Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.Stephen King, Awaken
This post is the first in a series on the novel writing process. Follow me or subscribe to be notified as soon as a new post goes live.
I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s not really the most secret secret, but it’s one of the most helpful secrets that I’ve discovered in almost two decades of dedicated writing. And that secret is: inspiration doesn’t come to those who wait. Sure, there are definitely moments as writers and as human beings when great ideas come out of the sky, like lightning. They strike and fill you with a creative electricity so powerful that you can’t do anything but dive for your nearest notebook and spill everything out onto the page. But the truth is, if you don’t do anything to invite and encourage those moments, they are, in fact, as rare as lightning strikes.
So what do you do about that? How do you spark creativity and come up with ideas that are strong enough to carry a whole novel from start to finish? How do you generate ideas strong enough — not just to keep a reader fascinated in your story, but to keep you, yourself, invested enough in your work to finish it? The truth is there is no big, single, easy answer, but for me, I’ve found that the two things it comes down to are observation and practice.
Creativity comes from Observation
There’s no one big answer to where the ideas for stories come from. Instead, there’s a lot of little ones.Tweet
Ideas are around us all the time, twenty-four seven. Some of them are raw and real and unpolished — an interaction with an enemy at work, the face of a stranger on the street whose smile hits you like a high beam, the headline of a web article on quantum physics, the reality of a global pandemic bringing the entire world to a halt.
Others come to us processed in one way or another: that moment in Avengers when the decimated return, half of Thanos’ battlefield turned into portals of burning light. The back-stitch plotting of a novel like Fingersmith, narrative replaying over itself to reveal new truths. The unique world-jumping mechanic of a video game where books are portals, or the significance of a crack in the ceiling — that’s how the light gets in.
The only real key to gathering ideas is to become aware of them. Start a small notebook to collect ideas from your daily life as well as the stories you enjoy. Keep it with you throughout the day and note down anything that makes you sit up and go “oh!”. I keep this list on my phone, as part of my to-do list app. Once you start keeping a record, you’ll soon find that the world is absolutely brimming with moments and characters and pieces of dialogue and evocative little details.
I tend to be very imagistic when it comes to my story ideas. Often inspiration will come to me while listening to music, and I’ll have to scribble down the images that play in my head while I’m drifting through spotify. Pinterest tends to be similarly inspiring, if only because of how many pictures on there are so wonderfully evocative.
When you start looking at the world around you this way — as a garden of ideas waiting to be gathered — inspiration is no longer just a matter of the right idea coming along.
Action: Start an idea notebook, phone list, digital scrapbook, or an inspirations Pinterest board. Add observations, images, and things you find in other media that make you go “Oh!” as often as you can. Share your boards and excerpts from your notebooks in the comments!
Discipline comes from Practice
Once the ideas start trickling in, you’ll find yourself making connections between them instinctively. New things that you collect will prompt you to look back to older things, and slowly, slowly they’ll start taking on causation and significance. There’s one surefire way to speed up the process though, and I will always absolutely swear that practice more so than anything else is the basic foundation that all finished writing is built upon.
What do I mean by practice? I mean any and all writing that is written purely for the intention of exploring ideas, and not necessarily as part of a novel or story or article or blog post in its own right. For some people, this could take the form of a dream journal or a daily diary. For me and disciples of Julia Cameron, it takes the form of morning pages: two to three pages of longhand freewriting done first thing in the morning. For others still, it might mean the occasional writing exercise out of The Five-minute Writer or The 3am Epiphany.
Whatever your writing practice is, try to do it regularly, if not every day. There are daily writers and there are binge writers, and depending where I am on a project, I can go from one extreme to the other. But one thing that I have done every single day for the past year at least is my morning pages.
What you’ll find when you start not just writing, but practicing writing is that all those collected ideas start to naturally emerge and connect themselves. They start arranging themselves into narratives or bigger concepts that invite exploration. By putting in the work and the time, but taking off the pressure, you create an environment for all those little tiny story sparks that you’ve been collecting to connect.
And once that happens, the lightning strike isn’t too far off.
Action: If you don’t have your own regular writing practice, try doing morning pages — three pages of freewriting first thing in the morning. If you’re not the notebook and pen type, check out 750words.com, which has a free thirty day trial, plus a lot of cool little insights into your writing mindset. Whatever you choose to do for your practice, do it for seven days in a row, at least — and share your experience in the comments!
From Ideas to Story
Once your collected ideas start to connect, you might be wondering how you turn those ideas into a solid concept for a novel. The only thing I can speak from is my own experience, as this is the one part of the process that is entirely more magic than science.
As I mentioned before, my inspiration is very powerfully image based. Depending on how you engage with the ideas around you, you might have to find a different way of actioning it, but once I’ve started connecting ideas through my morning pages, there’s usually two things I’ll start doing to shape it into a story.
The first is to start actively looking for specific inspiration. If there’s a song that’s sparked a powerful core image, I’ll start searching spotify for more songs like it. If there’s a photo or piece of art I’ve seen, I’ll seek out other works that give me a similar feeling. For The Ravenscourt Tragedies, this meant listening to a lot of Romantic-era classical music. The original spark came from listening to Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. From that eerily atmospheric tone poem conjuring ghosts and haunted houses, I started researching Victorian mesmerism, celtic faerie traditions, and listening to a lot of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.
The second thing I’ll do is find a way to organize my ideas. I’ll open a new inspiration notebook specifically for my story, and begin adding my inspirations to that, sorting them into sections according to character, setting, or plot. I’ll start ordering the images in my head according to where I think they might fit on a basic plot line — beginning, middle, or end? My first outline will usually take the form of a spotify playlist, while my worldbuilding might end up on Pinterest — as it currently has for The Shape of the World.
If you take a look at my Buy Me A Coffee page, I’ll be posting some of the original concepts that eventually turned into The Shape of the World there. I’ll also be sharing my spotify outlines for both works in the members area.
And just like the tiny motes of electricity that come together to make a single, overpowering bolt of lightning, it’s those daily little things — the observation, the practice — that will help turn you into a lightning rod for inspiration. The secret, you see, is not to just sit around waiting. The secret is to charge yourself up, little by little, so that lightning has no choice but to strike.