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Are You In the Stare-Into-Space Phase of the Writing Process?

Because I am.

Here’s what happens: You get an idea for a story, you start writing, maybe you work on an outline, and then… you stare, for long periods of time, at nothing in particular, until bystanders begin to worry about your emotional health.

staring into space

Photo by Von Shnauzer

Sometimes you jot down a few notes, or even a line of dialogue, but mostly you just stare, trying to figure out your story in your head while anyone around you thins you’re being incredibly lazy.

The stare-into-space phase is normal, but you can easily get stuck there. How do you use the stare-into-space phase effectively in your writing, and how do you avoid getting stuck?

Staring Into Space Is Your Job

My screenwriting professor, John Wilder, had a small studio behind his house where he would write. One day, his gardner caught him in the staring-into-space phase and told him, “Gosh, all you do is sit around all day and stare into space. I want your job!”

The truth is that staring into space is one of the hardest parts of writing. This is where you do the hard work of inventing and arranging your story. Wilder called this mining, Andrew Stanton would call it archaeology, Hemingway might call it bleeding.

How do you get the most out of the stare-into-space phase? Here are three tips:

1. Don’t Check Facebook

While it may feel like you’re not being productive, the stare-into-space phase is essential to the writing process. Don’t avoid it by distracting yourself with Facebook, Twitter, or by checking your email. You’ll only prolong the process.

2. Go On Walks

You may get restless if you sit staring too long. Why not go for a walk? Light exercise is a proven way to stimulate your brain. Nietzsche said, ““All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Henry David Thoreau even wrote a whole book about the benefits of walking.

When you walk, bring a notebook or your iPhone with Evernote in case an idea strikes you as you write. To be completely distraction free, you might even put your phone on Airplane Mode.

3. Quit

Much of the work of the stare-into-space phase is done by your subconscious. Hemingway would often quit his writing midsentence, and then strive to not think of his work until the following day, to give his subconscious room to work on his story.

While you shouldn’t use this as an excuse to procrastinate, consider take breaks from your writing while in the stare-into-space phase in order to give your mind room to work.

J.K. Rowling Stared Into Space

In 1990, J.K. Rowling was on a train from London to Manchester when the idea for Harry Potter “fell into her head.” She had never been more excited about a story idea before, and as she sat on the train, more ideas began to form about Harry and his magical world.

However, J.K. Rowling had a problem. She didn’t have a pen! She couldn’t write any of these wonderful ideas down. Harry Potter would make J.K. Rowling this first billionaire author, but the whole story might never have been written simply because she forgot it. Since she couldn’t write down her story, what did she do instead?

She stared.

She says:

I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.

You often have very little to show for the stare-into-space phase. J.K. Rowling’s stare-into-space phase didn’t end after that train ride. In fact, she spent several years staring into space, dreaming up the world Harry and his friends would inhabit. She didn’t finish first novel, The Philosopher’s Stone, until five years after that fateful train ride.

However, this phase is part of the hard work of writing. Not only is it normal to experience it, it’s essential if you want to invent a unique story worth reading.

Have you ever experienced the stare-into-space phase? 

PRACTICE

Set a timer for ten minutes, then stare into space. You can go on a walk, but don’t check your email or login to Facebook. Just stare and think through your work in progress or a new story idea.

After your time is up, spend at least five minutes free writing. When you’re finished, post a few paragraphs of your free writing in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Have fun!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • Katie Cross

    The fact that she didn’t finish the first book until five years later oddly makes me feel better about my humble career as a writer :) I guess we all start somewhere, and yes, I”m definitely in this phase now!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Me too, Katie. :)

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      I concur. Five years. I haven’t even been at mine for a quite a year, yet.

  • eva lesko natiello

    My “stare into space” moments are always in the car. (Though I’m a very responsible driver.)
    Sometimes when I need that time to work things out in my head, I jump in the car and drive around without a destination. We all NEED stare into space moments.

    • Karl Tobar

      Nice parenthetical save, there. :)
      Brenda Ueland talks in her book If You Want To Write about how destinations put strains on us and by extension they cramp our creativity.

    • jdstone

      Yikes!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Nice. Have you gone anywhere interesting without realizing you were doing it?

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      I bat ideas around frequently while driving. I drive slower when I’m thinking too, leave a lot more gap between me and the next car.

    • TurdbagTheGreatXIV

      So I’m not the only one.. I’ll have to admit that it does really scare my mom though.

