While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. This week, I have suggestions for how to get ideas for you. I hope it helps you to generate all kinds of juicy ones!
Writers need an endless flow of ideas. We need ideas for big projects, like a novel or a memoir, that will keep us engaged over the long haul. We need ideas for all the things that go into long projects. We need ideas for small projects like short stories and essays. We need ideas for content—blog posts, sales copy, newsletters.
How do you get ideas? Do you struggle to find them, or do they come to you in an endless flow that is frustrating only because you can’t act on all of them? Although most creative types fall into the latter category, I think if we’re honest we’ll also admit that there are fallow times when ideas aren’t quite so forthcoming. Your writing life will be a lot happier and less stressful if you realize that this is part of the creative cycle and don’t beat yourself up over it.
Keep a list of ideas. I have a pretty little Amy Butler three-ring binder that I keep ideas for blog posts and articles in. This morning I perused them as I pondered what to write. Even if you don’t use an idea from the list, looking back over it will get your brain going.
Go surfing. Spend a few minutes navigating about on the web and see what jogs your interest. Warning: this can be dangerous. As in, an hour later you’re still reading articles and posts, justifying it because you’re supposedly searching for ideas. To avoid this, give yourself a time limit. Set a timer, if need be.
Go for a walk. This is the antithesis of #2. But it is amazing how physical movement can jog your brain and let ideas flood in. I find it especially helpful when I need inspiration in the middle of a project.
Just start writing. Not for the faint of heart, because it can so often bear no fruit. But if you’re really desperate for an idea pull out pen and paper and start writing. See what happens. You might surprise yourself. You can also:
Collect prompts. The reason why prompts are popular is because they work. A prompt is a jump-starter for your writing, a sentence or phrase that you use to get going. I like to use them to gather ideas for current projects as well as to just practice writing. It is best to cultivate prompts the way you cultivate friends–keep a list of them handy so you can go to it when needed.
Read a book. A real book. Step away from the computer screen and pick up a book, any book. Grab a volume of poetry and sit with it for 15 minutes. See if that doesn’t get the juices flowing.
Visit a museum. Or an art gallery. Or an art supply store. Or a stationery or office supply store. Or a book store. Go somewhere that contains either the finished product of creative effort or offers supplies for said activity. A location that showcases finished containers or offers empty ones. Either will inspire.
Bonus Item: Meditate or pray. Or if you don’t like any of that woo-woo stuff, get quiet and breathe. Ask for an idea. See what happens. It might be magic.
What are your favorite ways to get ideas?
I will return to regular love letter programming on September 30th.
Many, many, many, many, many, many (okay, I'll stop now), years ago in college, my favorite perfume was Je Reviens. This was a perfume that stopped men in their tracks, causing them to ask me why I smelled so good. I clearly recall one instance of this when I sat studying in the EMU Fishbowl.* A frat boy sitting two booths away yelled over to ask the name of the perfume that was distracting him. There was just something about this scent–and maybe the way it reacted to my skin–that enticed people, including me.
Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure my sister Alice, who was an airline stewardess for TWA back in the days when they were still called stewardesses and TWA still existed, must have brought me bottles of Je Reviens from Paris. I quit wearing perfume for a long time and forgot about Je Reviens. But flash forward a gazillion years, to last summer, when the hub and I were in Paris on our way home from Pezenas. I decided to try to find a bottle of Je Reviens to take home. The glitzy–and intimidating–perfume store on the Champs Elysees, which sells every perfume known to man, didn't have it. And the bored ladies who worked there hadn't heard of it. I asked everywhere I found a place they sold perfume–at a cute little store at the base of the Sacre-Coeur Cathedral in Montmarte, at a shop in Montparnasse, where we stayed. But nobody seemed to have heard of it. (I'm certain my terrible French pronunciation had nothing to do with it.)
