“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?