Idea-ology

On June 4, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I’m desperate! How do you come up with new book ideas?

I accidentally killed my computer four weeks ago and lost all of my files…and hadn’t backed them up for the past two years (yes, I know, you’re supposed to back your computer up way more often than that, but I’m a chronic procrastinator, so I never got around to it). I lost everything I’ve written for the past two years, which includes two novels I had halfway finished and the two previous novels that I was working on revising. I can’t stand the thought of starting over on that stuff, at least not for a good long while, but I’m dying to start writing again.

I’m trying to think of a fresh new idea to move onto, but coming up with an idea that I can really get into is proving impossible. I have dozens and dozens of story ideas that I’ve come up with over time, but only a few have piqued my interest in just the right ways to get me obsessed enough with them to write them (that’s pretty much the only way I can write something – if it intrigues me in just the right way that I can’t stop thinking about it and I crave a chances to sit down and write more of it!).

Right now I have one idea that has really sparked my interest, but, alas, it is a fanfiction, spawned off a backstory that an author never wrote; I love it, but I can’t stand writing fanfiction and I can’t figure out a way to convert it into something original – I’m afraid it wouldn’t work in any other world.

Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone has any ideas for how to come up with…ideas?

HeroLass wrote back, One of the ways I come up with ideas is to go for a walk, nature inspires me and when I walk I let my mind wander.

Another way is to look at everyday objects and go what if…? (‘What if’ solves many of my lack of idea problems.)

And Melissa Mead wrote, Can you tease out the core of what you love about the fanfiction, change everything else, and write that?

There is actually a book called What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (high school and up, I think), which is a great resource for idea generation. So that’s one source we can all turn to.

I am backed up in multiple ways, and, except for my little memory chip, all of them are managed by my techie husband. If not for him, I’m sure I would be or would have been in Writeforfun’s boat more than once. I’m very sorry this happened to you!

I’m with HeroLass on the usefulness of activities that let our minds wander. Walks, showers, repetitive and mindless activities can be potent sources of ideas. In my experience these work best if they’re preceded by intense though unsuccessful brain cudgeling. After that kind of effort–which may include free-writing, list-making, talking obsessively about the problem with anyone who will listen–the subconscious is primed and, when allowed to roam free, will produce results. This works for major ideas for entire projects and for smaller ones when we get stuck in our WIP.

When I’m on an idea hunt, I often think about the problem just before I go to sleep, and–sometimes–I wake up with the answer. This is another form of the relaxation technique above. It presupposes, as I believe, that our brains really do have answers. The difficulty is finding opening the lock. Sleep is often the key.

It can be useful to keep a pad by the bed and write down our dreams, which otherwise are likely to slip away. Dreams are surreal and unexpected. We can mull them over, write notes about them and lists about where we might take them.

I agree with Melissa Mead about changing the fanfic enough to make it entirely your own. Lists may come in handy here. We can list the elements of the world that seem unique, that we can’t do without–and then list ways we can do without them. We can list the elements of our idea that we love and then list ways to use them in a new, non-derivative story.

One of my chief worries in the year that preceded the publication of Ella Enchanted was that everyone would notice how derivative the book was, how I had stuffed it with all the elements of what I loved about many of the books I’d read. No one ever made that accusation. We may not be copying someone else even when we think we are.

We can list our obsessions. What do we care about? What has been an interest through our entire life? For each item on our list, we can start a new list of ways to use that interest in a story. For example, suppose we’re fascinated by trees. What can we do with that? Dryads? The secret lives of roots?

I’m finally writing about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a subject I’ve been curious about for years. I keep finding books (unread until now) about the subject on my bookshelves. My subconscious was preparing me. I bet yours is, too.

As most of you know, fairy tales are a major source of inspiration for me, but not all of them open to me quickly. There are several on the back burner that I hope to get to eventually: “Rumpelstiltskin,” “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “Aladdin,” to name a few. When I think of something that may, finally, allow me to move into actual writing, I type it into my ideas page for that story.

And I keep a running list of ideas that I may be able to work with in the future. I’ll probably never get to many of them, because new ones continue to come along, but when I’m preparing to start a new project I always go back to my list. I’d encourage everyone to keep such a list, and, if we’re in danger of losing it in a computer disaster, print it out periodically or keep it longhand in a notebook.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Pick a book you’ve loved that was published in the last few years, definitely still copy protected, and use it as the basis for a list of ideas you can spin off to make your own original story. Pick one and start writing.

∙ The following is one of my dreams, which I put in a poem. I offer it to you to change any way you like if it seems to have story possibilities: I knew that if I ate the shrimp I would turn transparent. I didn’t serve myself any, but they were on my plate anyway. That’s all I remembered when I woke up. Do I eat the shrimp? Who wants me to be transparent? Is being transparent the same as being invisible?