Upon my return home, it finally occurred to me to ask my friend Angela about the perfume. She is a perfume writer, you see (as well as being a wonderful mystery writer). She immediately told me she had some vintage Je Reviens she'd found in an antique shop and she would decant some for me. (See photo.) She also explained that the perfume had gone through several incarnations recently and was still available, albeit in a watered-down, drugstore version. I carried my sample home with reverence and stuck it in my bathroom cabinet to use for special occasions.
I am wearing it today. I'm not going anywhere special–I'm not going anywhere at all. I sprayed it on to cheer myself up after the WORST allergy attack that anybody has endured, ever, happened to me yesterday. And it has done the job. It brought back all kinds of pleasant memories, as noted above, and it has also made me ponder the power of scent in writing.
Firstly, smells transport us to other times and places. A whiff of a hawthorne bush, and I'm a little kid again, at my Aunt Betty's house in Hillsborough, California. The smell of corndogs and I'm at the Rose Festival Fun Center carnival that assembles itself every year along the waterfront here in town. (They call it CityFair now to try to jazz it up.) The aroma of sage transports me to New Mexico. Inhaling Je Reviens brought back all the memories I wrote about above. And these are rich veins, people, rich veins. You could do worse than to line up some smells to use as prompts. Take a whiff and start writing.
And second, smells can be just as evocative in our writing. Adding aroma to your descriptions helps to bring it alive–and yet it is probably the least taken-advantage-of sense. In my just-submitted novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery, my agent challenged me to do a better job of evoking the smell of the protagonist's macaron shop. Erp. Here's what I came up with:
And there was no other word for the smell of it but heavenly—that faint whiff of sugar, like cotton candy at the fair, or an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, the aroma that called to mind the best day of your childhood, or maybe your whole life.
Not holding myself up as the paragon of descriptive writing here, but rather illustrating how I equated smell with emotion rather than try to evoke it exactly. Because, how do you describe smells, other than to use the noun of what they come from–rose, for instance, or grass? I think that's why writers shy away from using smell in their descriptions. But I urge you to try.
So, yeah, 700-some words later and I've written a blog post, all inspired by my perfume. The power of scent, indeed.
*The EMU at the University of Oregon was the scene of the famous food fight in the movie Animal House, and also one of my favorite scenes of all time, when John Belushi says, "I'm a zit." Just to balance the sweetness of this post, here's the clip:
Are you an idea generating machine? Ha! Me either. But if you're a writer, you better be. I don't think I am by nature. But I have trained myself to be better at it–and you can too.
Generating ideas is on my mind because I'm writing synopses for my next two books. (And by the way, yes I did deliver the rewrite on Friday!) I have the basic idea for each of them, but there's a lot to figure out in a novel.
(Let me pause right here and admit that I'm a plotter, not a pantser. I like to have at least a loose idea of where the story is going. This is serving me in good stead now that I'm writing synopses.)
But this whole thing of figuring out the plot of the novel–to say nothing of the characters and setting–can be a bit overwhelming. Contrary to the belief of non-writers, one does not just sit down and write out a plot that will work.
So what does one do? I have learned to come at it from a lot of different angles. I have to, because that's how ideas form for me. So maybe some of these angles will be helpful for you.
1. Write about it. I know. Duh. But I think sometimes we tend to sit at our desks and stare at the monitor–or out the window, hoping the words will form themselves. Ha! A nice free writing session can be infinitely helpful in figuring stuff out. You can use prompts or just plunge in and write.
2. Make lists. this has been very helpful to me. Some current examples: "What I know about _____ novel." "What I don't know about ________ novel." Do the same thing for characters, and setting. Once, long ago, I wrote a mystery (not a great idea, as I don't generally read a lot of mysteries). One of my lists was "Burning Questions to Answer." And there's always the tried and true, "What if?"
3. Walk. I've been walking around the house lately. I'm healing my hips from some issues and if I go for too long outside, I get pain. So I'm getting my steps in by walking in short spurts around the house. And this is very helpful for ideas. The more I pace, the more ideas I get. Makes the idea of getting up off my butt much more palatable.