  • jdstone

    My stare into space moments are best friends and worst enemies. Sometimes they produce great thoughts about the direction for the rest of the story, but other times they evoke my inner critic, telling me that what I’ve written so far stinks and I should go back and rewrite. Typically, though, I don’t just “stare” but fiddle with something. Sometimes I throw a soft rubber ball against the wall above my bookcase, or squeeze a grip strengthener for the duration of my “stare”.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Your stare sounds a lot more productive than mine, JD. Also, you must have strong hands!

  • divine seeker

    Whew! I’m so grateful to you for sharing this idea of “staring into space” being a good thing. I’ve been doing exactly that for two and one half years, since the passing of my husband. And, I’ve been beating myself up for it!
    Thanks again.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Of course. I think grief work and creativity often have much in common. Don’t rush it, but I hope you can get to the composing and sharing phases soon. :)

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      It gets better with time.

  • http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/ R.w. Foster

    Actually, at this point, I’m editing on the printed out version of my manuscript. No time for day dreaming at the moment. :D

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      No problem, RW. Edit on!

  • MyAvasavalot

    Wow I am going to go on more walks I think that is a great idea. As I was staring off into space I came up with this idea. Please check it out: youtube.com/myavasavalot

  • http://ivegotwritersblog.com/ Christopher Willson

    I stare off into space all the time. I call it meditating. I also go for walks every day. I recently wrote on my blog how sometimes good writing requires hanging out at a lake for an hour, or playing with a child, and so on. I think this is a crucial part of writing. However, it doesn’t replace actually sitting down and writing…of course!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Agreed!

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      You have to play with the kids. It helps from time to time. We’re writer’s and sometimes we get stuck in a rut, and I think that is more of writer’s block than anything else.

  • George Wu

    During my staring into space, I noticed that I first started
    with dreaming about a boy who yearns to fly to someone who dreaming of going to
    space, then because of the limitation, he decided to study and freeze himself
    for that time to come. To get that
    knowledge, this thought came to my mind.
    Imagine a story where you learn in your sleep like the movie
    inception. Because time is dilated,
    imagine if we can conduct education in our dream world. The story will take place where a select
    group of individuals from rich family try to gain an unfair advantage by paying
    exorbitant amount of money to study while they sleep in the dream world, so
    that we end up freeing up more time (indirectly creating more time in the
    present to enjoy our lives). Imagine
    studying in virtual reality.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Sounds like a productive time, George. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  • http://www.birgitterasine.com/ Birgitte Rasine

    Joe, great post. I think we can all relate. As for me, I don’t stare into space, I stare right through it. I’m off in another dimension, maybe even another time, who knows. I mean, I’m GONE. People can talk to me, sing and bang the drum next to me, I’m not here.

    I call it intense daydreaming. It’s the same fermentation of ideas and inspirations that carefully selected grapes go through in order to become fine wine, or cacao seeds in order to become chocolate. So here’s to fine literature, grown on a vine and melting in your mouth!

    Cheers, fellow writers!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Haha yes, I can relate.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      I hate it when someone breaks me from my zone!

      But, when you are that deep, it takes only a few second before you are back to a drooling daydream.

      Moral of the story: don’t mess with a drooling writer, they bite.

  • Christine

    This took more like seven minutes, plus the edit, but here goes:

    I decide to talk a walk and open my mind to various thoughts that would come in the silent outdoors.

    Not a chance. Migrating birds have their GPS set to fly right over our place and the fields beside us are filled with sandhill cranes right now. I hear their super-size bullfrog croaking, stop to watch them stalking through the stubble.

    Walking a bit father I see a nice flat road stone, rare in these parts. I pick it up; this would be great for painting on. I used to do that but haven’t for so long. I set it down in a findable spot and go on.

    A racket rises up on one side of me, a flock of Canada geese come off the slough on the north side of the road and fly over my head toward the south. Must be about 80 birds. Then I hear more croaking as a pair of sandhills fly up from the slough.

    I walk on further and see the corpse of a duck that didn’t make it across the road. People complain about the havoc cats like ours wreak on the wildlife population, but people still tear down the roads. Horse & buggy, anyone?

    I turn to go home as another smaller flock of Canada rise up in the north and circle around, honking their hearts out. I find my rock again and hear the thin peeping of some smaller bird. I look around and see a woodpecker light on a fencepost. I notice the low-growing yellow fall wildflowers at the end of our lane have turned to tiny seed puffballs.

    And through all this is the incessant whistling of a wind from the south. No quiet moments to think through a story plot. Or do I have too much the heart of a poet?