∙ The genies in Aladdin interest me. How do they grant wishes? Where does their power come from? What’s their relationship with the evil magician? Write a list of genie story possibilities. If one grabs you, write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I think there’s also something to be said for letting yourself grieve. You just lost years’ worth of hard work. It’s okay to let yourself be sad—and your brain to be shocked into a lack of stories—for a little while. The ideas will come later once you’ve processed your thoughts and feelings about this.

    If it’s any comfort, John Cleese famously said he lost a script he had written and was kicking himself over it. He rewrote it, and sometime later found the original. The second version was better than the first. So, if you ever decide to recreate your old stories, they will likely be better than before.

    In the meantime, set up an automatic backup system! That way you don’t even have to think about it and it just backs everything up for you. I use Mac’s Time Machine to backup onto an external hard drive AND Google’s “Backup and Sync” (one local backup, one cloud backup). You should always have three copies of everything, so that if your original is lost, you don’t only have one backup… which might get corrupted, eep! One local (easily retrievable) and one in the cloud (so it can be accessed from anywhere, in case something—like fire, flood, or theft—happens to your local copy).

  2. I have the opposite problem, so I looked up your article on “Idea Overload”. I had trouble focusing on my main project this week and worked on one that’s supposed to be on the back-burner. I just set up a whiteboard by my computer with a list of my current projects, the next step for each one, their priority, and due dates (if I have one). It’s seven stories long. Hopefully I’ll be back on track now.

  3. Oh, ouch! I have thought about starting a story from scratch, even of deleting the original manuscript so that I didn’t fall back on it. (Instead, I’m reworking my manuscript from the beginning, using a new document and going over a couple scenes at a time, so that I have blank pages and room if needed. That was a friend’s idea.) I would never want to lose all my files in one fell swoop, though! All those stories!

    I have a fanfiction that, while not my current WIP, is on the backburner to be turned into an original story. I agree that we can see what is the essential part of the story. If the essential part relies on something from the original author’s work, can that “something” be changed? For example, my fanfiction is based on a long, ongoing guild roleplay from World of Warcraft. One of game’s villains was the Lich King in the frozen Northlands. I still plan on keeping the undead, but I changed their location to a dessert (once actually a sea bay) and their leader to a dracolich that’s seeking to gain a corporeal, draconic form again. Many of the characters’ “classes” (what their attacks and weapon and armor types are based on) are really basic to fantasy settings, so I can drop the game-based specific attacks (or attack names) and use my own.

    And then there’s your actual plot. If you change the setting, does your plot have to change? Does it become shorter because you no longer have to deal with part of the author’s original world? Does it become longer because you have created your own world?

  4. For stories, I basically only use Google Docs, because it automatically saves every time you write something and, as long as I know my Gmail account, I can get to the docs on any computer! If you have a Gmail, it’s a really convenient way to go.

  5. two ways me and my friend created two books was: !. the one book we are working on is actually based off of a childhood game we made up. the game was that there is one plushie as the bad guy who took over the land(now twins because i thought that would be more interesting), a bunch of the animals that hated the land joined the dark side, the rest who were still loyal to the land creates a group to take down the evil twins and the evil twin army. to make the story even more original is we had the land be invisible to the human world, and is secretly located at the indian ocean. the 2 idea me and my friend did for a mystery book was to list some main plots we wanted to happen, and some details or objects to help the story, then we looked at the ideas and on a different paper we describe how the different ideas would go together, then we just created our characters and did a roleplay online. the roleplay will be edited a lot and put into the book.

  6. That’s awesome! When I was in middle school, several friends and I wrote stories and then shared them. We were all characters in each others’ stories, and it was really fun to see how the characters changed from story to story. I love that you and your friend can learn together.

  7. My first book came about because I misread the 2nd definition of Cantrip (“a mischievous trick.” as “A mischievous sprite.” I couldn’t find anything about those sprites, and I wanted to know!

    3 things inspired my current WIP: An issue of The First Line with the prompt “Mama always loved her possessions,” an episode of Croc Hunter with Steve Irwin saying “This is a happy snake! He’s warm, he’s got a full belly…”, and an episode of Iron Chef America where someone served raw lamb and I thought “Ugh, who’d want to eat that?…Wait! That snake!”

    And serpent-demons were born. 🙂

    • cool connections melissa, i love that we can find interesting and cool stories in mostly anything. my game with my friend was just something we did for fun and to make each other, honestly if i told past me it would turn into a book i wouldn’t believe myself! mostly because me and my friend never took some of the things in the game seriously.

