Starting Out · Writing

Inspiration & Ideas

Attempting to write about how and where to get ideas almost gave me a panic attack. It is an overwhelming subject to start off with, to say the least. Good going, Serra. But here we go, regardless.

Every creative person, at some point in their lives, gets asked, “where do your ideas come from?” I hate that question, because to me it seems so simple. The answer is: everywhere! I get my ideas from everywhere. Movies, books, conversations I’ve overheard and have no context for. A photo in a magazine. And yet there is that strange transmutation that happens, the alchemy of idea into finished work, that is incredibly complex and difficult to describe. I think that’s what people really mean when they ask writers that question. Not “Where did you get the idea to write about a boy wizard?” but “How did that idea become Harry Potter?”

If you’re interested in writing, chances are you already have ideas. One, at least. Maybe more. Sometimes they’re in the very back of your mind. You can sense them, like cockroaches brushing past your toes in the dark. But ideas can be elusive. Once you turn on the light, try to get a closer look, they scatter. You catch a glimpse of a leg, an antenna. It can be frustrating, but the truth is, that glimpse is all you really need. You know it for a cockroach without having to see the rest. (Okay, Serra, stop with the cockroaches already)

Our ideas are not precious. They are not jewels, perfectly cut and dead. They’re only seeds, and it’s up to us to make them grow. You don’t need to have a complete novel worked out in your head before you start writing. It’s better not to, at least for me.

Why? Because, honestly, my books never look much like the idea they started from, anyway. I think that’s a good thing. It means I’m not stubborn. It means I’m listening to the story instead of my ego, letting it grow organically instead of forcing it into a shape it’s not meant to take. I like the twists and turns a book can take of its own accord. The surprise plot points that show up out of nowhere and change the whole damn thing. And because of that, I can start out with incredibly vague ideas. My current project began with my need to write something that makes me feel the way a Dio song/Conan the Barbarian movie/DnD Monster Manual does. Other ideas showed up along the way, as I contemplated what direction this thing would take, and blended together into the basic plot. But even that changed drastically by the time I got to the end of the first draft. Books are living, growing, changing things.


I’m getting off track, though. Back to inspiration.

If you are struggling with inspiration, try to pinpoint what fuels your imagination. What takes your mind to new places, what makes you wonder “what if”? Find those things, and then indulge in them. A lot. Read those books, watch those movies, look at those photos. Personally, my biggest inspirations are history, art, and movies/television. When I find a subject that intrigues me, I’ll write about it at length (just basic musing), which usually opens me up to potential story ideas. My idea notebooks (more on those in another post) are filled with: “vague idea about a girl whose drawings come to life. Not sure what the plot would be.” Sometimes those vague ideas never amount to anything. But SOMETIMES those random musings start to gnaw at me. I’ll be at my day job when suddenly an image or scene shows up in my brain. Or I hear a conversation between two characters, as if they’re in the room with me and I’m eavesdropping. That’s when I start to realize that the vague idea is becoming a story.

After that it’s just plain old hard work. Plotting and world-building and the like.

If you want something more tactile than “find some interests,” though, I found writing prompts useful when I first started out on this crazy path, before ideas came hurtling at me on their own. I used these two books pretty often:

The Daily Reader by Fred White

The Daily Writer by Fred White

I didn’t do one a day, and I didn’t do the prompts on the “appropriate” day. I just skipped around until something caught my fancy.

I also found the following to be incredibly helpful:

Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb

It has a few pages in the beginning that talk about listening for and naming ideas. There are also a few list-making exercises to help you start out.

Lastly, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones changed my life, creatively. I haven’t read it in a long time, but I remember there being great stuff about ideas and inspiration in there.

Finally, before this impossible subject goes on any longer, there are two videos you should watch. The first is by an illustrator known as Frannerd. She is adorable and her video on inspiration is great. The second is Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk (which Frannerd mentions in her video, too).

Frannerd: So Let’s Talk About Inspiration

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk

I’m sorry if this was all over the place. It’s a necessary subject when talking about writing, but it’s so difficult to explain. The rest of these posts will be much more straight forward, I promise!

Thank you for reading, and if you want to, please leave a comment telling me what inspires YOU!



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