Creative Process Step 1: Capture the Zing

Feeding the Beast

Your imagination is a beast. Feed it and it will get up and terrorize the neighborhood on its own accord. Starve it and it will lie there like a gigantic dust mop and gather flies.

Nothing in, nothing out.


Most of us are not Ann Franks or CIA agents or little old ladies caught in terrorist plots. And we don’t have to be. All we have to do is go outside our ken, experience and learn many things, and when we find a tasty morsel, we need to eat it.

In fact, even if you are a CIA agent, I want to suggest you go beyond your little family of experiences.  Improve the gene pool of your ideas, otherwise your stories will risk all the problems that come with incestuous breeding. Make it a point to go beyond what you know.  

And if you encounter the “rule” that says you need to write what you know, send that rule packing. Sure, you need to get the facts right (or as many as is practical). But that only means you need to do research. Know what you write, don’t write what you know.

So this is the first step. You have to gather material. Lots of it.

If you don’t go looking, don’t keep you eyes, ears, and heart open, you won’t find these marvelous things. You’ve got to be on the look out. You’ve got to be out hunting food to feed your beast.

Hunting Zing

Writing stories depends on a never-ending flow of ideas, but not just any old collection of ideas. They have to be ideas that carry current. They turn you on, spark your imagination, stoke your desire. They tingle your cool meter. Dude, yes, ah, oh baby, man-o-man, great oogily boogily–these are all common responses when you come across these types of ideas.

I call these tasty morsels zing.

Most are a just little zzsts. Others are zaps. Still others are freaking gigawatt monsters that shake you about and leave you breathless. Whatever their size, you’re looking for the ideas that carry current.

There are things you must do to find and generate these ideas. You’re going to learn those things here. You’ll also learn that when one of these zings presents itself, you must capture it. Otherwise, it flees and it’s as if you never had it in the first place.

Four Types of Zing

So what are you looking for?

Well, you’re trying to write a story and stories have four main ingredients. So you’re on the hunt for zing in those four categories:

  • Setting
  • Character
  • Problem
  • Plot

Yes, you can also get text zing. And you’ll capture that as well. But the main zings you’re looking for are the four ingredients to story.

Remember: zings are almost always small. Don’t be looking for the ONE killer idea. Usually the killer story is made up of a bunch of smaller zings.

“What generally happens is that I’ll be reading up on some topic just for entertainment — spies, pirates, the Romantic poets, mountain-climbing — and I’ll notice a few indications that the situation might do as the basis for a novel. At that point I declare that this isn’t recreation anymore, it’s research. So I start reading lots of books and articles on the subject, even if they’re not entertaining. And I follow any side-paths that show up — for one book, Tarot led to Poker which led to Las Vegas which led to famous gangsters. And while I’m reading all this, I’m looking for bits that are “too cool not to use.” When I’ve got a dozen or so things that are too cool not to use, then I’ve got — obviously — a dozen elements of the eventual novel.” ~ Tim Powers

Recognizing Good Ideas

You don’t want any old idea. You want good ones. So how do you recognize a good idea?


Again, good ideas carry current, they spark your interest, they tug your heart strings, they turn you on. This is what I’ve learned: a good idea is like an electric jolt. Sometimes it’s very small, sometimes it’s overpowering. It’s the feeling of “cool,” “whoa,” or “oh, boy, this has possibilities.”

Notice I said they spark your interest.

You’re not looking for what turns me on. For you to write a story, you have to follow your zing, not mine or your friend’s or your mentor’s.

The trick is finding your zing and then sharing your zing with people who have similar tastes.

Examples of My Zing

Here are four of my zings. Maybe they carry a spark for you, maybe they don’t. It doesn’t matter–they carry current for me.

Some people actually raise chickens in their apartment (from a book I happened to pick up while browsing a section of the library).

A girl was sold to cover her father’s debts (while reading an article about ancient history)

“The monkey, which costs $15,000, is what Truelove envisions as the ultimate SWAT reconnaissance tool. Since 1979, capuchin monkeys have been trained to be companions for people who are quadriplegics by performing daily tasks, such as serving food, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, retrieving objects and brushing hair. Truelove hopes the same training could prepare a monkey for special-ops intelligence.” (a SWAT monkey? Come on! That’s got to go into a story somewhere. From an online newspaper that’s sent to me each week)

There’s a guy who lets his toenails grow to horrible lengths; they look like claws. It’s incredibly disgusting (Something a friend said about one of his friends)

Capture it NOW!

