Writing Masterclass (Part 2): How to get ideas


ow do you find great ideas? It’s a question many people working in creative fields ask themselves.

During each Masterclass, the authors would share their insights on where they get their best ideas.

Here are some of the overlapping themes to help you find that gem of an idea.

1. Write about what you enjoy

This point was made a couple of times. It seems obvious, but many writers fall into the trap of writing what they feel they should write, rather than what they want to write.

The writing suffers as a result. If you’re passionate about a particular area, say science fiction, you’re much more likely to come up with good ideas if you write about that area.

If you try and chase what’s hot and popular at that time, it’s probably that someone else will be far better than you at it. The crime writer David Baldacci was keen to stress this point.

‘Make sure that this long road (of writing a novel) that you’re going to start off on is something that you’re actually interested in and have a passion about…If you do, your research will be better and your plots will be better because you’ll invest more time because that focus is there…

Half the time, people don’t finish the books because they weren’t interested in it, and they weren’t really good because there wasn’t any passion there’.

You’ve got to have faith that if you’re excited about it, this will likely be reflected in the pace and quality of your writing.

Another thriller writer, Dan Brown, offers this piece of advice for aspiring thriller writers, but it applies just as much to other genres of writing.

‘The most important thing for you as a writer is to write the thriller that you want to read. And I promise you, if you like it, somebody will share your taste…The best advice I can give any aspiring writer is to choose a topic, choose a world that you’re excited about.’

The more passionate you are about your writing, the better your chances of producing that excellent idea.

2. Crack the code

Most successful writers don’t read books like the rest of us. It’s more focused. They don’t simply flick through a novel to enjoy the story. That’s only part of it.

Rather, they analyse it on a much deeper level; they have a desire to understand how the novel was constructed.

They think about questions such as:

  • How did the novel start?
  • What person was it written in?
  • Why was that character so interesting?
  • How did the chapters end to hold the reader’s interest?
  • What did and didn’t work?

Serious writers keep these questions in the back of their minds whilst they’re reading. It’s what James Patterson calls a ‘high level awareness’ of whatever you’re doing.

Keeping this high level awareness will allow you to think more deeply about writing and encourage the idea generating process.

Joyce Carol Oates, the short story writer, places great emphasis on understanding other authors and says that you can discipline yourself to read ‘systematically’:

‘You decide very clearly that you’re going to read all of the young Hemingway short stories because it’s mostly his short stories that are helpful to writers than the novels…So you say to yourself that I’m going to read 25 short stories by Ernest Hemingway. And I’m going to read them more than once and learn from them.

That kind of reading is what you might get at a university course or community college or an online course. It’s systematic.’

Margaret Atwood looks a little broader than Oates but says that she studies the ‘building blocks of story in Western civilisation’.

‘For Western cultures, it’s going to be Greek and Roman myths, folk tales…And The Bible, of course, has some of the essential stories that someone should know because it’s almost impossible to read English literature written before, say 1940, without encountering biblical references…

If you are interested in writing and in having a large tool kit of stories, these are some of the things that I suggest you can look at because those stories have been the building blocks for a great many writers before you’.

3. Copy your favourites

How do you find your writing voice? Imitation was something several of the writers suggested. To find your voice, you copy the voices of the people you like and gradually, you develop subtle differences. That is how you find the idea for how you’d like your writing to sound.

Here are what a few of the authors said:

Judy Blume

‘In developing a voice, one of the best things that you can do is to be inspired by someone else’s development of a voice…For practice, you can imitate a voice. There’s no-one there in the room with you, you can do that…Not a whole book, but little bits and pieces and by doing that, I do believe that you will develop your own original voice.’

Neil Gaiman

‘I know when I was a young writer, I really didn’t sound like anybody. What I did was sound like everyone else; it’s what you do when you’re starting out. You imitate. You find voices that you like. You say, ‘this person is doing something great!’. I would look at writers and say that I love this thing and I’ll try and do that.’

The poet, Billy Collins:

‘The sense is that your voice lies somewhere within and you need to interrogate and examine yourself and see what’s somewhere down there connected with your personal authenticity…That is all wrong. Your voice has an external source. It does not lie within you. It lies on the shelves of the library, on the shelves of the bookstore. Your voice is in the voices of other poets. And you will develop a voice by copying, imitating, lifting from some of these other poets.’

4. Shine a light on the darkness

Interesting ideas are found in dark places, according to some writers. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, because they’re seen as ‘taboo’, few are brave enough to go deep and write about these areas. And secondly, human beings have a fascination with uncomfortable topics.

Judy Blume noticed that children’s books hadn’t broached some of the more unspoken subjects of growing up. And she spotted an opportunity for her writing to flourish.

‘Real stuff wasn’t there for me when I was a kid. I couldn’t read about real stuff. I couldn’t read about real families and I wanted to desperately. I desperately wanted to read about real life…I wanted to read about nitty-gritty stuff. I wanted to read about people who didn’t always get along, I wanted to read about secrets that were kept from kids. I wanted to read about puberty.’

Joyce Carol Oates is another novelist who looks to less represented areas for her ideas:

‘Another very strong motive throughout history is bearing witness, especially those that can’t speak for themselves, writing about people and telling stories about people that have been silenced or muted or exterminated and being the one to tell their stories as journalist or historic form or as fiction or as poetry’.

5. Get off Google

Search engines aren’t going to provide you with ideas. That was a point powerfully made by Malcolm Gladwell.

In fact, if you’re looking for interesting and original ideas, Google is perhaps the last place that you want to go. Gladwell explains why:

‘You’re trying to write an article about something new and fresh that people want to read. What does Google show you? All the things that Google readers have been reading. It’s set up to confirm the direction that you’re already on….

I think the real problem – the central challenge of the writer – is the challenge that you have at the beginning. What direction do I want to go? Of all the different places I could go in the world, find me some new and interesting place to go. And that is where the computer is not your friend’.

Summary – How to get ideas

  1. Write about what you enjoy
  2. Crack the code for great storytelling
  3. Copy your favourite writers
  4. Look at the dark, taboo areas
  5. Get off Google
May 20, 2021
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