How do you get ideas for stories? Not just any ideas—fascinating, compelling, knock 'em down flat ideas?
If you’ve ever sat in front of a blank page until an idea comes to you, then we have something in common with each other. I’ve done it many times. And I’ve gotten almost nothing decent written by doing that.
You've been stuck on the same plot point for who-knows-how-long and you are desperate for fresh ideas. We’ve all been there, and I’m going to do my best to help you get unstuck.
I have stacks of unfinished stories to prove that my inspiration can definitely run dry. I've lost count of the stories that I started and never finished, simply because I didn’t know what happened next—and what’s more, I no longer cared what happened next.
But what if that didn’t have to happen? What if you could always sit at your desk with fresh eyes and know what you are going to say?
You Already Get Ideas
If you already had ideas, you wouldn't be reading this post. Right?
Lucky for you, half the battle is already won. Because you do come up with ideas. You're a writer—it's in your blood, and that fact will never change. The real problem you face is producing ideas on command.
The real problem you face is producing ideas on command.
Good news. There's a trick to doing that.
Almost every successful author has this technique in common. If it works for them, if it works for me, it will work for you. It’s not fail-proof, and it’s not always the perfect solution, but it will dramatically reduce the number of times you feel dried out and uninspired.
Keep a Journal of Ideas.
Wait, I thought we were talking about how to come up with ideas? Am I telling you to come with ideas by coming up with ideas?
But kind of yes.
You just need to capitalize on the ideas you do get, when you get them.
How does this work?
Next time an idea comes to you—regardless of whether it applies to your current writing project or not—write it down.
Buy an eighty-eight cent spiral notebook and clip a pen to it, or just use the notes app on your smartphone. Whatever you choose, make sure that you always have it. And whenever an idea, a daydream, a character, or snippet of dialogue comes to you, jot it down. Always be writing. Don’t save your writing for the sessions when you put your fingers to the keyboard.
Don’t save your writing for the sessions when you put your fingers to the keyboard.
A huge advocate of this technique is Judy Blume, a very successful children’s author. She calls it her “security blanket.” She keeps a notebook filled with ideas about her story and adds to it whenever she gets inspired. She describes it as her security because she always has ideas with her. She’ll never go dry because she has a notebook filled with inspiration at her fingertips. If she ever doubts her ability to finish the book, she remembers her idea notebook and knows that she has more ideas to carry her through.
This is somewhat similar to outlining, but it’s more organic and less structured. If you dislike outlining, you will enjoy keeping an idea journal. You could plot out a whole book in disorderly fashion in an idea journal and never feel the pain of structuring a clinical outline of your book.
If you always keep your idea book with you, you will never have to face a blank page again. Even if you wake up and don’t have a single creative thought in your mind, you can write about the inspiration you had last week. Crack open that notebook. Get inspired by your past self.
If you always keep your idea book with you, you will never have to face a blank page again.
Ever since I began doing this, my inspiration seems to flow without a limit. My daily writing habit has smoothed out into a well-oiled machine, and I no longer toil for inspiration the way I used to.
Now, if you’re in a dry wilderness without an idea in your mind, it may take a while before this starts working. The important thing is to stick to the notebook, and just write. Scribble down anything that comes to you, whether it’s good or not. Even if the idea stinks, it will relax your mind and better ideas will begin to flow.
Okay ... But What About Burnout?
What if you’ve tried keeping a notebook of ideas but can’t even bring yourself to write in that?
Burnout is real—it can happen to the best of us. If you’re feeling completely drained and hate writing for the moment, then you may need to take a break.
James Patterson, bestselling author of more novels than any other author in the world, says that if he begins to feel burned out, he will stop writing and go to the movies every day, not writing a single word. He sometimes does this for a whole week, paying attention to the techniques the screenwriters used to tell a compelling story. Sometimes he watches the same movie over and over, if it was particularly good, and studies it.
Now, listen ... James Patterson writes several bestselling novels every year. He probably understands burnout better than any other living writer. If Patterson needs to go to the movies to get refueled, then you may want to try it yourself.
Burnout is an unusual beast and must be handled with care. I got burned out a few months ago and had to take a long break from writing. It all came from simply pushing myself way too hard. Pay attention to the warning signs, and if you begin to feel exhausted, don’t push yourself harder. Give yourself some slack and read some good books. Take it easy for a while
Pay attention to the warning signs, and if you begin to feel exhausted, don’t push yourself harder.
That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now get that notebook out and start journaling your ideas as they come. You’ll be surprised how much more refreshed you feel the next time you sit down at your manuscript.
What do you do to get inspired? Let's chat in the comments below.