Play for Pay: Leisure Yields Ideas for Marketable Stories

Today’s guest post is from my inspiring author friend Karen O’Connor:

On days when ideas and words are scarce, I no longer force myself to sit at my desk and stew about it. I get up and do something else. I meet a friend for an early-morning hike. I walk with my husband around our community. I prune and water our plants. I write in my journal.

Out of the “something else,” ideas for books, essays, stories, and articles come to me more easily. I’m always surprised, even though this practice has never failed me. The more relaxed and rested I am, the more quickly my mind delivers the kind of material I can turn into marketable submissions. For example:

Squeeze the Moment: Making the Most of Life’s Gifts and Challenges (Regal Books) was largely written in my mind as I walked each day along the beach, months before I put my thoughts on paper.

The idea for my short story, “The Edge of Love,” which appeared in the collection Everything Romance  (Waterbrook Press), came to me as I plotted a novel about an older woman who had lost her husband and wondered if she’d ever be happy again.

During the 90s I wrote a series of storybooks for kids encouraging them to take an active role in stewardship over the earth. Concordia published The Green Team and The Water Detectives for third- and fourth-grade readers. Ideas for the characters and stories came to me as I got involved in recycling, water conservation, and the green-earth movement.

To keep me going, especially when the stream is dry, I’ve learned to keep a little notebook and pen on me at all times, in my backpack, beach bag, or briefcase, so I can jot down ideas and titles as they come to me. A few hours of fun can lead the way to a few months of writing. I feel as though I’m playing for pay!

So if you’re tired of facing a blank page, and at times a blank mind, if you feel depressed, discouraged, or worse––driven––take a look at the following examples. Maybe they’ll spark your creativity and take you in a new and fresh direction in your writing.


Pull on your sweat clothes, a cap, and your sport shoes. Grab a bottle of water and go for a long walk, uphill if you can. Notice how your mind lightens up as you loosen up. Pump your legs, breathe hard, and break a sweat. Stuck thoughts will loosen. Emotions will surface.  Ideas will sneak up on you. Let them! See where they take you. Don’t be quick to discard them. You may very well come up with something that sticks, an idea that leads to an article or story that surprises even you.

That happened to me. Two of my children’s books came about in just that way: Let’s Take A Walk on the Beach and Let’s Take A Walk in the City. As I walked I remembered myself as a child of five and reminisced about all the things that delighted me at that age. Writing the stories came easily after that. Both books sold to The Child’s World.


Spend a couple of hours a week doing something special by yourself. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls this an artist’s date.  It doesn’t count if you take a friend or spouse or child along. This is a time when you give in to your whimsical side and have fun being alone. One day I drove to the Carlsbad Flower Fields and walked around for two hours, soaking up the flower power. I came home refreshed, relaxed, and ready to get to work. I had a productive day despite the time-out.

Another time I attended a rehearsal of the local symphony. I found it soothing, comforting, and insightful to watch the stops and starts that other “creatives” undergo during their workday. I returned to my home office invigorated and more compassionate toward myself. Writing is hard work, and it’s good to acknowledge that to ourselves so we won’t be impatient when our output is less fluid than we want it to be.

Treat yourself to the things that speak to you: an afternoon movie, a visit to a favorite museum, a bike ride, a spin around the ice rink, a drive to the mountains, a round of golf. And don’t feel guilty about doing so. Think of it as food for your mind and soul.

This week start a new routine. Get out of your chair and into the air, where all the ideas are just waiting for you.

Karen O'Connor HeadshotKaren O’Connor is a freelance writer from Watsonville, California. She is the author of 75 books and hundreds of magazine pieces, essays, and stories. Visit Karen on the web here, where you can find her bio, books, and links to Twitter and Facebook.

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  1. Great ideas, Karen. More and more there is definite research that walking stimulates creativity. And you get the bonus of doing something good for your body. Thanks, Beth

    1. Thanks for responding, Beth. It’s nice to know you like my ideas, especially walking. That activity alone has been an anchor for my writing life. I wish you all the best with your writing.

  2. This is a most timely article, not only for my writing – as yet unpublished – but also for my current painting project. I was most interested to see your reference to Julia Cameron and her writing. I enjoyed her books very much and often quote her approach to people who are ‘stuck’. Now…I must get back to my painting…

  3. Thanks Karen and Suzanne.

    I can’t tell you how many times this has worked for me. I get most of my ideas from the times when I am relaxed, usually when I’m on holidays from work. I have more than one notepad for my ideas, and I also use the Notes app on my phone. I keep it by my bed because sometimes, when I lie down and relax before going to sleep at night, I get bombarded with ideas.

    Another thing that works for me is looking at artworks on my computer. I collect images from the Internet – usually digital art of fantasy and science fiction scenes – and as I look through them, I am inspired. Some images tell a story of their own, and I can grab an idea based on that. I don’t usually steal the whole idea from them. Sometimes ideas are a mixture of more than one image.

    Sometimes just looking at a tree or a flower in someone’s garden while walking past sparks and idea.

    Movies and books are good sources of ideas, or just to relax or get your mind off what you’re writing.

  4. Thanks Karen,
    Yes, absolutely. Getting out helps us feel inspired again and gives us a fresh look at what we have already written. Even just half an hour doing something different and that we enjoy can be enough for a new vision to arise. Swimming is my particular love, so it’s good I live In australia, where it’s mainly hot! Then I am back on the computer, typing way, wondering why I ever felt stuck!

    1. Sherry, I appreciated hearing from you. I’ve always wanted to visit your country. Hope to do so someday. I’m glad you, too, enjoy the outdoors as an incentive to keep on expressing yourself artistically.

  5. Great reminders Karen.

    It’s so important to step back and see the big picture. It’s the simple things in life that keep us going. I have been sitting at my desk writing, a routine I need to break. This is a good reminder to “get out of my chair and into the air” and hopefully all the ideas are just waiting for me.

  6. I need to keep my notebook with me more often! Holidays are another great time to get inspired – my last trip suggested a great idea that I hope to pursue in future. I also find that I dream about possible book plots, so I often have to scribble down my ideas as soon as I wake up.

  7. Hi Karen, Thanks for sharing such a freeing article. Those “put you in a box” types that say you have to write every day, must not be living the life I am. Sometimes it’s just not feasable, and writers need exactly what you proposed, time for themselves to refresh the writing juices. Doctor’s appointments, travel, etc. can all get in the way of our writing. But, we can also glean from those times, and when we are alone, and can sit down and consentrate, get those words on the page. Thanks again!

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