Photojournalists have an old saying: “f/8 and be there.” I have a very limited knowledge of photography, but as I understand it, this means that if you want to get a good photo, you set your f-stop (the aperture setting on your camera lens) to f/8 to make sure that most of what you’re shooting is in focus. At that point, your task is to make sure you are in place to get the shot when something happens. You won’t get a good shot of the mayor flipping off the city council or the cute kid shaking the president’s hand if you are busy fiddling with your camera settings when the action goes down—or for that matter if you’ve wandered off in search of a better photo (or a cup of coffee).
Not being a photographer, I’m not sure how practical that advice is, but it makes a great metaphor. As a writer, if you want to get the good stuff, you have to be ready when it happens by. I’m sure you’ve noticed that all your good ideas seem to come while you are driving, in the shower, or doing something else you can’t stop in the middle of to write it all down (soapy water can wreck a notebook). Unfortunately there’s not much you can do about the soapy-water problem, and of course, no matter how great the idea, don’t try making notes while driving. (Next time you see someone muttering to himself in traffic, remember that he may not be insane; he may just be a writer trying to remember something until he gets to a safe place to pull over.) It is a great idea, though, to keep a notebook (or scratch paper) and pencil on or near you at all times: by the bed, in the kitchen (I get a lot of ideas while cooking—that could explain some burned garlic from time to time), in the car, in the seat pack of your bike, wherever you spend time.
Writers have the advantage of being able to go back and fuss with details—over and over, if necessary. Sometimes, though, ideas or images grace us with one visit, then real life (what goes in after the garlic) distracts us and we never think of that great line or simile again. Like photographers, we need to be alert and prepared for those moments that aren’t likely to happen twice.