Novel Ways to Get Novel Ideas

peeping gray cat
Here we see mittens, about to pounce on a possibly plot line.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Now that we’ve established what parts make up a story, let’s get to work answering the question that is the bane of many authors’ existence: “Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s not because this is a bad question. If you didn’t have this question, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. But a lot of writers have superstitions surrounding this process and some don’t know how to answer. 

I’m not saying I have all my shit together, but seeing as how I had to get out of a deep slump in order to get ideas again, I have a little bit more insight into how it works than someone who’s never had to coax it out of themselves before.

Let’s start with the basics, shall we?

What IS an idea?

An “idea” is any thought or a unrelated pairing of subjects that come together to form what could become the basis for a character, plot point, setting, etc. This pairing can be deep, shallow, brief, a flash of an image, or even a super detailed world straight from the forehead of Zeus kind of inspiration. 

Ideally (heh), an idea will come to you, get you started, and then everything kinda rolls out in front of you like a tapestry. Words fall from your fingertips like a stream of water when you pretend to have water laser powers in the shower (what, just me?). Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But you can always take these ideas and save them later.

So then HOW do you get one?

They just happen. This is such a boring answer, but it’s true. Our brains constantly process thoughts, events, and previously consumed content on an unconscious level as we go through our lives and occasionally just…spit something out that you can label as an idea.

The real question is how do you speed up this process?

Yes, how??

Do something different

white socks on white paper
Try writing from a new location!
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

You can’t think differently if you don’t do anything different. Though it’s possible that you are different, in which case your ideas will be unique for now. This doesn’t last forever, especially when you first start using these ideas on a regular basis.

“Different” doesn’t have to be crazy. Listen to different music, take an alternate route to work, try to have a meatless Monday or eat a new ice cream flavor. No matter what you do, be safe about it, and make sure to savor the experience.

Don’t judge

Have you ever been a part of a brainstorming session at work?

“No stupid ideas,” your boss says, but the second you mention duck costumes, they tell you to be serious. pfft.

Judging shuts down your ideas before they’ve had a chance to grow. One undisturbed idea is like a seed for a tree. One stupid seed. Leave it in place – don’t judge it, don’t belittle it – and it will start to produce the wackiest, tastiest fruit you’ve ever had.

What does it mean not to judge it? Don’t say anything negative about it. Don’t try to make it “fit” into something that it’s not. It doesn’t matter if the idea is too childish or gross or even mean itself. This goes for people, too. Try not to say negative things about people and you’re already a step ahead of the game. Let everyone be themselves without trying to make them fit into some arbitrary mold and then be surprised at how easy this becomes.

This doesn’t mean you have to spout some positive nonsense, either. If you have an idea that you aren’t super jazzed about, then instead of saying “this is dumb,” tell yourself, “this is, in fact, an idea.” 

It sounds simplistic, but it works wonders.

Along this same vein, don’t tell anyone your ideas. Not yet. An idea that is still a seed is too unformed for others to understand, and if you aren’t allowed to be negative about your own ideas, you certainly don’t want anyone else saying mean things about them, either. This kills the seed.

What ifs

As you go through life doing weird shit that you aren’t being a negative Nancy about, also consider the “what if” possibilities. 

What if – I were to smack that guy in the face?

What if – character X from that one movie witnessed that person over there complaining to management?

What if – character Y from this movie hooked up with character B from this book series?

What if – there was an airlock in this grocery store and it opened right now?

Always try to think of random scenarios like these (better than these, I hope), and then play them in your head as far as you can. Go deep down that rabbit hole if you need to. The more you do it, the better you get – it’s all a skill, so practice!

CONSUME

Read things that are challenging. Read things that are good. Read things that are bad.

Take them all in and think critically about them – not in a judging way (no judging, remember?), but in a “critical thinking” kind of way. Why did this work here, but not there? Why did this character act this way in response to that? Why did so and so use this word when they could have said this one? 

This will also help you as you try to improve your writing on the whole.

“Borrow” ideas

No, not plagiarizing! 

There is nothing new under the sun – there are anywhere from 2 to 21 basic storylines possible depending on who you ask, so you will probably not find a new one. That doesn’t mean give up! That means you need to take what you find and make it your own.

Think about how you would rewrite something – a fairytale, a classic story, an ancient myth – and keep changing it until it is unrecognizable. Or not, honestly. There are a lot of well done stories that are a retelling of a classic, and they are not lacking in creativity.

