Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

Keeping a Writer’s Journal

There are a some folk out there who will tell you that if you don’t keep a journal, you are doomed to never, ever be a writer of any kind. In fact, you will probably fail miserably at everything you ever set your hand to, both in business and at home. Others just get very snooty about the ‘right’ way to keep a journal (as if writing something simple like ‘I ate chips for my tea. That’s all I can think of to write’ means you have failed at journaling, and therefore, failed at life).

Obviously, that’s a load of poppycock.

However, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally bothers to keep a journal, you might find it useful as a writer to at least keep a writer’s journal— especially if you’re working on a large writing project such as a novel.

‘Oh nooo!’ I hear you cry. ‘That sounds too hard/time-consuming/pointless’ (delete as appropriate).

It needn’t be. You don’t need to fill it with epiphanies written in flawless iambic pentameter, you don’t need to handcraft your own leather bound volume to write in and you don’t need to write ten thousand words a day (having already written ten thousand words in your actual story). In fact (just between you and me), you don’t need to keep a journal at all if you don’t find it helpful, though I would recommend giving it a bash for a week or two to be sure that it’s not for you.

All that matters is that you do what helps you to write, and in my experience, journaling can be profoundly helpful. How you do it, however, is entirely up to you! You can write in it as often as suits you; it can be long or short; handwritten or digital; illustrated or not; written in all, some or none of the colours of the rainbow and best of all, it can be as messy as you like. No one’s going to mark it. No editor will ever read/watch/listen to it. No publisher will ever publish it. All that matters is that it helps you to write.

For me, I like to keep a written note of how many words I write each day. It’s encouraging to have evidence of daily progress when you feel like you’ve been writing forever and getting nowhere. More than that, however, I find it helpful to express all my thoughts, feelings, ideas and problems relating to my story in some way. Externalising all that stuff once a week, or thereabouts, usually suffices and it helps me to think through it all in a way that sitting staring at my manuscript does not.  If I don’t write it down, I tend to end up boring my wife to tears by talking at length to her about my characters, my setting, my story arc, my word count or whatever else it might be.

If you’ve got a thick skin and are not too worried about who gets to read your journal, you might even find it useful to start a blog (or Twitter account, if you agree the brevity is the soul of wit). While it isn’t why I started Penstricken, my regular readers (God bless you patient and forbearing people) will be able to testify that I frequently do use my blog as a place to rant and rave about things I’ve learned and the problems I’ve encountered and solved while writing. Often the posts I categorise as ‘writing tips’ are aimed at myself as much as they are at anyone else. Another big perk to this kind of public journaling is that you get a little bit of feedback (hopefully from people who care about you, your story or creative writing in general) and it will hopefully serve to motivate you to journal regularly if you have regular readers who will be expecting you to post something every day/week/month/decade.

If you’ve never tried it before, why not start now? To make sure you get the most out of it, take a little time to ask yourself a few questions such as:

What should I write in my journal? Are you wanting to keep a detailed log of your progress (i.e., daily word counts, problems encountered, feedback received and so forth) or would you prefer to use it to express the enjoyment/fear/doubt/despair you experience while writing? Perhaps you might even find it a helpful place to scribble down plot bunnies for future reference.

How often can I commit to keeping a journal? It needn’t be excessively frequent. However in my experience, it is far easier and more enjoyable to keep a journal if you do it on a regular basis. Daily, weekly or even monthly- whatever you can stick to.

What format should my journal take? It’s your journal, for expressing and exploring what’s going on in your own writer-brain. Will it be kept private or will it be online for the great unwashed to view? Will it be in written, audio or video form? Try to use a format that allows you to express yourself as freely as possible – and most importantly, which compliments your writing.

What do I hope to get out of this? There are many possible benefits to journaling: catharsis; developing your skills; tracking your progress; etc. What you are hoping to get out of journaling will probably impact on how you do it. For instance, if you’re using it mainly as an outlet for your self-doubt and frustration with your novel, you probably won’t want to publish it online. It’s not likely to improve your sales figures if ever you do publish your novel.

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you find it helps you to write or do you just find it a big old slog keeping it up to date? Share your insights with the rest of us in the comments section below and we can all benefit from each other’s wisdom!

Until next time!