The answer for a lot of writers is “I don’t know.” And, frankly, that’s a legitimate answer. Many of us started writing when we were young out of a natural instinct, a desire to tell stories, and an innate love of language and words. Even if we’ve tried to analyze our process, chances are we don’t know as much about our inner lives as we might like. There’s a reason a lot of writers refer to “the muse,” a mysterious source of ideas and inspiration: Whatever subconscious process goes on to deliver ideas to us often seems like a message from beyond, some kind of cosmic beam we’re somehow tuned into.
Writing can be a mysterious process—if we’re being honest, the writing process often looks something like this:
- Decide to write a book
- Type “the end” and wonder why you’re suddenly 5 years older.
Sometimes, of course, the beam shuts off. Sometimes the muse stops speaking to us. Sometimes you stare at that blinking cursor and wonder if you’ll ever have an idea for a book again. It happens to every writer at some point. The good news is there are ways to jump-start your idea generator and rediscover your drive and excitement for writing. If you’re struggling to get words on the page, there are various tools in two distinct categories: Mechanical things to get words flowing, and Idea Generators to lead you to what your story will be about. Here’s how to find inspiration for your next book.
First things first: Relax. The first step to finding inspiration is to take a step back. Close the laptop, walk away from the keyboard, and reset in whatever manner works for you. Have a drink. Get a massage. Meet a friend. See a movie—find a way to spend a few hours (or even a few days) not writing—and not worrying about it.
Writers live and breathe on their ideas, so when we have trouble coming up with some, we panic. It’s natural, but grinding away at it in desperation isn’t going to get you anywhere. Once you’ve found some calm and peace, remind yourself that the ideas will come. If you still have that hunger, that itch to create, you will eventually find your next inspiration—the only time to really worry about yourself is if you lose that desire to work in the first place.
Assuming you’ve still got a fire in the belly for writing that book (and since you’re reading this it’s safe to assume you do), part of the solution is to try to jolt your subconscious into action. The techniques described here are “mechanical” in the sense that they often involve physical actions or deliberate mental recalibrations, as opposed to just coming up with an idea. In other words, here are some ways you can kick-start your inspiration machine.
Writer’s write. It’s what we do, and we have a tendency to write our way through everything—we write in journals to deal with emotional and personal struggles, we write letters to connect with our friends and family, and we tend to deal with a lack of inspiration by trying to write our way through it.
On the one hand, this isn’t a bad idea. Very often the best way through writing challenges is to just pour words on the page. You can always delete them later, after all, and sometimes just plowing ahead cranks the engines and clears out the mental pipes. But this strategy works best if you already have a certain amount of work on the page, a foundation to riff off of. If you don’t even know where to start, just pouring words on the page will be ineffective (with some exceptions that we’ll get to).
On the other hand, here’s a better idea: Delete it all.
The more words you put into a project—even a project that isn’t inspiring you and is doomed to failure—the more mental weight they exert on you. Personally, when a story—even a sickly, rambling, boring story I know I will never show to anyone—reaches a certain word count, I start to feel like I must finish it. It’s the literary equivalent of the Fallacy of Sunk Costs. The gravity of that terrible story will pull you down a black hole and force you to work on something you know is being written from an uninspired place.
So, delete it. Break that mental connection. I mean real, actual deletion, not just saving it all in a file you promise not to go back to—not even moving it to the trash and letting it sit there in a quantum state of not-quite-deleted. Yes, it will hurt. Writing without inspiration is the most difficult writing you’ll ever do, so it will hurt even more. But readers will pick up on that lack of inspiration no matter how much polish you put on it. Starting fresh is necessary, and deleting your most recent work can act as an exorcism of sorts—a sharp break from what hasn’t been working clears the decks and gives you a fresh start.
As much as we’d like to think we’re islands of unique creativity, the fact is all stories are built from other stories. You read a book, you steal an idea. You watch a movie, you walk out of the theater with a character. Sometimes it’s as simple as strumming your competitive sensibility and jealousy—I’ve personally written entire novels because of some terrific piece of art I was insanely jealous of. Wanting to prove that you can do something as well or better than another creator is a tremendous motivator—and also a great source of inspiration.
So read, watch, and listen to some great work—but also roam outside your usual comfort zone. To get some new ideas bubbling, read something totally outside your usual fare, or watch something weird and unusual. If you spend all your time inside a very narrow lane—say, Dinosaur Time Travel Detective stories—you’ll be feeding your brain the same elements over and over again.