Even if you don’t get anything publishable out of this, you have done something different – which is, if you remember, one of the things you can do to generate more ideas. Yes, ideas can generate more ideas.

Prompts and pictures

person in brown coat and black hat standing near white and black floral wall
What is happening here? Who’s in this pic? Why?
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

My favorite way to get an idea is to look up pictures online. Go to google’s image search and type in “scary” or “spooky” and you are going to have pages of pictures to spark your creativity. Use this in conjunction with some of the other ideas in this list and you’re pretty much golden.

For prompts, you can also go to places like awesomewritingprompts where they will have one or two sentences or even a list of words for you to take and use in a story. Most sites and books of prompts don’t require that you credit them with ideas you use (and for the record, I don’t either), but some ask that you do. Please be polite and either don’t use those ideas or credit them accordingly.

Write everything down

Record thoughts, dreams, nightmares, conversations. Even the most mundane of shit can be useful. Remember, no judging!

Keep paper by your bed at night so that when your brain spits out your million dollar idea at 2 in the morning, you can record it before it disappears. Every idea you get, write down. Even if it doesn’t seem like it could go anywhere, writing it down and occasionally reading it over can foster more ideas in the future.

Eva Amsen wrote an article for The Writing Cooperative about a great way to keep track of ideas that I immediately stole for myself. 

 There are so many more things you can do to get ideas, and more specific ideas within the ones I’ve shared, but I bet this is enough to get you started in time for NaNoWriMo.

My NaNo idea

A picture of the author, “writing.”

To tell the story of how I got the idea for my NaNo novel is to tell the tale of an idiot. Or at least a forgetful and/or drunk person. The order of events as my memory serves goes like this:

I was looking through some files in my google drive and happened upon one called “Haunted soul cavity thing??” Inside this file was a description of an idea that I do not remember writing down at all. It talked about a guy who has to go to abandoned buildings and then I asked myself why. 

Then past me rambled on about something like a missing soul and a demon haunting this guy. It was a weird idea. The words were written like I woke up from a dream or severely drunk when I thought of it.

Then I remembered that for a while I was looking at a lot of pictures of abandoned buildings and was wanting to write about someone who went to them all the time, but I couldn’t quite think of a reason why. I guess in my drunken stupor/sleepy haze I came up with a reason.

Now in a more…coherent state, I decided to combine this idea with the world I started building in my first successful NaNo Novel. I’m not sure if I will continue with that part of the idea, but it spurred me on to start with my researching.


Where do you get your ideas? Are there any specific websites or books that you would recommend?

NaNoWriMo Prepapalooza: What makes a story?

photo of person holding book
Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

There are a million different articles and texts written about each component of a story and what they mean, and I’m sure MFAs could rattle them off in their sleep. But this is my blog dammit, so I’ll be explaining it my own way. Who knows? Maybe this explanation will be the one to click for you.

Most of these sections will be the focus of future articles, so don’t worry if I seem to be glossing over them. I only want to point out the basic building blocks. This gives you something to start with for NaNoWriMo, and the rest of the “Prepapalooza” series. Not to mention any other time to start to write a story.

So what makes up a story? My oversimplified version is: It’s something that happens to someone, somewhere, while making a point

A funny thing happened on the way to the theater…

First up, the something/someone/somewhere: your plot, your characters and your setting. Nothing can happen without these. If we were building a building, these would be the bricks in the walls.

Something that happens 

This is the plot, the sequence of events, in your story. If your story was about someone who went to a store, then the plot would be all about encountering traffic, fighting for a parking spot, and so on. 

I say “something that happens to someone,” but there are some options here. If things keep happening to someone regardless of what they do, this would be a plot-driven story: the characters don’t have much influence over what happens, it just kinda…happens. If you have someone who goes out and does things on their own, however, this is a character-driven story. 

There might be perfectly valid reasons for having a plot-driven story, but it is generally considered more interesting to have a character with agency over their destiny.

Side note: this is also something to keep in mind about your own life.

Somewhere 

This is your setting: where and when the story takes place. This can be as broad as the entire universe since the dawn of time stretching all the way until the end of time, or you could have a story happen within a single place, during a fraction of a second. Setting is also a great place to get started with worldbuilding, but that’s another post.

