by Melanie Anne Phillips
Step 3 -
No Ideas at All?
In Step 2 we explored how to beat Writer's Block Type One: The Seized-Up Mind. In that scenario, you have lots of bits and pieces of creative ideas you want to weave into a story, but you can't get beyond that point. No new notions enter your mind - not even a concept of how all those disparate parts might fit together. In short, you are stuck in the starting gate with all kinds of potential and the mental equivalent of a leg cramp.
But what if you feel that you are in tip top creative shape - ready to reach your inventive sweeping stride with ease - but there's no race to run. Most authors eventually suffer this particularly frustrating scenario. Your Muse is all dressed up with nowhere to go. The engine is tuned to perfection, but there's no fuel in the car. In short - you're all frenzied up to write and haven't got anything to say.
Fear not, for here in Step 3 of How to Write Your Novel Step By Step, you'll discover a whole tool box of techniques to make ideas come to you so you don't have to go looking for them.
Step 3: Filling the Empty Mind
In Step 2 we talked about one form of Writer's Block - the Seized Up Mind - in which, even though you may have a lot of good ideas, your creative process grinds to a halt, like a gummed up machine.
But there is a second kind of Writer's Block that is equally common - the Empty Mind - in which the creative process is running just fine, but you can't think of a good idea to save your life - and that is the subject of this step in the Novel Writing process.
Now to be fair, no mind is truly empty - it's just out of fresh ideas. But, it's probably chocked full of old tired ideas. And that's the real problem. No matter how you strain, no matter what mental avenues you saunter, you've been there before, seen it all, explored it all, or know of umpteen other novels that have. So it's not that you can't think of anything to write about. You just can't think of anything to write about that hasn't already been done to death by yourself or somebody else.
Again, this may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but the best method to pave the way for new ideas is to clear your mind. Before you can make room for new ideas, you have to get rid of the old. After all, there's only so much space in that over-stuffed creative mind of yours and you can only entertain so many concepts at once.
I'm not going to tell you how to do that part - it works differently for everyone. Some of you may be into meditation. Others need to run a few miles. Maybe you just need to get wasted on one thing or another (legal or illegal) - whatever works. But clear your mind - stop wandering around in it looking for a fresh inspiration, settle down into in your favorite mental easy chair and become a Couch Potato of Thought until all those pesky creative urges go away.
Good. Now.... Hey, WAKE UP!!! I didn't say to drift off on me! Alright, now we're going to set up some situations that are virtually guaranteed to bring you a whole ship load of spanking new ideas you've never thunk before.
So, how can we generate new ideas when our mind seems to be a void? To begin with, it helps to put yourself in a favorable mental state for creativity.
I'm not talking about meditation or "I have to play this video game, dear, because it puts me in a creative state of mind", although that may actually be more than an excuse for some writers. But rather, how can we focus, train, or tune-up our minds to be more likely to generate original ideas?
In Step 1 I introduced a couple of techniques for achieving this heightened creative awareness. So before we jump headlong into new and specific techniques for generating ideas, it will be useful to set the stage by revisiting these foundational approaches. Apropos, I include them here once more, with addition material pertinent to the task at hand:
Finding Your Creative Time
It's pretty obvious that our creativity ebbs and flows like the tides. So it is somewhat surprising that most writers haven't taken the time to chart their tides so they can be predictive of when might be the best time to sit down and write.
Perhaps it is because we are all, more or less, attracted to the concept of the Muse - serendipity - the spontaneous generation of ideas from the ether. It is part of the mystique of writing.
There's nothing wrong with that - but.... If you not only love the writing life but also want to be productive, then perhaps it wouldn't hurt too much to look into your own creative flow and chart the currents.
To that end, I wrote an article some years back designed to help you determine what seasons, times of day or biorhythm times hold for you the greatest promise of getting ideas in mind and words on paper (or screen).
