessary bits that are hiding your story from you?"

    My usual bag of tricks is a lot like yours–long walks, reading, doing odd exercises, etc–but if I feel stuck in any way, believe it or not, I try to sleep in past the point of really being asleep. A lot of weird (needed) details come to me this, as well as snippets for various scenes, lines of dialogue . . . It sounds so lazy, or worse, passive, but it works for me.

  5. alli

    Great post and good luck with the inspiration! My novels have an historical element to the story (not a traditional historical) and so I use non-fic books to research particular eras and countries (I like to set them in exotic locales). I find little tid-bits, make notes and eventually come up with my own story. And showers are always good when I’m stuck on plot or character development once the writing gets going.

  6. Louise Ure

    Brett, I love this idea. I’ve used musical collages as story starters/outlines, but never still photos. I think I’m going to try it, whether they wind up being character/setting/plot ideas or almost chapter headings.

  7. Virginia

    So, I’m not a writer either. I’ve tried. I have a book in me. A tale of caution; however, I’m so intertwined with it I can’t seem to get past the first chapter. I am; though, very moved by different things. Song lyrics, poems, cartoons, shirt slogans, etc. I keep a book. I clip out pictures, write ideas, lyrics, poems, etc. When I need inspiration for a project I go to that book. It came in very handy a couple of years ago when my son got married and his bride-to-be and I designed and made all the invitation. It’s much like the book used in that movie with Mandy Moore, but I start my book long before the movie came out.

    Love the pictures. Was that Mark Stephens. Sure looks like him?

    Good luck with your marble slab. I’ll be waiting for your masterpiece.

  8. Brett Battes

    Catherine…love the rental exploring idea!

    JD…yeah, buildings and landscapes are plentiful in my folder, too.

    Trust me, Julie. It would have been worth the price of admission!

  9. Brett Battes

    Sylvia…good point!

    Ooooh, Ev…I LOVE that extra sleep time. I have the wildest dreams then.

    Yep, Tammy. That’s you!! You need to get on Facebook and look at the other photos Randi uploaded. There’s one with just you and me and we look like were 13 years old.

  10. Brett Battes

    Alli…I believe showers are also a favorite of our own Rob Browne.

    Louise…hope it helps!

    Virginia…love the book idea! What a great reference. No Mark Stephens in those photos that I know of.

  11. Eika

    For me, it’s talking out loud. Usually while pacing in circles. When I’m at home, it’s no big deal- the house is big enough that I can do it almost any time- but at college, with a roommate, I have to struggle to find time alone.

    I’ve played with dialogue, I’ve talked myself through plot points, and I’ve come up with motivation this way. Sometimes, with really trusted friends, I’ll talk to them; some people are good at coming up with just the right question to make things come clear.

  12. Mike Dennis

    Thoughtful post, Brett. I remember years ago, a good friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident. He had a very ususual life, and I was inspired to write a novel featuring a similar type of character. I was stuck right there for the longest time till one night (I was a professional musician at the time) I did the song DESPERADO, and these lines hit me over the head:

    Freedom, oh freedom, that’s just some people talkin’
    Your prison is walkin’ through this world all alone.

    Bingo! I was off to the races, and I wrote the novel. But I needed that one little chisel to crack the marble slab in front of me.

  13. Jake Nantz

    That is so cool, ’cause I have my kids do much the same thing. We have access, through the school, to a website-based program called Animoto. You plug in your pictures or web-based pictures (and text boxes, if you like) and pick a piece of music to go with it, and it creates a slideshow with picture effects that it adds randomly. The students love using it, and it’s a great way (in any class, but especially a creative writing class) to let kids show their understanding and creativity if they aren’t as good with the written word. It just stuns me that you might do something so similar in your own creative process. Very cool. And I agree, you can totally tell a story that way. Some of my students this semester did really, really well with it.


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