Why are you looking for creative writing ideas?
Does that heading come across as a little aggressive? It will, if you feel guilty about looking for ideas. But why would you feel guilty about looking for ideas?
I suppose because:
We make these preconceptions for ourselves because our culture has us convinced that…
artists are special
… and once we start to see ourselves as artists, we start to see the value in being seen as special. And because we want to be what we seem, we try to be more special.
So surely if you have to go looking for ideas about stories to write, you aren’t very creative?
C’mon! I did an article about ghostwriting where I tried to show that you can have all sorts of creative ideas but no idea how to turn them into a novel.
So you can also have all the creative talent necessary to turn great ideas into great stories, but be short on the actual ideas. And you can, through the course of your artistic career wander all up and down those two continua.
I am going to tell you where to find the ideas that will make great stories. But I’m going to start with a few techniques for finding ideas, and here’s why.
You’re an artist, and you need to push and stretch your creative ability, to develop your range of expression and your reach.
You’re an artisan, you have a specific skillset related to writing, but you’re well aware that this is a skillset that takes a lifetime to master, that there is always new knowledge to add, new skills to incorporate.
This means that the core of your career as a creative writer is learning and development. With every new writing project you expect to learn something new; and I’m certain you do.
If you’re aware of this, then you’ll know that mastery comes from seeking mastery, and from practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Practice differs from free creation in one very critical way: it is artificial. The aim of practice is not to produce a work of art, but to hone your ability.
I’ve produced a whole range of exercises for exactly this. Some of which will be available for free on this very blog. Their purpose is to do more than just hone. My aim with those exercises is to challenge, to sensitize, to raise your awareness, to get you thinking about writing in new ways.
And that’s the other major component of practice: exploration.
If you’re lucky enough to already be a bestselling author, or you have at the very least a sure and steady income from it, you can probably do some of your exploration by getting a little experimental in your next published book. Try out new techniques, new ideas, new approaches.
But if you reckon you’re onto a winning formula, or you just want to build up a loyal fanbase by giving your readers what they love the best about you, then you might not want to get too experimental in a book you intend to sell.
And of course, if you haven’t hit on that winning formula, then clearly you need to keep experimenting.
And that’s where practice comes in.
Working for nothing
It’s hard to convince a writer to spend her precious writing time on work that will never see the light of day. Actually, I’d like to see writers who do my exercises post the results on their Facebook or their Website, to encourage the others – but mostly to show that most creative people create better within constraints. All the writers I’ve worked with write better to order than when writing what they want to write.
But time is the constraint. Most writers do not write full time – though since the e-book revolution, a lot more do than ever did before. This means your time is limited, so practice writing doesn’t seem like an efficient use of your time.
A truth, cautiously and mostly acknowledged
Most people seem to agree that the best way to sell more books, long term, is to write better books. So even if your priority is to get rich from writing, your primary long term goal must be to become a better writer.
This will never happen if you don’t try to become a better writer.
And a harsh truth, mostly ignored
You won’t become a better writer by reading books that claim to tell you how to become a successful writer. You certainly won’t become more creative, or become a better artist. And you need to become more creative, and become a better artist, to become a better writer.
Let me put it this way…
Which is easier for a salesperson:
Wouldn’t you rather try to make money selling great books than try to make money trying to sell mediocre ones?
You should look for creative writing ideas for practice.
Stories are everywhere
We make almost everything we do into a story of some sort. Stories are everywhere. In the simplest form, a story is
how we explain what we want and how we get it
Stories like this abound in everyday life, generally as answers to questions, but sometimes as the questions themselves, their explanations, their justifications.
Most people would answer that kind of question with a story. So all those questions are story prompts. Story ideas.
The more you go looking for them, the more you will find them. But if this still looks a little arcane or obscure, then start simpler.
Look for conflict
Conflict makes stories like nothing else.
A conflict is easy to express in a few words, and its resolution always brings a sense of release, and of completion.
Conflict can start very small.
An ant, trying to climb over a grain of sand.
Conflict can be real or imaginary.
Is your neighbor trying to steal your parking space or does he just not know whose it is?
Conflict can be internal.
Should I have another biscuit?
You ate all the pies!
… and make the practice effective
Narrow the scope
The more you restrict a story idea, the more you will learn from it. Artificial restrictions are exactly what you need when you practice. So give yourself limits in both the idea itself, and in the treatment:
Only the ant’s point of view
in 50 words
with only dialog
with no dialog
every verb has an adverb
all in the future tense
All of which means that practice shouldn’t take up too much of your time. If the restrictions are tight enough, it will force you to explore and discover and innovate and experiment. And this will have consequences when you go back to your book.
There are plenty of online resources that have lists of writing prompts. Use those, but stick to the most restrictive ideas, and the ones that you think will be difficult; the ones where you think you will have a hard time finding something to write.
The story is almost unimportant.
Even I’d admit that the very greatest writers chuse stories with great care. But they aren’t just plucking the stories out of the air. They certainly aren’t looking for conflict and drama, and turning that into a book.
They’re chusing their story to match, complement and enhance their central theme.
The theme is important.
Think of your book as a message, from you to the reader.
If you think you’re writing for yourself alone, then I can’t help you become a writer. Until you start writing for the reader, you won’t be a writer.
If your book is a message from you to the reader, what do you want that message to be? Here are some I’ve encountered recently, in every genre from pulp detective fiction through historical, SF, heroic fantasy, “chicklit”, contemporary fiction, urban fantasy and “literary fiction” (whatever that is). I guarantee you can’t guess which theme goes with which genre:
All these statements have one thing in common. They are opinions.
