How to Idea

I am not a creative person. I don’t really do ideas ex nihilo[1]. I’ve said a thousand times that I can’t just make things up.

So where do my ideas come from?

I see it very much as a process of inputs and outputs. That I consume media and through the tea strainer of my brain, some of it settles there and ferments into something different. But there must be inputs and the should ideally be varied and obscure.

Interesting Factiods

Conveniently, the real world is far more interesting and weird than my own brain can ever be. The internet, ever keen to provide amusing little distractions, is replete with sites that aggregate brain candy. Finding out interesting things is no longer a process of trudging through dusty encyclopedias[2].

I often like to fill spare silence with scraps from YouTube channels like SciShowSpace or CrashCourse. It’s not the last word on research, but something might spark. A few minutes of someone enthusiastically telling me about silicon-based life or zombie planets may be what it takes. It’s not about eureka! moments of inspiration so much as keeping a log[3] and coming back to things that have caught my interest in the past. JK Rowling has often said that she had collected interesting looking names for years before writing the first word of Harry Potter. It’s never a bad time to start collecting.

Mental Floss is a great source for interesting knowledge. Buzzfeed and Cracked aren’t just filled with lists of cute cats or Trump quotes, they also have lists of Weird Undersea Things. Depending on taste, there’s Badass of the Week and Horrible Histories. There’s even Today I Learned as well as a subreddit of the same name, full of stuff that has recently blown other people’s minds.

Random Generators

When all else fails, there is always a random generator out there. I am very fond of them, having written multiple in the past[4]. I find clicking through quite relaxing and it’s often useful for me to use them to fill in the blanks. It’s often less about writing something directly based on the output and more just having fun clicking. I like clicking things.

Seventh Sanctum has probably all the generators and is among the oldest on the web. But then there’s also Chaotic Shiny that will generate you everything from pantheons of gods to an apocalypse to musical instruments (“This high-pitched wind instrument is commonly made with maple, and is held with both hands. It is typically played for slow songs. It is part of a historic tradition.”)

Less RPG-focused ones that I’ve liked in the past are Random First Line Generator and the Plot Outline Generator.

What Do I Like?

Examining tropes that recurr in the fiction I like has been can be a very rewarding source of inspiration. After all, ever 3YGB I’ve ever written is riddled with references and derivatives. It’s the stringing together of preexisting ideas that creates the alchemy of originality.

The question to ask is why do I like this?

And broadly speaking there can be two answers:

  1. The Aesthetic.
    If vampires weren’t called vampires and werewolves werewolves, would they be less cool? If something had owl-people who hunted during the night and had dark secrets, would that be inherently less cool than vampires? There’s nothing wrong with liking something because of the trappings of the trope, of course. Old mainstays have power because of that history and tradition. If it’s all about the aesthetics of the trope, perhaps I can find the originality in it by pushing the trope harder, exaggerating elements of it or taking them to their logical conclusion (seasonal vampire colony in Iceland). Research into the roots of the trope could also throw up new ways to write it. I could also swap up the underlying themes and keep the aesthetic, thus writing a story about vampires that depicts them as like people with deeply idiosyncratic dietary requirements like asking for gluten-free bread.
  2. The Underlying Themes.
    Maybe I liked vampires not because of the inner monster, the blood drinking or the themes of repressed sexuality, maybe I was very attracted to the power fantasy and consequences of living forever. If so, I can take that core theme and try to give it new clothes. Immortality is a powerful idea, but lots of different fantastical creatures live forever and there are other ways for consciousness to persist.
    The example given on the Writing Excuses Podcast was of someone who loved Walls and the idea that there was a vast, mysterious unknown on the other side of civilisation. Once that has been identified, one can start musing on other setups that provide the same promise of vast, mysterious unknowns.

What I Dislike

I am not a terribly positive person so I end up being fuelled by rage more than joy, but I’ve used that to my own advantage. I know that often when seeing a film that isn’t very good but had the potential to be, I would feel the urge to fix it. By seeing what has been done wrong, I can narrow down what I would do differently.

Just from descriptions of what went wrong in Suicide Squad, I’ve developed in my head how I would want the material to be handled. With sufficient such fixes, the terrible old story becomes a completely different and better new story.

Myth of the Spark

It is very easy for writers to speak of the Spark, especially as its often memory of that single perfect idea that fuels one through the darker days of writing. But the Spark is not a complete idea. A thousand things change between that moment and the finished work[5], and more importantly, the Spark isn’t always necessary.

Sometimes it’s less about One Big Good Idea and more the slow fitting together of all the ideas that were just lying around. The developing of the vague impluse (“maybe I should write a vampire book”) into a finished novel is a long, long process, but more importantly the fleshing out will involve a lot of ideas that are just kind of okay. Not everything needs to be startlingly original. In fact, it may detract if everything is super original as the reader can find it difficult to gain purchase within the world.

If thing that excited me was the world setting, and that’s where I spent all my time world building, I could forgive myself a more formulaic story that merely serves to propel my characters through the setting. If I’m innovating with the structure of the story and doing it all in second person, perhaps a simpler narrative will make it easier to follow (neither House of Leaves nor S, etc are known for their intensely complex plots, after all, the complexity is in the telling.) If it’s about the plot twists and complex mystery, perhaps I can save some time developing the setting.


[1] To an extent I’m not sure I believe in ideas ex nihilo. I don’t write this as someone who has good ideas, just that I find articulating my process quite useful.

[2] Not that that isn’t fun too. Old encyclopedias and old books in general are great. A huge number of old books that are out of copyright are free for one to dip in and out of on google books. Household encyclopedias from the 1800s are quite fascinating.

[3] A physical notebook is sometimes nice (I hear bullet journals are fashionable), but for years I just had a desktop full ambiguously named notepad files. Pinterest is good for people who like pictures, Evernote might be good if you want it to be synced across all your devices. Whatever works.

[4] The backgrounds of most of the NPCs from Olympia: Children of the Gods were randomly generated. I also wrote one for Fidelian saints and Mary Sues and romance novel titles…

[5] I know my “Sparks”, if they can be called such, are single moments of emotion that I want to write about. I then need to find a way to frame with thousands upon thousands of words. Things that contextualise that single emotion and recreate it for the reader.