Collages for Writers

People are always asking writers how we get our ideas. Well, for most writers I know, getting the idea is the easy part! We get them so many ways—watching movies, reading an article in the newspaper, seeing a couple arguing on the street, while doing research, etc.

It’s after the germ of the idea presents itself that a lot of us have problems in fleshing it out; in taking that little kernel of an idea and turning it into something book-worthy.

There are many ways writers I know work to expand a basic idea, but one of the most enjoyable—not to mention time-consuming, which is a blessing for those of us procrastinators—is collaging.

Yes, I’m talking about making a collage for or about the book. Why, do you ask, is this beneficial? Well, I’ve made two collages so far, and I know several people who do them regularly; in fact Jennifer Crusie is one of the more well-known authors who finds collaging to be helpful. Based on comments from Ms. Crusie and others, as well as my own experience, I’d like to recommend that if you’re a writer trying to get to the bottom, or inside, of your concept, you give it a try for the following reasons:

Creativity Breeds Creativity

Most of us writers are creative folk in general; many authors I know aren’t just writers, they’re artists in other ways as well: painters, sketchers, musicians, actors, designers, etc. If you’re finding the creative writing well is too dry, oftentimes focusing on another way to allow your creativity to flourish will let the writing part come.

Let the “Girls in the Basement” do their stuff

Jennifer Crusie has a well-known description of how our subconscious hoards our ideas, only letting them go when it’s good and ready. Some people call this their muse. Ms. Crusie calls them the girls in the basement—and she believes that we each have all of our story ideas already locked away in our brain/subconscious, and that we just need to let them out. Sometimes the girls in the basement are working hard; sometimes, they’re just playing poker and being waited on by cabana boys.

If the girls aren’t working hard to get those ideas flowing, doing a collage can often help get them focused again by allowing the images, textures, colors, words, etc., that we might find for use in our collages to trigger events, backstory, or thoughts about the book.

Not just for plotters, either…

Until recently, I was a dedicated “pantser”—I wrote my books by the seat of my pants. I literally didn’t know what was going to happen until it happened. This diametrically opposes the people who plot out every scene, every turning point, every event in the plot before they sit down to write.

Collaging can work for either type of writer. For a plotter, you collage before you start to write and then use what you learned from the collage to sketch out your plot. For a pantser, you make the collage and perhaps have no idea why you included some of the images, colors, words, or textures you did…but as you write the book, those items trigger ideas for you.

It really works. Here’s a case in point:

As I mentioned, I was a seat of the pants writer until I got my first contract and had to start coming up with synopses for future books. But I had made a collage for my first Gardella Vampire Chronicles book when I was still writing it by the seat of my pants. I made that collage in January of 2005.

This last spring; in March 2006 to be exact; while I was writing the second book in the series—which has the same characters and a continuing story line—I happened to look at my collage for the first time in over a year. I mean really looked at it; not a quick glance like I often do, not a few seconds to drool over the picture of one of the men on it—but a close look. And I saw an image that I had put on the collage well over a year before that had nothing to do with the first book, but was a small detail in the setting of the very scene I was writing that moment for the second book.

That was weird.

But it also confirmed for me how the subconscious—at least mine—works.

Considerations & Directions for Making a Collage

First, you need to know that it doesn’t matter how artistic you are (or think you are). No one need see your collage but you.

Second, don’t worry about planning it, or how it’s done. Just do what you want to do. This isn’t art class; this is brainstorming. Brainstorming is messy and sometimes awkward, and often discombobulated. But the important thing to remember is: there’s no right or wrong in brainstorming! Anything goes!


(Collage for The Rest Falls Away, my historical vampire slayer book.)

To start, find a base on which to build your collage. I like to use foam board, about the size of a piece of posterboard, because it’s sturdy. Other people make 3D collages and actually build them. Others make smaller ones—the size of piece of paper; maybe even one for each character. Still other people make scrapbooks for their characters or books. Do whatever you feel comfortable with, and whatever your budget can accommodate.

Next, gather images, words, items, etc. A few trips down the aisle at JoAnn, etc., garnered me little silver crosses and tiny wooden stakes (I was writing a vampire novel, remember), small silk roses and little sparkly gems (for my heroine). I also found a great children’s pop-up book on the bargain rack at Borders that I took home and dismantled and used for the creepy part of the collage.

Looking through magazines, I found a few images and words that worked—even though I was writing a historical novel, I was able to find words that I cut and pasted together to read: “No thanks, I’d rather stake a vampire.” And “A new myth will be written in the blood…” I wasn’t sure why they were important at the time, but they fit in nicely with the collage.

If you find pictures of people that remind you of your characters, cut them out or print them off the computer. I also used a Harry Potter sticker book for some odd-looking stickers and images for my collage as well.

Whatever you can find is fair game. You can make it as intricate and expensive as you like…and believe me, you can spend a lot of money at the craft shops. But you don’t have to. Printing off images from the computer is cheap, and cutting pieces out of magazines is as well.

While I made one big collage for my first book The Rest Falls Away (and really, for the whole series), Esri Albritten made different collages for each character in her book The Voice. The book centered around a tarot-reader main character, so Kiki used images and concepts from tarot cards, and made a “card” for each of her characters.

CL2  CL3  CL 4

(Three of Esri’s collages for her novel.)

Whatever works for you! Remember: the point of doing the collage is to let your mind wander. If something intrigues you and you want to include it in the collage, then include it. You may not understand it at the time, but later it may help you learn something about your characters or the plot itself.

There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Just get the base, get your images and items, sit down with glue, and put it together. Hang it on the wall of your office where you can see it, and let your mind wander.

It really works.

© 2007 Colleen Gleason

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