Monday, April 16, 2012

What if I never have another good idea?

by Stephanie Morrill

On the Go Teen Writers Facebook page, when we were talking about writing fears, someone said, "I worry that I'll never have another good idea."

This is something that's crossed my mind from time to time. I think the best way to combat this fear is to break down the mystique of ideas and where they come from.

At every school visit I've ever done, I always get asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" And even though I've answered it dozens of times, I always fumble my way through.

Because the real answer is that I don't know. They just happen as I go about my day, and I'm guessing that may be the same for you as well.

I'll be doing dishes and hear an unfamiliar sound outside. What's that? I'll think. Probably nothing. But what if it were someone running from the police? What if they were innocent? What if...


Or I'll be enjoying some time with my kids when I'll think something awful like, What if I never had kids? What if nobody had kids?


When I'm describing this phenomenon to nonwriters, I refer to this as "the spark." It's not really a story idea yet, but it's where I begin.

And then I spend time thinking about it, or "composting" as my darling friend Erica Vetsch refers to it. I may compost an idea for as long as a couple months. I'm working on making the idea bigger, deeper, and richer. I'm teasing out the idea the way we used to tease our bangs in the early 90s.

From Saved by the Bell. Oh, the bangs and the high waist pants...

When I'm composting, these are the kinds of questions I'm thinking:


  • Who is my main character and what is her situation? (Often this is the spark, since I tend to come up with character first rather than plot.)
  • What's her family like?
  • What lie does she believe?
  • What makes her the right person for the journey I'm going to put her on, and what makes her the wrong person?
  • Where's the best place to start this story?
  • How do I think it will end?
  • What are some turning points that will happen?
  • What's my theme?
  • Who opposes my character?
  • What if so-and-so died? What if such-and-such bad thing happened?

Now, typically I'm not directly asking myself these questions. It's not like I'm sitting down with a checklist. (Though that wouldn't be a bad idea...) Usually it's more organic. Like I'm running around the house in search of my keys thinking What is wrong with me? Why don't I just put them back where they belong? That would avoid this whole mess! It's like in that story I've been thinking about, where my main character knows she should be doing such-and-such, but still she doesn't.

Great story ideas - ones that are big enough to sustain a novel - take work. In my early days, I thought good ideas just kinda happened. I thought the spark was enough. As I've moved along in my writing journey, I've recognized the benefits of brainstorming. Especially with others.

Recently I went to my agent with a story idea. As I typed up the email, I was so excited about it, I could barely sit in my seat. I knew it was the best book idea I'd ever had. Her (wise) response was: "I think you can go bigger with the stakes. What if..." and then she proceeded to brainstorm with me and we made the idea even better.

Going through that helped squelch my fear of never again having a good idea. Because what I had actually been afraid of during those times was that I would never have another spark. That's the part of the process that's mysterious, but it's also something that happens to me - and most writers, I would guess - naturally.

As vital as the spark is, the composting and the brainstorming is where the idea is really made. And that just takes hard work and patience.

Okay, so now that I"ve made that partial list up there, I'm intrigued by the idea of creating a "to think about while composting" list. What questions do you think about while you're brainstorming that could/should be on there?


Don't forget your prompts are due tonight! Haven't started yours yet? Don't worry - it's just 100 words. Details here.


Also, for the five of you out there who like seeing cute pictures of my kids, Angela Bell had me on her blog over the weekend. Click here to read about my experience of getting engaged at 17 and how so far it's been a pretty sweet deal.

27 comments:

  1. And don't forget to roll with the punches! I can't tell you how many times a spark about a particular part of a story leads me to a dead end--I write historicals, and sometimes my "Hey, what if . . ." moments turn into "Nope, couldn't have happened that way." But there's always an alternative. My most recent one was "Hey, the king could have . . ." No, not this particular king. But a duke, now, I can create one of those!

    Sparks are definitely mysterious, but always tied to a "what if" in my brain too. Fleshing them out, though, does indeed take some work. Work that is, in my opinion, the most fun part of the job. =)

    As for a question for my list . . . here we go: What part of his/her past is going to rear up to bite him/her?

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    1. Ooh, good one, Roseanna. An icky past can keep a character in motion, which is always good.

