3 Ways to Ignite the Imagination

The Parable of the Cars

by A. Ferguson

There were once two brothers who lived in Glasgow, who both managed to get jobs in Edinburgh. This was not a problem, since they both held full UK drivers’ licences, which they had acquired at about the same time and they both owned the same make and model of car. The eldest brother was wise. He set his alarm early in the morning and as soon as he was in his car, he turned on the ignition and drove to work in plenty of time.

The younger brother was foolish. He did not get ready for work until it suited him to do so, and when he finally did make it into his car, he sat there for a few minutes waiting for the ignition to turn itself on – which never happened. ‘Maybe it’ll come on tomorrow.’ he thought. ‘I’d better go back to bed in the meantime.’

He lost his job without ever setting a foot in Edinburgh.

* * *

A common mistake amateur writers make is to believe that they cannot write a story unless an idea – or inspiration – comes to them heralded by a chorus of angels. Like the foolish brother, they have all the necessary equipment (in the writer’s case, a brain with an imagination) but do not realise that to get any benefit from it, they need to make the effort to turn on the engine/imagination themselves.

Now, as we all know, turning on a car’s ignition doesn’t immediately take you where you want to go. It simply starts the engine, allowing for the possibility of motion. In the same way, igniting the imagination (to continue the metaphor) does not immediately give you a fully formed story. It just gives you the idea, allowing for the possibility of a story. Perhaps I’ll talk about turning your idea into a story next week, but this week, I want to focus on that all important first stage: going from having nothing to having something.

There are many different things you can do to spark the imagination, none of which involve sitting down and waiting for inspiration to strike. You can…

Read history, the news or even mythology. Just think for a moment about how long humanity has been around for and how many different things happen all over the world at any given time. Wars, disasters, weddings, funerals, births, deaths, financial meltdowns, lottery winners, crime, charity and a million other events besides. As if that were not enough, most societies throughout history come with a catalogue of myths, legends and fables that you can also delve into. If something from history grabs your interest, you could write it as a piece of historical fiction or you can simply borrow a very small element of it to inspire a whole new story. If you’re into character driven stories like me, and have the patience to do so, I would particularly recommend trying to find old letters, journals, newspaper clippings (particularly advertisements and letters from readers) and other primary sources to draw on because these give a much richer flavour of what kind of people lived in the time and place you’re reading about and what mattered to them.

Try using a resource especially designed to provoke creativity such as Oblique Strategies, Story Dice or even random title generators. If you ask the internet, you’ll quickly find that there are loads of tools out there like these, especially designed to help spark the imagination. Some are especially aimed at writers, some are not; some are very cryptic, some are very clear; some are very expensive, some are free. It can be trial and error finding the right tool(s) for you but they can be a wonderful resources to have when you find the right one for you. However, whether you’re the sort of person who likes cryptic prompts such as ‘change nothing and continue consistently’ (Oblique Strategies) or very precise ones such as ‘in 100 words or less, write a story that includes the following: a poet who always speaks in rhyme, a pill bottle, a luminous feather’ (Writer Unblocked) – or even pictures, like I used to inspire my 6 word stories, it is still ultimately down to you to come up with your own idea. See that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking any of these tools can tell you what to write. They cannot. Even very explicit prompts, such as the Writer Unblocked one I referred to, still leave it very much up to the writer to turn that prompt into a usable story idea.

‘Pantsting’, even if you’re more of a planner can also be a good place to start. If you’ve got nothing, then make up a person – any old person. You might even want to base him on a real person that you know well (though be very, very, very careful about doing this in your final story). Then just write and see where he takes you. Maybe he’s going to the chip shop but… is abducted by aliens. How does he escape? I dunno. Just make it up as you go along and edit nothing. It doesn’t matter if you hit a dead end or if you end up writing a really rubbish story, since this is simply the writer’s equivalent of doodling. What matters is that you keep making stuff up. Most of it will be chucked out but some of it might contain the golden nuggets of inspiration. I once ‘doodled’ a story about a guy who was in prison (in fact, he wasn’t even the main character of this particular ‘doodle’) and now, he’s the main antagonist of my novel and possibly one of the characters I’m the most proud of creating.

This is, of course, only a small selection of things you can try. No doubt if you ask the internet, you’ll find dozens more. Perhaps you even invented a few techniques yourself that you absolutely swear by. Do let us know about anything which works for you in the comments below!

