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Such a lovely word, filled with wonder and magic for the wannabe writer. How sweet the image we’re all familiar with, of the writer sighing at his desk, waiting for his muse to arrive so the true magic can begin on the page.
But to those of us writers who are in the know, inspiration often comes with the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
See, inspiration is a fickle thing, so if you’re going to just sit and wait for it to show up, you’re going to be in for some long, painful periods where you have no ideas for your stories.
And trust me. There are few things as painful to writers as wanting to create but not having the ideas needed to do so.
What’s a writer to do, then? To answer this question, I’m going to quote Jack London:
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
In other words, inspiration takes work, but I do like the thought that if you have an intrepid spirit, the right tools, and a proactive attitude, you can indeed track down and harness more ideas than you could ever want.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share my nine steps to never running out of ideas.
1) Go Hunting for Inspiration.
Contrary to common belief, writers shouldn’t just be sitting at their desk, moping while waiting for inspiration to strike.
Get out more. Experience things. Read a book. Watch a movie. Go see an art exhibition. Do whatever it is that you do that you know inspires you to write.
If you’re feeling like the ideas just aren’t coming to you, take a break from writing and go do that thing that inspired you the first time. Lightning often does strike twice, and often it does so in surprising ways.
Take me. I get inspired by consuming stories. My first ever story idea came to me because a character walked into my head while I was reading. So you’d think that the same thing would happen while watching movies.
No. What really happens is that when I go see movies alone, my best ideas come to me in the darkness right before the movie starts.
So sometimes, I’ll go see a movie just to experience that darkness again.
Which actually brings me to the next point…
2) Go to a Quiet Place
The sad truth is that you’re probably inspired already. You just don’t know it, because in today’s chaos of noise and social networks and movies and worries and children, etc. etc. etc. you’re just not seeing the idea in the midst of everything else.
It is there, though, so if in doubt, go find a way to at least dull the noise for a few minutes or hours. Since I’m all about you being able to actually function afterwards, I’m going to suggest a few healthy ways in which to do this:
- Go hiking.
- Go jogging.
- Do Yoga
- Sing (odd, I know, but if you do vocal training, you’ll know that if you sing, you only focus on singing and the movements you’re required to do. Also, proper vocal training involves you breathing as deeply as you would in Yoga (maybe even deeper, in my experience), and that just calms you down.)
- Go to the movies alone so you can have those few minutes in the darkness.
- Make a coffee date with yourself and make sure you go alone.
- If you’re home alone, turn off the radio and disconnect from the internet. Draw the curtains or cover your eyes. Turn on a white noise generator. The idea here is sensory deprivation until the idea leaps to the front of your mind.
- Do mindfulness exercises.
3) Find a Variety of Hunting Grounds
Sometimes, your usual methods of finding new story ideas just don’t seem to work. If that’s true, it might be time to try something new.
Our brains are strange, well able to spot patterns and recognize when certain behaviors are required simply because you’re doing the same thing again. We can use this to our benefit as writers, but sadly these endless repetitions can also blunt the mind, making it sluggish when it comes to generating new ideas.
And this is where doing something new helps. Even the smallest change in routine will wake up your mind. And once it’s woken up, it’ll start pulling up new ideas for you again, even if you go back to your old habits.
Another reason why doing new things helps is because the more you know, the wider a well of resources you have to draw from. For this reason, I once took Western Martial Arts lessons. It’s different, and I write fantasy, so it was a great idea to learn not only how broadswords, rapiers, longswords, etc. feel in my hands, but also how they’re used. And this knowledge has inspired my action scenes countless times.
So go gather yourself a random set of skills and life experiences. Or, if you suspect you might want to know something later, go take a course in that thing.
It’s a great investment for future inspiration.
4) Lure Inspiration
Some of us just really want to be inspired right now, while sitting at our desks. We will get around to those other things we need to do, but right now we need to write. Except the ideas just won’t come.
Fortunately for us, we can in fact come up with a whole list of ideas, simply by doing a few mental exercises:
Ask “What if…?” and answer that question. This is probably one of the best tools a writer can use to catch hold of an idea. What if an earthquake happened and it brought garden gnomes to life? What if a guy gets letters from his wife starting on the anniversary of her death? What if this character I have but don’t know what to do with went on a road trip? No what if question is too silly to ask, because you never know when answering one of those questions actually kicks off your next brilliant idea.
Ask “If…then…” questions. These are almost like what if’s but these tend to be more specific. I find it useful when I’ve already started a story and got stuck on what’s supposed to happen next. Usually what I’ll do is take a few steps back in the story and think along the lines of “If Character A did thing B, then thing C happens, which causes Character D to…” And if there’s a blockage somewhere, like Character D didn’t know about thing C, I can figure out how to inform said character in order to let the story progress again. I also use this method when something unexpected happened and I don’t know what the fall-out will be in the story.
Concept Building. Basically, I’ve come to a certain point where I realized that stories all need a specific set of things in order to work. And I can specifically call up the required ideas simply by figuring out how to fill the gaps in my concept. So let’s say I have a character, but not a plot. I would then focus my thoughts on filling in my plot questions until I knew the inciting incident, the goal, the conflict, the stakes and the climax. If I know the plot but not the character, I’d figure out a character with motivations and traits that would ramp up the drama as a result of my plot points. Sometimes, I’ll start with as little as the climactic scene and work my way back. But the point is, I know which questions to ask because I know exactly which pieces I’m missing.
5) For Heaven’s Sake, Show Up.
Way too many writers I’ve encountered will say something along the lines of “I want to write, but I’m just not feeling inspired.”
If you’ve been saying that, be prepared for a healthy dose of good and bad news…
No matter what you do, you’re not going to ever feel inspired.