Someone

This is your main character (MC). Besides the MC, you also have supporting characters, villains, disposable characters, etc. They need not only be people, either. There are many stories where there are animals and even cities as characters. 

An important thing to think about when it comes to your characters is their arc – who is this person before the beginning of the story and who will they become over the course of it? It’s rare that a compelling story is told without the transformation of at least one central character, and in fact, you can base your entire story on how they change and why. 

How You Tell the Story

photo of old church building under cloudy sky
The best bricks mean nothing if you can’t hold them together.
Photo by Harry Smith on Pexels.com

If the previous section described different types of bricks you put together to create a building, then this section is the mortar that holds them together. Without the glue that binds your characters, setting, and plot, you won’t know what any of it looks or sounds like, and you wouldn’t understand what’s going on.

What it looks like

This is description, where you talk about how the light reflects off of someone’s hair or the motion a person makes as they swipe with their knife. It’s the way we communicate plot and setting, otherwise it’s just a list of action words and place names. 

There’s a bit of a problem with description: a lot of writers tend to overdo it. Some want you to see every inch of their world how they see it. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, it gets boring fast. I have a tendency to skip over large descriptive paragraphs when reading unless masterfully written (like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). Too little description, however, and it becomes confusing: “Where are they again? What’s happening? Which guy is talking?” It’s like trying to watch a movie mid Twitter argument. 

What it sounds like 

This is dialogue – what your characters are saying. Many writers struggle with this part, especially when it comes to characters from a different demographic.

Dialogue is not a way to pad your word count, by the way. What your characters say and how they say it can be clues to their backstory, ideals, and morality, especially when coupled with what they do. If someone is always gently reassuring your main character then turns around and stabs them, then you get a better idea of who they are. 

What’s Going on 

This is not plot exactly, but a way to explain the plot or the world, exposition being the technical term. Exposition is outright saying exactly what’s happening. Instead of painting a picture of a military force destroying a castle and killing the inhabitants, you would simply state that a military coup is underway. This is a mechanic of storytelling that has a time and a place and should be used sparingly. It’s usually written as dialogue, in fact, and comes in the form of one character explaining something to another. 

For example, there’s a Sci-fi trope of what I call the uninitiated observer: in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, you had the completely ignorant Arthur Dent. He is accompanied by Ford Prefect, who is there to explain how life in the rest of the galaxy works. Arthur also has access to the actual guide mentioned in the title, which does more of the same. 

It feels natural in this scenario, because we’re starting with the same knowledge that Arthur has, learning with him. However, this is easily overdone. “Expositional dumping” is just having paragraphs of information about your world, a character, or the plot, and comes off dry as all hell. “Show don’t tell” is the adage, and for good reason.

The point of it all

beautiful bloom blooming close up
Photo by Jovana Nesic on Pexels.com

If the first two sections were bricks and mortar, this next bit is the reason why everything was built in the first place. You don’t typically start with this why, however. Many writers write an entire story, then on the first editorial pass, they decide which incidental pieces to develop. These inform the first of many rewrites. These last pieces of your story are theme, moral, allegory, and metaphor.

Theme 

The theme is a recurring thought or idea in a story. For example, you can have the theme of loss throughout your entire piece, physical and emotional. 

Moral

The lesson behind the story. If you start writing a story with a moral in mind, you will most likely end up writing something very preachy. Think of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” for example. I mean, do whatever you want, I’m not a cop.

Metaphor 

I had to do quite a bit of reading on this topic to grasp the difference between a metaphor and an allegory. Metaphors are a way to illustrate something else in a simpler way. For example, if you wanted to use a rose as a metaphor for a couple’s relationship, it could slowly die as their marriage falls apart. It doesn’t add any extra information, just simplifies what you already have.

Allegory 

I had to look this up just to make sure I understood it. Allegories are like a metaphor that explains a concept in ways you are more likely to understand. For example, while the rose might be a metaphor for the couple’s marriage, the decline of their relationship might be written in just such a way as to describe, I don’t know, the decline of the millennial’s relationship with capitalism. 

Note: you do not need to have a metaphor linked to an allegory, this was just a way to contrast the two. 

Next Steps

Every one of these pieces has a lot of information to read up on, but I hope this is enough to get you started for now. Please take the ideas you come up with and have fun trying to work some of these in there. The last section you can definitely use as a way to stretch yourself if you are already comfortable with the rest of them. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re still not sure how to incorporate them in your writing. We’ll work on all of these concepts together later.


