Where Do Writers Get Great Ideas? (And What to Do If None of Yours Seem Good Enough)

As writers, we’re often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” If you think back on times you’ve been asked this, you’ll probably realize that this question comes far more often from non-writers. It’s harder to fathom having an idea that could turn into a whole novel when you’ve never done it. (I know it was harder for me.)

For many of us, when we become writers, we start seeing story ideas everywhere. I recently spent a weekend hanging out at a writing retreat, and it was funny how often one of us would tell a little anecdote or even a small bit of information and someone else would respond, “There’s a story in that.” The rest of us would just nod in agreement, because whether we’d read it or not, we understood this quote:

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”
~Neil Gaiman                            

But that’s not to say that real writers never struggle to come up with ideas. What, then, do we do when the well runs dry, or when none of the ideas on your list feel right? It’s often better to come up with something new than to try to rekindle the love for an idea you’re no longer passionate about.

Here are a few thoughts on how to handle that problem:

1. Read, read, read! As a writer, you’d better be doing this anyway, but the more you’re reading the very best books in the genre or age group you’re writing in, the more you’ll be able to recognize good ideas when they come your way.

2. Make a list of books you wish you’d written. What do these books have in common? My list would include lots of titles by Gary D. Schmidt, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Wonder by R.J. Palacio, and if I had to boil it down to two characteristics they share, it would be humor and TONS of heart. Now I’ll be more aware of situations around me–in my own life, in the news, or even straight from my imagination–that would lend themselves to stories with humor and heart.

3. Make a list of topics you’re passionate about that you want to see in books. For me, that list includes the arts, science, literacy, getting kids outside and active and most of all, treating each other kindly. Kids dealing with touch situations and finding their place in the world, feeling like they belong and they matter. I’m getting worked up just making that list, and that’s exactly what you want! If I can incorporate things I’m passionate about into my initial idea, I’ll most likely be passionate about the story.

4. Be on the lookout! You never know when a great story idea will come, but they’re far more likely to come when you’re actively looking for them! And when they do come, write them down! Do NOT trust yourself to remember them. 🙂

5. Broaden your horizons. Visit new places, learn about new cultures, break out of your routines. Be an attentive and meticulous people-watcher, in the least creepy manner possible. Visit art galleries and attend concerts and let other artists inspire you. And while you’re at it, revisit your favorite paintings and pieces of music. Is there a story there?

This list is by no means comprehensive, because you really never know where your next great idea will come from. (For the record, the ideas for my four finished novels have come from a short bio of Isaac Newton, an agent’s tweet to an editor linking a blog post both agreed would make a great MG novel, a memory of my grandmother making me treasure hunts to find my after-school snacks, and a sweet brother-sister relationship in my neighborhood.)

For more advice on where to get ideas for a novel, check out these great articles from Writer’s Digest, Write to Done, and the original source of that Neil Gaiman quote.

What about you? Where do you get your best ideas? What was the story seed for your finished books?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂

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