filed under How To Write A Book, The French Photographer, The Paris Seamstress.

Incubation is a greatly underrated but hugely important part of the writing process, of how an idea becomes a book. Everyone talks about the actual writing and the redrafting and the editing but few people talk about the thinking time. I guess that’s because it’s hard to talk about: blogging about time spent doing nothing other than thinking could quickly turn into a very dull post! But I’m going to give it a go because it’s been on my mind a lot lately as I incubate an idea that will hopefully become a book for 2020 (crazy far away I know!)

Ideas Need to Be “Ready”

Take it from someone who’s tried to force a book idea into being ready: it doesn’t work. And I know I always say that I start writing with only the slightest glimmer of an idea, rather than a plot, and that’s true. But I also have pages of scribbled scenes in a notebook before I begin the actual writing.

When I sat down and tried to write the book that has now become The Paris Seamstress, my 2018 book, I didn’t really even have that glimmer. But I wrote my 20,000 word pre-first draft anyway, on less than a glimmer, because it was that time of year when I’m supposed to do that. I played around with a couple of characters and some dialogue and a very loose scenario.

I got to the end of that 20,000 words and knew that what I had wasn’t working. I’d gone straight from writing Her Mother’s Secret into writing this manuscript, without really having a strong idea or thinking time, so no incubation had taken place. And it showed! School holidays then started and, soon after, the actual idea for the book appeared. Hurray!

Then in February last year when I sat down to actually write The Paris Seamstress, I’d had 2 months of incubation time over the summer holidays, which I really needed. I threw out a bit of the 20,000 words, gave much of the dialogue and character development to a completely new character, massaged some other stuff and then set to work to fill in the blanks and turn it into a story. Which was so much easier with my notebook of scribbled scenes I’d been incubating over the summer.

What Happens During the Incubation?

That’s a good question! I don’t really know how it works but, somehow, when I have the glimmer of the idea, my subconscious tends to run with it. It starts throwing up dialogue and scenes and characters and connections in quite a lot of detail. So, in my head will be two characters perhaps, having an entire conversation, in a particular location and doing certain things. I’m assuming this is how it works for other writers and that I’m not actually crazy but it’s like a dream except I’m awake – obviously not paying a lot of attention to what’s going on around me though!

Every time that happens, I rush off and write it down in a notebook that sits on my desk. If I’m not at home, I’ll write or record it somewhere else but transfer it into my notebook as soon as I can. Right now, I have 21 pages of notes in my notebook for my 2020 book, which I won’t start writing until November, so God knows how many pages I’ll have by then! I don’t normally have quite so much but this idea is being very insistent right now.

The Best Times For Incubation

Quiet times, without internet distractions, are by far the best times. It’s one of the many reasons why I exercise every day; the quiet, repetitive motion of exercise is great for producing scenes. The shower is another good time, washing the dishes, just before I go to sleep, when I’m exposed to other artworks such as when I go to the theatre, when I’m reading; all of these are productive thinking times.

I think the key thing is to let your brain know that this is an idea you want to work with. Then my brain will usually play along. I’m also lucky in that, because I do so much research, I often come across things in the research that will give me ideas for another book. That’s where I got the idea for The French Photographer, the 2019 book, and in researching that book, I got the idea for the 2020 book.

Cultivating Ideas

  • Tell your brain you like this story idea by buying a notebook or something like that and designating it specifically for that idea
  • Put your phone down
  • Have quiet times
  • Get out and about and walk around
  • Immerse yourself in other artforms or books
  • Let your mind wander; don’t always be living in the moment and in the here and now, which I know is completely the opposite advice to the current trend of mindfulness!

So, that’s my take on how an idea becomes a book and why, if I look like I’m sitting around doing nothing, I’m actually working really hard!





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12 Responses to “On Incubation: How An Idea Becomes a Book”

  1. Eileen Susan Dunn

    Wow! All those years I daydreamed and didn’t write! Now I know it’s OK to have my head in the clouds…or at least another world!
    I like that you point out thinking time is more than just being alone with no other distraction ie that it’s reading or indulging in some other art form as well. And that incubation also means writing notes. Your post is very reassuring.

  2. Nicky Albrecht

    Great article – I can now reassure my kids and hubby that when I am gawking at the kitchen sink, having washed the same squeaking plate three times, that there is some genius thought processing taking place. Happily, they can now heed the ‘do not disturb’ signals without worrying that I am losing the plot! – pun intended. Silliness aside, I was watching a biography about Walt Disney and he said exactly this. There needs to be an initial component of free-flow thought to begin with. Thanks for posting.

    • Natasha Lester

      I can’t tell you how many times my family have tried to talk to me while I’m washing dishes and I’ve nodded at them but would then be completely unable to repeat anything they said! Kitchen sinks can produce great geniuses! So glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Margaret Bloch

    Hi Natasha, great post. I’ve always been a day dreamer. Now channelling it in a positive way. Walking and putting my feet up, listening to classical music are my best thinking activities. Fortunately my husband is an academic who understands and respects that time, as I do his. He knows when I’ve disappeared down a rabbit hole into the 18th century and leaves me there.

    • Natasha Lester

      Listening to classical music is a great one – it’s amazing the ideas music can elicit. My whole 2020 book idea came from listening to a song. I love the way ideas work – it’s a kind of magic isn’t it?

      • Margaret Bloch

        I love that light bulb moment when I realise the seemingly unconnected strands are connected in a wonderful way. Beautiful music s the perfect medium to allow my mind to weave that magic.

  4. George

    My incubation time is intersperse with the actual writing. I usually get a compelling idea that centers around a scene and begin writing as soon as possible. It will grow from there. (I’m a total pantster). I often get more scenes and inspirations on long walks. I don’t take hand written notes but my laptop goes with me everywhere, (except on long walks). The story almost takes off the develops on it’s own and every new scene is generally a surprise. I never could have planned it out.

  5. Melanie

    I’m so glad to hear that someone successful actually does this too!
    I currently have 4 notebooks full of ideas, scenes, and plot notes … and I’ve tried writing all four stories at one point or another, but never seem to get past the first couple of chapters. I’ve tried planning, pantsing, taking more and more courses (I think I know what to do, but don’t trust myself to do it) and yet something is missing.
    Maybe what I need is not more incubation time, but more writing – more finding-the-story-writing and not manuscript writing as such?

    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, I’ve written a post about my 20,000 word pre-first draft which is basically just that – a finding the story writing session that I do before I begin writing the first draft. I put that 20,000 words away for about 2 months, think about it some more, then start writing the first draft. It works really well for me. Good luck with it!


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