Writing: Visiting the Ideas Shop

“Where do you get your ideas from?” may be the most common question asked of writers. For many non-writers, or many aspiring-writers-not-currently-writing, we imagine a magical process where ideas simply arrive in the writer’s brain, unbidden. Writers, we assume, have some kind of different way of approaching the world that enables them to access this well of ideas that is not available to the rest of us.

Would it surprise you to hear that it isn’t actually like that? Ideas often come when they are looked for, worked at, or when it has become a habit to work creatively and develop ideas into writing.

I often find that I have the best/most interesting ideas when I am the busiest or most productive. The further I step away from writing, the fewer ideas I am able to have. So, if you don’t see yourself as a writer, ideas are not likely to just ‘come’. Creativity is a practice, a habit, something we do – we don’t invoke it by wishing, but by working with it.

A helpful place to start is by combining elements. These can simply be objects, people, places – a key, a girl, a beach (a castle might be a little more predictable here…), or more specific elements of existing stories: what if you put Snow White in a contemporary urban setting? You’ll find some more kinds of things to draw on and combine in the mind map above.

Yes, I know, this is using familiar things, but there’s nothing completely original to be written, you know – once you free yourself from that particular false shackle, you’re good to go. The originality comes in how you write, how you put things together. And often the ‘copied’ bits disappear as you get more involved in your story anyway, adding more of you.

Interestingly, this can work with non-fiction too – try combining form and content in new ways to find fresh angles. For example, you might think that dinosaurs are a worn-out topic for kids, but still people find new takes to publish successfully. Anne Rooney’s Dinosaur Atlas, shortlisted for the Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize last year – combining subject and form engagingly and educationally – is a stunning example.

So if you want to write, but feel you can’t because you don’t have an idea, what do you do? Sit down and mess about with some ideas. (yes, I know). What kinds of stories do you like? Or, what kind of non-fic do you want to work on? What would be cool/funny/interesting to put together? What would create good conflict/an interesting angle for readers (or you)? Scribble down some ideas before you commit to anything more (no, I don’t mean you have to plan if that’s anathema to you – literally just list a few different possibilities or mind map a range of stuff, before selecting what to go with). Often we have to jot down the obvious first ideas to let the better next ideas come through. You may get more than one idea out of this, but seriously, it’s worth a try – personally, I only ever get ideas after a break from writing when I put pen(cil) to paper. No magical inspiration for me – maybe it’s the same for you?

Writer’s Wednesday: A ‘Filling the Well’ Trip – The British Library’s Harry Potter Exhibition

Postcard with the poster image from the exhibition – now in my lovely organiser as a memory of my fab day

A few weeks ago, I went with my younger daughter to the marvellous British Library’s Harry Potter exhibition, and it was such an inspiration! I’ve always been a fan of our folkloric and mystical heritage, and that is what this exhibition celebrates – the ideas, stories and rich mythical background on which Rowling draws in her world.

It was an absolute delight to take my 14 yr old HP fan around and enjoy her amazement at illuminated medieval texts, pre-Christian oracle bones (although it’s really thanks to Abi Elphinstone’s Dream Snatcher series that she was excited to see those!) and artwork from Jim Kay (and J.K herself – who knew that she could draw as well?!).

A particular joy as a writer was to also get to see some of the early drafts of the texts. There are sections with different character names, clearly different outcomes, bits with Rowling’s and her editor’s notes on – all a great treat to get to see. I definitely felt refreshed and inspired as a result – a brilliant example of ‘filling the well‘, as Julia Cameron calls it in her seminal work ‘The Artist’s Way’.

As a writer, it was particularly fantastic to see the wealth of ideas referenced in a much-beloved series all drawn together in one place, and to see so many families in wonderment over the fact that so much of that series came from existing ideas. So many of the adults in those display rooms, never mind the children, were exclaiming over not having realised that this or that was not invented by Rowling but already existed as an idea in the world before the books. There was so much respect for Rowling’s weaving together of bits of folklore, astronomy, alchemy and so on – no-one (as one might fear) appeared to feel cheated that it wasn’t ‘truly’ made up, but combined. The whole thing was, to me, a glorious celebration of creativity as the art of re-combination: putting things together in new ways. There really is nothing new in the world.

All in all, it was a great day out, and a wonderful affirmation of the creative imagination.

Blog Tour: Flexing Your Creative Muscle with Maz Evans

Today, I’ve got Maz Evans here as part of her Who Let the Gods Out blog tour (see below for more on the fab Greek-mythology-based romp for 9+)

As our heartfelt New Year promises to nurture physical muscles languish at the bottom of a selection box, I propose that now is a good time to turn our attention to a different muscle – our creativity.

No, I’m not high on my gluten-free, alkaline, low-GI protein smoothie – creativity is a muscle like any other. Use it often and it will become more powerful. Let it waste and no amount of supportive underwear can help it.

Think about it. At some point in your life, maybe you’ve learned to play an instrument or taken up a sport? You weren’t born with these skills. You may have had some natural ability, but in order to fully realise it, you had to practice. The more you play the violin, the less your neighbours want to move. The more you practise your penalty shoot-outs, the fewer windows needed replacing. The more creative you are, the more creative you become.

When I run my Story Stew workshops, I always start by asking everyone if they believe themselves to be a creative, or non-creative person. Various hands go up – as does a sigh of disbelief when I tell them there is no such thing as a non-creative person. But you have to be creative to get through a day on planet Earth. You solve problems – creative. You tell stories – creative. You persuade people to do things for you – creative. You probably tell at least one lie – wrong, but creative.

Next time you’re writing a story, force your creativity to work harder. If you’re writing about a man who wants a dog, why not make him a woman? And she’s a hippo. And she actually wants a parsnip. But she lives on Jupiter where no parsnips will grow. And unless she delivers a parsnip trifle by 3pm, the Lesser-Spotted Krinkenshlob will eat her favourite orange stripy hat…

As demonstrated, you may come up with a load of rubbish. Sometimes your first idea is your best. But somewhere in the mental seed-tray, an idea might start to germinate. At the very least, now your brain is warmed up, you will make your original idea more inventive. Your brain is busy and looking for an easy solution – make it work harder.

So this February, resolve to tone up your creativity and whip your ideas into shape.

Because let’s be honest. It’s got to leave a better taste than this smoothie…


Maz Evans runs creative writing workshops for all ages. For more info visit www.maz.world.

Elliot’s mum is ill and his home is under threat, but a shooting star crashes to earth and changes his life forever. The star is Virgo – a young Zodiac goddess on a mission. But the pair accidentally release Thanatos, a wicked death daemon imprisoned beneath Stonehenge, and must then turn to the old Olympian gods for help. After centuries of cushy retirement on earth, are Zeus and his crew up to the task of saving the world – and solving Elliot’s problems too?

Who Let the Gods Out is Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February and is out now from Chicken House.