How to Find Ideas If You Don’t Think You Have Them

One of the most common questions I hear asked of writers at book signings and panels is, “Where do you get your ideas?” or “Where did you get this idea?”

Ideas are everywhere. You just have to teach yourself to pay attention to them.

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Start an idea file.

Make sure you have a way to jot down notes everywhere you go, no matter where or when. Either make sure you have access to your idea file, or keep a notebook of thoughts that you’ll transfer to it later. Don’t be afraid of putting stuff in it. Anything that strikes your fancy. Stuff you barely know the meaning of! Stuff you might write about someday!

I’m working on a steampunk middle grade novel that grew out of the phrase “the girl in the bowler hat.” Seriously. That was in my idea file. Sometimes you’ll be able to put together two or three things from the idea file and make a novel out of them, if one isn’t enough. Try putting “the girl in the bowler hat” with “the first clockwork man” …

Make lists of nouns that mean something to you.

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury suggests making a list of nouns. The Red Barn. The Skeleton. The Attic. The Rocking Chair. He started with nouns that had memories attached to them from his childhood and riffed off those.

I used this method for a year or so back when I was writing a lot of short stories. These days I’m overflowing with ideas and only short on time to execute them, so I don’t use it anymore. But if you’re struggling with what to write about, try it out. It might trigger something for you.

Ask yourself what you like.

What do you like in life? What do you like in novels? What do you like on TV? What would you like to see that you never do? When a description of a book or a show piques your interest, what is it specifically that’s reeling you in?

I started keeping a separate list from my idea file of things I enjoyed in other people’s books. Some of the things that made my list were: mysterious chess games with a deeper meaning behind them, old books, secrets (especially secret manuscripts), zeppelins, girls who dress like boys to get something they want, wildness, breaking the rules, clever names that have a deeper meaning (like Lupin), deadpan wit, vampires, vampires with deadpan wit, characters who were real historical figures (love love love Mark Hodder’s Algernon Swinburne), secret societies, broken mechanical things that need to be fixed, unusual mail.

This can help you clarify the type of ideas you want to write about. (You should be reading widely in the genre you want to write as well as outside of it, so you have a good sense of what’s being done and what isn’t.)

One of the things I learned through doing this is that I tend to whitewash my teen characters. I had a fairly sheltered childhood; I didn’t drink or smoke or have sex as a teenager. I didn’t even kiss anyone until I was 17. So I have a hard time creating a 17-year-old who smokes and drinks and lives a nomadic lifestyle with her mother like it’s nothing special, but do I enjoy those characters? Hell yeah. Holly Black’s Tithe was the first young adult novel I read and the book that got me hooked on the genre, and Tithe’s main character, Kaye, is a bit of a bad girl. I’m not sure that that means I’ll ever write that character myself, but realizing that I like that kind of character gave me the freedom to dig a little deeper with my own.

Make unexpected connections.

If you’re a writer, you probably already do this without even realizing it. The trick is to notice when you do it and write it down.

I attended an author panel at a children’s bookstore about eight years ago or so that included Gail Carson Levine. She was reading from a book of hers that was a riff on the Snow White fairy tale, and as she spoke about the book before she started reading, she described Snow White as having ebony hair, pale white skin, and blood-red lips … and my immediate thought was that Snow White is a vampire. In fact it seemed so obvious I could only wonder why I hadn’t seen it before. Thus, a novel idea was born. To further develop it, I followed the next step.

Ask yourself a lot of what-ifs.

If you were immortal, wouldn’t you get tired? Wouldn’t you want to stop living? But what if something prevented that? What if there were no way you could kill yourself? Then what? Then you’d have to ask someone else to do it, right? But who would want to do that? Someone who hated you very much, maybe. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if that weren’t possible for some reason? What if it had to be someone who loved you very much?

There you go, now you’re creating a plot.

Start anywhere.

You don’t need a fully formed novel idea at the start, only a few pieces. A quirky character will do (like the girl in the bowler hat). Better yet if it’s a character who comes with a built-in inner conflict (the vampire who’s tired of living). Or start with a slice of action you’d like to see happen (the invention of a clockwork man) or a type of fantasy species you’d like to create or write about (crow shape-shifters). I’ve started with all of these at one time or another.

Take the bit and run with it; try your hand at creating a conflict from it and see where it goes. That’s the fun of it, no?

It is possible to start with a theme, too, but I would caution beginners against that. It’s helpful to have a sense of what kind of message you might want to convey, because it can help you figure out what to include and exclude from your story. But trying to start with an abstraction is generally a distraction at the very start, especially if you’re not yet skilled at knowing how to tell a good story. You run the risk of getting overly involved in making sure the reader knows what you meant to tell him rather than making sure he enjoys your story. Even some of the most skilled plot writers can sometimes get preachy with trying too hard to get a message across.

**This is an excerpt from an e-book I’m working on about how to write a novel for beginning writers. If you’re interested in learning more about it, sign up for the email list to get updates.

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