4. Take a shower. The idea for my novel The Bonne Chance Bakery came to me, nearly fully formed, in the shower. And I have smaller ideas all the time when standing under the water. We just got a new water heater (not by choice, the old one sprang a leak) and so now I have more hot water than I've ever dreamed of. Best thing ever! And, I can tell my husband I have to take long hot showers to get ideas. I haven't actually tried that yet. Not sure he'll believe me.
5. Remember that every story comes to you differently. As mentioned above, I've had the lovely experience with both Emma Jeanand the Bonne Chance that they came to me in nearly whole cloth form. So now I fight the expectation that this will always happen. Conversely, I have to remind myself that's its okay if the idea doesn't download itself that way. It will still be a good novel. (And in truth, I still had to do quite a bit of idea gathering to complete the ones that came to me all at once. But do I remember that? Of course not.)
6. Research. This can spark so many ideas. But don't get bogged down in it, which is very easy to do.
7. Journal. Or do morning pages. When I'm in the middle of figuring out a novel, I wake up and go right to the journal to do morning pages. (Okay, I do stop to get coffee and water.) I start writing about any old thing, but most days, my words morph into thoughts on the current novel. And there I am, figuring things out and creating ideas!
So that's what I'm up to at the moment. How do you find your ideas? Leave a comment!
**Don't forget that I'm teaching a workshop in Nashville this spring! You can find all the details here.
On Wednesday, I gave a presentation at a local retirement center. I talked about how and where writers get ideas, and interspersed readings from Emma Jean's Bad Behavior. Afterwards, I got to sell books. It was a lot of fun! Anne, the organizer (an amazing dynamo of a woman) told me that the room could take up to 50 people, and every chair was full, with more folks in the back, so it was a crowded house. You guys, they were the warmest, most welcoming group ever. I met wonderful people like Carolyn, who researched me and started writing in her journal after reading my blog (Hi, Carolyn!) and shocked me when she revealed her age. I adored her, and honestly, I loved them all. Absolutely wonderful! Plus, I got paid. (Thank you, Watermark Retirement Communities for being willing to support local writers.)
And, I thought the talk came out pretty well. So I decided to reproduce it here in slightly edited form (minus the interspersed readings, for one thing). I based my talk on the questions I get asked most often as a writer.
The Two Most Common Questions
When people find out I'm a writer, they generally ask one of two things, (besides "Have I heard of you?"):
1. Where do you get your ideas?
2. How much of your novel is true/based on your own life?
And the answers to both, are:
Everywhere and all of it.
But neither of these answers tells the whole story.
So let me explain.
Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, features a 48-year-old bestselling novelist, happily married and proudly childless, who goes to L.A. on a book tour, has a mad, passionate affair with a younger man, gets pregnant and watches her entire world fall apart.
Now, I don't hate babies, I adore them and have two grandbabies of my own. I never got pregnant at age 48, though I do have two children (I bore them in my 20s). I've never had a passionate affair with a younger man, never been on a book tour, and despite my best efforts, I don't happen to be a bestselling author—yet. But still, Emma Jean could not exist without my life experiences and proclivities. Emma Jean and I are not exactly alike, but we share a lot of similarities.
So I think its fair to say that ideas are a combination of the writer's life experience and, most important, her imagination. But for me, and I think this is true of many others, my imagination is sparked by something that happens to me in my life and from there I form a story.
Ideas Are Everywhere.
Ideas are everywhere, all around us all the time, and if you ask most writers where they get ideas they will say just that—"everywhere." Which is true, though isn't really a very helpful explanation. So I sat down and pondered and came up with a list of 7 different ways that I get ideas.
For me, all stories start with characters, and I get ideas for my characters from real life people. Emma Jean, for instance, is loosely based on one of my professors in graduate school. This woman is quite a well-known writer and so I dare not reveal her name—but she shares Emma Jean's brash, self-centered ways, and also her love of wine. Oh, does she share her love of wine.