We all have a process, and most writers are very dedicated to it. If you’re struggling to find inspiration, it’s possible that on some subconscious level your process has gone stale, and might be limiting you.
Broadly speaking, some of us are plotters, pantsers, or plantsers, but a writer’s process can be extremely detailed and unique. Some writers hit word count goals, others write in “shifts” and knock off for the day regardless of their progress. Some folks revise as they go, others like to leave a manuscript in a drawer for a few months before tinkering. The way we do things is often just as important as what we do, so changing how you put words on the page/
- If you’re used to just sitting around waiting for inspiration, here are a few things to try:
- assigning yourself a topic, even if it doesn’t make you excited, and treat it like a freelance gig
- if you’re a pantser, try sitting down to plot out an entire story instead
- change your schedule so you’re writing at diffrent times of the day than usual—or start writing at more
- randomly chosen moments
- change your implements: If you usually write on a keyboard, try writing longhand with a pen, or vice versa, or even dictating into your phone.
The point is, your lack of inspiration might stem from boredom with your process. Shaking things up can make it all seem fresh, which can lead to new ideas.
Anyone who tells you they understand exactly where ideas come from and how writing works inside your brain is lying. Most writers have experienced an inexplicable moment when their brains bubble up a concept or line that seems to come out of nowhere to unlock the story entirely, so it makes sense that freewriting might do the trick if you’re struggling to find inspiration—in fact, some writers swear by it as a regular exercise.
Freewriting is similar to automatic writing, but the latter has a spiritual component to it, as it’s intended to be a way to connect to the spirit world or some other concept of a different plane of existence. Freewriting is a bit of a combination of brainstorming and composition: You start writing a sentence or a paragraph, and you don’t stop until it’s finished. You don’t wait for inspiration, you just start writing but with the twist that you don’t allow yourself to stop. There are several ways you can jump into this:
- Steal a line: Start by writing a favorite, classic opening line: Call me Ishmael, or We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. Then see where your subconscious takes you.
- Describe the scene: Look out your window or around the room and just start describing what you see. Soak it in detail, get real flowery with your descriptions—just go for it.
- Anthropomorphize the heck out of everything: Pets, table lamps, everything. Just start writing about the stuff around you as if it had a human-sized brain and a soul. What makes your table lamp sad? Why is your cat staring at you?
- Write a letter to a fictional person: First-person narratives often start as missives. Start writing a letter to, well, anyone. Imagine a scenario and describe it to them. Are you in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? On spaceship and experiencing time dilation? Plotting a murder?
The key isn’t what you freewrite, but that you do it. When freewriting, don’t try to tell a story or stick to that initial prompt—that’s just to get the process started. Clear you mind as you go and just let your fingers put whatever words come to mind down. And don’t stop to fix anything, to recast a phrase, or to do some ancillary research. You just keep writing.
This can free your mind to just wander a bit and make random connections as you work. You will be surprised how often this will generate unexpected ideas. The free association that goes on while freewriting can lead you in some pretty unexpected directions, and at the end of one of those newly-discovered paths just might be your next book idea.
If you’re like most writers, you have a bunch of old ideas that never came to fruition for one reason or another. Some you toyed with and then discarded. Some you researched and decided it wasn’t going to work. Some you worked on for a while and lost interest in—or you completed and polished it and just weren’t happy with it.
Now might be a good time to take that box of old ideas and dump it on the ground. With the passage of time and the gaining of perspective, sometimes ideas that didn’t work out for us ten years ago are suddenly exactly what we need to work on. If nothing else, resurrecting one of these older projects and working on it will get the mechanical aspect of writing back in motion for you. And once you’re working on something and your mind is distracted, inspiration very often ambushes you.
If you’re able, take a trip. Changing the scenery and your routine will also change the way you think, and absorbing a new culture or way of doing things can lead your thoughts in unexpected directions, and unexpected directions can lead to unexpected inspirations.
Think of your favorite writers, the folks whose books you buy blind, no questions asked. Now go check and see if they’ve written a book about writing like On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King or Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Reading what famous, successful writers you adore do for inspiration and how they approach the process of writing will fire up your creative juices, and their passion will serve as a reminder of how much you love to write.
