Incubation is, in my writing definition, like pregnancy:  the amount of time a story and/or world gestates within you before you really start work on it.  Some scrap of emotion, character, movement, imagery, or a glimpse of a scene or angry conversational exchange:  any of these, or one of a hundred other things, might snap the spark that can then be set to incubating, out of which comes a story or novel (or other creative work, but I’ll stick with writing here).

However, the length of time from the spark of inspiration–the idea–to the point where one seriously begins writing will differ radically for different writers, as it should.

Because I fall on the heavy world-building end of the spectrum, I tend to incubate long rather than short.  I say that not to suggest there is a good or bad or better or worse length of time for a story to incubate, but only because it’s true that I sit on ideas for a long time before I truly plunge in.

During that period of incubation, I may

1) read, view, or listen to a variety of research materials

2) start a notebook of interesting tidbits sorted from my research which I think I can s/t/e/a/l/ — borrow — effectively

3) begin to sketch out in files, aspects of the world and culture(s)

4) start making odd notes as scenes and interactions start fomenting trouble in my mind’s eye

5) feel the architectural conceptualization of the narrative framework take shape (although this can change)

This part of the process can go on for several years, although it can be difficult to keep track quite how long it goes on for any given book as the original genesis can be difficult to pinpoint.  I might have written a sketch of a scene and some years later discover it dovetails perfectly with a different cosmology that’s burgeoning in another part of my brain.  I might find that a nifty concept from an abandoned novel can easily be moved into a new project with some alterations.

Eventually I know I am moving out of the purely incubation phase when I start trying to write opening sections.  These days I tend to write multiple false starts before I get one that works well enough for me to feel I can move forward into transition.

In transition, even while I am still reading, viewing, and listening for research, I find I have enough of a world-building foundation that my feet are touching earth when I write.  At that point, I can truly start to write.  Now, in a way, the work has been born–not in the first or final draft sense, but in the sense that I have enough heft and weight to work with.  Of course, I will add to the world as I go, and I will learn about the world through writing, but the incubation period is over.

How do your books incubate?

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    Usually ideas come to me when I’m lying in bed ready to sleep, or when I’m relaxing in a tub of hot water.

    It’s difficult when I try to plot while doing other things. I once drove home from the grocery store and left all my groceries in the cart at the front of the store because I was concentrating on how to resolve an issue in a book.

    But these days I definitely need to write the ideas down soon after I get them or they can seep away under the pressure of work and family.

  2. 2. Simon Haynes

    That’s funny, because I blogged about my own incubation process a couple of days ago:

    Easier than pasting it all here ;-)

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Your opening sentence put me in mind of Alien and the little critter that attaches to the face. And then I thought, yep, that’s when you know the novel has struck. It’s insistent. It’s implanting you. At some point, it will burst forth. Probably bloodily and painfully. But that’s okay. I takes ‘em any ways I can gets ‘em.

  4. 4. Paula

    For me it is when I am working out on the treadmill. It is pretty boring, even with my ipod on. My mind wants to be active and then boom I am off into another world. Time flies but then I have to rush to write down what I thought about!

  5. 5. Mike Brotherton

    For the current project, the incubation period has been a decade, and while it’s almost ready, there are still a few key research issues. Most ambitious project to date.

  6. 6. Colleen

    Most of my incubating tends to happen in the back of my brain – and years before anything actually touches paper. Characters, scenese, dialogue, and themes get sort of filed under “I’ll think about it later.” Until, one day, there’s a nearly audible click in my head as the gates to that part of my brain open and there’s an outpouring of scenes, drama, tension, and emotion. Then, it’s a scramble to get it all down and to make sense of the notes that I write in the car, on the bus, dripping wet from rushing out of the shower … you get the idea. The active incubation takes about a month or two before I finally dig out what I think is going to be “the first scene” and actually start writing something that looks recognizably like a coherent work.

    But the back of the brain part? Could take years. Hard to say, as I’m busy trying not to think about it.

  7. 7. Arnold82

    Except I think that might be a little messy so maybe not. ,

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.



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