Since I’ve been pitching book ideas to my editor recently, I have been spending a lot of time coming up with ideas, both good and bad. Here are some of the strategies that have worked for me:
- Brute force creativity and rapid cycling
- Flow chart madness & quotes/excerpts galore
- Talk it out with someone, anyone, and/or everyone
- Research, reading, and tricking your brain into relaxing while thinking
Brute Force Creativity, Rapid Cycling
Here’s a great video about brute force creativity (by Hank Green, author of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing). The gist is this: You improve much more quickly if you work iteratively (repeatedly). The more you do, the better you get. If you stress forever about achieving perfection, you’ll never get close.
That’s one of the reasons I wrote four books before I got my book deal. I kept working and practicing, improving each time.
The same goes for ideas! At the outset, sometimes it’s best to just go through a bunch of ideas and write them all down. Then, once you have a collection, you see which ones speak to you and promise the most room for growth. Be careful not to get stuck on an idea that isn’t going anywhere. In the immortal paraphrase of my editor: “It is easy to become trapped by an enticing premise with no story behind it.” (What she actually said was something like “this idea isn’t working even though you want it to; you need to move on.” And honestly, that’s advice that bears repeating in my case.)
Flow Chart Madness & Visualization
If you spiral between different options related to an idea, sometimes you need to visualize it in order to get un-stuck. For example, if you have a premise about aliens on another planet in our solar system but you can’t decide if they should be from Neptune or Uranus, toss the ideas on a whiteboard (or paper, or cork board, etc.). Then diagram it out a bit. Instead of bouncing back and forth between two choices, let both of them branch out a bit and decide which path is more interesting. This is also a good method for deciding plot choices when you’re drafting or outlining, by the way. I know it can feel wasteful to explore a path you don’t end up taking, but it is by far more efficient than spinning your wheels too early in the game.
Writers often want to spend a lot of time inside their own heads. After all, that’s where the stories come from and are built. But there’s a reason we don’t draft the book in our heads first before writing it down. Seeing is believing. Or rather, seeing is actualizing an externalizing an idea so that your brain can focus on expanding an idea instead of just holding onto it.
Say it with me: Seeing. Is. Believing.
This means that you’ve got to get things written down and out of your head, because you can’t keep the idea cooped up in your head for too long.
Quotes & Excerpts Galore
As you brainstorm ideas, if absolutely anything pops in your head related to the idea, WRITE IT DOWN. If a snappy quote pops in your head that totally just nails your main character’s voice, don’t lose it! If you want to write a quick page about the origin story of magic or the culture in your story, do it immediately! All of these things are vital to giving your ideas the foundation for being built. And none of it’s wasteful, because everything you do is an exercise in creativity and stretching your mind! And you may end up literally using a dialogue line or description in this or another story.
Talk it Out
I cannot stress enough the benefit of getting out of your own head. Even just telling someone else the basics will help, because you’ll immediately be listening to it from an outsider’s perspective. My pitches never feel quite solid until I’ve had someone else look at them, whether that’s my agent, author friends, or everyday family and friends. And an everyday person will be able to tell you if it feels right even if they can’t articulate what is wrong.
And getting outsider input is always useful. An idea is just like a pitch, because it should be digestible and comprehensible by anyone and everyone. If you’re struggling to articulate something, then it’s probably your idea and not just your pitch that needs work.
Read, Research, and Relax
Reading. Reading is great. Sometimes you just have to dive into a good book to remember why you love them and why you write. Sure, there can be distractions or the intimidation of perfection, but there is also inspiration! And proof you can do it! And examples of how it can be done well! Maybe you read a great plot twist and it sparks a plot twist in yours. Maybe you read a cool premise, and you think “yeah, that’d be even cooler if…”
Research. If you have an idea for a sci-fi book about quantum physics, get some research done! It may not be until you stumble upon the delicious fact that one of the sub-atomic quarks is named “Charm” that the idea finally clicks. Wikipedia is your friend. Research is a great way to find sparks that will help you expand on ideas in new and interesting ways.
Relax. These last couple paragraphs have all been about getting your mind a bit farther away from your body. In the end, you need to relax. There’s a reason we say that you need to “sleep on it” in order to solve a tough problem. There’s a reason relaxation is crucial during times of stress. Your brain needs variety, and it’ll keep chugging away at problems in your sub-conscious. So expose yourself to new places and experiences, new people and music, new stories and histories. It’s deceptively easy to lose yourself (and your precious time!) while staring at a blank wall.
What About You?
So. What about you! How do you come up with ideas? What methods do you use to kick-start your brain?