Tag Archives: creative skills

Ideas – They Don’t Just Pop Into Your Head

I’d say the greatest challenge for a writer is quite a simple on actually. It’s not writing well, or getting published. Even at a push, I’d say it’s not about staying motivated either. It’s having lots of ideas.

When we think about writing, we have this notion that ideas are the one thing you can’t change. Either you have a good idea or you don’t, either you can think up of many ideas or you can’t. It’s a bit of a naive attitude though, because it relies on the fact that ideas for writing simply stroll into our heads, that we have sudden moments of creative genius that happen outside of our control. It’s sensationalist, and encouraged because of its appeal, but it doesn’t do much good in reality.

If a writer were to say the idea for their entire book just walked fully formed into their head, I’d tell them to stop being overly dramatic. What are ideas? They’re by no means so tidy or obedient even. When you pause to break it down, the idea for a work is more of a single one, a stub, a starting point. One idea might be something very simple, and as you think about it, you come up with more. Whenever I write, I start with a small idea in mind. It’s my goal for what I’m going to do. Then as I continue, I get more ideas the more I think. I don’t just sit there waiting for inspiration to hit me, I ask myself questions about the idea I’ve had. Sometimes I get answers. Sometimes I don’t. But it creates more ideas for you to play with, rather than struggling with just one.

In reality, a story is an amalgamation of many ideas. One idea starts the process off, but then others join it. Some contradict each other, and some turn the story away from your original idea. But as you ask yourself questions, you build up a single, cohesive story. It’s like building a rubber band ball. You start with the first one, and as you add more the ball takes shape, until all those rubber bands behave like a single ball, rather than a pile of them.

So, you can think creatively by asking yourself questions. That’s a start, but it’s still limited in boosting your imagination. I’m not going to launch into a long paragraph about reading other books, because that’s a stock response. I’d say, read a selection of books. Ones that interest you, ones that you know nothing about. Even ones you think you won’t like. Don’t stop with contemporary fiction, but go back in time. Have a dig. Don’t limit yourself to fiction, but look at non-fiction. History is a very good place to come up with ideas, as you ask “what if” questions as you read. What if Rome didn’t fall? You can have some fun with that. Even then, I’d encourage brave writers to read philosophy. Stories will give you ideas for events, and philosophy will give you understanding of different modes of thought, which means, better characterisation.

Life experience is a great asset too. You know how looking back at your past work is almost always something that makes you cringe? That’s greater experience talking. How can you make your work better? By going out and living. Gain experiences, don’t just slave away at the keyboard. You can draw inspiration from the experiences you’ve had yourself, and the great thing about this is that it is free, and it’s going on all the time. If you can travel, then do, but if you can’t try to experience other cultures. Books, encyclopaedias, TV, these will all give you experience.

Ideas aren’t just a solitary affair. Have willing volunteers read your work. Discuss ideas. It’s always good to have friends that are writers for this purpose, and even better if you have a mentor. So in short, there are things you can do to have more ideas. It isn’t just about creativity on its own, because it is extremely hard to pull something from nothing, even if it is in your head. Experimentation is key, and you must not limit yourself by sticking to only what you like.

My question is how do you come up with ideas? Do you struggle, or do you have too many?

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The Point of Words

I’m quite a cynic when it comes to popular ideas about literature and being a writer. Such ideas are mainly ones that tend to write an unrealistic cheque about the importance of writing and other such topics. In essence, if it paints a picture of writing that casts it as some important activity, I’ll question that.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – Percy Bysshe Shelley.

For me, this exemplifies the over-zealous and grandiose claims writers can make about their own importance. I don’t think it requires much explanation.

However there is an importance to writing that should be acknowledged and it’s not so straightforward. It has nothing to do with writers having some vital importance in society or the stories they tell, but simply their ability to be perceptive to the intricacies of words and how they interact with each other. In short, the main skill of the ‘writer’ is being able to select, arrange and order words in order to as accurately as possible to convey a message or rouse a desired response. It sounds rather banal, but it’s actually more important than you might think. Recently I’ve been involved with working on a film project at university with bioscience students, and it’s been my job to use my skills with language to convey what they want to say as accurately as possible. Sometimes it was small things like cutting down words and refining scripts, to more subtle things like choosing the correct verbs, arranging the syntax and grammar in the way that will best emphasise what they want to convey. In essence, it is editing – but it takes language and brings it into a state that is smooth but concise enough to emphasise a message.

This is a skill that I think is under-acknowledged. Having a good command of language is one thing, but an understanding of how to manipulate it to accomplish varying goals is quite another. Communicating well is not using a lot of long words and using lots of commas, but having short, sweet sentences that can be the equivalent of large swathes of text.

Therefore as writers, we should not just limit the well known ‘show not tell’ mantra to writing stories, but apply its essence to less creative pursuits. When should we try to show in language and when should we tell? When you are told to use ‘strong writing’ this doesn’t just apply to your novel. It also comes into all other applications of language. What we learn at first for creative endeavours are then skills we can then apply to other situations that demand language use.