Read the complete article: Finding Your Creative Time
Writing from the Passionate Self
We all have secrets and we all have many faces. For a writer, this can calcify creativity. The more you hold inside, the more you pretend to be what you aren't or not what you are, the more you pre-filter your idea flow before it ever reaches the page. If you are really tight, you may be pre-filtering your ideas before they even reach your conscious mind, making it seem like you are short of concepts when, in fact, you have a limitless supply, invisible to you, swirling just behind some mental barrier.
Like anyone else, writer's are (at least to some degree) concerned with what others think of them. That's why we write so many drafts, in part - not to just improve the work but to improve how others perceive our abilities as a writer.
Every time we put words in order we are leaking truths about ourselves, no matter how we may try not to divulge them. And we know this and obscure as much as we can by adopting an "author's voice" - a personality to our style that is not representative of ourselves, but of the person we wish to project.
Alas, the more we tighten our grip on our persona, the more we strangle our Muse. In order to open the valve and let our true measure of talent rush forth, we must break through this mask and expose ourselves to the world (preferably in a manner consistent with national and local laws).
To learn more about how to expose yourself, read the complete article: Writing from the Passionate Self
Now that we have set the stage for creativity, here are a number of tips, tricks, and techniques you can employ to generate ideas. Some can be easily done around the home or office with materials readily available. Others require a little more effort or sophistication. Collectively, they are your set of keys to unlock the inspiration that lies dormant within you.
Ludicrously Simple and Obvious Techniques
It is amazing how many writers sit staring at screen or page and never even try the most rudimentary means of jolting some new ideas free. I imagine they feel that their writer's block is so profound that ordinary "common sense" methods surely won't be able to help.
The truth is quite the opposite. Sometimes the Gordian Knot approach is successful where a $400 seminar or $200 piece of writing software won't be. The more complex your writer's block, the more likely a straight forward solution can cut through it.
So, before I list more elegant methods, try these garden variety ones first:
1. Get a good night's sleep. No sense trying to write when you can't think straight.
2. Try writing at times of high emotion - happy, sad, angry? Use it! Emotions break logical roadblocks. Get perked? Hit the keyboard.
3. Read a book. Can't write? Then read. Getting into some else's creative flow can lift your boat over the log jam when your own output is a trickle. After a few pages or chapters, approach your own work again and you'll likely have a whole barge full of good ideas.
4. Read a magazine or newspaper. Look for the little articles and news points - not the big stories. Often a short blurb can jog your Muse and either function as an idea itself or at least as the jumping off point for one. And even if you don't find a complete idea, perhaps you discover a great line of dialog, setting, plot point, or thematic issue you'd like to explore.
5. Write when the mood strikes, even if inconvenient. Hey, doctor's get called away in the middle of all kinds of personal activities. You're a professional too, at least in spirit. So when an idea does come, don't put it off - run with it as long as the fugue state holds. In other words, use it while you've got it. (So keep a notebook or recorder handy at all times.)
6. Keep an author's notebook for the little snippets. How many little interesting things occur or cross your path every day? A word misunderstood, some activities by a fellow outside the window of the restaurant where you are having lunch. Be prepared to jot them all down - just a quick note so you'll remember what it was because, as we all know, an hour later you won't even remember it happened. Later, mulling over this growing collection you're almost sure to find something that starts to make you think and, having thunk, to write.
7. Put yourself in places where things happen. Have a laptop computer? Find a comfy spot where you can observe life passing by - a coffee shop, a mall, a street fair - let the crush of humanity do the creative work for you. If you open your eyes and observe, you will find endless original ideas for characters and plot presenting themselves in the ever changing tableau.
8. Build on what's already there. See a person on the street. How many different histories can you develop for him? Is he married? Is he straight or gay? Does he have a college degree? Where from? What in? Ask all the questions about him you can think of and then create a fictional dossier on him, based on your answers (which can run from the mundane to the outlandish). You may have just developed a character for your story.
Try this also on activities witnessed from afar. See something going on and you can't quite figure out what it is? Speculate! Ah, there are two assassins sizing up their mark. Ah ha! She's looking for the lost ring that her mother left her - the worthless ring she threw down the street outside the lawyer's office after hearing that was all she got in the will - and then learning that the ring was engraved with the number to a Swiss bank account holding a fortune in gems.
