Some literary works stay with you. It might be days, weeks, months, or even years since you last checked into the piece itself. But the feel of it lingers, breathing a sense of life in a lonely quiet evening.
It makes you wonder, what does it take to write something that speaks to people?
And the answer may not be as exciting or pompous as you might expect. It is because all of it starts with a simple idea with endless possibilities.
Need some examples?
Well, the entire ordeal of The Mayor of Casterbridge emerged from the idea of a guy who could not stop drinking. The Harry Potter book series — evolved from a delayed train from Manchester to London King’s Cross. And King got the idea for The Shining after he had a nightmare in a hotel room.
Okay, so now you are convinced your next question may be; Where do you find and how do you come up with good ideas day in and day out?
And this time, the answer will not be so straightforward and accessible.
Ever since I started working as a full-time writer, I have struggled to get ideas. And therefore, this particular question kept popping up in my mind every time I will feel a blockage of thought. And for me, the answer did not come forward on its own.
It only presented itself as I restructured myself as a writer, incorporating three significant changes.
Change 1: Find The Seed Idea & Different Tones and Approaches
Well, when you have nothing in your mind, start looking around you. Neil Gaiman, the acclaimed British author, summarises:
“Writers tend to train themselves when they have an idea. It’s not that they have any more ideas, or get to inspire more than anyone else. We just notice when it happens a little bit more.”
For example, a few weeks ago, I was having a bad day. My family kept interrupting me while I was trying to work. So what did I do? I took the loud bangs on my door and turned it into a hilarious yet introspective piece.
Seed idea: The knock on the door and my subsequent reaction to it.
- Approach-1: While working on it, I first started it as a rant exercise with no intention to publish it.
- Approach-2: Then, I fused some humor into it and sent it to my girlfriend for a review. She loved it and wanted me to make it into a full-fledged piece.
- Approach-3: Along the way, I couldn’t help noticing something. The vibe of this particular piece reflected a book I read some time back. I paused my writing and went on to pick that book up. A few hours later, as I finished re-reading it, I knew (precisely) what I wanted to do with the write-up.
How do you do it:
The thing about trying different things is that there is no set pattern to do it. However, I can give you some idea of how to start.
Let’s take this sentence, “A loud knock in the door startled me.”
Now you can change it according to the tone. If you are attempting to add an ambiance to the message, then you can rewrite it as: “As I was sitting in the dark, staring at the smoke of the dimly lit candlelight, a loud bang on the cricking door pulled me out of the moment.”
How would it help:
By trying out different ways to deliver the same message, you add details and character to the reading experience. It gives you an idea about the best-suited tone and temperament for the piece. Thus, the bottom line is, if you pen down a jumbled up version of what’s in your mind and work on it later, trying out different writing styles, it may come in handy.
Change 2: Reading My Old work
As creators, we tend to get better with practice. No surprise there. And when we go back to read our old works, it usually makes us cringe. Not news either.
Still, I go back and read my old works twice a month because it helps me get new ideas.
Yes, it is as embarrassing as it sounds. You’ll need a lot of patience to sit through all your silly mistakes and cheezy sentences. But I assure you, in the end, it will pay off!
How does it pay off:
- When I read my earlier works, it makes me aware of my past mistakes, clumsy sentences, and inept editing skills. Hence, it makes it less likely that I will commit the same mistakes ever again.
- However, the most significant benefit I get out of it — is that I find out the newer and more affecting ways of approaching the same topic to explore its unique dimensions.
For example, some time back, I published an article on how petting a dog helped me improve my quality of life. Later, along the way, when I re-read this piece, it gave me the idea for another bit.
A few days later, I published an article debunking the myth that getting a pet is enough to cure someone’s depression.
The latter one had an improved reading experience, featuring substantial studies backing up the assertions. Therefore, it ended up resonating more with the curators and readers alike. It wasn’t the only instance. I routinely extract newer ideas from my old published projects.
How you can use it & how it benefits you:
Suppose you have written and published a heartfelt write up about your last breakup. Now months later, when you are struggling to get some new topic, you go on and read it.
As you read it, it occurs to you that you have been overlooking red flags throughout your entire relationship. BOOM! Red flags I ignored in My Toxic Relationship — you just figured out your new topic. Or you can create an antithesis of it, making it inner-directed — I Was the Toxic One in My Last Relationship, and I Didn’t Know It.
For more examples:
- If you have a piece on some exercise tips, reading it may provide you with a new story-idea regarding the safety measures.
- If you have multiple works on movie reviews, write how watching movies has changed you as an individual.
So I can say from experience, reading your old writing can prove to be a powerhouse of ideas. Once you get the hang of it, the sky is the limit.
Change 3: Proper Writing Habits and Discipline to Keep My Writing Muscle and Idea Muscle Strong
Strap on. This one is going to be demanding.
1. Following a schedule
My mama knew it all along. I was foolish to never listen to her.
According to Northwestern Medicine, not following a general routine in your life can cause you severe stress due to ineffective time management and poor eating habits.
But why? We all know the importance of a productive schedule. Then why do we suck at following it? After years of trying and failing to follow a set pattern, I can say I have my theory on it. I believe following a set routine comes later. First, you must plan a system masterfully.
If you are straying from your cycle, either you lack discipline, or your schedule is not serving you.
