Novel Ways to Get Novel Ideas

peeping gray cat
Here we see mittens, about to pounce on a possibly plot line.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Now that we’ve established what parts make up a story, let’s get to work answering the question that is the bane of many authors’ existence: “Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s not because this is a bad question. If you didn’t have this question, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. But a lot of writers have superstitions surrounding this process and some don’t know how to answer. 

I’m not saying I have all my shit together, but seeing as how I had to get out of a deep slump in order to get ideas again, I have a little bit more insight into how it works than someone who’s never had to coax it out of themselves before.

Let’s start with the basics, shall we?

What IS an idea?

An “idea” is any thought or a unrelated pairing of subjects that come together to form what could become the basis for a character, plot point, setting, etc. This pairing can be deep, shallow, brief, a flash of an image, or even a super detailed world straight from the forehead of Zeus kind of inspiration. 

Ideally (heh), an idea will come to you, get you started, and then everything kinda rolls out in front of you like a tapestry. Words fall from your fingertips like a stream of water when you pretend to have water laser powers in the shower (what, just me?). Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But you can always take these ideas and save them later.

So then HOW do you get one?

They just happen. This is such a boring answer, but it’s true. Our brains constantly process thoughts, events, and previously consumed content on an unconscious level as we go through our lives and occasionally just…spit something out that you can label as an idea.

The real question is how do you speed up this process?

Yes, how??

Do something different

white socks on white paper
Try writing from a new location!
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

You can’t think differently if you don’t do anything different. Though it’s possible that you are different, in which case your ideas will be unique for now. This doesn’t last forever, especially when you first start using these ideas on a regular basis.

“Different” doesn’t have to be crazy. Listen to different music, take an alternate route to work, try to have a meatless Monday or eat a new ice cream flavor. No matter what you do, be safe about it, and make sure to savor the experience.

Don’t judge

Have you ever been a part of a brainstorming session at work?

“No stupid ideas,” your boss says, but the second you mention duck costumes, they tell you to be serious. pfft.

Judging shuts down your ideas before they’ve had a chance to grow. One undisturbed idea is like a seed for a tree. One stupid seed. Leave it in place – don’t judge it, don’t belittle it – and it will start to produce the wackiest, tastiest fruit you’ve ever had.

What does it mean not to judge it? Don’t say anything negative about it. Don’t try to make it “fit” into something that it’s not. It doesn’t matter if the idea is too childish or gross or even mean itself. This goes for people, too. Try not to say negative things about people and you’re already a step ahead of the game. Let everyone be themselves without trying to make them fit into some arbitrary mold and then be surprised at how easy this becomes.

This doesn’t mean you have to spout some positive nonsense, either. If you have an idea that you aren’t super jazzed about, then instead of saying “this is dumb,” tell yourself, “this is, in fact, an idea.” 

It sounds simplistic, but it works wonders.

Along this same vein, don’t tell anyone your ideas. Not yet. An idea that is still a seed is too unformed for others to understand, and if you aren’t allowed to be negative about your own ideas, you certainly don’t want anyone else saying mean things about them, either. This kills the seed.

What ifs

As you go through life doing weird shit that you aren’t being a negative Nancy about, also consider the “what if” possibilities. 

What if – I were to smack that guy in the face?

What if – character X from that one movie witnessed that person over there complaining to management?

What if – character Y from this movie hooked up with character B from this book series?

What if – there was an airlock in this grocery store and it opened right now?

Always try to think of random scenarios like these (better than these, I hope), and then play them in your head as far as you can. Go deep down that rabbit hole if you need to. The more you do it, the better you get – it’s all a skill, so practice!

CONSUME

Read things that are challenging. Read things that are good. Read things that are bad.

Take them all in and think critically about them – not in a judging way (no judging, remember?), but in a “critical thinking” kind of way. Why did this work here, but not there? Why did this character act this way in response to that? Why did so and so use this word when they could have said this one? 

This will also help you as you try to improve your writing on the whole.

“Borrow” ideas

No, not plagiarizing! 

There is nothing new under the sun – there are anywhere from 2 to 21 basic storylines possible depending on who you ask, so you will probably not find a new one. That doesn’t mean give up! That means you need to take what you find and make it your own.

Think about how you would rewrite something – a fairytale, a classic story, an ancient myth – and keep changing it until it is unrecognizable. Or not, honestly. There are a lot of well done stories that are a retelling of a classic, and they are not lacking in creativity.