It’s not enough to spot zing on the run. You must capture it. You do that by writing it down.

It doesn’t matter if you use it. Capture it!

It doesn’t matter if you capture the spark in a notebook, on scraps of paper you put into a folder file, or in a large Word document. Drawings, snippets, pictures, sketches, dialogue, thoughts–If you fail to write your zing down, you will lose them. They disappear. Furthermore, your zing hunting skills will become dull.

Keep yourself sharp. Write it down!

Most of the ideas are never used, but unless you capture them, you won’t get the ones that do develop into something special. You capture them because these little scraps and snippets have a way of combining at the oddest moments and suddenly you’ll have more than an itty-bitty old zing, you’ll have a freaking power plant!

Where to find zing

Source 1: Other stories

I get an unlimited supply of ideas from other stories. Here are a number of sources.

• The news
• History
• Friends and acquaintances
• My past
• Strangers
• Scripture
• Gossip
• Fairy tales
• Poems
• Movies
• TV programs (fiction and non-fiction)
• Summaries of actual court cases
• Novels
• Magazines
• Biography
• Interviewing a relative or friend for their life story

Source 2: Snippets of life

Every week I run across interesting conversations, lines, facts, events, images, and people. These things aren’t stories but they can be used to enhance or generate one. In fact, part of the joy of writing is finding ways to incorporate the cool things I encounter into the current story. There are many places where I find these snippets of life:

• Science
• History
• My life or people I know
• Poetry
• The Discovery Channel and its many cousins
• How-to books, videos, tapes
• Current or historical issues
• Books on how people used to live
• Photographs of other lands and cultures
• People I see (The hero of my Writer’s of the Future story was based on a transient I picked up one night who lived in a storage space at the town’s used bicycle shop)
• Learning about other people’s professions
• Trying new things

Source 3: Research

This is just another way of coming across stories, facts, events, people, and trying new things, but it’s more directed.

• Do it
• Visit it
• Talk to those who have done it or been there
• Watch movies about it
• Read about it, starting with Juveniles & Encyclopedias and then moving to thicker texts

When I moved up into the hinterlands of Utah, I found out they had an annual local testical festival. As a regular joe I might have gagged and moved on. As a zing hunter, I couldn’t afford to do that.

No, they do not taste like chicken.

They do taste like something many people find delicious. But I’ll let you identify what that is with a little research of your own.

When you get a chance to try something new–try it. You get marvelous details, wonderful ideas. And you just might find you enjoy life a little bit more.

Here’s another author who tries things.

by Deborah LeBlanc 

I was writing a scene for one of my books, where a secondary character accidentally locks himself in a casket. Not having experienced such a tragedy, I began winging that thread on imagination alone. But the scene simply wouldn’t jell. When I finally finished the first draft and read it, it felt two-dimensional. So I wrote it again. It still stank. By the third draft my frustration level had peaked, and I shoved my chair away from the computer, knowing there was only one solution to this two-dimensional problem. I would have to experience it. Now you would think a logical person would take into consideration that the number of readers who’d actually been trapped in a casket was minimal enough to make the whole issue moot. Then again, we’re talking about a rational person…I’ll tell you, I’ve pulled some crazy stunts before, all in the name of research, but this one ranks in the top three.

Here’s what happened . . .

Read her full report.

Source 4: Making new juxtapositions

Many wonderful new ideas come when you bring together different sparks and connect them. The genesis of my Writer’s of the Future story arose from a ride I gave to the town transient, images that came from reading Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, and some research I’d done on bats.

Source 5: Creative Q&A

I’ll explain this later.

Nobody can copyright an idea or technique

Don’t worry about stealing ideas from someone else or using a technique you find in another story. Don’t worry that something’s already been done. What you want to avoid is copying the writing. But take any idea or technique and run with it–in your own direction. Remember: The Terminator & Back to the Future have the same premise but are two totally different stories. So go wild.

Be a hunter.

Capture the zing.


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