Attacking a lack of inspiration mechanically often works because you have ideas, you’re just not processing them effectively. But if you are truly at a loss as to what to write about, there are also specific techniques you can apply to pry an idea for a book out of the muse’s tightly-clenched fists.
First, remind yourself that this will pass. Lacking inspiration can be terrifying, but it’s not like you were born with a finite number of ideas. Even a lengthy period where you can’t get excited about a writing project doesn’t mean you’ve used up your last idea and you’re now doomed to never write again. So resist the urge to panic—you will definitely find inspiration. You’re just in a moment when you have to work a little harder at it. Here are some places to look.
Every story has roads not taken—minor characters who are more interesting than the protagonists, noodle incidents that sound fascinating, and tossed-off concepts that aren’t explored or developed. Just because one writer didn’t think it was worth putting more time and thought into doesn’t mean you can’t. This is where the idea for my second novel The Electric Church came from—I read Douglas Adams’s The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soulwhere he introduced the idea of an “electric monk,” an appliance that believed things for people too busy to do it themselves. It was a small part of the story, but the concept stuck with me, eventually evolving into the murderous cyborg monks of my novel.
Sometimes writers can be too serious and respectful of their chosen genres. If you’ve been seeking inspiration for a gritty crime story, for example, maybe you need to play at a little reverse psychology and try writing a satire of gritty crime stories. Coming at your style or genre sideways sometimes reveals hidden facets—new information or understanding that might lead you to an idea you would otherwise have never encountered. Of course, if you’re a humorous writer, try the reverse: Write something not intended to be funny at all.
Imagine you’re on a first date with someone and they challenge you to tell a story about yourself. What story do you tell that will intrigue them and make you look funny and interesting? Once you’ve chosen your story, ask yourself if that couldn’t be the next book you write. And if the answer is “no,” pivot and ask what needs to change to make it a great book.
One way to get inspired is to start working on a biography of someone you admire—famous or not. In fact, you don’t even have to do any writing—just doing the research will lead you to all kinds of unexpected concepts. Most people’s lives are much stranger than any fiction, so you’re bound to stumble onto any number of stories that will inspire you.
A complementary idea is to think about how you would fictionalize your autobiography—what names and dates would you change, what stories would you exaggerate?
Have you ever read or watched a story that had a lot of promise and that you were really enjoying, only to watch in horror as it all fell apart? One way to get inspired is to think about that story and try to figure out how it went wrong. Then write your version of the story, fixing the problem as you see it. Make the villain actually scary, introduce a clever plot twist that solves for a lack of mystery and tension—you might be surprised how inspiring fixing someone else’s work can be.
The Internet and writing magazines are chock full of writing prompts, snippets of ideas that several writers develop into a story at the same time. Prompts are Creative Writing 101, but that’s in part because they work. Going straight at them is fine, but if you’re seeking true inspiration, try twisting the prompt into something truly unexpected.
Eavesdropping on people and observing them can be endless sources of inspiration. You can make up stories to explain snippets of conversation or mysterious actions, you can literally steal people’s drama if it catches your muse’s ear. And you don’t need to eavesdrop if that makes you uncomfortable: Do some people watching, and make up stories about everyone you see. Eventually, you’ll start spinning a story to yourself that will have you scrambling for a pen to take notes with.
Keeping a diary or journal is a great way to find inspiration. First, it gets you into the habit of writing every day even if you don’t know what to write about. Second, it gives you the space to record thoughts that might otherwise slip away. Pro tip: If you’ve ever thought to yourself “Oh, great idea, I’ll remember this later” you’re lying to yourself: Write it down as soon as you can.
I get it: I’m a writer who hates to collaborate, too. I much prefer to work alone. But if you’re struggling from a lack of inspiration, teaming up with another writer is a great way to get it back. That’s because two crucial things happen when you work with someone else: One, they introduce you to ideas and ways of thinking that will be alien to you, and two, collaboration generates jealousy. There’s nothing better for inspiration than when another writer introduces an idea that you desperately wish you’d thought of.
Inspiration is a gauzy, immaterial thing—when it arrives it’s always suddenly and mysteriously. And when it fails to arrive you’re reminded that you’re not really in control of your muse—you serve your muse. But trying some of the advice offered here will lead you back on the path to inspiration. And years from now when you’re accepting your Nobel Prize for Literature, feel free to kick me a tip for helping you find your inspiration.
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