Thursday, January 23, 2020

Dear O'Abby: Help! I'm out of ideas!

Dear O'Abby,

Something has happened to me recently that has never happened before: I just can't come up with a story idea that excites me.

I have fragments of ideas and sketches of characters, but nothing that feels like it could sustain a whole novel.  

Do you have any ideas how I might be able to kickstart my creativity and come up with an idea for a new book?



Dear Blanking,

It's frustrating isn't it?  I know exactly how you feel.  Those ephemeral half-formed ideas that don't quite gel into something you can picture yourself spending a year or more working on.  Those ghostly characters that flit through your brain, half-formed, but with no real purpose.

I don't have any definitive, sure-to-work strategies for dealing with this lack of inspiration, but I can tell you about a few things that have worked for me when I've been drowning in a puddle of not-really-stories and not-quite-characters.

Firstly, if you have several different ideas, see if they could go together.  For example, when I wrote An Unstill Life, it started off as three very separate book ideas, one about a gay couple not being allowed to attend a school dance together, the second about a cancer sufferer not wanting to prolong her agony through doing more treatment when she knew it was futile, and the third about the way friendships change once people start coupling up.  None of these ideas was big enough or well formed enough to sustain a book on its own, and I wasn't sure who the characters really were in any of them.  It was only once I put all three stories together that the novel began to take shape in my mind.

Another thing I've done to try and spark something interesting is to use one of those really vague ideas you have - in my case, I wanted to write a story about a boy being physically and emotionally abused by his girlfriend - and use daily writing prompts to guide your character and story development.  If you Google "writing prompts" there are numerous sites that offer writing prompts and you can even subscribe to sites that send you one each day.  Just make sure you give yourself some rules around how you use the prompts or you'll find yourself sifting through them looking for something you can use, rather than allowing the prompts to force you to think outside your comfort zone.  I used a contest called The Writer's Cramp on because it's a site I belong to, and the competition side of it made it a little more fun to dash out those 1000 words each day.  I didn't write a perfect book using this method, but I certainly discovered some really interesting things out about my characters by forcing myself to write about them using the scenarios and situations the prompts threw at me.  I even ended up with a central character I hadn't ever expected to be in there.

Inspiration can come from other sources too.  Read the newspaper and you might find a tiny sidebar story about something that tickles your imagination.  Watch a documentary and you might discover something fascinating you've never heard of before.  Something that you could incorporate into your own story.  Sometimes it might be a location, other times, a character or story that just piques your imagination in a way that tosses up ideas you want to follow.  Read widely.  You might read something you thought you'd love because the story sounded like something you'd be really interested in, but the book fell flat for some reason.  Maybe you can figure out why you felt that way and write a book that explores a similar story in a more satisfying way.

Hopefully one of these suggestions will spark your imagination.  Stories can't always be forced into existence, but they can certainly be encouraged to grow.

X O'Abby.

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