Where do you get your ideas? It’s the question writers hear more than any other. So often, in fact, that it’s become kind of an inside joke—an eye-roll inducing cliché when writers talk amongst themselves. But here’s the thing: I completely get why readers ask it.
Getting ideas seems mythical—especially when you’re just starting out. I remember when I first knew I wanted to be a writer and I patiently waited (for years) for a fabulous, high-concept idea to fall from the sky. It didn’t help that I often read interviews with writers who talked about ideas for novels popping into their heads fully formed on their daily commute. Or having a dream with all the story elements in neatly in place and then hurrying to the computer the next morning to let the story pour effortlessly from their fingertips.
As soon as that happens to me, I told myself, I’ll get busy and begin my writing career. It took me a long time to realize that those magical-sounding stories were one in a million and that like most things in life, the rest of us have to work at it.
But how do you work at generating ideas? Ah, for that there is a secret sauce. Or rather, a magic question. What if?
If ideas were puppies, this simple question would be the bit of bacon in your pocket that had them sniffing at your fingers and ultimately following you home. Once you know how to use what if to your advantage, you’ll find that ideas are all around you.
Have you ever gotten a new car—especially a car in a color or model that you think is fairly unique—and then you drive it off the lot and suddenly that same car is everywhere?
It’s not that dozens of other people think you’re a trend-setter and followed you to the dealership to copy you. It’s that the cars were there all along, but now you’re tuned in and good at spotting them.
Ideas are like that. So here’s how to tune-in to the ideas that are floating all around just waiting to be discovered. When you hear something interesting in a news story, in a conversation, in a documentary, even in another book, let yourself daydream about it. What if things had turned out differently? What if things aren’t what they seem? What if there’s more to the story? When a writer’s mind wanders, they see it as an opportunity instead of a distraction.
Children are great at doing this before we teach them that they have to stop. One night at the dinner table, one of my sons was complaining that he had been having hard time falling asleep lately. My then seven-year-old daughter turned to him and said, “Just tell yourself a story about your day.”
His response was something really refined, like, “Huh?”
“You just start with something that really happened and then change it,” she explained. “Like the other day a boy at school was chasing me and later that night I wondered what would have happened if he’d caught me? And then what if he’d put me in a golden cage high in the treetop like a bird? But why would he want to keep me locked away? Is it because I have some special power that makes me dangerous? Is he afraid of me?”
She went on like this for ten minutes or so and her brother just stared at her with his mouth hanging open. She has the makings of a great writer. If there were a secret formula for ideas, it would look something like this: Daydreaming + (350) questions=Book idea. Although for the record, math was never my forte, so take that formula with a grain of salt. And also note that books can’t have just one idea—you need a lot of great ideas to build a compelling plot. Some of the best plots come from two or more seemingly unrelated ideas colliding in a unique way.
Ideas are the easiest part of being a writer. You just have to train yourself to notice them and then follow them around, peppering them with questions until a whole world has sprung up from your imagination.
And then comes the hard part. You actually have a write the book.