7 Things I’ve Learned About Coming Up With Ideas

Traditionally, I’ve always entered the brainstorm stage with equal parts dread and thrill: thrill because the slate is clean, the world is wide, I can write anything; dread because the page is blank, and so is my head, oh god, why did I choose writing?*

Between different drafts of projects this year, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out, trying on, mocking up and tearing down ideas. Emphasis on the tearing down part (There’s a reason that this

ideas 1

is a writer stereotype.).

Fortunately, somewhere between all the desperate searching and lists and freewrites and plotting and summaries and metaphorical and actual crumpling of pages, I’ve managed to learn a few things about brainstorming and developing ideas efficiently. Things like:

1. Don’t wait until you’ve finished writing Project A to begin looking for/developing ideas for Project B. In the three novels I’ve written to date, I’ve always worked very one-project-at-a-time. While I think that’s productive in terms of keeping your head in the right story, it’s also a bit like going cold turkey off exercise or coffee or your favorite TV show whenever you get to a stopping point: suddenly a major part of your routine is gone, and you’re left dizzy and wanting and yes, probably even a bit cranky. You’ll save the stress if you have the core of another project (say, the logline) ready to go before you set the current one down.

2. Keep track of what interests you. Anything in this category has the potential to bleed into the important question, What is a story I’d want to read?, and its faithful companion, the story I want to write. Create a collection, real or virtual, for this express purpose, and if you’re ever in need of a starting point, just open it and play with its contents.

3. From one certainty, the world (Look for ideas in likely places). I’ve talked previously about sparks, the thing entire stories unfold from. While I still believe that sparks cannot be made, I do think we can be smart about where we look for them (see #2). And if we’re willing to mine away in a likely place, working at it even when we can’t see that first edge that glitters, chances are we’ll strike something precious eventually.

4. Think big (picture). Zoom out. When developing ideas into stories, start with overarching elements like concept, plot, conflict. Your spark might be a smaller detail, but the big stuff is fundamental. A good test to see if your story is ready to write (indeed, objectively sound and interesting enough to be worth writing): can you write a compelling synopsis in 100-250 words? How about a logline?

5. Legos, and let go. Here is why I’m suddenly feeling like I’ve learned something in this game: In playing with the bigger pieces first (attaching items that intrigue me to different characters, situations, formats, etc., and experimenting/rearranging them like Legos), I feel I’ve become able to recognize early on ideas that don’t sing: aren’t compelling enough, remind me too much of another story, would work better in another genre, etc. And when I do, I can swiftly set them aside and try something else.

6. There is value in knowing what you DON’T want to write, too. Seriously. Just crossing items off the list of endless possibilities (“not fantasy”; “not romance-based”; “no suicide, no road trip, no manic pixie dream girl”) is grounding and steers you in the right direction (or at least, away from the wrong ones).

7. If you’re focusing on a specific category, do recon. Ideally, you’re well read in that category already. Whether you are or not, one quick way to learn about it and maybe even generate ideas is to make a trip to the bookstore or library and spend time reading jackets. Reading the premises of many different stories in your genre, you’ll get a better understanding of what’s been done before and what hasn’t, what compels you and what doesn’t, not to mention find potential comp titles and additions to your TBR! All of which feeds into your idea pool.

Other things you’ve learned about finding and developing ideas? Share away!

Finally,

*I could not help but notice that part of this sentence formed a haiku:

The page is blank and

so is my head, oh god, why

did I choose writing?

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Between Books: 7 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Not Actively Writing

This ties back to some recent writing advice that really resonated with me: that not all of one’s writing efforts need be towards a novel or some quantifiable end. As I am between books right now and in search of the next story I want to pursue, this notion is both highly relevant and influential to me. In the last week, and in the last few days especially, I’ve been thinking a lot on what one can do for one’s book– before one is actively writing it. Or even planning it. Because believe me: as difficult as writing a novel can be, for a writer, not writing one (or rather, not even outlining one because you haven’t found your next true spark yet) is worse!

So here are some ideas for nourishing your next book before it comes into focus:

1. Read. A given for all writers at all stages. Reading improves your writing as well as your storytelling ability while exposing you to the stories/tropes already out there. Plus, it’s FUN!

2. Write every day. This should be another given for writers, but let me go a little further and advise committing to some kind of daily practice, like freewriting for 30 minutes each day. There might be a format that calls to you– letters, sonnets, journaling– but as a writer of fiction, it’s especially helpful to practice crafting scenes propelled by goals and conflict and tension. You can quickly recognize what works and what doesn’t, and you might even find something you want to draw out or use later. (The Brainstormer is one great source for prompts.)

3. Examine books that have resonated with you.  Ask why? Begin to see devices, formats, stylistic choices, outside-the-box thinking you admire. Even if it doesn’t directly feed into your next book, observation will get you thinking about something you might do– or do differently.

4. Create/refer to a list of things that capture your interest. Then pursue items on it through research, mind mapping, free association– and of course good old-fashioned experience (see below)! Try pairing items from the file together. Turning them on their head. Asking what you can do to reimagine or incorporate them into a narrative.

5. Get out. Try something new or go somewhere you’ve never been before. Give yourself more to draw from by broadening your experience in the world. Incidentally: new settings are great places to freewrite!

6. Study concepts. Have you ever coveted another book for its original idea? Writers often hear the term “high concept” to refer to ideas that are easily pitched, and often unique. (Two that I deeply admire: Logan’s Run, where people are only allowed to live to 21, and Delirium, where love is classified as a disease.)  Examining concepts gives one not only an appreciation for what has been done before (as well as a healthy reminder of how hard it can be to do something new), but a sense of the sort of things that might be done, and thus opens the way to broader thinking.

7. Study tropes, archetypes, motivations, etc. Not without significance are the smaller details that make every story what it is. Study the masters. Learn the parts. Then emulate and reinvent. Experiment and improve.

What do you do when not actively writing?