There are times when I have so many story ideas, it feels like an embarrassment of riches; there are other times when the well has run dry and everything feels forced or trite. Because, let’s be honest, there will be at least one moment in the writing process where I’m plagued with self-doubt, “This sucks,” and, “What are you doing?” and, “Go back to the Olive Garden,” there’s no way I want to start writing something –be it fiction or nonfiction—knowing it’s (at best) trite. Thankfully, there are some great tried-and-true sources of inspiration that can get a body of writing started or that can jumpstart a stalled work.
Look to Real Life for Ideas
Whether you’re a fiction author or a nonfiction author, looking at the real world around you is a great way to find inspiration. When something in the “real world” bothers me, I know I’m onto something. Right now, we live in a veritable grab bag of social injustices, so ask yourself, “What’s grinding my gears?” then put a “what if” spin on the situation.
For example, as much as I love the corner of the U.S. where I live, there are many who are still very quick to shame a female victim of sexual assault or harassment, and God-forbid the perpetuator of the abuse be someone who’s well-liked in the community or who’s well-to-do. We had a case like this not too long ago, and the comments on Facebook were so incendiary and ignorant that my creativity switch was tripped, and I said, “What if….”
This is how Stephen King came up with his idea for Carrie. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King said his ‘aha’ moment arrived when his experience cleaning the girl’s bathroom of his high school as a part-time custodian fused with his reading an article about how menstruating girls were believed to have telekinetic powers. Suddenly, an idea—an idea that’s freaked out audience for generations, was born.
If you’re writing nonfiction, real-life can be equally inspirational. Once again, look for:
- What’s missing…what’s bothering you?
- What problems need to be solved?
- What are your most frequent Google searches?
- What do people ask you, as an expert in your respective field, for advice on?
- What are other experts writing about, and what’s missing from their contributions?
You can also look at how you can make information more presentable and accessible. Never doubt the importance of presentation. I heard a podcast by an Amazon entrepreneur who found an existing, popular product (low-hanging fruit, if you will) and repackaged it, added a 50-cent doo-dad to the package, wrote better ad copy, charged $5 more, and made a killing ($5,000 his first month of sales).
Look Inside of Yourself for Inspiration
In addition to looking at the real world around you, you should look within for inspiration as well. This is definitely an effective way to overpower that pest, writer’s block. Whether you’ve planned your writing or are pantsing your way through, writer’s block can and does happen.
In these cases, fiction writers are best poised to work their way through by asking, “What would I do?” For example, I, unfortunately, know what I would do in the throws of grief. In 2014, I lost my second child; he was born sleeping at 33 weeks. I still remember the gulf of pain that opened up and the absolute abyss of emptiness that loomed before me every time I closed my eyes. Having had that experience, I understand more about pain than I wish I did; however, my son, like any baby, was a gift. One of the many gifts he gave me was the ability to understand others’ pain and to relate to their losses…even if our losses aren’t the same. When I re-read Harry Potter after losing my son, I realized that J.K. Rowling has probably lost someone close to her because I felt she was very authentic in representing how Harry coped with losing Sirius Black (oh, plot spoiler in the rearview, by the way).
That said, once you figure out how you would approach, respond to, resolve, etc. the situation, you can then ask, “What would my character do?” Chances are, you and your character are two different people. Being able to understand, of course, what your character would do, comes from developing his or her background. These are things that never make it onto the page, but they help you, the writer, be able to ask and to reasonably work out what and how your character would act and react. Remember that in fiction actions, words, etc. advance the plot. Your characters’ activities are in response to something, even if you do have a proactive protagonist.
For example, if an evil dictator hadn’t been elected, then your proactive protagonist probably wouldn’t have started to gather an army to fight the looming threat to everyone’s freedom. Likewise, if her husband hadn’t cheated on her, then your reactive protagonist wouldn’t have gone to the bar with her girlfriends, gotten hammered, and ended up waking up next to a stranger (Matt Damon) in a hotel thousands of miles away (dude, where’s my wedding ring?).
Be Brave & Tell the Truth
For nonfiction writers, personal narrative is the best way to get past any sticky spots and to better reach your audience. I’m always amazed at the number of nonfiction authors and of brands who are all about telling their stories, but they only want to tell the nice stories. They don’t want to talk about the worst times…the times they failed or almost failed.
I find these stories –along with those times that you succeeded like a boss—to be both inspirational and informative. Personal narrative brings your point home like nothing else. One of my first blogs for Creative Editing Services was about how my first query letter failed. Why did I write about that? Am I proud that my first endeavor had so many mistakes? No, not particularly; however, I know that by sharing it, I’m able to (hopefully) teach others to not make the same mistakes. Also, I’m hoping people will laugh and say, “Oh, okay this happens to everyone,” and then take it easy with their own work.
In On Writing (what, you thought I was done bringing this up?), Stephen King talks about the spike of rejection letter he’d accrued. King is one of the most lauded and best-paid writers in the industry. How much does it comfort you to know that his legacy started with a heap of bad news (that he wisely made the most of)?
Don’t Stop Believing Writing (Okay…and Believing)
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, keep writing. Write habitually. Write when the inspiration fairies are making it rain with fairy idea dust; write when the inspiration fairies have clearly immigrated to Australia. While I fully advocate taking a long walk, going for a drive, baking a cake—whatever will help you open your mind when you’re stuck, I also advocate for coming back, sitting down, and writing through the hard times.
There have been occasions when I’m writing, and I know even as I’m writing that what I’m writing sucks / isn’t working / is superfluous, etc. I know it’s going to get edited out; however, I also know that if I stop writing and try to figure out exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it, I’m going to spend precious writing time staring at the blinking cursor. It’s going to mock me, and I’m going to go look at Facebook, and then I won’t be any further along.
What’s more, spending too much time away from any project in progress is a recipe for losing your mojo. Those ideas that seemed great three weeks earlier will seem flat. You won’t really be in the rhythm of your story. Your characters and stories will seem…disingenuous when a few weeks earlier, they were as vibrant as the people living in your house.
Just remember that every writer gets stuck somewhere in their writing process. Not letting that stop you is what makes you the real deal and is what will guarantee that your book will (one day) see the light of day. As cliché as it sounds, you can’t finish what you never start, and you can’t finish what you stop doing.
Writer’s block and lack of inspiration happen to everyone; stick it to those obstacles by working through the tough times. Look inside and outside of yourself for motivation. Your main goal is a completed draft; after that, you can work with an editor to revise your story, so every idea or plot point is, well, on point.