Part 3: Crafting a Process for Harvesting Ideas
The dreaded question. Where do writers get their ideas?
I’ve been exploring this the past few weeks. I believe that writers don’t like to answer this question because—for a busy, accomplished writer—getting ideas is the easy part. Their creative subconscious is always churning out new ones.
But for someone that hasn’t been writing since they could hold a pencil, this seems like a daunting task. Especially in an age where there is so much media out there, it feels like all the good ideas have been done.
You can overcome that hurdle by taking risks, combining ideas into a new thing, and creating a process that nurtures and harvests new ideas.
For some writers, all of this is second nature. But for many, they had to learn a process so they could write consistently.
Because, and this is the rub my friends, if you’re not writing consistently, you’ll never finish your story.
In my previous articles, I explored some of the places you can get ideas for a story. Combining existing ideas and exploring the stories that inspired you to write are great jumping off points for new ideas. In the future, I plan to visit other areas you need to visit to get ideas.
For now, let’s explore ways you can record, nurture, and harvest ideas. This will be more of a practical approach. It removes the *magic* of writing. When you get into the nitty-gritty of storytelling, you’re going to find, it’s all just work.
But when you put in the work, you’ll soon find that magic can happen on a regular basis.
1: Start Carrying a Notebook
This is probably the most boring (and perhaps most obvious), but most important tool in acquiring new ideas. You see, your subconscious brain is always processing information. Like most writers, you’re also probably talking to yourself all the time.
(Yeah, it might not be out loud, but us introverts are always having conversations with imaginary people. Why do you think we ended up writers and artists?)
Those conversations are actually are part of your conscious mind working with your subconscious to process problems, questions, issues, and whatever else you’ve experienced recently. More often than not, you’ll end up with an idea (or the start of an idea) just from thinking throughout the day.
But also, more often than not, you’ll forget that idea as quickly as you had it.
How can you stop this from happening? Write down your ideas. Right away. A handy notebook—dedicated to this task—will give you the ability to record ideas as they pop into your head. Some people even keep a notebook by their beds to record dreams after they have them. (I’ve never done this because, quite frankly, when the heck am I clear-headed enough in the middle of the night to have a dream, wake up, turn on the light, and write? But for some, it works)
Obviously, you don’t have to carry a literal notebook to do this. Your smartphone already has the tools for you to record ideas instantly. You can even talk into it, if you don’t have the chance to type (like when you’re driving). Even better, you can use a cloud-based app so you can carry your ideas from your phone to your computer. I use OneNote because, well, it’s free.
This seems like an obvious and simple tip, but it like most common sense, few people do it. If you want to harvest ideas for stories, this is the best way to make sure nothing slips your sieve-like memory.
I use OneNote to organize my ideas. Specific projects and series have their own sections. Ideas I want to develop get their own pages, while random thoughts and snippets get put into a master list. I even copy/paste articles, comments, and links that might come in handy later.
Whenever I’m about to start a new story, I use this notebook of ideas as a jumping off point.
Don’t neglect it. Ever.
2: Read Good Stuff You Don’t Like
The reason your subconscious is working on information that can become ideas is because we are constantly getting bombarded with information. If you’re like most people, you haven’t figured out how to turn notifications on your phone off and you get annoying messages every few minutes.
Our “Information Age” has become a constant garbage dump of worthless clickbait and anger-inducing nonsense. Our minds are estuaries of filth, noise, and confusion.
The reason we get stressed, distracted, and worn out is because our brains are trying to do what they are supposed to do: process all this information. But most of it is junk. In order to have a clear mind that is focused and ready to write, you need to switch off the noise.
That doesn’t mean to isolate yourself from stimulation. You just need the right kind of stimulation.
Instead of wasting time on Netflix or Instagram, read a book. Read two books. Read lots of books. Read things that you don’t typically like.
If you want to write science fiction, odds are you’ve read Asimov, Scalzi, and Herbert. You probably know all about the tropes, themes, and characters that show up in science fiction. How about this: you take a break and read one of those weepy romance novels?
Sounds crazy? There are ideas and storytelling mechanics in different kinds of stuff that you won’t get from the books you usually read. You need to broaden your horizons and consume content that’s new.
That includes non-fiction or anything else that might present new ideas or ways of thinking. Spend some time at Brain Pickings.
This will jumpstart your creative subconscious. It might actually help you work out a few plot/idea problems you’re currently facing. You don’t have to love the new stuff—but you just might.
I stumbled into Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire books while looking for some audiobooks to listen to. The last genre I ever thought of picking up was Modern Western Mysteries. But after one book, I was hooked. Experiencing a very different kind of story has helped me approach writing in a fresh way. And it helped me churn up new ideas.
3: Spend Some Time Alone, in the Quiet, and Think
Going back to the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with noise, there is no way you can process ideas for writing if you’re always distracted.
You may have heard the old cliché that writers like to take long walks. It’s true. Even before I knew this, I felt drawn to going on long walks to think. Just about every writer I’ve read about does this in one form or another.
Why? Because walking is the perfect opportunity to get away from distractions and think. You can’t text and walk at the same time (without hurting yourself). You can’t focus on social media, get distracted by chores, or look for something else to do. You’re walking. That’s all your doing. While you’re consumed with this utterly boring activity, you might as well think about that story you’ve been wanting to write.
You can’t write a story without thinking about it. A lot. You have to live through the scenes, emotions, and plot. You need to work out dialogue and decide who your characters are. Yes, this happens while you put pen to the page. But long before you stare at the blank screen, you should have all kinds of ideas percolating, so there’s no question that you’ll have something to write down.
Getting alone, away from distractions, to just think (or better word: imagine) is critical for harvesting ideas, stretching them out, and seeing what takes shape. Why do you think Neil Gaiman uses a gazebo, outside of WIFI access, when he wants to write? Why do you think Stephen King has a reputation for going on long walks in rural areas?
Get outside your routine. Turn off the notifications. And just imagine. Play with your characters. Dream up new moments and thrills. Then you will be bursting with new ideas.
Stay tuned next week when I explore more writing avenues. You can always get these articles in your inbox, when you subscribe to my newsletter (I only email you once a month):