But it's not as if I lifted this real-life person's personality wholesale and assigned it to Emma Jean. No, I took bits and pieces of it, her essence, if you will.
And I often think that Emma Jean is me on steroids. Emma Jean says the things I think, but she is always more clever than I am by far, and also, alas, quite snarky. So, as I mentioned, though we share many traits, Emma Jean is not me. I'm far nicer than she is, for one thing. Or at least I hope so!
The next area I get inspiration from is place. I am greatly influenced and inspired by places around the world. Emma Jean takes place in Portland, L.A., and Sun Valley, Idaho. I live in and love Portland, so that's obvious. And I visit L.A. a lot as I have friends there. I have a love-hate relationship with the place, as does Emma Jean in the book. And, at the time I wrote the novel, my daughter was living in Sun Valley, Idaho, working at an art gallery-which also found its way into the story.
It's funny, though, a place has to grab me in some way in order to make it into a book. I've been to lots of cities across the country, for instance, and none of them have made it to my stories. And I've tried a million different times to set a story in Ashland, Oregon, a town I love, but I can't ever make it work. I'm not sure why that is. One of those weird writer's quirks.
Which brings us to….travel. Seeing new places and new cultures has a huge impact on my ideas. The novel I'm currently working on is set in a Portland macaron bakery. (Yes, macaron—the French cookies, not the sickly sweet American macaroon made with coconut.) The inspiration for it came two summers ago, when I was in France. My biz partner, Debbie and I, teach writing workshops in France every summer and it was during one of these that a student introduced me to the macaron. Later that week, I visited a famous macaron bakery in Paris.
Now, I didn't look at the macarons and automatically think, I should write a novel about them, but about a month later I was at home in the shower when the idea for the novel hit me. (And I hasten to add that I'm not writing about macarons so much as a character who bakes them.) So travel has a big impact on my writing and stories.
This doesn't happen often, but once in awhile I have such a vivid dream that it turns into a story. One of the first short stories I ever wrote happened this way. We were at the beach on a family vacation and I dreamed of a long-ago boyfriend who had been a bit of a roustabout and a cad. I woke up and wrote a story about a woman who'd had a similar boyfriend and then run into him years later and how different he was from who she thought he would become.
But I think most often dreams influence my stories through imagery and vague ideas that are stored in my subconscious, things I'm not fully aware of that surprise me when I write. More on this in a bit.
5. Work details
The first writing class I ever took was from a writer named Craig Lesley, who I think is one of the best Northwest authors and sadly underrated and not known nationally. Craig started out his classes by having students write a story based on work details, his contention being that many of us have had jobs about which we know a ton—but others know very little. I wrote a story about two people working in a printing plant because when I was younger my Dad owned one and I basically grew up in it.
You might also remember the novels of Arthur Hailey, who wrote books like Hotel and Airport—all of which were based on our fascination with the work details of other people's lives.
I am a woman of great passions, some of them passing, but many of them show up in my fiction. In Emma Jean, for instance, her husband is a winemaker, and I am a great lover of wine. I'm writing a mystery series set in a yarn shop—because I'm an avid knitter. The occasional Pug shows up in my work as well, because they are my favorite pet. And it helps to know something about what you write starting out.
7. Out of the ether/subconscious
This is the most mysterious thing that happens: sometimes things just show up in your writing and you have no idea where they came from. An example of this is the character Ava in my novel. She just walked on one day and made herself known. A similar thing happened with the novel I'm currently working on—a character named Daisie, also a young girl, appeared, sitting in the back room of the bakery, being wordly wise far beyond her years. She's my favorite character in the new novel, as was Ava in the old one.