The key is to design a routine that allows you to write without distractions and gives you enough room for other activities.
These are the things I incorporated while making my schedule:
- Identifying the spot when your productivity is at its peak: I write best towards the morning and the evening. So I have allotted those times for my writing projects only. Therefore, I can use my noons and afternoons to do other assignments.
- Break: I usually don’t work on Sundays. I take notes if I need to, but I don’t sit and start writing.
- Cheat days: My schedule allows me three cheat days each month. No, it is not a break by default. A cheat day is when I let myself break the routine and be flexible.
- Room for leisure time: I also allow myself a daily 3-hour slot to do whatever I feel like doing.
Implementing such a personalized routine supported me to improve my productivity and well being in mere three months. Now, ideas come naturally to me, whereas earlier, I had to initiate a push.
2. Being professional (Not waiting till you feel like writing)
If you are one of those who don’t come out of their cave of hibernation till some insane idea hits them, then I have bad news for you.
You won’t make it as a writer!
Writing is not a hobby; it is a job. You need to show up at a specific time and get things done no matter if you feel like it or not.
Not having an idea is not an excuse you can use to justify your nonaction.
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
— Louis L’Amour
Again, you must be aware writing is not only about sitting and scribbling out the contents of your thought. There is a lot more to it than that. As a writer, you go through several stages of different activities like:
- Writing the first draft.
- Selecting the visuals.
- Working on the feedbacks
- Editing the final draft
Don’t forget, being an independent writer — you must also market yourself. It will include maintaining a website, publishing posts, looking for gigs, and interacting with the readers and clients alike.
Therefore, when you don’t feel the flow, you can still work on your assignments. And when you submerge yourself in work, ideas find ways to reach out to you.
3. Reading for pleasure
“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.”
― Lisa See
Though it might sound like a no-brainer, many aspiring writers are yet to take full advantage of this particular life choice.
The veteran American author Joyce Carol Oates records something interesting. In competitive sports, they push you into a rivalry with someone more skilled and accomplished than you. It forces you to rise above your limitations. It unlocks a whole new level of expertise and proficiency in you. Likewise, reading more established authors’ works exposes you to a wide array of craftsmanship. Consequently, it demands you to level up your play.
“Other authors can teach you different lessons in craft: J.K. Rowling can teach you how to build fictional worlds; Nicole Krauss can teach you how to layer multiple narrators and perspectives; Rebecca Curtis can teach you how to use patterns and repetition for humor. All you have to do is study their work.”
— Joyce Carol Oates on Using Reading to Improve Your Writing
I graduated in 2016 with a degree in English literature. Since then, right until the mid of 2018, I had not read a single book. After having a nasty breakup, my therapist advised me to get back to reading.
I can’t describe in words how grateful I was for revisiting the world of literature. I can’t recommend it enough.
Indeed reading works on multiple levels to liberate you as a writer. However, if you take reading as a chore instead of a pleasurable hobby, it might not accommodate you as well.
4. Enjoy music to achieve the flow state.
According to the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, a flow state is a state of fluidity between your body and mind. As you achieve this state, you experience a total emersion. Moreover, it is a state of deep focus on something beyond the point of distraction. Thus, most writers aspire to reach this state of mind while penning down their next masterpiece.
Now the question arises:
How does music come into play here?
In the article “When music “flows” State and trait in musical performance, composition and listening: a systematic review” by the psychology-based e-platform Frontier, you can find multiple psychologists approving music as the fastest route to achieve a flow state.
However, listening to music may not work every time. Sometimes, it can get in your way of speaking with your mind. Award-winning author Marylee MacDonaldbeautifully illustrates how both music and silence has impacted her career in an article titled “Music vs. Silence: Does Listening to Music Get in the Way of Writing?”
5. Getting plenty of rest and a sound sleep routine
Better sleep will leave you refreshed. Your daily routine influences your quality of rest. Your sleep schedule and bedtime habits affect your mental sharpness, performance, emotional well-being, and energy level. It’s best if you can maintain a consistent time for waking and going to bed.
- Writers like Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, and Virginia Wolf have been early risers throughout their careers. Despite not being a morning person, Salman Rushdi starts writing shortly after waking up.
- Several famed authors such as Pulitzer winner Edith Wharton, most famous Irish novelist James Joyce, and even Russian born Vladimir Nabokov, took a different approach. They famously wrote from bed every morning.
- James Joyce makes another entry to the club of late risers, accompanying the Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald (the author of “The Great Gatsby”).
Whereas all these legendary authors maintained different sleep routines, they have one thing in common. And what would that be? Well, all of them followed their specific sleep routines.
Speaking of me, I have a strict sleeping schedule of 11 PM to 7.30 AM. Being a light sleeper, I jump into the bed around 10.15–10.30 PM to give myself some extra time to relax.
If you are considering writing as a career option, your mind will be among the primmest tools. So to maintain both your mental health and creative muscles, you must have a sound sleep routine.
A concluding note:
In the end, these lifestyle changes helped me realize that it’s not so much about how to get an idea; it’s more about how to take a concept and help it evolve into something significant.
Through your passion and determination, you turn a passable bit of content into a living, breathing piece of creation.
It is not something you can achieve through some quick fix how-to-hacks. You need to live, think, and breathe like a writer.
Special thanks to Elan Cassandra
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