Hi, and welcome to my new “Novel Writing Tips” project. Each week, I’ll be posting a new article on specific writing tips that I like talking about. This is the first in this series of blog posts, and we’ll start with brainstorming. Not just brainstorming, but planting the seeds for effective brainstorming and idea generation.
Tip 1: Start Seeding Ideas Now
It’s never too early to begin generating ideas for future stories. Trust me. Just because you are in the middle of writing a novel, that’s no excuse not to capture ideas when you get them. When you go hunting for them with a net, you’ll never see any, but when you don’t have a net handy, they seem to be everywhere.
The solution – carry your idea net everywhere. For me, this is a special notebook where I can keep all of my random story ideas. These come in many forms. I have some pages loaded with “what ifs” while sometimes I will free write for 3-4 pages about a particularly interesting idea that I want to flesh out a little. I try not to focus too much on any of them until it comes time to actually write the story. The point is to get the idea down, so that you can pick it up and run with it when you are ready, not to derail your present project.
There are different mediums you can use for a net. I use notebooks, but if you prefer using your phone, then Evernote might be a better option. You can also get a little recorder (or use a recorder on your phone) to keep track of all your ideas by voice, which may help you to capture elements of the story in their rawest form. Plus, recording while driving can be made safe. I would not recommend pulling out a notebook while you are in traffic.
You can also use note cards to keep track of ideas, and keep them in a little box somewhere. Then, when you need an idea for a story, you can simply shuffle the deck, and pick a story out of the pile. There are probably other, more clever ways, to keep track of story ideas, but the key element is that it should be easily accessible. Another important point is to have your story net on you at all times, if possible. If you have a method that works in the shower, be sure to let me know in a comment.
Start collecting those ideas today, so that you will never find yourself in front of a blank page with nothing to write about.
Tip 2: Start World Building for Your Next Book
My favorite time to work on world building is during the editing phase of a story. The method I’m currently using helps me keep my word count up during this phase of rearranging text that is already written.
I started collecting short stories for a possible future novel that I may never get around to writing. It’s an idea for a fantasy book, but it doesn’t even have a story idea yet. I never even came up with a main character. Instead, I decided that since fantasy novels require such rich and vivid worlds, that I would put the world together, one story at a time, and get familiar with it through short fiction pieces, and hopefully a good plot idea for a novel will pop out naturally at some point. I needed an interesting monster, so I created a story about a tribal group hunting the monster. I wanted magical elements, so I’m writing stories about the ancient people of the world first discovering and harnessing magic. I’m even doing a journal for a character that should be long dead at the time the novel will be set, but he can be legendary for discovering the alchemical secrets, and his journal might become legend. Just little stories. They keep my writing sharp, and in the process I am building toward something much bigger.
This is just one example. Short stories can be seeds or first chapters for future novels. Another method is to create a bunch of story ideas in your list that surround a certain theme or idea. When it comes time to write the story, you won’t have one character and plot; you will have a dozen or so to choose from.
Tip 3: Logging Ideas Helps You Focus
When you keep ideas bottled up in your head, you don’t only risk losing them forever, you also clutter your mind with off-topic thoughts while you are working on your novel or other project. And by the way, if you think that your memory is perfect, and you will never forget a good idea, think again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone flipping through my notebook and stumbled across a story idea that I had forgotten all about. Sometimes, I don’t even remember writing them down. They might come back to you at some point, they may not, but they almost certainly won’t show up when you need them.
The decluttering of the the mind is the same kind of thing that happens when you keep a journal, or meditate. By writing your ideas down, or taping them, or whatever, you are taking some of the load off your noodle, so that it can focus on the task at hand. Writing a novel is hard enough without being distracted by random thoughts. If I get a story idea while I’m drafting, then I’ll grab my notebook and scratch it out for five minutes. Then the idea is safe, and I can continue on without the worry of losing it. This also gives me a chance to do all of my necessary “thinking” about the idea. This way, I can carry on with my first draft without having the other story interfering with my thoughts.
