[Read about the first phase here: preparing to write.]
The second stage, called the germination stage by Louise De Salvo Ph.D. in Writing as a Way of Healing, is a time “during which we gather and work on fragments of ideas, images, phrases, scenes, moments, lines, possibilities for plots, characters, settings. Sometimes we don’t quite know what we’re doing or where all this is leading. Sometimes we feel like we’re working haphazardly. Sometimes, though, we have a clearer conception.”
Know Your Own Personality
During the germination stage, my Type A personality wants to organize, and yet so much of what occurs to us during this time isn’t “organizable” yet. I used to follow advice I’d read to write down ideas on scraps of paper and stick them in a folder, but I soon found that my own personality hated that. I would open the file folder, see all those scribbled scraps on paper napkins and file cards and the backs of receipts—and it looked like chaos.
Chaos of any kind has never been conducive to writing for me. And yet, if you push yourself to organize during the germination phase, you are almost sure to derail any creative impulses trying to emerge.
Tips for a Successful Germination Phase
So is there a solution to getting through this phase and gleaning from it everything you need to start working on your novel or project? I suspect this is an individual matter, but for me, this is what works to keep me from derailing during this phrase:
1. Follow your urges to read. They will come at such odd moments. You’ll be sorting through junk mail or paying bills, and suddenly you see a flyer on how to save on your water bill. Although ninety-nine percent of the time you pitch this junk unread, today you feel the nudge to read it. Pay attention to your urges to read. I have thus found careers for certain characters, plot twists and whole subplots, and clues for mysteries. The germination stage is a wonderful time to browse in museums, art galleries, antique shops, flea markets, and other places where you can let your mind and eyes roam. Watch what snags your attention and make note of it.
2. If you feel you must organize (like I do), get a three-ring notebook and those colored divider tabs. (This method has served me well through forty-seven books.) Make sections for book and chapter titles, character, plot ideas, setting, dialogue, and whatever else you’re collecting. Continue to write things on scraps of paper as they come to you, but after you have several scraps, sit down with your notebook and add the information behind the correct colored tab. (Scotch taping the scrap to a page is quick and easy.) Is it a snippet of dialogue you overheard on the bus that is just perfect? Transfer it to the dialogue section. Did you find an odd fact about 1940s mail carriers? Put it in the character section. Is it a bizarre thing that someone did that you saw in the newspaper? Add it to the plot section. None of this is written down in any order, but as your sections fatten with ideas, your mind will (quite unconsciously) start to sort it out and make connections. In a later stage, when you go through the various sections of notes, you’ll be amazed at the ideas that will have begun to gel. (That’s in the working stage, which we’ll talk about next.)
The germination stage can be such an exciting, fun time, but it comes with some frustrations. Look at the purpose of this stage, then balance it against your own personality and way of working. After some time–and it’s different for every person and every project–you’ll be ready to move on to the next stage.
[By the way, I'm skimming the surface of the material in De Salvo's book. If this rings true for you, I'd encourage you to get her book.]