That’s right. You might occasionally feel like you want to write, but unlike what movies and stories tell you, there just isn’t that magical moment when all is well and you feel inspired before you start writing.
So how exactly is this good news? Well. Think about it, don’t you at least feel a little liberated, knowing that you don’t need some magical, elusive mystery feeling to actually be a writer?
Because you really don’t.
Most of the time, writers are writers because they’re constantly thinking about what they want to write, and actually writing it.
The amazing thing is that often, ideas will simply come to you once you’re writing your story, with no further requirement than that you keep writing.
And in this way, I’ve been able to sit down, just like I always do, and just not stop writing until I’ve written 10,000 words in a single day. Did I feel particularly inspired?
All I had was the basic foundation ideas I’d been building up by working on that book, along with some concept building and if…then… exercises from point 4.
No magic. Just showing up day after day, even if I just wrote 100 words.
Does that mean you have to write every day? No. But I’d like to say you should be writing every day that you are able to. Have a moment of time? Five minutes? Come on. You have five minutes. Set a timer and spend those five minutes writing.
The ideas will come.
6) Get the Right Idea Hunting Glasses On
While we are in the if you build it, they will come sort of groove… One of the best ways to get ideas for your stories is to cultivate the belief that you will get ideas for your stories.
Oh, I bet some of you are howling because how dare I suggest something like the power of positive thinking when you’re in the middle of a dry spell?
Actually, I live firmly in the real world when it comes to tracking down ideas.
Have you ever run late because you couldn’t find your car keys, only to find them somewhere you could have sworn you looked before?
No, you didn’t lose your mind. You did look there. You were just so busy looking for your keys that you didn’t actually see them.
Our brains are weird like that. They start focusing so hard on all the ramifications of us not finding our keys that even if our eyes take in the fact that the keys are lying next to the fruit bowl, our brains simply won’t register it. (By the way, next time this happens, take a deep breath, count to ten and say “Keys…keys…keys…keys….keys…keys…” You’re welcome.)
Ideas work in the same way. If you start stressing because you don’t have any story ideas…guess what. You’re not going to see them when you do get them either.
So just relax and try to forget how much you need new ideas while you repeat the previous steps, fully believing that those ideas will come to you.
7) Once You’ve Caught Something, Don’t Hold Onto It.
Sometimes, we get struck by such an amazing, astounding, elegant, just…beautiful idea that just solve every single struggle you’ve had in writing your current story.
Which is great. I love when those ideas come to me. It’s a rush that I can’t describe and can’t replicate anywhere else.
But sometimes, writers will forgo putting that amazing idea into their current book because they think the next book they write won’t be any good without it.
The thing is, our amazing brains come up with story ideas for a reason, and the reason why that amazing plot idea came to you was so that you can actually use it now.
So if you delay using that idea until later, you’re going to have to come up with a weaker idea for now, which really isn’t the best outcome.
Instead, use that brilliant idea right now, or as soon as the opportunity presents itself in your story. Because wouldn’t it just suck if you keep that idea for later, only to have to discard it because another brilliant idea (Which is bound to come. Trust me) rendered it obsolete?
Brilliant ideas really aren’t that rare. Especially not if you keep writing. And if you equally distribute those ideas through all your books, you won’t consign one book to mediocrity in order for another to be good.
But what if the idea clearly isn’t meant for this story?
8) Process, Process, Process…
I wish I could say that all ideas ever relate precisely to the project I’m working on, but alas inspiration is more fickle than that. Sometimes, even the most brilliant idea can’t be bashed into one’s current project, no matter what one does.
But that idea will haunt you.
It will be your last thought as you go to sleep and the first as you’re waking up. It will keep repeating through your day and it will keep you from writing because it will be such a distraction that no new ideas for your current work will come through.
Why? Because that idea’s important, and now that you have it, you have to use it or lose it. (And for some reason your brain really doesn’t want to lose it. So it keeps reminding you.)
The way out of this fresh hell… ahem I mean the solution to this problem is quite simple.
Process the idea.
This can be done in two ways:
First, you can write that story. This isn’t recommended if you’re easily distracted, because I promise you that another brilliant new story idea will come along as you’re working on the second story as well. When I take this approach, I usually do it by writing the two stories together, prioritizing one of them. (But the intricacies of how this works could take a whole other article.)
Secondly, you can write that idea down. That’s right. Often, the simple act of acknowledging that idea as good enough to note for later use will be enough to calm your brain and get you back to focusing on your current project. And it has a nifty bonus advantage, which I’ll address in my final point.
9) Always Have a Club Ready Just In Case
Ideas can really strike at the oddest, most inopportune times, like, say…the shower or while you’re smack bang in the middle of your current project. After the latter, the most inconvenient place for me to get ideas is when I’m sleeping. Because I’ll have these incredible, vivid dreams that are just begging to be turned into stories.
I’ll get up and have breakfast, and by the time I brush my teeth, that dream’s gone.
This experience isn’t limited to dreaming, though. Any thought fades away if you leave it for long enough, or if you’re distracted enough, often leaving you with nothing more than the nagging sense of damn I should have written that down.
And that’s also your perfect solution. Write. It. Down. Always. Take to carrying a notebook with you when you go out. Keep a dream journal next to your bed. Open a document in your computer where you can jot down your ideas that come to you while you’re writing.
Always write down your ideas and make sure you can easily find them again later. Do write an idea on the back of a serviette if you forgot your notebook at home, but never forget to transfer that note to the notebook later, or the serviette will get used as a tissue and… You know how that goes.
This little habit, when practiced with any one of the other steps, is the one that ensures that you never lack for story ideas. Because in this way, you’re adding information to your own idea database, which you can refer to whenever you’re wondering what you should be writing next.
I can tell you from own experience that this works. I’m only about twenty story ideas behind my to-write list…