    • Winnie

      Your staring-into-space put me slap-bang in the middle of the scene. Thank your for sharing.

      • Christine

        Thanks everyone for your encouragement!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Mmm… this was really nice Christine.

      “I hear their super-size bullfrog croaking, stop to watch them stalking through the stubble.”

      Beautiful. And yes, you do have the heart of a poet. But that doesn’t mean poets can’t tell great stories. :)

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Your staring-into-space has me staring into space…

      Good point on the driving. I couldn’t agree more. Half the time, it seems like people must not even try to dodge creatures on the road.

    • Michael Marsh

      You have taken a lot in and put some nice pieces of it down in words. Where could these ideas take you? Writing is not a single path. It is a whole web of interconnected strands that meet, combine and separate. Time spent walking and thinking adds more strands. More strands make for more vivid and inspired writing.

  • Karoline Kingley

    It’s both creepy as well as awesome how relevant the writepractice posts have been to me this week! I’m DEFINITELY in a staring phase right now. My first novel is currently being read by an agent, and now I’m fiddling around with a new project. Even though I wrote about 65,000 words over the summer, it still often feels like I’m not doing anything. But even when you can only write half a page at at time, it still counts, and it still adds up. Sometimes I’ll force myself to jot something down, and will refer back it to later to find an actually well-written suprise! I think we should always write whether we’re tired or distracted, because it often proves to be more fruitful than we would suppose.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Definitely, Karoline. Glad we’re syncing up this week. :)

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      Couldn’t agree more. This post was exactly what I needed to move on with the middle of my book.

      I think Joe is a psychic on the side. He’s a part-time psychic.

  • http://proeditingservices.ca/ Rhonda Kronyk

    I call this cogitating.

    If I don’t have time to stare into space, I can’t write. Plain and simple. I have to have time to just let things develop. As long as I don’t force the process, this is an integral part of my writing. It’s when I come up with some of my favorite ideas, words, and phrases.

    I love this stage of writing. And, yes, this is writing!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Cogitating. I like it, Rhonda!

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      I also like the term coagulating, as our thin and watery stories become thick and engrossing.

  • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

    Finally! Finally! Finally! I’ve had a breakthrough in my writing! I haven’t written anything in two weeks! Thanks for this post, Joe!

    —–

    Dayotan never would have thought that Qui’k, whom was only eight years of
    age, would be so full of a simple wisdom, a simple happiness. Today, they were
    to go on an adventure. Even the fact that Dayotan was on a real adventure
    didn’t stop his interest and intrigue at the imagination of these playful boys.

    “I’m Barack Smelly-Arm. Our enemy is upon us! To the south gate!” Seth charged towards the south end of town, the upheld wooden sword in his hand waving like a banner with each step. He faltered as Bran asked a question.

    “What enemies have we?”

    “Trolls!” Seth answered.

    “Fire.” Qui’k smiled wryly. “I shall cast a flamin’ fire upon them. But, I shall need a guard upon me at all times.” He looked up at Dayotan “Sir Dao, can you serve me in this task?”

    “Consider yourself served.” Dayotan answered.

    An adventure: it was an experience he had been deprived of during his childhood. In those days, the other children would embark on such wild imaginary adventures, but never was he invited. Instead, he was left wanting and to his own company. Until the day that he met Calith. For a moment, the darkness in his soul cracked and light flooded in. As he followed the boys from the town and into the fields, he was not Dayotan the Dark, but Dayotan the Daring, a wide-eyed boy.

    Autumn had touched the waist-high grass which was now colored as wheat. They had left the village southward bound and walked half a mile from the town to the site of three old wagons. They must have fallen to bandits, for the shafts of arrows still protruded from the darkened wooden beds that remained. They still held the bows and white covers, though tattered as they were. They gave a sense of enclosure.

    Dayotan had slain twelve trolls with the wooden sword Qui’k had given him. After all, what use did a caster of spells need of it?

    “Another one comes to you!” The stouter boy cried.

    Dayotan swiped at the air.

    “He’s down!”

    Qui’k threw his hands at the ground, blasting it with his fiery imagination.

    “Thirteen!” Dayotan cried.

    “Thirteen! Thirteen!” shouted the larger boy. “I’ll not be outdone by a mage and his lackey!” He swung wildly and spun about frantically. “Eight, Nine.” He heaved his sword into an imaginary chest, and kicked at the air. He bent low to the ground and spun in a circle, as if lighting the troll corpses aflame with a torch. “Ten.”