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  2. 1st-

    OH MY GOSH THANK YOU FOR THIS POST. I really needed it, since this was something I'd been fearing for a while now...

    2nd-

    Awwwww....your kids are so cute....but you already know that :D

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  3. Well, I don't think this has really ever been on my list of fears, but there are some things I do ask myself before I start. One is: Why does it matter? I write mostly action novels, so this question is really important to me, and I ask it about the villain's plot, the main character's motivation, and pretty much everything else. There has to be a REAL reason this bad guy is doing what he's doing. Otherwise, the whole story becomes unrealistic.

    The second thing I ask myself is: How many twists can I put in this story? In my current WIP, The Common Denominator, my MC and his friends are being chased by who they THINK is the bad guy, and in the end, turns out to be a different bad guy. Anyway, the whole way through the story, my MC is positive the BG is one person, when it's actually another. *SPOILER ALERT* He also finds out that one of his teammates is now his step sibling. I just love putting twists into the story. That way, you always keep people guessing. ^_^

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    1. Wow, great thoughts here, Becki. Why does it matter? is an excellent question to ask. Few things take the reader out of the story like lousy character motivations.

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    2. Haha . . . I know. Have you ever read any Alex Rider books? They're pretty cool, and might even be pretty realistic. Right up until you find out that the bad guy wants to blow the space station out of the sky for insurance purposes. Huh? All those adventures for INSURANCE?! Okay, maybe that's just me, and the motivation really is legitimate. :D

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  4. I always mentally scroll through my list of characters, and rationalize just how important they are to the plot. This usually gives me ideas on how to deepen or eliminate characters, which deepens the plot in ways I never thought of.
    So for me, What character in the shadows needs to come out and "shine"? and What is my climax?

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    1. Great one, Lydia! It's easy to focus on our main character, but a well-developed cast can really deepen a plot.

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  5. This actually is something I've feared before, especially during moments of writer's block. But now I know that a great idea will come if you give it time.

    Before I start writing, I usually come up with the conflict and obstacles that the characters will need to overcome. I also try to give some thought to the message I want the readers to walk away with at the end.

    By the way, I really enjoyed reading about you, your husband, and your kids - they are very cute! :)

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    1. Thanks, Jill! They're pretty great :)

      I think those are some great "story bones" to brainstorm ahead of time. It can provide a lot of direction without inhibiting spontaneity.

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  6. Oh, this is a good post! My ideas usually come to me as an image (I'm a very visual person), so my first step is usually to disect the image. Who is the person, what is the expression on their face, why do they have that expression on their face, what are the wearing, what does it say about them, what are they doing and why? How does it make them feel? Often one question leads to another: the girl is looking out a window. Why? She's looking for someone. Who? Prince who's come to rescue her...because the bad-guy has locked her in the tower. Why has he locked her in the tower? And on and on. This works really well for fleshing out a spark, and it's usually at this point I write down whatever I come up with and stick it in a drawer somewhere, where it sits while I chew on the idea some more. I really like this list idea, though. Do you think you could post it when you finish it?

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    1. Oh, wow, that's interesting. I've never had an idea come in an image like that. I love how we're all so different!

      And, yes, I will definitely post a list! I want to make one just cause it sounds fun. Might as well share it :)

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  7. I found this really interesting! Although I never am short of ideas, and I've never had the fear of running out of them (I have a pretty big imagination...) I have wondered about the 'spark' you feel when you get an idea. I recently had a spark that spawned a huge book idea for a novel and a sequel, and I love the idea. I've made myself sit down and BRAINSTORM about it instead of just writing with no idea what I'm doing. I actually planned out who my characters are, their families, the entire plot, and the details. Now that I'm just about finished, I've began actually writing. 'the spark' gets your mind thinking, but it is up to you whether you will put the effort into it.

    I have a question: what happens when you get a spark and you put forth the effort to write the book, but then it just...fades away? You lose your interest. How do you deal with this and get started again? a month ago I had a brilliant idea going, but I realized the plot felt weak and it just...lost my interest. This is happening way to often for me. What do I do? Maybe write a post on this, or just answering it here would be great ;)

    Thanks for a great blog!