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Persevere With Your Idea

I never started writing with a bad idea. In fact, I’m not even entirely convinced there is such a thing as bad story ideas or good story ideas. There are just ideas, some of which are well executed, some of which are badly executed and some of which are never executed because the would-be writer cannot decide the best way to do it, or is unwilling to try (though I feel that in the interests of public safety, I should point out that this only applies to story ideas; other kinds of ideas, like deciding to use Tabasco sauce as an eye-drop, really are bad ideas).

So, why do the marvellous ideas we start with so quickly turn into half-finished manuscripts that we are unable to finish and are ashamed to have even begun?

I’m beginning to learn that it comes down to perseverance (or a lack thereof) and perfectionism. We are discouraged because our super fantastic brilliant idea doesn’t instantly sprout into the super fantastic brilliant story we hoped it would and so we give up. It’s a rubbish story. I was stupid to think it was a good idea but the next one will be better.

This is actually nonsense when you think about it. The problem is probably not your idea; the problem is your lack of willingness to persevere with your idea. Most ideas, when boiled down to their basic elements, are not too dissimilar. Someone is trying to do something; something hinders them; someone overcomes or fails to overcome what hinders them; someone hopefully grows in some way.

Perfectionism is the enemy of the author. It causes you to freeze up and stop writing the moment you start noticing all the difficulties and outright flaws in your idea but if you let this stop you, you’ll never finish anything. So the first and most important rule is this:

Quitting is NOT an option!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your story to be perfect. Who wants to write a second-rate story? But it will never be perfect if you aren’t able to finish it so don’t give up on a story you’ve begun, no matter how badly you feel it is going. You must finish your story before you can truly make it perfect. This boils down simple motivation; ignoring the urge to quit when you see a bad story appearing and pressing on towards the end, knowing you can make it perfect afterwards.

I find deadlines and daily word counts to be invaluable to this end. Anyone who has ever written an essay for school or university will be able to testify that when you’ve got no choice but to finish your essay, you always can. It doesn’t matter how hard it is, how little you’re enjoying writing it or even how much you deplore everything you have said; if you are determined to get that essay handed in on time, you can jolly well do it. It might mean deleting some words, paragraphs or even whole chapters that you felt were very good. It might even mean handing in something that doesn’t meet your impossibly high standards if you haven’t made enough time to edit your work. But it gets finished and the same is absolutely true of story writing.

Deadlines force you to persevere, because you haven’t got time to start from scratch whenever you get stuck or to spend months inspecting the minutiae of your idea before you even begin writing. I’m certain this is why NaNoWriMo is so popular. If you have been commissioned by a publisher then you will almost certainly have a deadline (usually a very tight one!) but if not, it’s a good idea to set one for yourself. Promise to treat yourself to something you enjoy if you reach your goal. Better still, get a friend to hold you accountable to the deadline you set. Make sure you have got a completed draft to show them for the date and time you have agreed, come hell or high water.

If you’re writing a very long project like a novel (and you don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck), you may find it difficult to judge when a realistic deadline should be, especially if it’s your first novel. In that case, a daily word count (say, 1,000 words per day, or whatever you can realistically manage) or even setting yourself deadlines per chapter is a good way to persevere. And remember, you are not allowed to quit under any circumstances. Stick to the story you are on until it’s finished. No matter how awful the story you are producing is turning out to be, keep producing it. You can fix it later.

‘But what if I can’t fix it later?!’ I hear you cry. ‘What if it’s so very terrible that it is beyond redemption?!’

You can fix it. If you are dog-with-a-bone stubborn and refuse to abandon your story until it’s done to your satisfaction, you will fix it, even if it means a complete redraft. You have only failed to fix it when you give up.

This is all very well and good if you’re not working to a deadline set by a publisher or for a competition. Under these circumstances, a little time management is obviously advised. You will need to allow yourself time to edit. The more time you make for editing and redrafting, the more likely you are to submit a good story. But there is one thing you must not allow: do not allow yourself to just miss the deadline. Make sure you have a completed manuscript by the deadline and hand it in. Maybe it will get rejected; maybe it won’t. You might be pleasantly surprised. But one thing is for sure: nothing you write will ever be accepted, critiqued or even read by anyone unless you finish what you started.

And what is the point of writing anything unless someone eventually gets to read your finished work? Persevere and win!