Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gathering Your Ideas

Today is the first official day of our "Write Now" program. For those who are just joining us, in 2011, I'm detailing the steps of writing a novel. As much as they can be detailed, anyway. Writing a novel isn't a science, and every writer's process is different. I'll go in order as best I can, but keep in mind that steps vary from writer to writer. And that what may be invaluable to some writers - character profiles, maps of settings - may do nothing for another.

But I encourage you to be open to each step, and to tweak it and make it yours. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. But it's good to stretch yourself.

One thing we all need is ideas. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Stephen King. When talking about why writers enjoy hanging out with each other, he says, "We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don't know." (On Writing)

For me, and I'm guessing for you too, the ideas just show up. Often when I'm in the shower or washing dishes or cooking.

It's never a full idea, mind you. Just a nugget that will work its way into a manuscript somehow. I write it down and stick it in a binder I keep in my office. The binder is labeled "Ideas and Inspiration." Or, if I already know what project it's going to attach itself to, then I stick it with its file in the cabinet.

I used to rely on my good memory, but then kids happened, and I learned to write stuff down. I've been watching an old season of Mad Men, and one of the creatives lost one of his ideas because he forgot to write it down before he passed out from drinking too much. He quoted a Chinese proverb that said something like, "The faintest of ink is better than the best memory."

Get in the practice of writing down ideas that come to you. Find a place to gather them. The binder works for me because when I'm stuck, I like leafing through it for inspiration. But something else may work better for you.

But it's also a good idea to put yourself in the way of ideas. Same as if you wanted to get hit by a car, you'd have a better chance if you went and stood out in the street. One way you help encourage ideas is by reading news stories. I'm completely addicted to the NPR app on my phone. They cover such a variety of topics. They even have a section of "Strange stories." I'm regularly e-mailing myself articles that I think might be fodder for a novel, or at least a piece of one. Or in our local newspaper about a month ago was a story of these three waspy guys who tried to rob a bank. The youngest of them was 19, and my thoughts immediately went to, "Okay - he's totally going to be a boyfriend of one of the girls in my books."

Develop a habit of reading (or watching) the news with the question, "Why?" in the back of your mind.

Another way to put yourself in the way of ideas is to eavesdrop on conversations. I write YA novels, so if we're at a movie theater or the mall or other places where there are large groups of teenagers, I keep my ears tuned in. Sometimes I even purposefully move to where I can hear.

Also, hang out with interesting people, and - er - "borrow" their stories. Like I remember a story my brother-in-law told me once about one of his friends saying he'd been to a rave in high school. Chris didn't think his friend seemed like the "Rave" type, so he was like, "What do you mean?" So his friend said, "You know, a big party in a field. A rave." And Chris said, "That's not a rave. That's getting drunk in a field with your friends."

Which struck me as funny, so I worked it into a story of mine. It looks like this:


“So then I say to him, ‘That’s not a rave.’ And he says, ‘It’s not? What is it?’ And I say, ‘That’s getting drunk in a field with all your friends!’” Josh laughed, one hand slapping the table, the other firm on Izzy’s back.

“Josh, that’s hilarious,” Leigh said.

“You should have seen his face when I explained what a rave actually is.” He looked at Izzy. “It was priceless, wasn’t it, Izzy?”

“Priceless,” she validated. He rewarded her with a wink.

Write down anything that strikes you, and find a place to store your ideas, because there are definitely dry periods in writing. Periods where you think, "Am I ever going to have another idea? Am I done for?" And it's wonderful to have that big binder, or that big document, or that big box full of thoughts you've saved.

If you've got thoughts about other ways to gather and store ideas, please share! Or if you have writing questions, e-mail me.


  1. Not that this would work for those who just canceled their cable (ahem), but I get a LOT of inspiration from TV. Now, given that most of my stories are historical, most of my inspiration comes from the History Channel. I've learned not to take those shows as fact (given that I know they mess up on subjects I'm familiar with), but they often convince me to look into a subject I hadn't considered before.

