Before you can have a book you need to start with an idea. Pretty basic, right? But seriously, for many, idea generation is one of the hardest parts of the writing process. And then, once you have that idea, you will of course need to water it and care for it until it grows. So where do you get ideas from?
Ideas can literally come from anywhere.
You just have to be in the right head space to recognize those ideas when they reveal themselves to you. It’s difficult to give a step-by-step process on how to generate an idea but one thing is for sure. Sitting down somewhere and forcing your mind to come up with something probably isn’t going to work. At least not very well anyway. Idea generation is best seen as a totally natural, completely organic process. Not something you control or try to get done, but rather something that you’re prepared for when it does happen on its own. With that said, here are some ways you can help the idea generation process along.
1.Read (a lot) – This one is a no-brainer.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. -Stephen King
Reading opens your mind to situations and ideas you may not otherwise have been exposed to. These will plant the seeds for your own stories down the road. Note that I’m not advocating that you blatantly copy ideas from other writers. But a healthy amount of borrowing is not a bad thing. Just about everything has already been written about so don’t obsess over coming up with a completely original idea because there really is no such thing. Instead focus on finding ideas that resonate with you and finding ways to make them your own by putting a new spin on it. But start by just reading. Read everything you can get your hands on. This alone will put you ahead of the game.
2. Write (also a lot) – This goes hand in hand with the first item. One of my high school English teachers once said to our class, “You read to write. You write to think. And you think to learn.” It definitely takes practice but now I find it almost impossible to read without writing alongside whatever it is I’m reading.
Moral of the story? Write everyday.
That’s all it takes to be a writer. I’m not saying you need to be writing the next Moby Dick (my favorite classic by the way). But write something. You can free write . You can do some personal journaling. I especially love to journal when I travel. And I love to record my thoughts and reactions to the books I’m reading and the films I’m watching. You can write short stories, fan fiction, flash fiction, haikus…you get the picture. Just write. I honestly find that the more time I make to write (even if I’m just scribbling a string of random thoughts) the more I come up with solid story ideas.
3. Make sure you have some unstructured time to let your mind wander – Schedules, especially super buy ones, can be creativity killers. Try to make sure that you are getting a least some time here and there where you have no commitments or obligations. If this is too difficult right now, try “stealing time” during your commute to work or when doing menial tasks that don’t require much brainpower (like washing the dishes or vacuuming).
The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes. -Agatha Christie
Alternately, instead of letting your mind wander and daydream, you can choose to hyper focus on all that’s around you. You might be surprised at what you notice and even more surprised at how easily what you notice can be spun into a story idea. Most of my ideas come to me when I’m letting my mind wander.
4. Strike up a conversation – Don’t underestimate one of the biggest sources of material for us writers…other people! Just conversing casually with your friends and family can give you tons of material for your new book/story/blog post etc. Imagine the ideas you can get by talking to complete strangers (minus the twinge of guilt you may feel for writing about those close to you). It’s a win/win situation.
These are just a few examples but you really can glean inspiration from anywhere. Make it habit to always have a small notepad and pen handy so that when you get these flashes of brilliance, you can jot them down quickly before you forget.
So now that you have an idea, what do you do?
First remember, as I stated before, that there’s really nothing new under the sun. Don’t be dismayed if your idea sounds familiar, and maybe like things everyone else is doing or has done. There’s plenty of time to work with your idea and make it your own.
Playing With Your Idea
And I use the word ‘playing’ deliberately. In the beginning, I find it really helpful to remember to not try to control and shape my idea at first. I just let it do its own thing so to speak and observe and record. Don’t Judge Your Idea – Your editor brain is already going, telling you your idea is too stupid, too weak, not original enough. Ignore this. Spend some quality time with your idea (more on exactly how to do this next) before you decide whether you’re going to pursue it seriously or not. I think you’ll find that the wackiest or most trite ugly duckling ideas can be transformed into beautiful swans given enough time, attention, consideration and the willingness to be flexible and trust your story. Brainstorm – And then brainstorm some more. Get out your notebook and pen and just write what comes to you. Don’t stop to judge. Don’t stop to edit. Just write. This is very similar to the process of letting your mind wander except that here, you’re doing it on paper. Nothing, and I mean nothing is off limits when you write. Just write down whatever comes to your head. If you’re working on a concept for a fiction piece, one tactic is to continuously ask yourself “what if…” and then quickly write down the answers that you come up with. Another tactic that I find extremely useful, especially when it comes to character building (remember that character drives plot) is to use my notebook as a journal that I keep in the voice of the character that I’m exploring. This is powerful stuff. There are things that will be revealed to you about your characters that you didn’t even know and will make great material for your project. What ideas are you playing around with? Let me know in the comments.