Do you know you struggle with any of these story parts? Which one and why? Check back in next week when we’ll be talking about where to get ideas.

NaNoWriMo 2020 Prepapalooza

I started NaNoWriMo (“Nano” before I lose my mind typing) in earnest about three or four times since 2008, under two or three different usernames. I mean to do it every year, and I completed it exactly once in 2009. That book is in my WIP list as BS-183. It’s terrible in some ways, great in others. I will most likely tear it apart and put it back together again one day.

Every year has been the same: October 20ish appears out of nowhere, and I realize that Nano’s around the corner. One year I didn’t catch on until November 2nd. But this year, I’ve been prepping. 

If you want to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, then follow along! I’ll be doing a series of articles on how I’ve been prepping to hopefully make the 50k mark a lot easier to achieve. 

But what is NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers from all over the world gather on the internets to write 50,000 words toward a novel of any genre they choose. For more information or to sign up for such an event, head on over to nanowrimo.org.

Who can participate?

Everyone! Anyone! Your cat! Okay, maybe not your cat, but you get the point. Nano has been found all over the world in coffee shops, libraries, schools, and – my favorite – locked away in dimly lit rooms with lots of snacks. That last one will probably be the default this year, if we’re honest.

Huck is already overwhelmed, so it’s best he just skip this year. It’s okay, buddy.

Why should I care?

  1. It’s fun. If you like writing, this is a lot of it. If you don’t like writing…why are you even reading this at all?
  2. Community. This year will not have any officially sanctioned, meatspace meet ups, but you still have the forums to chat on. There are groups on Nano’s site for local groups, teens, moms, LGBTQ+, etc. You can go on there and only talk about writing, but they also have procrastination forums or information gathering forums, writing sprints (a game where people start and stop writing at the same to see who wrote the most words), snack suggestions…you name it, and the forums probably have it. If not, start your own thread.
  3. Excuses! When you have: an excuse to write + word goal + a timeline, you are much more likely to achieve your dream of writing a novel.
  4. What the hell else are you doing in the apocalypse? 

No one can write a novel worth reading in 30 days

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page,” Jodi Picoult

I said the goal is 50,000 words, not 50,000 good words. All Nano is, is writing a first draft. Word vomit. That’s it. The ideal way to do this would be to write a beginning, middle, and end and fill in the rest of it. Then you let it rest for awhile, edit it, rewrite it, etc. etc.

There are also a lot of published novels started during Nano. 

I can’t do this

If you are privileged enough to be able to shift your schedule, or if you don’t need to at all to have an hour or so a day with the odd pocket of several hours on what you consider your weekends, you most likely have the time. 

And even if you don’t, nothing is stopping you from declaring that you are going to start on a novel and then only write a few sentences a day. Even if you only write one word a day, that’s more toward your novel than you had yesterday. Ernest Hemingway only wrote about 500 words a day, so you may as well try. 

The worst case scenario (with the right attitude) is that you’ill now have words toward a novel you otherwise wouldn’t.

Fine, you’ve convinced me – how does one prep for this?

Come Nano time, I have always been a “pantser” – meaning someone who “writes by the seat of one’s pants.” Because of this, I can’t tell you the sure-fire way I prep, because I never have. Let’s go through the process together. At the end, we can compare notes and see what we can do better next year.

But what parts will I talk about? I already wrote about research awhile ago, so you can read about that there. The schedule beyond that is as follows:

  1. What makes up a story? – this is more just a quick run-down of what to keep in mind when trying to write a full novel.
  2. Getting ideas. This is exactly as it sounds. Where do you get an idea for your novel? 
  3. Character Creation. Obvs.
  4. Worldbuilding. This is creating the setting for your novel. Even if you’re writing something that takes place in your own backyard today, you still need to know things you may not consciously be aware of.
  5. Plot development. What happens during this novel? Why?

These posts, a retro, and a Halloween post will get us to the starting line of Nano, ready to slap down 1,667 words a day for 30 days straight. Our plan won’t be perfect, and our prep will not be exhaustive, but it will be enough for an attempt at a first draft. And remember, kids: it’s supposed to be a fun challenge. No breakdowns allowed!


Do you already know what you’re doing for NaNoWriMo? Have you declared your novel yet?