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?

Introducing September’s Book of the Month: YA BAME Anthology A Change is Gonna Come

This book is a superb introduction to a range of BAME writers working in the UK today. In this collection, they all tackle the theme of ‘change’ in short stories and poems for a Young Adult audience. The collection features many well-known authors such as Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence and Nikesh Shukla, but the publishers also held open submission slots for previously unpublished and and unagented writers and the collection thus introduces new voices: Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Yasmin Rahman and Phoebe Roy. The project demonstrates a serious attempt to tackle the issue of BAME representation in YA writing, and since its publication, the publisher has also announced other proactive measures to increase opportunities for writers in this under-represented area.

The stories and poems cover a range of genres: contemporary, historical, fantasy, mythical and topics from personal loss to dramatic and fantastical transformations. (A fuller review detailing individual texts will follow later in the month.)

Lesson on representation issues and stealth-recommending the collection to students

Starter to highlight the gap in representation: how many Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic writers or characters from fiction can students come up with? In pairs, students could work separately on either characters or authors each, and then pair and share their ideas.

Non-fiction work: the collection features a thoughtful and thought-provoking foreword by Darren Chetty (@rapclassroom).  If you’re considering using this book in the classroom, or having copies in your classroom library, a lesson based on the foreword would be a constructive way to highlight the book to students. This text can be used to open up debate on representation and interventions such as this project. Students could be invited to discuss issues such as:

  • the eternal problem of minority writers being expected to record only the minority experience (e.g. gay lit reduced to ‘coming out’ stories)
  • the question of privileged writers writing from minority positions (but what about imagination?)
  • public perceptions of special collections such as this one
  • how/why increased and improved representation is important to minority or less privileged groups

Additional resource: a further text that could supplement this work is Tanya Byrne’s excellent article for the Guardian on the issue of BAME representation and resistance. (There are a couple of examples of strong language in this piece, so you may want to use caution with younger students). Again, this is a great text to open up debate, and it raises the issues particularly clearly. Students could be asked to trace Byrne’s arguments and/or look at how she gathers and presents her evidence in order to convince her audience. Tracking this through the piece via a flow diagram is a useful way of visualising it.

Creative approach: students could be asked to plan and perhaps also produce their own narrative on the theme of change. This may (or may not) be followed by a discussion of the stories and poems in the collection themselves.

I think if I had the space to use this anthology like a set text, I would teach from the foreword as discussed here, then set a creative writing challenge, then explore the stories. In reality, of course, it’s more likely that I’ll only be able to sneak in one extract as a means of ‘teasing’ the book and hopefully encouraging some students to read it. I think both non-fiction and lit-focused tasks have the chance to do that with different classes, depending on their interests.

A Change is Gonna Come is out now from Stripes, a division of Little Tiger Press. For a poster of the book for your classroom, contact @StripesBooks on Twitter (they did say I should tell people this!)