Grist for the Idea Mill
Beginning writers sometimes feel that they were born too late; all the good ideas are already taken, and some of them are overused. One particularly cynical critic once said that there are only six plots for fiction, and three of them are used regularly. It's enough to make the novice despair of ever coming up with something fresh.
Fortunately, it doesn't matter whether that critic was right or not. We keep writing, and our readers keep reading, and no amount of cynicism will change that. The trick, especially for beginning writers, is to get the idea mill churning reliably, and that is simply a matter of knowing where to look and what to look for. Here are three simple steps to start the wheels turning:
Read, read, read. Newspapers, magazines, books, and Internet sites are home to ideas just waiting to be mined. A short item on a ten-car pile-up on the interstate might give you a starting point for your next short story; a single quote from a government official may trigger an entire plot line for a spy thriller.
Think, “What if?” Whenever you read, ask “what if” questions. What if the second car in that ten-car pile-up had not tried to change lanes? What if the government official had made his comment two years ago? “What if” questions let you unleash your own imagination and make you an active thinker rather than a passive receiver of information.
Look for holes. There are always at least two sides to every situation. As you read, look for aspects that haven't been given their due. The story on the ten-car pile-up probably covered the aspects of weather, speed, emergency response, injuries, and effects on other motorists. But there might be other aspects that didn't get much attention, such as whether all the drivers involved were insured, or how one's religious faith comes into play after a traumatic event.
Try putting yourself in another person's place to see a new angle to an old subject. There are lots of books about how to provide the best customer service, for example; are there any written from the customer's point of view? Has the topic of leadership been tackled from the point of view of the follower? Searching for different perspectives and unanswered questions can lead to terrific book ideas.
Once you get into the practice of searching for ideas, your problem will be reversed: Practically overnight, you'll find that you have too many ideas and not enough time to devote to them all. To make sure you don't lose any of those ideas, devise a system for keeping track of them. It doesn't have to be fancy or extensive. Many writers use 3″ × 5″ index cards to write short notes about possible book ideas and then store the cards in a recipe box. This system is simple to use and doesn't require a lot of space.