Of all the parts of the writing process that may mystify non-writers, one seems to stand out above all else: ideas. Specifically, where writers get ideas. It’s the question I get asked the most and, though I should be used to it by now, it still surprises me. This is literally the easiest part of the whole ordeal. I have ideas for days, weeks, years. Notebooks full of them. Much like my reading list, I’m pretty sure they’ll outlive me as well. Could this be my artistic superpower? Perhaps. In any case, I tried to reverse engineer my thought process when brainstorming instead of being annoying and stating it’s a flash of brilliance that comes at me at unexpected times. It certainly feels that way, though my rational explanation is that my subconscious has been percolating these nuggets while I was busy watching The Bachelor or spacing out on Facebook. There are a few strategies I’ve been able to discover and can hopefully help you when you’re stuck.
Having said that, there is one thing I want to make clear: You don’t have to write anything. At all. Ever. It’s one thing to be a writer and stuck in a bit of a rut, or a writer who knows what themes to explore but isn’t quite sure how to frame them. Writers sometimes have a character in mind but lack narrative, sometimes they have a narrative in mind but lack the context. This is all fine and normal. But if you are one of countless dudes—and yes, they are almost always dudes—who think it would be super cool to write a book for shits and giggles, then please head on over to the left. No conversation makes my eyes roll more than the following:
Dude: You’re a writer. That’s so cool!
Dude: I’ve always wanted to write a book. I just don’t know what to write about.
Me: Then you don’t really want to write a book.
Dude: But I do!
Me: But if you did, then you would know what you wanted to write about.
Dude: I just think it would be really cool to say I got published. Maybe I can write about my life story.
Me: (slowly starts to walk away)
The lesson here is that knowing how to spell does not mean you are a writer and it rarely signifies that you have anything to say.
Ok, rant over. Back to ideas.
Strategies for Fiction Writers
- What famous or historical figures intrigue you? Use that as a starting off point. I have a thing for musicians and politicians, especially about the kind of people they are behind closed doors. As a result, the first manuscript I ever finished was centered on a teenage girl struggling with her deadbeat rocker dad and I’m currently working on a project that combines my love of musical theater with my hatred for Catholic schools. I’ve also been constantly tempted to write about first ladies, though I have yet to fully form that concept. In any case, there is something about their mystique, lifestyle and the world that surrounds them that lights up my synapses. Find yours.
- Write another version of a story everyone knows by heart. There’s a theory that states there are only seven basic plots and humanity simply keeps hashing them out, changing only the details. Whether this horrifies you or intrigues you, use it for your own purposes. Write a well-known story from another character’s point of view. Set it in another time. Make the male protagonist a woman or vice versa. Create an adult version of a fairy tale. You get my drift.
- Fictionalize a random news article you can’t get out of your head. The zanier, wackier and more obscure, the better.
- Pick a song and pretend it’s the soundtrack of a story. What is that story? This was actually my favorite writing exercise when I was in high school. For some reason, Blur’s The Great Escape always gave me the most fodder.
- Create a more interesting version of something that has actually happened to you. Let’s face it, daily life is pretty boring. Yet we all have moments that have caused great emotional upheaval or given us immense joy. Write it as a tragedy or as a comedy. Think about the ending you wish it would have had or the crisis you averted.
Strategies for Creative Non-Fiction
- There is something you always rant about and your friends have tolerated said rants for long enough. It’s time to put it on paper. Honestly, this is how I came up with my avocado toast essay, which has reached mythic status among my tiny circle of literary peeps.
- Look back on those anecdotes you always turn to for dinner conversation. We all have a few crowd pleasers.
- One word prompts. Follow dictionaries on Twitter and use their word of the day or look at special thematic issues of magazines you enjoy to find the words. Once you have one, make a list of everything it conjures up. Choose a topic from that list.
- What is something you need to explain all the time but are surprised you actually have to? I’m still in awe of how little Americans know about their own immigration system. Therefore, I decided to write about it.
- Choose the most random fact about you and use that as an essay prompt. My great uncle Armando is famous for having kicked Santana out of the country during his term as the Minister of Interior in Peru. This led me to dig into my family history and made me question my own commitment to political causes. All that led to one of the essays I was most proud of and most scared of performing.
I hope some of these get your creative juices flowing. What strategies do you use?