Today I’m going to talk about ideas. The Songs of the Muses. Ideas are the life force of the writer. Without them we (figuratively) starve. When you get an idea you need to grab onto it. So the question becomes, where do ideas come from?
The Magic Well
I am always surprised when new writers ask me “where do you get your ideas?” I have heard this question asked to professional novelists as well, it is probably the most common question asked and from amateur writers, it seemed strange.
I sometimes think that new writers believe all other writers have access to a secret magic well where we throw in a silver coin and wish for a new plot.
The well isn’t magic but it does exist. It is merely the collective information we have gathered (mostly unconsciously) that gets churned around until our imagination spits something out.
Fill The Well
Most writers I know end up with too many ideas rather than too few. When you get into the mind-set of being a writer, everything that comes your way needs to be assimilated, assessed and either turned into an idea or discarded. Most of the time you won’t even realise you are doing it.
If you are not sure where ideas come from all you have to do look around. Read journals, read billboards, read books (fiction & non-fiction), read the news, read more than one article about the same news story.
If you read news online read the comments – sometimes the opinions of people, about an article, can trigger an idea.
Listen to conversations (I’m not saying stalking people but if you’re on the bus or train or waiting in a queue be aware of people). Some great ideas and concepts can come from a muttering of conversation.
Look beyond what you’ve read to what it could be. Let the information, the idea simmer for a while and expand like bread in the oven.
If you read a news article about a bus driver falling asleep at the wheel, crashing the bus down a ravine and killing everyone including himself – think about how different it would have been if the driver hadn’t died.
He would then have to live with what he did. Or maybe if the bus people had survived but an oncoming car had been hit, killing the passengers instantly.
So who was in the car? Was it someone important? Was it someone driving to collect their young children? Was it an estranged husband going back to his family?
Now you can spiral to see how this affects lives either on a basic level or maybe something more dramatic.
Put stories and ideas into different places.
You read an article about a police officer being attacked by a gang of youths and beaten. He survives but loses confidence in himself, in the job and finally quits the force.
Now take the basic idea of this and put it in the medieval time – a knight of the realm who upholds his oaths and honours with pride, ends up in the wrong part of the kingdom, a part where the poor are treated badly by their king’s rule and they see him as a representative of the king.
They turn on him. He is beaten, injured but gets away and is taken in by an elderly woman who hides him from the mob, tends his wounds and helps him back to the king.
The king is not interested in his woes and instead is angry the “rabble” was not dealt with. The knight loses faith in his king, re-visits the woman and learns of how these people live – why they would react the way they did. Maybe he becomes a champion for the people.
Find Inspiration Everywhere
Reading is not the only way to get ideas. A song lyric, a photograph, a piece of art… all these and many more can be the spark that starts the muse’s fire.
Once while wandering through a wooded park, I came across several logs that had been put in a semi-circle seating arrangement. This immediately conjured up the image of a council meeting. The idea of the elders of a tribe sat amid the trees, arguing their opinions at dusk.
Be open to those sparks, they can come from anywhere!
Make Good Notes
All writers have done it at some point – you get an idea, you’re in the middle of doing something, so you make some quick scratty note (if you make any notes at all that is), add a few “key” words and then get back to what you are going.
Days or even hours later you look at your notes and can’t for the life of you remember the meat of the idea. Even the key words barely tap into that great concept you came up with.
Memory is a tricky thing, we store everything we experience, see, hear in our entire life… but recalling it isn’t that easy. Not to mention sometimes Your Brain Monster can mis-file things.
Don’t leave it up to your memory. If you have the chance, stop doing what you’re doing and write out decent notes. I’m not saying you need to write pages and pages but write sentences, make notes of the key points in basic detail. One or two words won’t always trigger your memory.
Example of bad note: lost, bear warning.
Example of good note: Jacob gets lost in the forest, frightened by the image of a bear’s face carved into the tree. This is a tribal marker, a warning of a dangerous clan who think of themselves as bears.
Write as much as you can with the time you have. If you are at work, have a Word file open on your desktop that you can flick to and just quickly type out the notes and then return back to work. If you’re at school, keep a pad on your desk and use it when the idea comes!
Consider using the voice recorder on your phone or keeping a dictaphone with you, to make a quick audio note if that helps.
I personally think when writing notes, you should include the date and if it’s connected to an existing story you are working on, add that too.
This is especially good if you have several stories on the god.
You could use a different colour pen for each novel if you think that will help, but remember we are looking at here is a quick way of organising your ideas and separating them at a glance.
Adding a date helps to organise your notes, keeps you from duplicating information and can show you how long you’ve been dealing with a novel/story to keep you focused. Not to mention you can see if you’ve updated notes and added something extra.
Jigsaws and Rubbish
I find a lot of writers see their “awkward” ideas in these two ways – Jigsaws or Rubbish.