Strongly held, perhaps even beliefs, but opinions. And they are the opinion of the author. Sometimes the author is surprised when I point it out to them.
What you care about
How do you find your message?
It shouldbe fair to say that you write because you have something to say.
It may not be a darkly hidden fire or a bright flame in your eyes. It may just be an issue you care about or a current cause of anxiety or concern.
It may not be some trauma from your past – though it could be.
It may not be some dread for the future – though it often is.
It ought to nag at you.
Think about what makes you bridle. What gets you on the defensive, or the offensive.
What makes you angry?
The first time you identify your theme or message before you start writing will probably result from identifying what makes you angry.
Anger is born of frustration – at incapacity, injustice, incompetence – at any situation that could be remedied, but where the people who could remedy it take no steps to do so.
Anger may be personal, it may be social. It may be irrational. It may be idealistic.
But if you are angry, it will show in your writing.
And this is good.
Because if you can find and latch on to a strong emotion, it will provide you with a message.
The ideal message
Should take the form:
this is so, or seems to be so. people seem to accept it.
this should not be so. people should not accept it.
Doing it wrong
This is the wrong way to think about it. True, I said that great writers will select or build or design a story around their central theme, so that the theme is served, and never undermined, by the story.
But if you take your message and try to build a story around it, you will end up with a plodding, obvious fable that constantly repeats the message until the reader is sick of it and throws the book at the wall.
The secret of rhetoric
Rhetoric is the Classical art of public speaking. In it’s simplest form, it has three stages:
This applies just as much in a book. Want to get your message across, but the reader can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t accept just passively listening to your moralizing.
The reader wants and needs to be entertained, and if you can give the reader his dose of stimulation, escapism, excitement – whatever he is looking for, then you can also deliver your message, and this is the killer:
deliver your message with passion, and you will enhance the reader’s experience
but here’s the caveat…
let the reader become too conscious of the message, and it will destroy the reader’s experience
Striking a balance
Finding that balance between a satisfying reader experience and the requirement for a heartfelt message is what leads to the best reading experience. Getting there is all about your approach, and this is where I come back to the heresy:
The story is almost unimportant.
Choose a story that you think you will enjoy writing
Possibly the best way to do this is to write a story that you would like to read. Or imitate or emulate a story or writer that you love. There is a great tradition of writers wearing their inspiration like a badge of honor. Don’t be afraid to dedicate your book to the author you want to be like.
Give yourself clear boundaries
In exactly the same way that artificial restrictions force you to work harder and better at practice exercises, so clear boundaries will result in both clearer and more coherent work, and a better class of creativity.
Clear boundaries can be as simple as:
Be careful that your boundaries aren’t in direct conflict with your desires. It’s one thing to give yourself a challenge; if you are constantly fighting the structure you imposed on yourself, maybe you should ease off on the structure.
But be equally wary of giving yourself too much freedom. If anything goes, there’s no tension. If there’s no tension there’s no drama. If there’s no drama, there’s no reason for the reader to read.
DO NOT think about your message when you are writing
But think about it as much as you like between writing sessions, because it matters. Talk about your message. Develop your thinking around it, inform your understanding of the issue. Research it.
BUT DO NOT WRITE ABOUT IT
Your book must not contain the message. It must be the message. So you absolutely cannot, must not, make any explicit reference, exposition or explanation of your message of any kind in your book…
You won’t be surprised to learn that rule one of writing is that there is no rule one. Or something like that.
It’s more like:
the more you master your art, the more you learn that there are secret paths
These are not secrets in the sense of mysterious techniques that experienced writers are hiding from you. They are secrets in the sense that they can pass unseen and unnoticed.
When you use a metaphor, you are using figurative language as a means of giving a clearer, simpler, faster or more efficient sense of what you want to convey to the reader.
Figurative language is the tip of the ominous iceberg of symbolism.
Symbolism is the art of writing without writing. Of telling by showing. Of giving information with doubt. Of inviting interpretation then denying everything.
Symbolism is the language of signs. It is without doubt an advanced technique. To apply it effectively you need to know how to use poetry and you will need to learn all about symbolism.
By far the best way to give the impression that you are a skillful writer of learned articles is to make some contentious statement right at the start and then re-evaluate it at the end.
Telling you this is called “touching the mask” – an expression borrowed from the Commedia del’Arte which refers to breaking the illusion by drawing attention to the mechanisms behind the illusion.
I’m touching the mask here because I want to reveal to you that there is another way to think about writing stories.
I really think it is all about inspiration. But inspiration is not what you have been raised to think it is. You can’t get inspired passively. You need two things for inspiration:
Desire is what comes from within. It’s why you want to write in the first place. If you have that, then dammit, you are special. Just not all that rare. Most people want to communicate. Most people want to express themselves. You want to do it by telling stories. So you are special, and you’re going to be a creative artist.
Stimulus is what you need to trigger a story. And you have to go looking for it. You can find it anywhere you look, as long as you are looking. You can hear it anywhere you listen, as long as you are listening.
You find stimulus by engaging with the world around you. And stories are about people. So you find stories by engaging with people.
Professional Literary Editor and Creative Writing Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. I recently launched a course to teach you everything I've learned about writing novels in the last 8 years. It's called Read Worthy Fiction, and you can find it on Udemy.