    The group of boys and Dayotan laughed, watching his goofy antics. The town beyond him stirred not a bit. Suddenly, the boy charged past them, rushed near the corner of the white-topped wagon, and began slaying more invisible creatures. The other boys were consumed with laughter. An enraged Barack Smelly-Arm was a sight to behold!

    A strange scent carried upon the wind shrunk the smile from Dayotan’s face. It smelt almost of a dog. As he took a quick inspection, he swore he saw the movement of feet under the wagon where Seth was still spinning near the wheel of the wagon.

    Dayotan dropped his wooden sword to the ground as a thud sounded and brought Seth’s spinning to an end. Dayotan unsheathed his real sword and rushed towards the boy as a massive dog-like creature standing upon two canine legs came from about the wagon. Its furry face held glowing green
    bulbs. It black and wet-looking nose sat atop a fearsome maw.

    Dayotan deflected the crude-stocked axe, but it still fell upon the child’s upper arm. The bone snapped, and the arm came loose. Seth screamed and crumpled to the ground, as his arm fell beside the bloodied head of the ax. Dayotan stabbed his blade into the hairy throat of the hulking creature.
    A gurgling whimper was the last noise it made as Dayotan opened the wound
    further. The tailed creature fell and reposed into death.

    Seth rolled and howled upon the ground clutching at the bleeding stub left upon his right side. Dayotan turned to go to him, but spun when Bran screamed. Six more tunneled-eared gnolls, drooling from dog-like mouths lined with hunger and blood-thirsty teeth, stood between them and the village. He
    could only pray that Greybo had heard the screams.

    • Karl Tobar

      This is a good piece but one part confused me.

      “Dayotan deflected the crude-stocked axe, but it still fell upon the child’s upper arm.”

      What axe? There is no axe until this point. I used my context clues to conclude that these dog-creatures have axes–is that about right?

      • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

        Oops. It is a rough draft…

    • Karl Tobar

      Also, congrats are in order for getting back to writing! Good job, James.

      • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

        Thank you!

  • http://www.publicationcoach.com/ Daphne Gray-Grant

    To make staring productive, I think it’s ESSENTIAL to go for a walk. There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank computer screen. Abd when you’re walking, your brain is more free to roam.

    • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

      I think that is a different kind of stare. There is staring lazily and letting your mind set to work when it desires, then there are times when we try to squeeze out progress by staring at a blank page.

      A walk, for you, may be the difference between trying to force it and letting it come to you.

      • http://www.publicationcoach.com/ Daphne Gray-Grant

        I think you’re right but this raises another question: Why would you try to squeeze out progress by staring at a blank page? Misery that way lies!

        • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

          Couldn’t agree more. Stare at a full page(s) and think, look how far I’ve come!

          Also, I find that I want to write the NEXT scene so bad that I try to skimp on the current one. This usually leads me to hate everything I write on the current scene. Sometimes it helps to write that next scene, and then return to the current scene.

  • Victoria

    I had a major stare-into-space moment a couple of weeks ago trying to sort out my plot. Times like that, I stare so hard and so long that my mind just stops working. When I get to that point, I have to completely back away and let my story rest for a day or two. During that time, my mind can get recharged on creativity and I find it much easier when I go back to thinking again :) Also, I often find that typing out my ideas is more productive than just thinking because it allows me to see the idea from every angle and work it out.

  • Michael Marsh

    My dreams are a chaotic blend of my working life in the
    preschool and my new mostly solitary living situation. The songs and chatter of
    the animals out back seep in adding a jungle quality to scenes.

    Today the sun and clouds decorate the sky with sculptures of
    water, ice, and floating particles. A gentle breeze sifts through the day,
    moving the pieces about here and there like a lazy curator in a sky-sized
    gallery. I stare at one little wisp of vapor until vanishes inside the blue.
    Where did it go? Sucked back into the behind scenes to be reintroduced at 3:10
    as a bird shaped puff.

  • Catherine

    Hello? I tried posting here, but as soon as I refreshed the page, my post vanished! If anyone could offer any assistance, that would be great.

  • Lily Necado

    Skyla stood on the balcony and stared into the rising evening, the twilight ripened in the depths of the canyon and just settling beneath the trees. An eagle took advantage of the soaring wind, and domineered a patch of blue between ragged clouds, flying before the wind.

    She turned to go back indoors, pining after the freedom of her plane and the sky. Under siege, the pilots were no better than useless, and yet there was so much she might do to save her friends if only she could leave.

    Making her way through the darkened halls to Andrew’s office, she knocked and waited for a few moments.

