How to Cultivate Rich Ideas.
by Megan Wald
If you follow me on Instagram at all then you’ll know that I’m the queen of ideas (15 current ones to be exact). Ever since I disclosed that fact it’s become a little bit of a joke among my friends. I guess it’s my super power or something.
I can’t help it. Ideas just come to me. See if you can relate to this: a dream, strangely vivid and amazingly well plotted, sparks a rough outline; an image, striking and haunting, leaves you with a million questions that turn into characters, setting, and conflict; a climatic scene suddenly plants itself in your mind, ripe with riveting tension and a character worthy of 90k words.
Something like this happened to you or you wouldn’t be writing. The problem is, that initial spark of inspiration only gets us so far. Of my 15 current ideas, for example, only two are ready to be drafted and one other is in the prewriting phase. That doesn’t mean that 12 of my ideas are crappy (they’re not if I can toot my own horn). They’re simply not ready. They’re not rich enough for prewriting or drafting. They can’t support 90k words yet.
Rich ideas— the ideas that can carry you through 80k, 90k, 100k words or even multiple books— are the summation of many little inspirations, many elements that merge together.
But how do we get these ideas? Try these three steps:
Inspiration is all around us and it comes in every shape and size you can imagine. The only way to get it is to get out there! Read widely— outside your genre even. Watch TV shows, go to the movies, peruse YouTube, people watch at your favorite coffee shop, walk through a park, go to the zoo. It’ll be waiting for you.
While you’re out there breathing in the world and all it has to offer, things are going to stand out to you, they’re going to touch you and make you drop whatever you’re doing to pay attention. Save them. Make a playlist, create a Pinterest board, buy a notebook— have somewhere to collect all these things that strike you so you don’t forget about them (because, believe me, you will). I’m a firm believer that inspiration only strikes the same way once and I’ve lost or forgotten too many magic moments not to strongly urge you to catalogue everything that inspires you!
As you build a little treasure box of inspiration, you’ll get energy. You’ll gain momentum and want to dive head first into these ideas and that’s great! But remember, don’t force it. You might have one component of an idea but be struggling to find the right character or the right setting to accompany it. Or you may be completely at a loss of any ideas at all and want to scream into a pillow because you feel like a creative failure.
I repeat: don’t force it!
When you relax, ideas will find you. Let your mind and your ideas breathe. Write down the original inspiration and try to brainstorm more, but if you’re not finding something that fits or you can’t answer a key story development question, leave it alone for a while. Let it breathe, keep thinking, keep exposing, and keep saving. The right thing will strike you eventually.
Let me give you an example that pulls these three steps together into a book. One day, I was scrolling Pinterest— as aspiring writers are prone to do— when I saw a stunning digital portrait of a young woman by Laura H. Rubin (look her up, you’ll thank me!). The look on her face was so stirring I could see the hardship in her eyes, but what really caught my attention was a tattoo on her face: a black line down the center of her lip and chin. I was intrigued imagining why someone would get such a tattoo. I saved the image to a general writing board and moved on.
Then Pinterest did it’s thing and kept showing me art by Laura H. Rubin. Women of all sorts with even more striking and edgy markings. I saved them all, a plan formulating in my mind with each new pin. These women would be my characters and their tattoos would mark them as belonging to a different class of magic. That’s all I knew but it was enough. I kept them on my board, the idea always in the back of my head, but I had no idea what else to do with it, what other components to bring to the story.
Until I was on the phone with a couple critique partners about eight months later.
We weren’t even talking about any of my stories— we weren’t even talking about anything even remotely related to those digital portraits I had saved— but somehow the idea just popped into my head: make them Necromancers. I scribbled it on a sticky note and the next day I got to work. Those two things broadened to include other components and a book was born.
Within three weeks I had 12k words of notes, 10k words of a draft, a playlist, and the most beautifully organized Pinterest board I’ve ever made! Now that manuscript is a little over 34k words and I’m tidying up Act 1 for peer review. This book could go all the way and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written…but it took eight months to get the idea to a point where I could build on it. And it only got there because I (1) exposed myself to art, (2) saved what touched me, and (3) let it breathe until more components came to me.
Rich ideas and limitless inspiration are within your grasp! All you have to do is cultivate them.
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