There will be times you have an idea / plot or even a whole manuscript. You may suddenly decide it doesn’t work. This is not rubbish and should not be chucked away / deleted.
You need to move it and store it for later. I call these “Floating Ideas” and label them as such in a folder on my desktop.
Periodically I revisit these ideas. You may find these ideas will fit or can be re-jigged to work in another story. You might read one of these random ideas and develop a whole new story from it.
They say there is no such thing as a Bad Idea in writing, it’s all about re-jigging. We’ve all watched bad movies and thought “if they had done X, Y and Z” it would have been great!
That’s what you need to do, if you end up with a bad idea, re-jig it, give it a new twist, a new perspective and see what you can make!
Jigsaws are when ideas are jammed into a chapter or novel no matter what. This can be just as bad as someone throwing away perfectly good ideas because they don’t fit.
If something does not fit in your story even if you LOVE it, take it out. Do not try and make it fit. Give it a go by all means, but be ready to say “enough is enough” if you can’t make it work.
I’ve known writers completely re-write wonderful stories to fit some small albeit good idea in, thus changing the whole tone of the book. Be firm with yourself, turn the ideas into Floating Ideas or see if the idea can be amended or put into another book.
I have to admit I fell foul to this. I had planned my novel well, with a strong plot line, several sub plots that all tie in nicely… all except one piece.
Unfortunately the piece in question (about pirates) just would not fit but it was my favourite and I’d written so much. I loved everything about it.
Finally after a brainstorming session (one of MANY) with my partner where he continually and pointedly remarked that it didn’t work, I concede it would need to be removed.
After I took it out, the rest of the novel opened up and the stress of “hole filling” went away. A mis-matching jigsaw piece can ruin the flow and the whole book.
Luckily, the section can be added to the second book and really works for it.
I can NOT stress enough the importance of brain storming. Even if it’s with yourself…it is a necessary process to help when you are writing novels or stories.
Whether you have plot holes, flat characters, tricky twists etc you need to brain storm.
First, find someone you trust (if you want to do it with someone else).
Second, that person(s) should be interested in your work and/or the genre you are writing.
Be aware you may need to expose a lot of your story to them. If you are a paranoid person and don’t like to share or don’t trust people, do it with yourself.
Make notes of your plot points, characters etc on post-its and place them all over the wall. Now talk out loud to yourself, go through the notes, the plot – scrutinise your work as a READER not a writer.
I often find brain storming is best if your brain storm partner is a reader rather than another writer.
They are the ones that usually point out that they didn’t know the Tavern wench was abused by her father and so prostitutes herself to gain some control over how she is treated by men.
Maybe you did not manage to get that across, so now you can work on that. You see, writers make lots of background notes that may never make it into a novel.
Brain storming will also expose weak plots, unsurprising twists, flat characters and dull dialogue. Test your ideas on your brain storming partner. Listen to them, just because they are not writers does not mean they can’t come up with some corking ideas.
Never “write your ideas in concrete” – by this I mean do not come up with an idea and refuse to move with it. If a change occurs, bend your idea with it. If your idea becomes stagnant, accept it and move on.
Take time away and go back with fresh eyes. As your writing grows, your ideas will too. When you look back at writings and scenes from years ago you may think they are lacking but the ideas could still be strong – just work them more.
If an idea changes too much, you might want to stick with the original idea and use the newly evolved one to a different story entirely rather than hacking up your writing to work again this new idea.
Inspired & Protected
I hope you never have to be in a conversation / situation where someone steals your ideas. All writings are copyrighted to the writer. By adding dates to all your notes you at least have a record. If something inspires you to write something, add that as a tag line to your notes.
Example: You watch a documentary about elephants, it states they have great memories and explains this.
From this documentary you create an idea where a tribal shaman visits an Elephant Graveyard and calls on the spirits of fallen elephants.
Locked in a ritual of magic and drugs, he is able to call the spirits into himself and access their memories of the lands they have travelled in their herds. He uses this information to help his tribe find a safer location following a threat from another invading tribe.
You write your notes:
ELEPHANT SPIRITS (working title)
Idea Tag: Nature documentary on Channel 2 (20-4-10 – 8:00pm) about elephants having good memories.
IDEA – A shaman is tasked by his tribe to find a safe way through the land to escape an invading tribe and find sanctuary….
Remember – protect your work, help your memory and see all ideas and experiences as good possibilities.
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One place I have found that is interesting for ideas is Postsecret. If you don’t know about this website, it is where people send in secrets, truths, thoughts on postcards and a selection are picked every Sunday and put on the website.
It is not just the secrets, but the images used on the postcards, the comments left that can all give an insight into people, into their lives, their beliefs, their hopes, fears etc. Visit the website: POSTSECRET