Wednesday 5 October 2011

Those Eureka Moments

They can strike anywhere, at any time. You’re at work, or washing up. You’re at the dentist, or driving somewhere in the car. You’re lazing on the sofa in front of the TV, half-paying attention to the book lying open on your lap.

And then… BAM!

You get an idea.

If you can, you stop what you’re doing to scribble it down. If you can’t, you hug it tightly to yourself and grin when no-one’s looking, drunk on the sensation of it fizzing through your veins. Eureka moments can arrive at any time during a piece of writing: at the start, sparking the whole thing off; when you’re struggling to untangle a snarled plot thread; when you’re figuring out the exact way to decribe something, or trying to work out how to bring the whole thing to a satisfying end.

With ACID, I had several of these moments, but by far the most powerful was the one that brought the book to life in the first place.

I’d been trying to write ACID since I was fourteen (although it wasn’t called that then), after a friend and I challenged each other to come up with a story about someone who breaks out of jail. Like so many of the ‘novels’ I wrote when I was a teenager, I got only part of the way in before I lost direction and gave up. But the idea stayed with me, shadow-like, waiting.

I had another stab at it when I finished university, starting the day my course ended. I’d forced a three-year writing hiatus on myself while I was studying for my degree, knowing if I began writing, I wouldn’t want to do anything else. After so long waiting, sitting down at that computer felt right in a way painting never had, and I knew – as I had all along, really – that this was what I was meant to be doing.

But still, the prison-break story refused to be written. Still, it remained a shadow.

I abandoned it again and spent the next seven years trying other things: short stories, crime novels, picture books, poetry – and somewhere along the way, I discovered I wanted to write for teenagers. Then, not long after my first YA novel had collected its final rejection, I was sitting upstairs and wondering what to start on next when, through the open window behind me, I heard the sound of an car approaching from some distance away. All at once the ordinary village street outside my house disappeared, and instead, I saw a moor at night-time, vast and black and empty, with a single car driving across it on a long, straight road, its headlights two pinpoints of brightness in the dark. I was no longer in my house but a ramshackle cottage at the edge of that moor, standing at a window, watching the car draw closer and wishing I was in it, because I was trapped here and couldn’t leave.

Immediately, I knew this was a scene from my prison-break story. Other ideas began forming, almost too fast for me to be able to write them all down. An hour later I had two main characters, a beginning, a middle and an end. And after a few months of researching and plotting and procrastinating, the first draft of my story was finally ready to be written.

Ironically, the moor house scene was never used, as I realised my two characters, Jenna and Max, needed to be trapped in a more urban setting. But without it, ACID might still be no more than a collection of notes and dead-ended ideas.

Have you had any eureka moments recently? What were they? And what were the results?


  1. Ah, the eureka moment. Like the elusive muse or a rebate cheque from the IR - great when they come along, but often very elusive! And when they're not there? Well, we have to keep on writing, eh?

    I love it that your original eureka moment didn't actually make it into the final book. I think it's probably often the case. I wonder how many writers read their first draft and realise the first pages have been all about digging in to find the story and the characters . . . re-writing follows!

    It's great if a eureka moment comes, though. I like it when they come mid story, giving me a surprise. After all, if it surprises me, there's a good chance it will surprise the reader.

  2. Those moments are what keep me going. As Dan says, they can be rarer than hen's teeth, but when they do arrive, boy oh boy, are they wonderful!

    I tend to have mine in the shower and hope I remember them by the time I get out. I'm so glad that yours was so productive.

  3. I've only had one major epiphany where an idea arrived fully formed, but the chapters that resulted ended up winning a competition, which was nice!

    Mostly, I get nice ideas pop up which need to be beaten into shape. In some ways I prefer that, as they tend to be a bit more flexible. But there is a joy to the eureka moment which I wouldn't mind experiencing more often.

  4. Thank you for your comments, Dan, Nettie and Nick!

    Yes, those moments are definitely rare and elusive. I think that's what makes them so exciting! Like the quote (which I can't actually remember, so I will paraphrase it) says, writing is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. But it's the fleeting moments of inspiration that make all the hard work worth it – and keep you coming back for more.

  5. It's really interesting to hear your eureka moment experiences with ACID, especially the sound of the car approaching. I often find it is something in the air, something intangible, an atmosphere that seems to drift in while I am open to it, that gives rise to that inspiration. Like you say, it kind of doesn't matter if that particular idea bites the dust, it has led on to many more and given your writing momentum, and that is what is so amazing! Can't wait to read the final book!

  6. For me, those moments are usually in my sleep (or just as I wake, more like), and in the shower! I need to find a way to write stuff down between shampoo & conditioner

  7. Thanks, Abi - yes, it can be something so small that sparks those moments, yet your brain just happens to take it and make a connection. It's such a mysterious process.

    And Teri - maybe a waterproof notebook/pen would work for that, if you can get such a thing?! :)

  8. I ALWAYS have mine in the shower, too. It's not uncommon for me to dash upstairs to the computer, dripping, to type something.

    HOWEVER. I haven't had a big idea in a long time. I'm finishing a Wip right now, and a little terrified that I'll have nothing on tap.

  9. Hoovering at work is when my brain drifts off to its land of wherever, and occasionally it lets me see what it's looking at. Not sure if they're eureka moments but ideas do tend to ping while I'm working.
    I did have one eureka for the ending of my novel but as the novel isn't published I guess the eureka was more of a youwhata moment :-)


  10. It's so nice to hear how long this story has stayed with you (and congrats on finishing it!) I'm currently battling to finish what I started (also the day after I finished my drama course!) now seven years ago!
    I've had a few Eureka moments along the way, but the one that started it all was a simple line from 'The Door in The Floor'...

    'Tom woke up but Tim did not'

    The writing bug bit me hard that day!

  11. I've found it really interesting, thinking about this - all sparked off by your post, Emma. What especially interests me - and I loved your story of how it happened with ACID - is when what comes in the EM doesn't end up in the final book... and yet it has been the key that opened the door and allowed the book to flow. I find that so intriguing. And it's happened to me too. It makes me feel that the *process* of writing is so important, ... great to hang onto this on those days when nothing seems to be going right & we feel it oughtn't be this slow!... and that the journey to the finished product is always mysterious, in terms of how the mind works. It's mysterious to me, anyhow! Sometimes you need to build a bridge, and then, once you've crossed it, you need to burn it. Does that make sense to anyone else or am I now entering the realms of nonsense? Anyway, thanks so much for this post Emma - really thought-provoking!