8. Technique for Producing and Idea
Finally, I want to share with you a sure-fire system for getting ideas that I learned many years ago. It came from a little book called Technique for Producing Ideas that was written by a Madison Avenue Adman. (News flash: the book was written by James Webb Young and it is still available.) He needed to produce a lot of creative ideas on demand as an adman, and came up with this system, which I've used in a variety of ways. Basically, its this:
–You think and take notes and write about the problem/thing you need an idea for.
–You research every aspect of it.
–Do both of the above until your brain is so full up of information you think it might burst.
–And then walk away. He recommended to go golfing. I say go for a walk, or do some dishes, or cook, or knit. Or something.
–When you least expect it, an idea will pop up! Why? Because you've given your subconscious plenty of material and then let it do its thing, which is to compost and digest said material into a new form.
And let me just give you an example of this. I've been thinking about this talk for quite awhile. I came up with the idea to talk to you about ideas about a month ago, but for a long time, the shape of the talk didn't come to me. So I looked through notes I'd used for other classes and talks, and I did some research on the internet about what other writers said. And then, sure enough, Sunday morning I was in the shower when the entire outline for this talk downloaded itself to my brain. So utilizing the subconscious really does work.
A couple of suggestions for working with ideas, whether you want to write or need them for other areas of your life:
1. Write them down! Always! You think you will remember them but you likely won't.
2. If you get stuck, get up. Time and time again I've hit a roadblock and decided to get up for food or drink—only to have an idea two steps away from the computer that sends me running back to my desk.
3. Showering, walking, and repetitive motion activities like knitting, weeding, and vacuuming are great for producing ideas. They let your mind roam free.
4. Fill the well. Read a lot, listen to music, go on a field trip, get outside. Do things that will fill your brain with images and ideas.
5. Keep an idea book.
6. Stay open. The idea that looks craziest may just be the one that ends up working.
Okay, so that's it. If you live in Portland, especially east Portland, check out the reading series at Watermark. It is open to the public, though space is limited so you need to get on Anne's mailing list. Email me and I'll hook you up.
This is you, with all your ideas aglow in your head.
It's a shiny new year and many of us have worked hard to note goals and dreams for 2014. No matter what your writing goals, they are all dependent on one thing: a plethora of ideas. So I thought it might be a good time to look at ways to cultivate them.
Observation. Open thouest eyes and gaze upon the world. We're too often so wrapped up in ourselves that we don't see what's right in front of us. As Deepak Chopra once said, "All our misery comes from our own self importance." I would amend that to say: "Our lack of writing ideas comes from our own self importance." Quit worrying about yourself and pay attention to what's going on in the world.
Listening. We all talk too damn much. Open your ears and listen to what's going on around you–that dialogue between the two cowboys in the corner (hey, I live in Oregon, we get us some cowboys, especially on the east side of the state), the dialect your neighbor speaks, the cadence and flow of your minister's sermon or your professor's lecture.
Speculation. So, because you have your eyes wide open, you notice a man walking down the street wearing a skirt. (Don't laugh, my neighbor does this all the time. Really. I'm not kidding. He runs barefoot, too. Sometimes while wearing the skirt.) And what you do is speculate: he's wearing the skirt because he wants to be a woman. He's wearing the skirt because he's mad at his wife and he's trying to embarrass her. He's wearing the skirt because a friend dared him. Now we're cooking, huh? Couldn't any one of these be a story?
Making connections. It's been said (by who, I don't know) that creativity is the combining of two disparate things that might not otherwise go together. In other words, it's about making connections. So it stands to reason if you put two odd things together you'll come up with something new. You know, like Jane Austen and Kitties, or Jane Austen and Zombies, or…oh never mind.
Force the Issue. Sometimes when you are grasping for an idea, you have to nudge it. A lot. This is especially true when you need an idea for a WIP. Like that time when you get into the muddle middle of your novel and you have no idea what happens next. This is when you force the issue. And the best way to force the issue? Why, write about it, of course. And a good way to force the issue in writing is:
Ask What If. The tried and true writer's question: what if? Ask that question over and over again and see what happens. What if my protagonist jumped off that cliff? But there was no water below as she thought? And then she survived but she was in the middle of a desert with a broken leg? And then a lion came? Well, okay, the last part doesn't make sense, but that doesn't matter–just let your brain rove freely over the what ifs. You never know what idea might be tweakable for the perfect plot point.