Even if you don’t get anything publishable out of this, you have done something different – which is, if you remember, one of the things you can do to generate more ideas. Yes, ideas can generate more ideas.

Prompts and pictures

person in brown coat and black hat standing near white and black floral wall
What is happening here? Who’s in this pic? Why?
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

My favorite way to get an idea is to look up pictures online. Go to google’s image search and type in “scary” or “spooky” and you are going to have pages of pictures to spark your creativity. Use this in conjunction with some of the other ideas in this list and you’re pretty much golden.

For prompts, you can also go to places like awesomewritingprompts where they will have one or two sentences or even a list of words for you to take and use in a story. Most sites and books of prompts don’t require that you credit them with ideas you use (and for the record, I don’t either), but some ask that you do. Please be polite and either don’t use those ideas or credit them accordingly.

Write everything down

Record thoughts, dreams, nightmares, conversations. Even the most mundane of shit can be useful. Remember, no judging!

Keep paper by your bed at night so that when your brain spits out your million dollar idea at 2 in the morning, you can record it before it disappears. Every idea you get, write down. Even if it doesn’t seem like it could go anywhere, writing it down and occasionally reading it over can foster more ideas in the future.

Eva Amsen wrote an article for The Writing Cooperative about a great way to keep track of ideas that I immediately stole for myself. 

 There are so many more things you can do to get ideas, and more specific ideas within the ones I’ve shared, but I bet this is enough to get you started in time for NaNoWriMo.

My NaNo idea

A picture of the author, “writing.”

To tell the story of how I got the idea for my NaNo novel is to tell the tale of an idiot. Or at least a forgetful and/or drunk person. The order of events as my memory serves goes like this:

I was looking through some files in my google drive and happened upon one called “Haunted soul cavity thing??” Inside this file was a description of an idea that I do not remember writing down at all. It talked about a guy who has to go to abandoned buildings and then I asked myself why. 

Then past me rambled on about something like a missing soul and a demon haunting this guy. It was a weird idea. The words were written like I woke up from a dream or severely drunk when I thought of it.

Then I remembered that for a while I was looking at a lot of pictures of abandoned buildings and was wanting to write about someone who went to them all the time, but I couldn’t quite think of a reason why. I guess in my drunken stupor/sleepy haze I came up with a reason.

Now in a more…coherent state, I decided to combine this idea with the world I started building in my first successful NaNo Novel. I’m not sure if I will continue with that part of the idea, but it spurred me on to start with my researching.


Where do you get your ideas? Are there any specific websites or books that you would recommend?

6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing

You’ve read the post on why people write and you want in. But where do you start and how do you do it?

I can tell you about how I write, and I should probably stick to that, but that will only help you so much. After all, if you have different goals, you shouldn’t walk my path. 

As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional and I don’t want to act like I am, but I can at least get you started. So let’s begin where any good story does: with questions. 

The Questions

When writing anything, you want to be able to answer the very basic questions of who, what, when, where, how, and why. When writing the next chapter of your life, you want to ask the same. The answers will most likely change, but it’s important to know where you’re starting. Answer honestly, as these are important. You can find lies that match up with your own prejudices and familial pressures later. For now, make sure you really know what you’re about.

Why

I answered this question in broad terms last week, but you want to think about your own why. Why do you want to write? What is so pressing  in your heart and mind that you need to put words on paper? This is no time to get modest; we all have something to share. But for others to care, you need to know why you care. 

This will inform many of your answers for the rest of the questions, and together they will all shape your next steps, so take time with this one. 

It’s interesting – I haven’t considered this question myself until now. Why do I want to write? I want to entertain others, for sure. But I also want to inspire them. I saw a picture of an author posing with their first cosplayer and I wondered what it would feel like to be in that author’s shoes. To know that I inspired someone enough they felt inclined to make a costume. 

But I would be okay with someone being inspired to write their own story completely unrelated to mine. Or to get up and dance. Or to remember to buy milk at the store (I don’t have a very high bar at this point). At the very least I hope that the fiction I write is entertaining enough to pull someone away from the news and the disappointments of the day long enough to relax.

Who

Okay, so now you’ve determined that you want to write in order to, I don’t know, convince people to adopt dogs. That’s an oddly specific goal, but we’ll work with it. Who is it that you want to try to convince?

This question will help to inform not only the language you use, but also the platform (which is another question). Think about not only who you feel comfortable communicating with, but also who would benefit most from it. Think in terms of ages, genders, professions, dreams, and countless other categories. Your answer can still be “everyone” and again, it will likely change later on in your career. It helps to ask both why and who every so often.

