Our mission with Sunday Writers’ Club and the Sunday morning writing sessions is to help inspire the creative writer in you. Our unique menus of prompts aim to stimulate brand new ideas for stories and poems that you never even knew you had! And we’re hoping it won’t be too long before we can all get together again and enjoy the wonderful atmosphere created by being amongst other imaginative, eager, generous writers. In the meantime, and as a build-up to our first post-lockdown session, I thought I’d share with you some of my own ideas of how we can find inspiration for new stories and poems.
Personally, I believe there are 3 basic ways to inspire fiction: Remember, Observe and Steal.
You are full of stories. Stories that are about you, yourself. Think of all of the anecdotes you tell friends and family over a cup of coffee at home or after that third beer in the pub, as well as the ones you use as a way to introduce yourself when making new friends on holiday or at a dinner party. Think of the gossip you share with work colleagues on your lunch break or waiting on the train platform after a long shift. How many stories do you tell each day?
Lots of writers feel most comfortable when writing from experience. ‘Write what you know’ is a famous expression and an adage plenty of writers live by. Drawing on experiences from your own life means you can imbue them with a depth you might not otherwise achieve with made-up stories and it certainly means you should never be lacking for inspiration. You do stuff every day, right?
However, it is important to make sure that even if the story you’re writing is personal to you, that it’s also universal in its appeal. Often you can use the lens of your own experience to widen an idea into something much more universal. The story of the death of your dog, or your first kiss, or your first day at school might seem unique to you, but if you can focus on the emotions underpinning these experiences they can become much more widely appealing.
The best stories are a mixture of the unique (your dog was a poodle, and he died on your eighth birthday) and universal (how does this first experience of death and loss impact on a child’s life?).
Every writer should have a notebook and pen or pencil that they carry with them everywhere, because brilliant story ideas really are EVERYWHERE.
Why is that teenage boy in McDonalds crying? Has that old woman who is dressed as a witch been invited to a fancy dress party, or is she actually a witch? Where is that cat going on the tram? Perhaps other people will spot the unusual and interesting, but most will pass on by with only cursory curiosity. A writer, however, will scribble it down in their notebook to save for a later time. (And the simple act of writing it down will often help secure it in your memory).
If you spot a car with a nasty dent in the side, stop for a few seconds to consider and imagine how it might have got there. Was it an accident, or an act of revenge? Such a simple thought, which may lead to an exciting and emotional story.
A writer trains their imagination to spot stories like a sportsperson trains their body for the next race. It takes time and effort. Make a point of watching people and guessing their name, their work, even why they look happy or glum. I sometimes sit next to people on public transport whilst I’m wearing headphones, but I have no music playing. That way the people around me believe they can talk more openly with each other because they assume I can’t hear what they’re saying. In reality I’m being very impolite and listening very closely to their conversation – listening not just to what they say, but also to how they say it, their accent and their dialect.
Try traveling to work/college via a different route. Purposely walk down a street you’ve never walked down before. Get yourself lost. Seek out new and unexpected things. Or look at well-known things from the other end of the street.
Observe the details of the world around you as intricately as possible. Stand in the middle of a thunderstorm to find out what it feels like. Then write it down in your notebook. Watch how other people hunch and run through the rain. Listen to the sound of the cars’ tyres through the puddles. Watch the different changes the sky goes through. Then write about it.
But don’t just observe your own personal world outside your front door. If you read something interesting in a newspaper or magazine cut it out and keep it (glue it into your notebook). Set up a brand new email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and email yourself interesting Facebook, Twitter, Instagram stuff you come across.
Build a bank, a database, a wealth of observations.
Of course I mean ‘be inspired by’ your favourite books, writers, movies, poems, paintings and songs. (I promise I’d never advocate plagiarism). Even the best-known, bestselling, award-winning authors steal ideas from… sorry… are inspired by the books they’ve read and the artists they admire. It’s impossible not to be. Most of the authors in the world no doubt wanted to become authors because they yearned to emulate their favourites who’ve gone before.
Were the Harry Potter books unique and original? Sort of. Yes and no. They certainly weren’t the first books about teenage wizards and witches. Nor the first books set in English boarding schools riddled with intolerance, elitism, bullying, friendship and loyalty. Not even the first books dealing with fated heroes, unexpected enemies and battles of good versus evil. But the way the books were put together made them totally unique.
Give a group of ten people the exact same number of Lego bricks – all the same combinations of shapes and colours. It goes without saying that those ten people will all build something different.
Writers strive for originality. But often what’s original about your story is you, and the way you shape it, rather than the idea itself. It’s the way YOUR mind works that matters. (Which is obviously fueled by your experience and your observations).
So, relax. Let those books that moved you, that kept you awake at night, that made you laugh and cry, that made you want to be a writer, be your own story’s Lego bricks.
Good Ideas, Bad Ideas?
What is the difference between a ‘good’ idea for a story and a ‘bad’ one. To be honest, that’s not for me to decide – it’s always the writer’s choice.
Good ideas are the ones that keep you writing. Two of the most important tools in a writer’s possession are Patience and Self-Motivation. But they’re notoriously difficult tools to keep sharp.
Stories can take weeks, sometimes even months to write, while novels have been known to take years (trust me, I keep my publishers well aware of that fact…) If your ‘Big Idea’ keeps you fired up, enthusiastic, makes you want to come back to the desk again and again (even when you’re tired, even after a lousy day) because you’re excited about exploring that Idea further, then it’s a damn good one. Stick with it!
But how do you know if it’s a ‘damn good one’ in the first place? Writers have to learn that skill. And it’s a skill that can sometimes take longer to learn than any novel takes to write.
The first rule of writing is: Show up. Every day. Writers learn by writing, day after day.
Make writing a habit by getting some words on the page (or on the screen if you prefer) every single day. They don’t have to be wonderful words, astounding words. They don’t need to be part of the current story you’re working on and have a Beginning, Middle and End. They can be scraps and scribbles – memories of your day, observations from your commute, thoughts on the movie you watched at the weekend. Just 10 minutes a day to start with. Then when it becomes a habit, an itch you need to scratch, that 10 minutes can easily be stretched to 15, 20, maybe half an hour…
Because writers write. Always.
Your creativity, your sifting of good ideas for bad will become natural. Instinctively you’ll spot the difference between a short story idea and one that could fill a novel because you’ll be thinking like a writer. You’ll discard many more ideas than you’ll keep. And the ones you keep will feel precious, so you’ll polish them like jewels.
But none of this will happen if you don’t obey that first rule. Show up. Be there to write. Become a writer. Every day.