In yesterday’s post I talked about how I plan a story. However, before you can plan a story you need to have an idea. I was trying to think of a topic for today’s post and this thought crossed my mind – “If I’m even going to contemplate attempting to make a living at this writing business, I’ll need to write prolifically.” A scary thought for someone who’s mostly just been redrafting the same story for years.
In the vault I have a fair few ideas that I’ve never done any serious work with. I rather suspect that should I try and develop them they would fall apart. They are ideas I came up with years ago and they no longer match me as a writer, nor were they ever properly thought out. That being said I’m not incapable of new ideas. The novel I will be writing this November is a brand new idea I had recently, which brings me to the point of this post.
How did I come up with the idea in the first place?
Starting with nothing
A few months back I was talking with a friend of mine. I hadn’t really been writing at all, Perfidy had been put on the backburner yet again due to family emergencies, when I wasn’t busy I just didn’t have the enthusiasm necessary to continue with it. That’s a lousy excuse I know but it was the situation. I thought maybe if I started writing something completely new, something that didn’t have the baggage that Perfidy had, that it would shake loose the cobwebs and get me back in the writing groove.
My friend suggested I considered developing a series, as statistically series sell better in the indie market. That gave me my generic brief, whatever idea I came up with had to lend itself to working as a series. That was all I had, my only specification, all I had to bait a bolt of inspiration. However, the mind has random associative thoughts. It’s like the word association game, you just have to say the first thing that comes to mind. Well the first thought that came to mind when I thought “writing a series” was the crime genre. Hardly surprising as the bulk of what I watch are crime procedural shows, where there’s a case of the week.
I now had crime genre that can be a series as my brief. What I needed to think of next was the hook that made this different. Think about all the crime procedural dramas that are on TV, it’s pretty easy as there is a ton of them. However, they are all subtly different from one another, they all have their own twist that means people choose to watch that one, rather than the myriad of others. I had to find my twist, what was different about the characters solving these crimes.
Again I had a thought cross my mind. I have always liked alternate reality stories, they explore different options, sort of a “what if?” type deal. When this thought first occurred I decided that it wasn’t right, I tried to think of something else, something without a Sci-Fi connection. However, I couldn’t think of anything interesting enough, anything that I hadn’t already seen done, and I just kept circling back to the whispering phrase “alternate reality”.
I tried planning it out and almost as soon as I started I realised it didn’t work. I considered aliens but ruled that out rather quickly too. However, alternate reality and time travel are two similar concepts, often used in conjunction with one another. I started running through my planning process and realised that time travel could work. The first idea was that the main characters were from the future, and had been stranded back in their past, which is our present. I decided I didn’t like that, it wasn’t enough to be set modern day, I wanted the characters to be here too.
Anyway, the rest of the idea got fleshed out through the planning process, until I got to the stage I’m at now. However, I haven’t really said how to call down for that bolt of inspiration? All I’ve basically said is I had random thoughts and a story concept took shape.
A repeatable method
In the course I took there was a lesson on “getting ideas on a deadline”. This said to start with a basic brief, like I began with my “must work as a series” brief. Then the lesson part basically said look at the sweet spot map, created in the previous lesson, and come up with something based on that. Now a sweet spot map is basically a big mind map where you write things you fear, things you love, things you get shivers from etc. and it’s supposed to be inspirational. In all honesty I never found it useful.
About the only useful tip from that lesson was “go and do something else while you are thinking”. I agree with this as sometimes staring at a screen can solidify a block, rather than punch through it. However, once I do manage to start thinking then I need to sit down and think, and free type, otherwise I lose track and get confused or distracted. For kickstarting thinking, or breaking through a block, absolutely go do something else. The challenge in the lesson was to think of three new ideas, I thought of the concepts of two of them while I was swimming laps in the pool.
Right but for the ‘method’ I mentioned earlier, just thinking, there doesn’t seem to be anything more to it. Just thinking though can hide a lot of processes that are done subconsciously. Have you ever given thought to your dreams? I remember my dreams fairly regularly and the link between what is happening in my waking hours, is sometimes not even that subtle. Some people say that your dreams play out your fears, my subconscious is a lot smarter than I am. For example if I think about how to parallel park my car then I can’t do it, I’ll mess up the angle, I’ll wind up three feet from the curb etc. However, if I just park without thinking then I’ll get it perfectly first time. Don’t worry I am concentrating, it’s just if I give it too much thought then I guess I overthink it. Then there’s passwords, I type some of them everyday but if you ask me what they are then sometimes I can’t remember at all. I’ll have to think about something else, then later turn back and let my fingers type it automatically. If I think about it then I can’t remember it, but my fingers know what to type if left alone.
Speaking of fingers knowing what to type. In 2012 I couldn’t get started on my planned novel so I just started typing. Within a page I had a couple of characters and some sort of plot arc. I wrote 5k before the story fell apart as I obviously hadn’t planned it properly. However, that idea just came seemingly from nothing. I started typing and there it was on the page. I had always worried before this that I couldn’t think of anything original, well that was pretty original. Just typing seems like a cure for many writing issues.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that what is happening around us, where we live, what we do, what we read/watch etc. all influences what we’re thinking. If I wasn’t still half obsessed with Stargate would alternate reality/time travel have crossed my mind? I don’t know as I can’t walk down the path not traveled, I can’t see what I would have thought if things were different.
The subconscious is great but it sometimes needs a little help. Inspiration is everywhere and can be actively applied. Now I’m not saying watch/read something and steal it because that would be wrong. However, if you break down what it is that you love about the concept, then throw it in a mixing bowl with a ton of other ideas, then it can emerge as something bearing little to no relation to the original inspiration. There are no new ideas anymore, everything has been done in some respect, how it all mixes together is what makes it new. You only have to look at a diagram like this – (link) – to see how you can take the same concept, and create different storylines with it.
There is also of course old ideas which didn’t work out how they were originally implemented. My 2013 NaNo novel provided a character and a concept for this new series, but that was only a small fraction of what the novel covered originally. Those ideas I have in the vault don’t work as they currently are, but I can take a subplot from one, blend it with part of another, mix it with something new and then it’s a brand new idea, perhaps something worthy of finally being written.
Don’t overthink it, the ideas are there, they will emerge if you let them. Borrow concepts, strip all identifying features and mix them in with a ton of other ideas, no-one will know, it’s a valid form of inspiration.
The hardest part of creating an idea is the initial brief. Deciding what it will be, out of all the potential possibilities, is what I struggle with the most. This is where having a friend to suggest things is really useful. They gave me my initial brief of series, maybe I can persuade them to point me in another direction when I need my next idea.