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What’s the Big Idea? (and 10 not-so-quick tips for coming up with one)

What’s the Big Idea?

Or more to the point, where did you get that big idea?

What is the one question you can be almost 100% sure you’ll be asked on a school visit or when you’re running a workshop. You guessed it: where do you get your ideas?

I’ve heard all sorts of answers over the years, from authors who have quite seriously taken a deep breath and answered that they found them at the supermarket, fourth aisle, about half way down, on the middle shelf between the sugar and the cooking spices, to ‘I don’t know, they just arrive’, to long drawn out explanations that leave the listeners with glazed eyes and blank faces.

For me, you can bet your bottom dollar that they turn up, niggling at me incessantly, when I have something else that is very important to get done. Not just one, but multiple ideas... it’s kind of like my inner me tugging at my shirt sleeve, saying, ‘Hey, I know you’ve got to get that work done, but have you ever thought...?’ and ‘What about...?’ and ‘What an amazing character that would be for a story!’ and ‘Oh, I know what happens next...’ and all sorts of other shiny things. In truth, I’m never short of ideas. It’s more about what to do with them.

Take now, for instance... here I am in the middle of an edit (given myself some set hours to achieve some set pages/chapters worth of editing, so don’t worry, writing blog posts and allowing some scintillating distraction is acceptable!) and I started sketching a pair of characters this morning as part of my ‘copying characters’ sketchbook series, and, oh, yes, I started out copying someone else’s illustration, but these two characters evolved beyond the copying stage, looking at each other enigmatically, and I just knew they were keeping a big secret from me, and now my brain is whizzing around on it’s own short circuit asking questions like who, what, when, where, why (that’s a big question, probably the biggest), and how? It’s exciting. So exciting that I write the longest sentence you can imagine to highlight my excitement!

And I will almost always find myself daydreaming in the shower... or conversing with a character whilst out walking... or sitting in a coffee shop wondering. Or there’ll be a word, just a word... or a scene, like a photograph in my head...

But what if you aren’t blessed (or cursed) with a never ending idea generator pumping out excess possibilities? Where do you go to find that big idea?

Here’s my top ten not-so-quick tips in no particular order:

1. Ask yourself why you want to write? Do you have a message? Do you want to make people smile, or take their breath away? Do you want to be rich and famous (the temptation here is to say ‘give up now’ but, in truth, some writers are, although I’m not sure that wanting to be rich and famous gave them the ideas)? Do you just have this weird compulsion to write? Write your reason in the middle of a page, then focus (deep breath, close your eyes) and scribble (okay, you can open your eyes for this bit) as many things as you can think of that are related to your reason in a set time – you shouldn’t need more than ten minutes. Take a different coloured pencil or a highlighter and mark the ones that speak to you. Start asking questions (who, what, when... you know the drill).

2. Pictures! Trawl the internet for images of scenery, people, places that appeal to you... copy them and store them on a file or print them out and put them in a folder. Choose one at random – you could even pull one out of a hat whilst wearing an elaborate blindfold – and... start asking questions. Yeah, you know the ones.

3. Read, read, read. Let other people’s stories spark ideas of your own. Caveat: no copying! But you knew that.

4. Head out to a coffee shop (or some other public place – airports are good) and look at the people walking by or other customers. Invent names for them. Wonder about what they are doing there? Are they waiting for someone? What are they feeling? Where are they coming from? Where are they going?

5. Think about something that has happened in your own life (it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic or big) and imagine if things had gone differently. Would you be the same person if you had made a different decision? Give life to that other you and rewrite what happened next. An example might be, what if I never met the person that became my soul-mate, how would life have been different? Or, what if I hadn’t allowed my parents to talk me out of travelling the world with nothing more than a backpack when I was eighteen? Or, what if I had listened to my parents and hadn’t...?

6. Choose a story you know well and think up a different ending or a sequel, or a prequel. Shake things up a bit so that you are not using someone else’s story, but write the new story of... I have recently read some amazing re-tellings of well known fairy tales and this can be a powerful driver of story.

7. Look at a map, find an exotic place you have never been and go there. Great if you can go in person, but in this day and age you can find lots of pictures and descriptions and tourist info at your fingertips. Tell the story of the place and someone who went there (real or imagined).

8. Pick a person from history and write some historical fiction or a fictionalised history (or combine this with the idea of what if things had been different, what then?).

9. Go to an art gallery or a museum and choose one objet d’art or artifact. Spend a long time gazing at it. Let it tell you it’s story (it could be what’s happening in the picture? What happened directly before? What happened directly after? OR it could be how did it come to be? Who created it? Why?). This could work with a piece of music, too... I once wrote a prize winning short story based on song by Sting that haunted me for ages before I gave in and wrote it.

10. Go to a special place, a quiet place, somewhere in nature or an inspiring place like a great cathedral, sit (or walk if you are a bit ADHD), and let your mind wander. Follow it. See what it is telling you.

And Bonus!

11. Have something really important to do and see what your mind throws at you then, when you don’t have time.

Oh, and an extra tip that has nothing to do with where you get your ideas, but about being prepared for when they do come – have some way of recording your idea close at hand, such as a notebook and pen or an app on your phone, or cultivate the ability to repeatedly tell yourself something over and over again while you rush to find a notebook and pen or get to your keyboard (sometimes all you need is a key word that will re-spark the inspiration – this is what I do if an idea hits me while I’m driving and I really should be concentrating on something else, eg. driving, although I have been known to pull over). Keep a file of all these ideas – some you will use, some you will combine, and some you will discard. But keep them somewhere easy to find again, because you never know!

Or maybe you, too, have a muse that bombards you ceaselessly.

Where do you find your big idea?

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