    I have an "Ideas" folder on my computer, a "possible titles" list, and I just put a new notebook into my purse for jotting things down when I'm out and about. Now if I could just figure out how to write things down while in the shower . . .

    1. I'm the same. I get most of my inspiration from TV. We have a lot of historical DVDs: Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, and we've watched things like Tenko, Road to Avonlea, and Anne of Green Gables. I have a pretty good set of ideas from that sort of stuff, but some of my ideas come from books.

  2. Roseanna, I've heard of 'shower crayons.' :)

    Great post, thank you for the ideas about ideas!

  3. LOL, I've had some of those for the kids. Hmm, never thought to use them for brainstorming! ;-)

  4. NPR huh? I'll look into that. A problem I have is getting ideas write before I go to sleep & not wanting to wrote them down bc I'm half asleep, even with a phone by my bed, I hate using it bc the backlight wakes me up & hurts my eyes. I normally pray I remember in the AM & sometimes I do & sometimes I don't.

    Are you working on anything new or have a book coming out this year?!

    1. Ohmigosh that what happens to me!! Infuriating isn't it? Not just the forgetting bit, but if its a REALLY good idea, or one of those "Duh! Why didn't I think of that earlier?" moments, it can excite you so much that then you can't get to sleep! That's what happens to me anyway :)

      Or I end up dreaming that I'm my protagonist, which is great for seeing into his/her head! You have to know them well enough already though. It would probably help for plot ideas too, but my dreams are so weird that most of it is irrelevant.Why just the other night I had a dream my friend got possessed by Lenin!

      Actually, that did help me, because since my WIP is somewhere between horror and paranormal romance, it gave me the idea of having a ouija board in the house, which later has extreme relevance... ;)

  5. Tonya, thanks for asking :) I have a project sitting on my editor's desk right now. Just waiting to hear what she thinks. And then I've had a new idea buzzing around my head that I'm working on while I wait.

    Even if the publishing house called today and said, "Yes, we want to publish this manuscript," the earliest the book would come out is February of 2012. It's (almost) always at least a year long process.

  6. Shower crayons? Cool! Friends of ours have this new kitchen -- and along the wall, like between the top cupboards and the stove and everything -- there's this red wall, and there's these special textas that you can write on it with! So cool.

    Reading news stories. I absolutely love it. And a binder thing for everything. Now I don't have to spend Summer holidays telling mum I'm bored!

  7. Love this post =)
    I tend to try to rely on my brain to much lol. I even went so far to write down a dream like a week ago because it was sooo weird, and at the time I kind of thought it could make a possible spark for a book or something... not anymore though its just a stupid dream lol.
    I scribble or even start writing on my computer my idea and then at least I have it.
    You wouldn't believe how chalked full my computer is with unfinished books. ;)
    Oh the ideas authors come up with haha

    1. Hey Jazmine!

      Do you know that 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' was actually inspired by a dream Stevenson had? To quote right out of Wikipedia:
      Stevenson had a dream, and upon wakening had the intuition for two or three scenes that would appear in the story. "In the small hours of one afternoon," says Mrs Stevenson, "I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I woke him. He said angrily, 'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey-tale.' I had awakened him at the first transformation scene ..."

  8. Aha Jazmine I did that the other day:P Who knows, maybe some of the best books have come from dreams!

  9. I spent yesterday becoming a word nerd. Yepp, I skimmed through the dictionary. Sort of. That is veracity. (I think that's how you spell it.)

    It means truth. I just saved you having to Google it:P

  10. For the word nerd: we have a slender little tome called (ahem) "The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate." You want a dictionary to skim, that's the one! It's hilarious. And taught me never to use the word "moot" because most of the time people use it incorrectly. ;-)

  11. Very helpful!! Thank you so much for the tips. :)