Ideas are all around

You know you’re tired when you go to make hubby a coffee, and cheerfully put two spoons of sugar in the coffee tin and then fill up the cup with boiling water and wonder why it doesn’t go brown…

A newbie writer on one of the forums I go to asked what to do when you run out of ideas. Whoo boy, do I hear this a lot from beginning writers. “Oh my muse has deserted me”. For fear of sounding like an old curmudgeon, I won’t say “rubbish!” but that was my first response. Instead, I posted a few writing tricks to train the brain, and to throw at the WIP when it’s not behaving.

I know you’ll forgive me for cut-and-pasting the reply here, but I’m tired. See above.


In all of my years of writing, I have never run out of ideas. In fact, I have notebooks full of ideas, more than I will ever be able to write, and they just keep coming.

Am I special? Not at all. Ideas are all around you; the trick is learning to be receptive to them, and learning to create ideas from what you see, hear and feel.

If you wait around for ideas to hit, you won’t get very far. Part of being a writer is going looking for ideas. Your “muse” is just the name for your subconscious. You need to train your brain to see the potential in everything.

There are a couple of writing exercises you can do to work on this.

1. Newspaper stories.

Get the local newspaper and pick 5 stories at random (or, choose interesting stories. There are plenty there). Read each article through, then let your imagination go to work. Who are the main characters in the story? If no-one is mentioned, think about who would be most affected by the events described, and develop them as a person. Think about the driving force behind the events. Develop villains and their motivations. Write down repercussions, and details what would happen next. You will probably struggle at the start, but with practice, you can rip out a page or two of detail in no time, from any story.

2. Root cause analysis
This is an old auditor’s trick, but works just as well for fiction. If you are stuck on a character’s motivation, or a plot point, or a scene, just ask “Why?”. Write down the answer. Then ask “why” about your answer. Do that five times. And if you answer “just because” or “I don’t know”, then hang up your pencil and take up scrapbooking. Seriously.

3. The boredom technique.
This one is guaranteed to work, but you need a bit of discipline. If you really, really can’t get words on the page, do the following.

– take a blank notepad and pen
– go sit in a room, facing the wall. No radio, no TV in the background, no computer, no laptop, no books.
– sit there until your brain goes crazy. When it starts talking to you, write down whatever it says, even if it’s mean and nasty. Just keep writing. Feel free to ask it questions (write them down) and write answers. Keep going. At some point the floodgates will open. When this happens, just start writing your current project, on the same page. Don’t stop. Don’t think. Just write. Caps are ok, so is swearing.

4. The indispensable advice.
WRITE EVERY DAY. Did you get that? EVERY DAY. NO MATTER WHAT. It can be novels, ideas, worldbuilding, characters, blog posts (as long as there is thought involved, and it’s not just “I can’t write today”), letters to your mother (assuming they are a couple of pages). It doesn’t matter if it’s drek. It doesn’t matter if no-one sees it but you. But you NEED THOSE WORDS.

The more you write, the more your subconscious (your muse!) gets used to working, and the more it will throw at you. That barren wasteland of thought will suddenly become a fertile field, ripe with potential.

5 thoughts on “Ideas are all around

  1. Pingback: My goals | Not Enough Words

  2. Running out of ideas is rarely the problem for me–sitting down and actually turning those ideas into a blog post or a story is another matter. :)

    Read, read, read is all my answer would be, especially outside of the genre/subject matter you’re trying to come up with ideas for. All writers should be readers, and I can’t imagine running out of ideas as long as there’s something to be read.

    Of course, if you’ve gotten your characters locked into a dungeon, stuck in a deep hole, tied to a train track, or trapped in a corner in front of an advancing army… well, then it’s okay to get stuck for a while. :P

  3. I think there are varying degrees of “what do I write?” I know I have more full-length novels in my brain than I will ever be able to write in a life time. But there are times when the scene I’m working on is excruciatingly difficult to write. I know what needs to happen, I know what I want to say, but the act of getting it out seems beyond me.

    That’s when I make a conscious choice to slog it out. Sometimes I end up with something I’m proud of; sometimes I hit delete. But to stop writing at that point would be to admit defeat, though I’m not above taking a time out and going for a walk if that’s what I need to do.

  4. I agree that ideas come when you’re actively writing. Another way is through reading a lot, not that you imitate ideas, but that the brain begins churning up ideas of its own.

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