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    1. I started to respond as a comment but it became too long. Let me write a post, okay? Great question!

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    2. ~Sarah
      I admire you. I got a "spark" and started writing. Three restarts later I finally figured out that I needed to plot a whole lot first :P Sierra
      Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
      Philippians 4:8

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    3. ha ha, thanks! I'm excited for the post :)
      I've been brainstorming a book idea and planning the plot for a little less than a month now, and I think I just might be ready to dive in and start writing! I'm really excited because I plan to actually stick with this book and not let it fall to the 'work in progress never actually finished past the first 3 chapters' pile!

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  8. Ouch to those bangs :P Although they kinda look good. Don't tell anyone I said that :P My ideas are so random. I could be ironing, reading (that is one reason I'm not afraid of not finding ideas, reading a book can give you so many!) driving down the road, just sitting somewhere. Really anywhere. The way that I "test" them is basically running down the line. "Okay so here if I did go with this after such and such happened what would come next?" Just working down through the plot and hoping it won't have any bumps along the way. If so, I can always put it on the back burner and pull it out and combine it with another idea, which just might work. However I haven't really had a ton of time to work with my ideas. I'm trying to focus on getting my books plot done and then start writing. Which I'm having a ton of trouble with right now...I can't figure out how I want to start it' *Sigh* I have three "good" prompts...I just can't decide which one to send in (I kinda need to :P). Sorry for the long comment... Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
    Philippians 4:8

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    1. Sierra, I'm sure big bangs will come back. You can forge the way :)

      I won't start a book (usually) unless I know the opening line and scene. That's when I know I'm done "composting" and I'm ready to write!

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  9. Some of the things I like to ask my are about the villain. It's so easy for a villain to be steriotypical 'I want to take over the world and be the most awesomely powerful person ever'.

    The questions I ask about the villain are: Who is the real villain?
    What is his goal?
    What is his motivation?
    What is his secret?

    I find using these question helps with both the character and the plot.

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    1. Ooh, good ones, Imogen! Yes, fleshed-out villains make a big difference to a story!

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  10. Saved by the bell :) I thought Kelly was the best!

    I worry I'll never have another good idea. I'll get sparks but a few hours later I'll think they're dumb hmmm

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    1. That happens to me too :) Sadly, some ideas work better in my head than they do on paper. Sigh.

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  11. Those spark moments make my days just a little brighter. I'm always living in the great "What If..." mindframe, constantly seeing things around me as a way to merge in a story or find inspiration. I know. I'm a little bit of a dork. :) One question I ask myself almost right off the bat is "What message do I want to come through? What do I want to say through my story?" Because once I figure out that, then I get a glimpse into who my MC is. For example: my latest WIP I wanted the message that your past should NOT make you who you are and dictate your future, no matter how bad. So, my MC is a girl who is plagued by dark memories of her childhood and they keep her from loving the only guy she's ever fallen for, accepting those around her that care about her, and trusting in God who can take care of all her needs.

    On a side note, I love seeing those pictures of your kids. They are so cute. Keep em coming! :)

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    1. Aww, thanks, Clarebear :) They're pretty fun.

      I hadn't thought of it like that before, but if you have a message in mind, it would definitely mold a certain type of character. Interesting insight. Thank you!

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  12. I feel like I say this often, but, hey, whatev! GREAT post.

    I think this is definitely a fear I've dealt with before, but it's usually right after I think my brain has all dried up that I get a whizbang of an idea from a strange source (like a song). I have, let's see, three ideas I'm "composting" (<-- love that) right now for future stories-to-be-written...I'd like to always have a kind of "pool" like that. :) :)

    Adored that guest post! (Psst, if you've read this post and the comments, be sure to sneak over there and read her love story. Swoon-worthy.) <3

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  13. Oooh, this is a fantastic post! I'm always getting "sparks", and while most of them don't catch and flare, there are always those few that you hold on to. I'm in the middle of rewriting one of my novels, but I'm already composting an idea for my next one. I always feel like a novel is so exciting at that stage - it's just coming into being, still fresh and new and intriguing. I love it, and this checklist is a really neat idea! I may have to try it out. :) Thanks, Stephanie!

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