I had a giggle with a fellow author the other day.
“I offered to beta read a friend’s first draft,” she told me. “Except she was worried I might steal her idea.” And we laughed and laughed and laughed. Why? Because if you are a writer by trade, be it a fiction author or copywriter or even a just-for-fun blogger, coming up with ideas is normally the least of your worries. In fact most of us struggle with sticking to just the one idea at a time when so many other new characters and opportunities are fighting for attention in our ever muddled heads.
Yet ‘How do you find inspiration’ or ‘How on earth did you even think of that?’ are two of the most frequently questions I receive at author events or after people have read my work.
Most writers write when they are inspired. Just like any artist, when the mood takes them they just have to let it all out…by that I mean words and pictures, don’t be crude. I for one have never sat down at my desk and thought ‘right, I’m going to start a new book today but first I have to think what to write about’. No. Most of the time it’s more like this ‘aaaaaargh these really cool characters and interesting settings and amusing or scary or downright freaky situations keep popping into my head and I must turn them into something because it’s getting in the way of my every day actual life’. And so I write, and the words and the stories flow out of my fingertips and like letting the hot air out of a huge balloon, instead of bursting everywhere I slowly deflate and fall to the ground wrinkly and useless. But happy.
For a lot of people though it isn’t like that. Lucky them. They want to set themselves the challenge of writing a book in thirty days (such as the National Novel Writing Month of November, that time of year when social media goes crazy full of ambitious crazy scribes) or simply because they want to start a blog or a collection of short stories but quickly realise that their abundance of writing talent is completely useless without being in the possession of an overactive imagination.
So for those of you who live in the real world and are not constantly inundated by make-believe people chatting away inside their head, here are some ideas as to how you too can have an endless supply of inspiration.
Look around you
Ideas are everywhere, you just have to look. Have a go at being that scary person on the tube that stares at people…join me, it’s fun. Imagine what the woman sitting in front of you is called. Where is she going? Why did she choose that outfit? What’s in her bag? What is she thinking? That in itself can be enough to spark off the inspiration for your next novel or short story.
Like Stephen King once said, to be a good writer you have to read a lot and you have to write a lot. The more you read (and do try to cover as many genres and styles as possible) the more your mind will open up to different techniques, ways of arranging your words so they have a more enticing rhythm, how to describe people in different ways, what plots work, how a character arc is formed and on and on and on. The only problem with reading once you are a writer is that you have less chance of getting swept up in the story because you start to deconstruct every sentence. Mind you, if a book is great then you won’t care about anything except turning to the next page. So read lots of those books.
Listen to music
Lyrics and the rise and fall of music, even classical music, can’t help but stir up emotion and get your mind working over time. Plus if, like me, you write romance novels and also happen to speak Spanish, then a huge must is listening to Spanish love songs. Ai por dios! The passion and the way the tiniest of feelings are described in the most elaborate of ways. I won’t pretend the odd little phrase from random songs hasn’t inspired entire chapters in my books. Santana is my favourite, how can you not run off and write the world’s most evocative scenes of passion after listening to his orgasmic guitar climaxing all over the place?
In my opinion writing about past experiences or people you know is dangerous territory (you are far too close to the story to look at it objectively), BUT that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think back to how things made you feel. Read old diaries, look at old photos, daydream about your misspent youth. You can’t write if you have never lived. Just don’t write a badly disguised biography because readers aren’t stupid. If you are attempting to write fiction then the story needs to be tight and the character arcs solid. Real life doesn’t tend to do that as well as fairy tales do.
I’m a big fan of flash fiction, it’s great fun. You take a few random words or a picture then make up 100 words about it. Shall we have a go? Okay, here’s the photo (keeping it seasonal for you).
And here are two of my attempts (the secret is to not over-think it, each took just a few minutes to write).
1. BLOOD RED
Kate tightened the scarf around her neck and kept walking. The further she ventured into the forest the brighter and redder the trees became. It was like they were on fire, a warning sign, a beacon telling her to stop. There was a snap to the air, a chill that silenced everything it touched. All she could hear was the laboured puffs of her breath and the rustle and crunch of the leaves beneath her feet. She looked down at her tattered trainers. Confused. She was no longer standing on a carpet of crispy red leaves…she was standing in blood.
2. THE FALL
Mummy said if I’m good we’ll go to the park and I can wear my new wellies. They’re red, the same colour as the trees. Mummy said red trees means autumn is here, but I know it also means that it’s been a year since he left us. We lost him here among the leaves, in the damp damp woods. Sam liked leaves, he’d make me laugh throwing them up in the air as I ran around catching them. Rain, we called it. Fire rain. But then Autumn got him. The fall. The red bloody fall that meant the end.
Okay, so they won’t be winning the Man Booker prize any time soon but it gives you a good starting point for any short story. Have a go yourself!
Ultimately, writing is like any other training. Your mind has to be exercised as much as your legs do when preparing for a marathon or your arms do when planning to join a rowing team. You should be writing not to impress, make money (excuse me, while I pee myself laughing at that concept) or to prove your intelligence, you should be writing because you simply have to. The urge is too big to fight, you have something to say and Goddammit you are going to say it. Don’t worry about what you are writing. Just write. Then keep writing some more.
Do you feel dizzy yet? Does your arm hurt? Have you gone partially blind from staring at your screen for so long? Keep going just that little bit longer.
There. NOW you’re a writer.
When it comes to having good ideas, just remember that there is no such thing as an original idea and there is no such thing as a shit idea. It’s all subjective. So write about what you know and what pleases you and you can’t go wrong (just don’t write about the superhero that falls in love with the vampire nun, that’s MY idea).