Where Do Ideas Come From?

Whether I’m working on editorial calendars or just chatting with people who want to be writers, I spend a great deal of time answering the same question over and over again, “Where do you get your ideas?”  Usually I cough and stutter and blame the caffeine gnomes, but the truth is that idea-generation is a process.  Let’s talk about it!

Take a Walk With Me

Ideas are magical things when your brain functions more or less like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  As you meander through the delicious sugary grass, you’ll see them hanging from the ornamental trees all around like leaves strung together with words.  They’ll dropped from carrier pigeons, they come from everything around you.  The whole world is your whiteboard and there’s nothing between you and Pure Thought.

When your brain is half functioning, high on paint fumes and overcome with pizza grease like most writers, it’s a whole different thing.  You have to actually work at generating ideas, which, as it turns out, is actual work.  Go figure.  And depending on the audience and genre, the approach can be pretty different.  Still, there are some uniting principles behind idea generation, no matter what you’re writing.  Here are my top tips for topic generation:

1. Know Your Audience.  Before and above all things, you have to understand who you’re writing for.  If you’re writing non-fiction, this is generally a lot easier than if you’re writing fiction, since your audience isn’t nearly as broad.  So, first, identify your audience.  Know them inside and out.  What do they care about?  What interests them?  What do they need to know?

2. Check the News.  Also check the web.  Whatever people are reading right now is a pretty good indication of their mindset.  If your genre is one that follows seasonal certain patterns, take a trip in the Googles and see what was hot a year ago.  See what’s happening, look around and figure out how that’s going to affect your ideas when they finally land — whether you’re set to deliver in a week or a month or six months.  Everything’s connected and what happens today will influence tomorrow.

3.  Look at the Competition.  This goes for fiction as much as non-fiction.  If you’re looking for an idea, see what your competitors are doing.  Don’t copy them, but sometimes finding another angle on the same story is acceptable.  So is absolutely avoiding what they wrote because they covered the topic so completely.

Back in the days of newspapers, the big thing was to get the “scoop.”  A scoop meant you picked up the story first, you won the news.  But by being first, you also kind of had to present a hastily built story in the interest of time — so papers that didn’t scoop a story still ended up getting a whack at it.  That was also before every story ever written ever was indexed by the powers that be, so similar stories weren’t likely to ever be noticed.  My point is that you need to look at the competition, but be original or Google will eat you.

4. Ponder.  Wait, what?  A writer I work with likes to use these idea spider web things, where she starts in the center and works her way out with related ideas.  I guess that works for people who are more structured in general, but I’m usually just really confused by the whole thing.  Instead, I like to do anything but think about the topics I need to generate — or just kinda think about them a little.  Not too hard, mind you.

Then out of nowhere, BAM — idea.  It’s not the fastest approach, but if you’re exhausted, out of steam and can’t force an idea into being, I definitely recommend pondering and day dreaming.  It’s a great way to sort out things in your life.

Yes, I just recommended day dreaming as a professional tactic.  Get over it.  It works.  The shower’s a good place for ideas, too.  All that steam, I guess.

5. Listen to Your Dreams.  This applies more to fiction than non, but I’ve found some great inspiration lately from dreams.  From characters to situations, dreams are a great place to explore ideas that your waking brain isn’t sure it wants to be responsible for inventing.  It’s also a lot of random brain chatter… so you know, you can interpret it however you want.  Maybe that’s the key.

6. Look to Real Life.  Know a person with a situation they’re struggling to resolve?  One of your Facebook friends always being kicked around by relatives and friends for trying to write their first novel?  Farmer with cows that won’t give good milk?  Whatever’s going on in your life, some of it’s topic worthy.  Leave yourself open to possibilities from your many contacts and listen for stories.  Always check them for fact before you get to deep in, but these are the places that truly original stories come from, homies.

Ok, so that’s about all I’ve got.  Ideas don’t spring from magic trolls living in sugar forests, but they do come from a really crazy place: your brain.  Ew.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to write those little bastards down.  Don’t trick yourself into believing you’re going to remember them.  YOU DON’T STAND A CHANCE.  Write it down.  Put it in your phone.  You have no excuses.

PS.  Antwort is German for “Answers.”  I’m always a source of those antworts… sorry, ants.