Tip 4: Brainstorming Sessions
None of this is, of course, to say that brainstorming shouldn’t be part of the creative process. I’ll mention it again in the next tutorial about starting an outline, but as it appears here, even with a notebook full of ideas, there are times when I want to sit and focus on generating even more. The more ideas that are in my notebook, the more ideas I have to draw on when it’s story-time. Brainstorming sessions without cause can generate more ideas. Usually, I get prompted to brainstorm after a writing session, or during the day, away from my regular writing times.
I’m not sure exactly where the urge comes from most of the time. Maybe just being inspired to try and think up a new idea. Sometimes, after dropping an idea in my notebook, I try to come up with similar ideas, which all have their own story. This is a method I like to think of as idea refinement. I might start with something like “What about a monster nobody has ever seen or heard of.” I think of animals, both real and mythical, and focus of the terrifying parts of their anatomy or character details. Claws are scary, but too large and they feel overdone. If you want to take something that’s already scary, like a spider, and make it more terrifying, then add wings. And as that goes, there are several different ways that wings appear in nature. Bats are different from birds, which are different from insects. I also consider how this creature might come about. In a fantasy story, they might simply exist as part of the world, though you can trace evolutionary lines with further probing. A modern monster needs to have a reason that it is undiscovered. Maybe it’s the creation of a medical lab. Maybe it came from space. Maybe it started as an infection, which mutated another species. This takes my simple “new monster” idea, and puts it through the ringer. Instead of generating one idea by itself, I generate dozens of potential story ideas that can be merged with others.
When I’m getting ready to write a short story, flipping through the notebook can help me find ideas, but it can also generate new ones. I think it’s important to flip through your entire idea book before you start, because different ideas can blend with each other to create new ones. Write these down too, as they formulate in your head.
Tip 5: Idea Synthesis from Life Experiences
No matter where I’m at, I’m always cooking up stories. A shoe out of place, or a person sitting alone in a coffee house can be a trigger. That trigger starts a chain reaction in my head, and I make up a story about it. I once found a pair of boots on a sidewalk around a gas station. How did they get there. Someone had sex, got caught, and had to bolt before putting their shoes back on? Did someone decide to give up on society, kick off their shoes, and disappear into the woods? When aliens abduct someone, can they only beam up the body and not the clothes. Perhaps the other clothing was carried off by the wind. Who knows? It’s fun.
Now, this isn’t a skill I have innately, but I’ve trained myself to constantly be on the lookout for story ideas. Try it. Look around the place you are in right now, and make up a story about any object you see. A coke can, some scattered confetti that never got swept up, an open notebook, a printer that is out of paper. Whatever. Just make up a story. The crazier the better. That will get those creative juices flowing. Then capture the idea with your story net, and save it for later, or better yet, write a piece of flash about it and drop it in my Facebook flash fiction group.
You can do this anywhere. I get ideas while driving, while stargazing, at bars or restaurants. Anywhere. Even at home, or in the shower, or lying in bed. I try to capture them as they come, or as soon after as is convenient.
Tip 6: Make it a Habit
Once you start generating story ideas, then don’t stop, ever. At first, it might be a little tricky, but believe me. This is one of the easiest habits in the world to start. While some habits (like getting 500 words per day written) can take a lot of focus and energy, I’ve found that making a habit of ten or fifteen minutes of daily story idea generation comes naturally after a week or two. It’s incredibly productive, it’s fun, and best of all, it gives you a creative resource, which not only boosts your own capacity for coming up with original ideas and fuels your writing, but it also gives you an index of fresh ideas, so that you will never be left without something to write about ever again. This is totally something that anyone who desires to be a writer should start practicing, right now.
Did you like this article? Is there a writing tip that you would like me to cover in a blog post? Let me know. Did I miss anything? What is your favorite way to generate ideas?
Also, don’t forget to check out Finish the Damn Book!, it’s super helpful, specially if you are in the beginning stages of your creative pursuit, or working on a first draft. Think of it as a pep talk for a high energy coach to get you writing. It officially releases tomorrow on Kindle, but if you get it early, you can have it for 40% off.