Hint: It's easier than you think
Why is it that every time we look at the latest top ten books in our local supermarket there’s another new James Patterson glaring back at us? Surely, we think to ourselves, this man will run out of ideas soon. He must have covered every angle of the murder-mystery genre, and put poor Alex Cross through more strife than is humanly possible in any one lifetime, and yet he still manages to release a new book just about every other Tuesday.
Meanwhile, we sit at our desks with coffee, quiet, a handsome journal and rainbow of pens, and we’re in the zone, and we still can’t think what to write about. And the more we try, the harder it gets, right? And... how many times have we read a book from the bestseller list and kicked ourselves whilst cursing, Why didn't I think of that? (I have felt this way recently about both Ready Player One and The Handmaid’s Tale... clearly, I have ideas way above my station!)
So what’s the secret? How is it the likes of Patterson, King, Child and Picoult seem to brim with new ideas when nothing short of a stick of dynamite and a long fuse will do it for us?
Well, the answers to these questions really are all around us. They’re just in disguise.
It’s very rare that a fully formed plotline will arrive unaided. And perhaps not even a vague notion of one will appear if we’re not really paying attention properly. But this is easily rectified – the very moment we begin to take notice of two crucial areas of our lives:
What we observe first-hand
These are the things we experience or have experienced ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be a dramatic or unforgettable event that has haunted us since childhood. It might be something simple that catches our eye. For instance, a washing line of damp clothes strung between two caravans in the dim evening light once instigated a short story of mine about a community of travellers: this became the opening scene. Likewise, a woman pushing her wheeled trolley bag like a pram became a poem about an old woman who mothered plastic dolls as though they were her babies. (A twenty-foot wooden giraffe is still waiting in a notebook somewhere, but I’m sure it’ll come in useful at some point.)
These are the sorts of moments or images in life that catch our attention so briefly they are usually quickly forgotten. Which is fine if we were 'normal' people. But we are writers, which means anything that makes us look twice should be noted; such moments can spark thoughts that lead to questions that lead to ideas that lead to plots that lead to books... Or maybe they’ll just add a rich piece of detail to a narrative when we’re least expecting it (detail can sometimes take a story into a whole other stratosphere [see The Handmaid's Tale]).
Put it this way: you never know when you’ll need a wooden giraffe!
What we find out
This is information we receive second-hand: something we watch, read or hear.
This is probably where most of our ideas will come from when we start to pay attention to them. It could be something we learn about that fascinates, humours or appals us. Or it could just be an image that catches our eye as we scroll through social media; I have a particular penchant for abandoned buildings – old mental asylums, apartments, churches – which conjure up a thousand questions for me (who lived or worked there? what did they witness? how did they feel?), and Twitter is an absolute treasure trove of such photographs (also known as 'plots waiting to happen'). A photo is a great way to spark ideas – whether it’s of a person who would make an interesting character, a setting that provides the perfect backdrop, or a captured moment in time that asks more questions than it answers.
We see news items or reality shows on TV that make us fume sometimes, right? Or documentaries that leave us in tears. Or films we curse for failing to live up to expectation. All of these feelings leave us frustrated when we have a lot to say but no one to say it to... Well, actually, we do. We can take these opinions, thoughts and feelings and repackage them into themes for a new narrative. We can refrain from moaning into the social media void and channel those energies into our stories instead. Not only that, but they'll be ones where we control the outcome... Bonus!
Whatever we see, read or hear that elicits an emotional response from us has the potential to generate ideas for plots or themes; the key is to develop a keen awareness of these responses, and to capture as much of them as possible. We don’t even need a notepad and pen these days: our phones allow us to tap notes into a digital notepad or, better still, take a photograph. If we see something online that piques our interest, it’s simple now to capture a screenshot or save the link for when we have more time to run through the possibilities.
There has never been an easier time for us to receive, gather, and store information ready for the time when we can rifle through this minefield and pick out what intrigues us most. We just need to be open to receiving this information and then interpreting it in more than one way: perhaps cross-referencing something we’ve witnessed first-hand with something we read once in the dentist's waiting room.
When we look a little closer, the possibilities are endless...
So as it turns out, Stephen King and James Patterson are not blessed with story-generators for minds (well, not technically anyway), they are merely ‘open’ to the ideas (or threads of ideas) that pass by in the disguise of everyday objects or a headline read at a glance. These authors have questioned ‘what if?’ so many times their brains are now wired to spot a new plotline at fifty paces. Who else here has wondered why J K Rowling is still writing books, having done sufficiently well for herself (!) just with Harry Potter alone? Her answer? She can’t stop writing – it’s what she does. Put simply, now that her creativity has been piqued with HP, she is seeing ideas everywhere... and she can’t help but write them down.
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have Maya Angelou
HELP... What sort of edit do I need?
The five senses of setting
How to self-edit
Techniques for developing an unstable narrator