    “Come in,” Andrew said, and she slipped inside the well-lit room.

    “I have a formal request to make.”

    He looked weary, as though he’d had a lot of those recently, but nodded for her to continue.

    “I want to leave. You assigned me a mission three months ago, and I haven’t finished it yet.”

    “Your mission was to retrieve a data chip. There was no way we could have foreseen siege, treason, murder, and all that’s happened since. If you leave, you may put the base and yourself in peril.”

    “I know, but it’s better than sitting here useless. Besides, there must be some provision in protocol to leave to complete a mission.”

    “I’m not talking about protocol anymore. You’re not going. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait this one out with the rest of us.” He turned aside.

    Skyla took a deep breath and left. Stopping only to glean some supplies from the kitchen, she snuck into the hangar, ran her hand over her plane, and smiled.

    • Catherine

      I really enjoyed your post Lily. I felt like I got a really good taste of Skyla’s character, especially her restlessness. (I love her name by the way!) I particularly enjoyed the phrase “the twilight ripened in the depths of the canyon” and the very last line where you talk about her smiling.

      • Lily Necado

        Thank you! I’m actually making this into a larger story.

        • Catherine

          That’s great Lily! I’d love to read it!

  • Catherine

    At last, I found my way back to the makeshift camp site only to discover it empty of life. The embers had long since died away, leaving me back at square one in regards to making a decent fire. I dropped the dry branches I had collected on top of my checkered sleeping mat, and flicked on my LED pocket flashlight. The bluish-white light only confirmed what I had suspected, the girl was gone. I told her I’d be back in half an hour, why would she run off like that with no warning? I grimaced at the face of my watch. Alright, so I was ten minutes late: so what? It was certainly no reason to panic and wander off. No, this girl carried a sense of calm about her that would dispel any such notions. She must of had a good reason to take off, but what was it? I found my father’s bow and quiver beside the log right where I had left them. I slung them across my shoulders and abandoned the camp site, flashlight still in hand. It didn’t take me long to find her tracks; they indicated she had been moving fast and in a hurry. There were no other prints to suggest she had been chased by an animal of some sort.

    Soon, the scenery began to morph from what I had become accustomed. The pines grew taller and closer together here. Their bark became smooth, no longer covered in knots and broken limbs. My steps became muffled by the strewn needles that carpeted the forest floor. It became harder to follow her tracks. I slowed my pace to a walk and tried to take in all the changes in my surroundings. Above, only a few shafts of fading moonlight reached the forest floor through the boughs, making my quest nearly impossible, until I spotted a flash of white legs, darting from some shrubbery off to my right. I didn’t call out to her for fear of shattering the seemingly sacred silence. I simply resumed my pursuit after her deeper into the woods. The only sounds that remained were that of our muffled foot steps and soft panting. The boughs of the pines were knit so tightly above our heads that I could see but only a few yards ahead in the cool darkness. I tried my hardest to keep her in my visible range, but her long, powerful strides were difficult to maintain. In that rush, there was no telling how long or how far we ran. It appeared we would continue to run until our bodies collapsed, until the girl made a sharp turn and darted in between a pair of twin oaks. Naturally, I followed her and thrusted myself into what appeared to be a clearing.

    A series of lights swirled, popped, and danced before my eyes while trying to adjust to the sudden brightness. When I finally gained my sight back after a few seconds of confusion, I discovered that I was standing on a hill that sloped down into the clearing. There lay a magnificent glass-like lake lapping gently against its shores. Beside the lake stood the girl, panting, not unlike myself. I jogged cautiously down the slope to meet her, but as soon as I came but three feet away from her, she span around, her wide blue eyes resembling that of a startled deer. A shaky gasp emitted from her lips.

  • http://www.ricardobueno.com/ Ricardo Bueno

    I stare into space when I sit down to write all the time! Where I used to get stuck though, is I made it easy to get distracted by keeping far too many tabs open … “Oh, let me check this… or let me check that.” That of course, is a HUGE mistake.

    Now, I simply close down every single tab. And set a time on my iPhone set for 15 minute intervals. I write what needs to get written, an email explaining something to a customer, a tutorial, a blog post … I stare when I need to (sometimes longer than necessary). But eventually, the words come out and the writing gets done.

  • http://www.frivjogo.info/ Friv Jogos

    I think that your perspective is deep, its just well thought out and really fantastic to see someone who knows how to put these thoughts down so well.

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  • Sid

    When you’ve been writing at night, staring into space so long you jump when it’s suddenly light again outside.

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