Where Does Inspiration Come From?
I used to think authors got inspiration for their books in their dreams, as though book storks dropped off entire novels in their brains while they slept. I desperately wanted that to happen to me. But at the heart of that fantasy was the knowledge that dreams don’t usually produce entire books, and if ideas didn’t come in dreams, then where? And how would I ever get one good enough to turn into a book?
Because I knew I wanted to write. I’ve been at it since I was a kid. In the seventh grade, I wrote a short story and my teacher told me she could see me writing a book one day. While I loved the idea of becoming a famous bestselling author, the thought of actually writing all those pages made me tired.
Now, hundreds and hundreds of manuscript pages later, I understand why: writing is work. It’s tough. And unless you’re lucky and gifted, you won’t know your entire story before you start writing. (Also unless you’re extremely lucky, your books won’t be the next Hunger Games/Twilight/[insert bestselling series here]. But I digress.) But you will have a starting place, an idea that won’t let go of you—and you can find it in your own life experiences. You can find it all around you.
You’ll just have to put in some work to draw out the story within.
Mining Your Experiences
As a kid and young teenager, I started writing lots of books that lost their luster after the first chapter. They didn’t have strong anchors of inspiration, so I didn’t care enough to write more. Let’s talk about how to find an idea that will carry you through more than one chapter or scene of writing that you eventually discard. Here are steps to finding inspiration for fiction—a short story, novel, picture book, or poem:
- First, buy or find a small notebook that you can comfortably bring everywhere. (You could also do this on a phone, tablet, or laptop, but often the physicality of a pencil on paper will help your mind generate more ideas.) I like Moleskine notebooks, but really anything works. Start writing down moments in your life that cling to you. They could be moments that made you happy, but good fiction will often come out of moments that produced complex emotions in you: sorrow, pain, confusion, hope. These have inherent tension in them, and tension is what keeps stories flowing. If you like music, turn on a song that stirs your deepest emotions. If exercise helps you think, try dusting your house or going for a walk while listening to music or observing the world around you. Stop every so often to write down your thoughts.
- After you have a list of moments and accompanying emotions, add to that list people or animals in your life that produce/d the same complex feelings. Then move on to places—the house you grew up in, that treehouse you spent hours playing in, the classrooms in which you got mercilessly teased or bullied. Now spend some time thinking about which of these listed things tugs at you the hardest. Which one do you need to explore to find the truth buried deep inside? (Because no matter what anyone tells you, fiction is its own form of truth. It is the truth of a writer exploring her emotions and experiences through story. And once it’s out in the world, the reader finds the truth of his own experiences and emotions reflected back at him in the pages—or discovers ones he never knew existed.) Circle the items that stand out to you the most.
- Now give each circled item its own page or two and start jotting down words or phrases or snippets of creative sentences that come to mind when you think on them. Do any fictional characters pop into your head? If so, write about them. Who are they? What are their backgrounds? What do they want in life, and what stands in their way? Do any unexpected fictional twists and turns branch off the events or moments you wrote down?
- Give yourself a few days to process all these thoughts and write down more any time you think of them. Read a novel and jot down notes about how that author employs structure and story. Keep your journal and a pencil by your bed, in the car, in your backpack or bag or purse. If anything you see in your world gives you a jolt, a this needs to be in my story!, write it down.
Here’s an example of how the inspiration for my middle grade novel LUCY RUNNING came to me. A few years after my childhood German shepherd dog died, I heard a song called “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane on the radio. It’s a melancholy song, one that made me think of my dog and other losses and sorrows in my life. I knew that I needed to buy it and listen to it again.
So I did. I listened as I mopped my floors; I listened before I sat down to write other pieces. And after writing down notes every time I listened, I had a pages of ideas connected to the whole dog/sorrow/”Somewhere Only We Know”/Montana inspiration. After going through the process outlined above, I knew that the story would be from the point of view (POV) of a German shepherd dog. It would take place in my own fictional version of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. It would be a “girl and her dog” book to balance out all the “boy and his dog” books on the market. And the girl and the dog would meet at a place only they knew—an old refuge of a barn that keeps them safe when trouble’s hunting them.
After many rewrites and revisions, the book became my creative thesis for my MFA program.
Putting Ideas to Paper
Now comes the part many writers find both exhilarating and excruciating: set aside time every single day (maybe give yourself the weekend or one weekend day off) that you can devote to writing. Some people write best in fifteen-minute spurts; others thrive with a couple of hours to work with. Decide which type of writer you are. Then during that time, brew yourself a cup of tea or coffee. Light a comforting candle. Settle into your favorite chair. If it’s by a window with an interesting or beautiful view, that’s a plus. Take out your notebook and computer and open a fresh, new blank document. Give the document a title—Chapter 1, for example. And then:
- Without worrying about perfection (because you WILL come back and revise this later) let your ideas flow onto the page. Tell yourself the story that’s been brewing in your mind and notebook. Pay attention to how you feel: do you like the direction the story is taking? Or do you have a sour, dead-end feeling about it? If the latter, you may need to see if the feeling goes away after a few pages. If it doesn’t, you might not be writing a story that’s truly important to you. You’ll need to go back to the first pages of your notebook and see if any of the ideas there excite you or thrill you or scare you more. Don’t let yourself choose ideas because you think they’ll be easy to turn into fully fleshed-out stories. Good stories are never easy to write.
- Once you have a first chapter or scene or section, go back to your notebook. Jot down some ideas for how your story will end. That’s right, think about the end. Many novelists know how they want their stories to end before they even start drafting. Or they at least have a feeling or vision or moment they know will be in the end of the book. The trick is getting their characters there in a way that’s exciting, beautifully written, and moving.
- Now, with a feeling of your ending in mind, think about what happens to your characters after your first chapter. Why does it happen? How will it affect your protagonist? How will she respond? You don’t need to plot a whole novel or short story unless you know that’s your writing style. Just brainstorm where you think your story might be going. It’s perfectly okay if it ends up weaving in a completely different direction on its journey to the end (which also might change).
- Now set those notes aside, go back to your first chapter, and see if you have a first line that compels readers to read that whole first page. If you do, great! If you don’t, work on making that first line compelling. Then see about your first chapter: does it make readers want to read the second chapter? (Note: you can do this step at anytime. If you want to keep writing new scenes, do that instead. If you’re like me and you like to revise as you write a first draft, you can do this step for each new chapter you create before you go on to write new material.)
Next time, I’ll talk about how to push through an entire first draft of fiction without giving up. But remember that in order to complete a work of fiction you must begin with an idea that spreads strong, deep roots in your mind. If you don’t, you’ll probably end up deleting everything you write. Which, by the way, has happened to me (I once deleted 200 manuscript pages and started that novel over because I knew it wasn’t headed in the right direction) and that’s okay. Every word you write is valuable practice that will improve your writing skills and your understanding of story.
If you have any additional ideas for how to find inspiration for your art, let me know in the comments below!