Write Things Down. I find, over and over again, that ideas comes to me in the middle of the writing process. I think I don't know where I'm going on the page, but then I write one word and then another. And before I know it, without even thinking about it, my fingers are flying across the keyboard with idea. So make yourself start writing, even if you think you can't. Oh, and also? Please don't forget to write an idea down as soon as you have it. Don't tell yourself you'll remember. Because you won't. Smart phones are great for this, because admit it, you always have yours with you so you can make a note on it.
Steal Things. But don't plagiarize, please. When I say to steal things I mean it in the metaphorical sense of the word–as in there's nothing new under the sun anyway, so your take on the two sisters, one of whom is ugly and one gorgeous is going to be different than mine. Go ahead and steal that idea for your novel, by the way–I dare you to.
Vary Your Routine. Drive a different route to work or cook a new dish for dinner. Better yet–go out and try a new restaurant. Dance the Macarena or sing sad country songs. Watch a foreign film that makes you feel stupid because you don't get it or try a TV show you've not seen before. Take a hike, visit an art gallery–you get the idea.
Have a Sense of Adventure. If you head out into the world with the idea that life's an adventure, it will be–and you'll have so many wonderful experiences to write about that you'll never lack for ideas. I will admit this falls into the age-old dilemma of, do I sit at how and write or go out in the world so I have something to write about? For me the answer is to find a balance between the two. Of course, you can have a sense of adventure while sitting at your desk, too.
Those are my ideas about gleaning ideas for your writing. What are yours? Please leave a comment.
A couple weeks ago I was greatly taken by a lecture I heard about the writing life, given by Helena Kriel at the Spalding MFA spring residency.
The talk was, essentially, about how everything in the world feeds into our writing lives and our writing–if we are but present to the world. Further, when we are being present, seeking our deepest thoughts within and putting them onto the page, we are involved in the same sorts of transformation that sages and gurus and lamas and mystics have sought for millennia.
Ever since I heard this lecture, this is what I have strived to do. I have done my best to be present during my writing time, and not give in to the distractions of email, Twitter, or news stories on the Internet. And beyond that, I've really been working on an awareness of how I interact with the world when I'm not writing.
No Such Thing As Boring
For instance, when I'm doing something "boring." I put that word in quotes because I truly believe that boring is all in the mind of the person being bored. Instead of giving into the boredom, I try to find something in front of me that makes the event interesting. This could be the smallest of detail–a splash of red geranium while weeding the garden, a jet flying overhead that causes me to wonder where its headed and who is on it, that person walking by with a scowl on her face.
It is this kind of attitude that will feed a constant flow of ideas into your writing. And ideas are the lifeblood of the creative person, aren't they? We need a constant flow of them, not only for new projects but for our WIPs. Ideas come from the world around us joining with what's already within, and for this to happen one must be present, observe and practice deep listening.
Other Ideas for Ideas
–Keep an idea book. Because if you don't write them down, they will disappear. Ideas are sneaky creatures that like to be recognized. I find my ideas tend to get lost if I write them only in my journal, so I keep a spiral notebook devoted solely to ideas. I swear, once I close the cover they breed and have babies–which is exactly what you want to happen.
–Put them on the page, nowhere else. This is not true for everybody, but it's true for a lot of creative people–talking about ideas dissipates them. They belong on the page, not in conversation with your spouse or BFF. Ideas are fragile and need care and tending, which is best done with pen and paper.
–Let them flow. Ideas tend to morph. If we exert too much control over them, say, not letting them go in a new direction when they want to, they stagnate. You may think your book is really about robots but your idea mind suddenly says its about aliens. Go with it. You may get back to the robots eventually. Or not.
