My last What Works For Me article went down really well so, whether you want it or not, here are a few more words of dubious wisdom. This time: the generation, gestation and harvesting of IDEAS.
When you write, there are a number of things you inevitably get asked over and over. One of the favourites is where do you get your ideas? For me, that’s a really interesting question. The easiest answer is something glib like dreams, or they just appear out of the ether, but that’s no help when you’re sitting in front of a classroom full of kids or when you’re on a panel at an event in front of an audience that’s expecting you to say something enlightening/witty. There’s more to it than that.
My last piece talked about the process I follow to turn an idea into a book, so I thought it would be interesting to go back a stage and look at how those ideas appear in the first place and what I do to nurture and develop them. As always, this is what works for me. If it doesn’t work for you or you have alternative suggestions, let me know and I’ll put together a follow-up post.
Firstly, what do I mean by ‘idea’? It’s a pretty bland and unscientific word. I guess it would be more appropriate to talk about ‘inspiration’. I’m talking about something that stimulates you… something that makes you want to know more, that makes you ask what if…? What’s important is recognising when this inspiration strikes, and doing something about it.
Since I’ve been writing, here are a few things I’ve learned:
- For me, staring at an empty screen or a blank piece of paper is not conducive to coming up with a killer idea.
- Ideas never arrive fully formed: they always need work.
- Whole stories can come from single ideas, but it might not be immediately obvious how. For example, the first part of STRAIGHT TO YOU I came up with was the final scene. The first inkling I had of TRUST was a dream of an endless queue of people walking in perfect formation. The six-book AUTUMN series all came from driving around North Wales at dusk whilst on holiday.
- Your initial idea, therefore, might just be a trigger and may easily mutate into something else entirely.
- Ideas don’t tend to arrive in order or on demand. In fact, they’re often late and are frequently inconvenient and disruptive. Quite often they strike at the worst possible time, usually sticking their nose in when you’re neck deep in writing something else entirely. My advice: stay focused on what you’re already working on but make sure you record the new idea (more about that in a second).
- You’ll always remember good ideas. Trust me. I have a frustrating habit of coming up with a great hook or a perfect plot twist just as I’m falling asleep at night. If the idea’s worth keeping, I always remember it in the morning. (Those who are paying attention will see the obvious flaw in my logic here: how do I know how many killer ideas I’ve forgotten? You’re right, I don’t. But what I do know is how many times I’ve woken up and immediately thought back to what I was thinking about last night…)
- Good ideas never die. Seriously. One of the novels I wrote last year came from an idea I first wrote down in 1995. You probably know (because it’s released tomorrow and I keep banging on about it) that my latest release, STRAIGHT TO YOU, is a rewrite of my first novel which is twenty years old. Over time I realised the original version wasn’t good enough, but the point is this: I always believed in the idea and it never died. Ideas generally don’t have expiry dates.
The most important thing I’ve found is to recognise when this inspiration strikes and to have a system in place to help you record and organise it. Because I’m a nerd, I harness the power of the Cloud. Pretentious, I know, but it works for me. Many folks carry a notebook. Instead I have a document (called, with startling originality, ‘Ideas’) which I can access, review, add to and edit via my phone, laptop, iPad, office computer, or any other computer I’m working on providing I remember my log-on details. For me, my ideas repository needs to be secure and easily accessible at all times.
Incidentally, there was a fantastic BBC documentary about the crime writer Ian Rankin a couple of years back. It’s well worth a watch if you can find it. The documentary followed the author throughout the writing of a novel, from planning and outlining through to publication. Rankin’s ideas, as I recall, were stored in a battered cardboard folder: scribbled notes, newspaper clippings and the like…
So what do I record in this document of mine? Pretty much anything, actually:
- Random lines of dialogue
- Character sketches
- Descriptions of a specific scene/location
- Entire conversations
- Dreams I’ve had
- An overall premise (e.g. aliens arrive, everyone thinks they’re great except one man – is he wrong or is everyone else?)
- Links to interesting articles, websites, documents etc.
- And so on…
And how do I use this stuff? Well, I might look through the list when I’m thinking about planning a new novel or short, or I might have a look when I’m midway through a project but I’ve hit a bit of a brick wall… anytime I need inspiration, really (incidentally, this underlines why I don’t believe Writer’s Block exists, but I guess that’s a discussion/argument for another time). As I’ve already hinted, a random note I’ve jotted down might trigger a completely different response when I look at it six months or a couple of years down the line. Good ideas are often adaptable: that plot twist you’d been saving for your next horror masterpiece… it might fit perfectly into the apocalyptic sci-fi novel you’re working on today.
I said earlier that, personally, I can’t sit in front of a blank piece of paper and come up with ideas on tap. It’s all about the mind-set, I believe and I think you can help (but not force) inspiration to strike. Some of these suggestions are common-sense, but bear with me:
- Write about your passions – what interests you
- Plan to write about what you know…
- …and if you want to write about something else, get to know it (i.e. research!)
- Gorge yourself on relevant books and films. Play computer games
- Want to write about a specific place? Go there if you can. Want to write a book about a man trying to reach his wife before the world ends? (yes, I’m talking about STRAIGHT TO YOU again) Why not recreate his journey yourself (in the car, obviously, and without the stress of a looming apocalypse)
- Isolate yourself from everything else for a while (easier said than done, I realise). Turn off the lights, put your headphones on and listen to music that’s reminiscent of the tone you’re looking for…
- Distract yourself from writing – go for a run, walk the dog… whatever! Just do something far removed from the physical act of writing.
Ultimately, for me, the key to regularly finding inspiration is to constantly ask what if?
- Those two cars I saw just missed, but what if they’d hit?
- What if I’d gone out half an hour earlier and missed that phone call?
- The flooding in the UK will probably (hopefully) peak soon, but what if the rain doesn’t stop?
- What if the dead really did rise?
- What if the Prime Minister really is a shape-shifting, lizard-tongued alien hiding behind a smug, public-schooled façade?
See what I’m getting at?
Anyway, I think that’s enough from me. I hope this is useful. As always, this is what works for me, but I’d love to hear what works for you. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please get in touch. Also, don’t hesitate to let me know if there are any aspects of writing or publishing in general that you want my take on. I’ll give you my perspective, and hopefully other folks will chip in and give you theirs.