  8. Has anyone ever had the problem where your current project isn’t working, but for some reason you just can’t let it go and move on to a new project, leaving you in a weird writing limbo? I had a story in the works, but recently there was a book published with the exact same plot (and I don’t mean with the same general story structure; the specific premise and character goals are exactly the same, and it’s a pretty unique concept, not a widely-used trope), forcing me to do a complete overhaul of my story. I’ve spent the past month trying, but everything I come up with either doesn’t work, or is something that is fine objectively but I just don’t want to write. I know that the most logical option would be to accept the unfortunate coincidence and move on since this idea clearly isn’t working (at least for now) and I have a bunch of other story ideas which I’m more excited about, but some lingering stubbornness in me refuses to let go. I think it’s because I’ve been working on this for so long, that I’ve gotten too attached to the idea and am clinging to it out of sheer stubbornness. Any suggestions/encouragement? In this instance my problem isn’t not having something to write, but rather giving up on writing it.

    Has this ever happened to anybody here?

  9. Gail Carson Levine says:

    And I want you guys to know that HarperCollins is sponsoring a galley giveaway for OGRE ENCHANTED. Here’s the link. If you read the fine print, you’ll see that entering will enable HarperCollins to send you promotional emails–but you can unsubscribe. The giveaway ends at midnight on August 2nd. If you enter, good luck!

  10. I agree with keeping your hands busy and you mind free. I remember Mrs. Levine once said something along the lines of ‘If I peel 500 potatoes I can come up with all kinds of ideas, including what to do with my 500 potatoes.’ I hold this advice dear.
    As for fanfiction, ‘It may have been done before but never by you.’ I forget who said that quote but I hold this advice dear as well.

    I wrote a total of 5,564 words yesterday! The bad news…my brain is dead. Any suggestions for what to do when you fry your brain and you can’t get past your character’s first kiss?

    • Don’t stress out over it. My suggestion is to take a break for a little bit. Or, if you don’t want to take a short rest, go on a walk! Do something relaxing! Let inspiration come to you as you do something else other than writing.

    • If ideas are flowing, you cold try switching it up. Exercise is good, or try another art form, such as drawing. Let your mind wander.

  11. Thanks for the post! I have been trying to think of ideas for my story I’ve been working on, and this has been helpful for that. Writeforfun, I am SO SORRY. That must be horrible, losing all that work. But kudos for keeping going!

  12. First off, so so sorry for the lost work! That is always incredibly painful, and the bigger the body of work lost the more tears.
    As for generating ideas, I have two that may be of use in addition to all of Gail’s awesome ideas above. First, try doing something that involves your senses or makes you think in a new way. A food you’ve never eaten before, a scene in a show or nature that opens your mind in a new way, anything that sparks a light inside you and opens your soul to new creative thoughts. I find these kinds of experiences almost always bring new ideas!
    And second, try pairing two ideas together which seem incompatible. Then use one of Gail’s lists to see if there’s a way they can be joined after all, because the inherent tension in their apparent contradiction can make for an awesome new story concept!

  13. I am trying to iron out the ending of my WIP, and I keep thinking of Gail’s line from “Writing Magic”– I just want to drop a bomb on all of them! If it turns out half as perfect as Ella’s ending, I’ll be happy.

      • Oh boy. I haven’t gotten to that point yet myself, so I can’t offer much advice at all. But I’ll try to put down some observations. In Ella Enchanted, Ella has a bunch of different problems, such as a stepfamily who hates her, and a person who she loves but she can’t marry. All of this is solved by getting to the root of the problems: her curse. So, if you can find the root of all of the different plot lines and resolve that, it should mostly resolve the plot lines. Of course, the extras that don’t fit in with the root problem, those can be fixed real quick before the book is over, like the issue of Ella’s father is resolved in the prologue. (Not saying that you have to have a prologue. Just using as example.) Hope this helps at least a little!

        • Subplots don’t need to be resolved at the same time as the main plot. Whether they are resolved before, with, or after the main plot will depend on how much they correlate with the main plot and whether one resolution needs the other.

          And sometimes, things can be left unended. As Schmendrick says in The Last Unicorn, “There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.” Okay, I wouldn’t go that far. I love happy endings. But not every question needs to be resolved, even if you aren’t going for a cliffhanger or planning on a sequel.

    • Although I have experienced it in real life, novels and real life are not always the same. Lately I’ve been doing some research for a WIP that I knew needed a big romance subplot. I was nervous about it, because I have read romances that I didn’t enjoy, and I haven’t really written a romance plot yet. First I asked some online writing groups who like romance for reading suggestions. I asked people who hate romance and people who love it for their opinions. I also looked at a craft book “Writing the Christian Romance” (I’m not writing Christian Romance, but I wanted to skip the explicit parts and I knew a Christian Romance would do that). It was really helpful.

  14. I got to a tricky part on the WIP I’m trying to focus on, so I tried to follow advice and let my subconscious tell me the answer. Well, my subconscious had some great ideas… for about three other projects that are supposed to be waiting their turn!

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