“I just wouldn’t know where to start. I wouldn’t know what to write about.”
I’ve heard this so many times from people who profess to being really interested in writing something: a short story, a play, a novel. I try to hide my incredulity but… You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Everyone’s got a hundred stories in them – at least! Of course, stories do not always arrive to us in their full-form, ready to flow from our fair hand…more often than not, they begin with a central idea. The most obvious place to find an idea to write about is the great repository that is your memory bank. Think back over your life and write down your 10 Life Changing Incidents. Any one of those incidents could make for a scenario to write about. Consider the emotions you felt at that time, the twists and turns that took place, the Before and the After of the incident. [I’m sure things didn’t go as you expected them to. See how you can adapt the incident somewhat, change a few things around. Change the location, the circumstances of the person at the centre of it, raise the stakes. Ramp it up by choosing an alternate ending.]
You can also make the most of any existing knowledge or experience you have had in environments that many people have never been exposed to. If you have worked in the medical field, as a member of the emergency services, in politics, in technology development, then your ability to depict certain types of people, places and scenarios will be advantageous.
You can also explore a pre-existing interest in archaeology, astronomy, criminal profiling, your country’s history etc. by reading up on these subjects and having them feature in your story. Doesn’t that sound like fun? (Research is so fun.)
An off-the-wall technique that’s worked well for me in the past is using word combinations as a first step; an example would be the novel I’m developing, called The Shadow Sister, where I took the words ‘shadow’ and ‘sister’ and contemplated what kind of concept might match with the word combination. In the end, I selected a concept related to human cloning. If you were to combine an adjective with a noun, or an adverb with a noun, what kinds of combinations might you come up with? This exercise is not intended as a method for coming up a title, just a starting point. Try to come up with a list of 10 Word Combinations, and choose the one that appeals to you the most.
You can also set aside some time to actively think up ideas. The generation of ideas can become habitual, if you want it to be. Shower time, time spent driving or housekeeping (seriously) are opportunities to set your mind to work. I’ve heard of a practice called ‘worry time’, where people set an alarm and carefully consider any worries they have in the minutes or hours before the alarm goes off, at which point they return to everyday mode. The same approach works with creativity. Make room for your creativity to flood in and you will be rewarded.
Finally, you must commit to writing down anything with potential: a snatch of conversation, a news story that captured your imagination, an odd dream. These are the weird little gems that come along every once in a while and they’re powerful and fleeting (oh so fleeting so you HAVE TO WRITE THEM DOWN). I normally tap these into the Notes on my iPhone because I tend to get my best ideas just as I’m about to fall asleep. (Sometimes I reread these little scraps the next day and they make absolutely no sense, but more often than not they’re incredibly useful.)
Once you’ve chosen an ‘idea’ – big or small – it’s fermentation time. Churn the idea over in your mind. Consider it from different angles. Who will be the participants? What happens to them? What’s the aesthetic, what’s the tone, what’s the tense, what’s the setting? Who is best placed to tell this story? Will you choose a first person narrative voice, third person or ‘omniscient’ narrator?
Also worth trying:
In the current age, we spend much of our time entertaining ourselves through watching, hearing or reading the creations of other people. Wouldn’t it be fun to have other people enjoy your ideas for a change? When it comes down to it, all you need to do is write one line. Follow it with another. And another. And keep going. Until you’re done. The sense of satisfaction you’ll feel once you’re finished is absolutely priceless.
I wish you luck.
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