What

What do you actually want to say to your intended audience? Do you want to tell stories? Write poetry? In our previous example with the dogs, you might want to use storytelling to showcase how awesome adopted dogs are. This answer is informed by your why, and will inform your when, how, and where.

When

This is just as much of “how often?” as it is “how quickly do you want to respond?” Some people will want to hole themselves up in their homes, write furiously for years and only come out when it’s time to do book tours. Others will want to hop onto Twitter and never leave. For this example, maybe your storytelling will be done mostly on a blog where you tweet out a link every four hours (I got exhausted just thinking about that).

You might also consider how vulnerable you are to criticism, as any communication can invoke it, deserved or not.

How

How do you want to address your audience? Casually, in 280 characters? Formally, in verse? Perhaps you would like to sing your work accompanied by an acoustic guitar. In this dog scenario, maybe you want to communicate in dog meme speak with weird spelling and terrible grammar. Hey, I didn’t say you would be good at your dog adoption agenda.

This is the last thing you need to consider before finally making the decision on platform:

Where

Where do you want to reach your audience? This is important to decide as well, in order to know what means of publishing you are going to pursue. In this example, we’ve already decided on Twitter and a blogging platform, and it’s perfectly okay to have decided this ahead of time.

Knowing where you want to meet your audience will answer the medium you’ll write with as well – pen on paper, finger on key – as it’s much easier to get Tweet out on your computer than with carrier pigeon. 

Another Way

Another way to get started is also the easiest: just start writing! Grab that used envelope and that eyeliner pencil, and get to scrawling. Journal, ramble, describe, feel and just put words down. Don’t judge anything that you put onto paper just yet. That’s for later and if you try to do it now, you’ll just start second-guessing everything until you don’t write at all.

What’s next?

This is the stage an English teacher of mine used to call “vomiting on paper.” Train to have an uninterrupted connection between your fingers and your brain until the words flow out unimpeded. If you’re trying to stay organized, then try something I do: every day take 10 to 15 minutes and type random stuff into a document. Nothing fancy, no crazy exercises (though you’re welcome to include those if you wish), and no one is meant to read it. Just whatever your brain decides to say at that time, you type out. Or write out, if you are so inclined.

This gets you into a habit of putting unchecked words on paper, in a way proving to yourself that it’s okay. Then when you do some real writing, you will have a little more…let’s say lubrication when it comes to getting your thoughts out of your head.

If you are a brand spankin’ new writer, then I would caution you against trying to write a full-length novel. They can be a lot of fun, but they also take a lot of work and planning. If there’s anything to discourage you from writing, it’s putting a lot of work into a large project and finding out that most of it is unusable. This is generally how writing works, but it’s especially disheartening if your first time dealing with it is after months of bleeding on paper.

Some Prompts to Get You Started

Writing prompts are just hints of an idea. I’ll talk a little more about using them later, but for now take a look and see if any spark some kind of inspiration. I’m a firm believer in freely sharing prompts so if you take something I put on this site and run with it, it’s yours. Try something with any of these to get started:

Image prompts are actually my favorite kind. Where does this road lead? Why is your character on it?
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  • What happened to you today? What do you wish had happened to you today? Feel free to go crazy with this one.
  • You get caught walking in the rain, when a person pulls up next to you and offers you a ride – why? who are they?
  • What is your favorite historical event? Write about it as though you are watching it happen. Feel free to lie.
  • Look out your window: what do you see? Animals? plants? sky? a brick wall? Describe it in as much detail as possible. (no story necessary, sometimes just working on your ability to describe things is helpful and even fun)
  • What is your favorite product? What would you say to someone in order to get them to use it? Try not to lie here, unless you are writing about an imaginary product. If it is an imaginary product, try making up a terrible product, but try to sell it honestly (or don’t, I’m not a cop)

One More Thing…

Don’t give up because you wrote something terrible. Everyone is terrible at first. Everyone’s 8,752nd time first draft is terrible. That’s just how writing is. First drafts are terrible. They have to be. It’s like a misshapen lump of clay that you just cut off and slapped onto your worktable. You have to beat it and work it and shape it, and only then can you start to see the vase it was meant to be underneath.

What I’m saying is that writing is a skill. You have to practice, and while you do, you’re going to write a bunch of awful shit. Just make sure to have fun with it while you do.


Care to share any of your answers to the questions? I’d love to hear about your why!