When you cultivate an attitude like this, and take good care of your ideas, the world truly will be your oyster–you'll be inundated with so many ideas you won't know what to do with them. And not only is this wonderful for your writing, it's an amazing way to live in the times when you're not writing.
I've been doing some interviews (I'll have links soon–like tomorrow soon)for the release of Emma Jean, and one of the things that comes up is how I got the idea for the novel. I always have to stop and think about this because there's not one clear light bulb moment. It was more like an aggregation of ideas that reached critical mass. And then, voila, Emma Jean burst upon the scene.
Ideas are mysterious.
And to me, they involve a process. This + this + this + this = THIS. And then there you are, writing a novel. Or a story. Or an essay.
But to get to THIS you have to be mindful.
Because if you're not, you might miss one of the thises.
Ideas are like money, they come when you already have some and aren't worrying about them. Thus the best way to get more ideas is to have ideas in the first place. Yet another one of the wonderful paradoxes of the writer's life.
But there are ways to encourage the getting of ideas to start with, and I list them here:
Ask questions. When you see that guy walking down the street wearing a skirt (this is actually not the most unusual of sights in my town) ask yourself, why? Did he just break up with his girl friend and is trying to embarrass her? Or make himself feel worse? Does he come from a long line of skirt-wearing men? All the "W" questions are good for this.
Daydream. Stuck at a traffic light? Make up a story about something you see. Waiting at the doctor's office? Look at your fellow patients and begin to wonder about their lives.
Write ideas down. Ideas respond to coddling. Maybe you have the nudge of an idea but it's not in the least fully formed. Write it down anyway.
Keep an ideas journal. I throw all my various ideas into one journal where they breed, I swear it.
Brainstorm. This is helpful when you have a specific idea you need (as for a scene or chapter). Get crazy on the page. Set a timer and write down things as fast as they come to you.
That's it. That's all I got for now. Because, as I mentioned earlier, ideas are mysterious and nobody really truly knows from whence they come.
Do you know where your ideas come from? How do you coddle them?
**Next Tuesday is the release of my novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior! Join me for the release party, just fill out the form here to get the info. (I'm just collecting your email to make it easier to get you the information–no spam from these hands.)
I needed me an idea. For this very blog post that you're reading, in fact.
I have been posting on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday schedule and that works well for me. Doesn't seem to be too overwhelming for readers and it's not so far apart that you'll forget about me. Usually, I have an idea in mind for my next blog post a day or two ahead, allowing it to compost in my subconscious.
But this time I didn't.
Which was somewhat embarrassing, seeing as how I just announced a class on ideas and people have started signing up for it.
But then I realized I could follow my own advice. And so I did. And here's what I did:
1. Set an intention that I would find an idea. I saw myself coming up with an idea.
2. Filled the well. I went looking for an idea, intention tucked firmly into my mind.
3. Acted as if I had an idea. I came back to this page and started writing. And guess what? It turned out that I did have an idea….about ideas.
And now you're reading the blog post that resulted.
This is but one idea in a class full of them. To find out more, click on the page about the class. And, please comment. I'd love to hear how you cultivate ideas. What do you do when you need an idea?
Create a successful, inspired writing life: Apply the three-step process above to your search for an idea. (And come back here and report how it worked for you.)
You've all heard the party line about getting ideas for writing (and I say it myself, often): you can't sit around and wait for inspiration to strike you, you've got to make it happen by sitting down and writing.
It's good advice because it's true advice.
Except for when it's not.
Last week when I was sick I spent a lot of time prone on the couch. The first couple of days I lay there in what I'm certain was an unattractive manner, considering I hadn't had a shower in a couple of days and…. never mind, I'll spare you the details. The second couple of days I read (by then I was clean of body, too). Voraciously. And somewhere along the line I suddenly started getting ideas for my novel. The very same novel that had been stalled at the start of chapter three, because I couldn't decide: funeral scene or scene in high-rise office?