It's not only easy, but fun. And even if the ideas you imagine aren't directly of use to you (which is more than likely), you will have shaken fee the gears of creation and the ideas you do need will likely begin to churn again.
Not So Ludicrously Simple and Obvious Techniques
Tried all these and still no good ideas? Fear not! Here's a bunch of other idea generating methods many of you may not have tried before - or at least not tried all of them....
1. Synthesis. If your train of thought keeps leading you know where, its time to stop being a one-track mind. You need to jump the track, and to do that, collide two trains of thought going in opposite directions.
First, turn on the television with the sound off. Now, turn on the radio and see how the words you are hearing match up with the pictures you are watching. The mind tries to find order in chaos - can't help itself - so just like we see animals in clouds and meaning in ink blots, your mind will try to come up with an explanation for the juxtaposed combination of one visual with another aural input.
You can also break things up sequentially, rather than overlapping two disparate sources. For example, grab your remote control and change the channel on the television in the middle of a sentence, finishing it with the sentence you next hear on the new channel. You'll end up with things like, "And in Washington D.C., congress *CLICK* ran off a cliff." After you stop laughing, you'll either start a conspiracy theory novel in which members of congress are throwing themselves to their deaths or at least you may come up with a more conservative (or liberal) idea of your own.
2. Nonsense Words. I've written about the before. In fact, in a moment I'll give you links to a couple of different articles I've penned about this technique. But first, here it is in a nutshell:
You jot down three unrelated random words. Then you try to imagine what kind of sense they might make if they all were to be taken together as descriptive of a single thing.
Not making sense to you? Not to worry - read these two articles on using Nonsense to spur creativity: Finding Inspiration for Writing and The Nonsense Technique for Overcoming Writer's Block.
3. Plagiarize with a Twist. In what genre do you want this new story to be? What are your favorite novels in that genre? Forget them! What are the worst novels you've ever read in that genre?
Start with one of those - the worse, the better. We all have trouble writing something good, but (as writers) we have very little trouble criticizing what's bad. Moreover, we're almost always filled with a hundred ideas how we might have improved it, which makes us feel superior, of course!
More to the point, even little improvement (and all the big ones too!) that you make in a story gradually changes it from a story that belongs to someone else to one that belongs to you. If you pick a truly terrible novel as your guide. By the time you've finished rewriting it, there won't be enough of the original left from which to discern its parentage.
So put that critical - and I do mean "critical" - mind to work and plagiarize someone for the betterment of all.
4. Finally, and perhaps most important, you are only as good as your own talent. Get Over It!!! Much of writer's block stems not from the lack of ideas, but from the lack of ideas good enough to represent us as better than we really are.
Don't let your actual talent hold you back. Got bad ideas? Use them! What's worse - writing an awful novel or not writing a novel at all. (I know, it's kind of like "Your money or your life..." ala Jack Benny).
Hey, if you were a single, this would be an issue. But you are a writer. Nobody sees what you create until you are ready for it to be seen. So don't wait endlessly for the golden ideas and sterling words. Write what comes to mind. Run into a logical roadblock? Make up some stupid idiotic Deus Ex Machina bridge to get past it and keep on writing. You can always go back to fix it later in the rewrites. Meanwhile, you'll complete your novel with a minimum of headaches and downtime.
And when you do go back to rewrite, remember the ol' Creativity Two-Step from Step 2 (it isn't just for raw creativity, but works great in rewriting as well). Read the complete article: The Creativity Two-Step
Looking Forward to Step 4
Hopefully, by now you've managed to come up with at least the germ of an idea for a story. It doesn't have to be much - just a sentence or two like the program description on cable or satellite television listings.
In Step 4 we're going to press forward from that zygote of a concept to create some characters to populate our fledgling story world.
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Copyright Melanie Anne Phillips - Owner, Storymind.com, Creator Storyweaver, Co-creator Dramatica