I knew I was feeling better when I leapt from the couch, searching for paper and pen. And thus I have notes for chapter three scrawled on a pad of paper decorated with holly berries, a bonus item the boys of the St. Joseph Lakota school sent me in hopes I'd donate to their cause (along with a dream catcher and a thick stack of address labels).
Had I not gotten sick, I would have diligently forced the issue of chapter three. I would have thought. And thought some more. And walked. And done free writing assignments. And taken notes. I would have goosed the muse until the poor muse was so overwhelmed and exhausted he would have yelled, "Stop! Here's an idea already!"
But that didn't happen this time. Instead, I lolled about and the ideas came. So I'm thinking my new modus operandi is to just lie on the couch all the time. Kidding! Sort of. Because I believe what happened last week was that my brain finally got quiet enough for me to listen. The week previous had been full of holiday stuff, and there was much important business and scurrying around and not a lot of quiet. So I'm putting quiet, just plain quiet, at the top of my list for idea gathering and getting unstuck.
For the record, here are my other top ways to get unstuck:
The great thing about writing is that things always change. What worked once may not work again. What's never worked before suddenly works like a charm. The way you wrote your first novel, in a white heat with words flowing so fast you can barely keep up, seems like a distant memory as you plod through your second novel, word by painful word.
And this, my friends, is what makes writing the most fascinating profession in the world.
How do you get unstuck?
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Like Oprah, here are three things I know for sure:
1. Energy breeds energy
2. The more you write, the easier it gets.
3. Ideas generate ideas
About that last truism, I have this theory that ideas actually breed like rabbits. If you note ideas in your journal, or corral them in an idea book, they find each other, mate, and multiply. One idea sires a whole new generation of them. And before you know it, you're overwhelmed with ideas. Then the lovely problem you have is how to not fall prey to bright shiny object syndrome. ("I think I'm going to write this short story instead of the novel I'm working on. No wait, I want to start working on that mystery. Oh no, I've got it, I'll write my memoir.")
Try it. Make an effort to write down ideas and see if they don't multiply. It is quite magical, actually.
But, you may ask, where do ideas come from in the first place? Good question, because writers and creative types need a constant stream of them. Without fresh ideas and energy for your work, you'll eventually stagnate and quit creating. So ideas are the lifeblood of our creative practice. How to get them? Where do they come from?
In my mind, ideas flow from:
Never underestimate the power of observation. Simply writing down something you saw (A man walking down the street wearing red shoes) can spark an idea One of the best ways to begin cultivating ideas is just to write stuff down. Doesn't have to be original or unique, you simply need to make a note of it. Because when you write down several observations, the rabbit breeding thing happens, and before you know it you simple little observations have combined into full-blown ideas. Voila!
The other wonderful thing that observation sparks is speculation. (Why is that man wearing red shoes? Doesn't he realize they are ugly?) You can actually force ideas using speculation. And, the thing is, at first when you're working on cultivating ideas, the process feels a bit forced. But soon the ideas are coming so quickly that you realize they were there all the time, waiting for you to start noticing them.
I'm thinking a lot about ideas these days because I'm going to be teaching an online class about them in December. Actually, ideas are half the class. The other half is about taking those ideas and making them tangible through goal-setting. It's going to be held on two successive Tuesdays in December and you can access the class by phone from wherever you happen to find yourself. I'm teaching it in December for a couple reasons. The first is because I always find the dark days of December to be an intensely creative time for me and the second because holding it then will set you up for massive productivity around your writing in the new year.
So check out the class here. (I'm also teaching a class called Make Money Writing in January. And I'm offering a special discount for people who sign up for both. Check that class out here.) I'm keeping the cost of both of these classes low, because I know a lot of people want and need this information.
And tell me: how do you cultivate ideas for writing? Do you have any tips for keeping the flow of them coming?