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Where do story ideas come from?

On the notion of the best-selling idea-

One of the most common interview question posed to a writer is how did you come up with your ideas. There seems to be a belief that without a completely original best-selling idea you can’t be a writer. That’s not only false, but it’s probably one thing holding you back.

An idea could be anything! Earlier in my writing journey, I had it in my mind that an idea had to be fully fleshed out—something you could put on the back of a book to entice readers to jump in. And eventually you need to get there; however, the key word in that sentence is, eventually. Give your ideas time to germinate! If you quit watering them right off the bat your idea garden will look a lot like my actual garden (I have what I like to call a brown thumb with plants).

In the early days of my writing I would share my ideas right away, expecting people to be as excited about them as I was (hint- no one will ever care about your babies as much as you do, so protect them in the womb for a while).

As soon as I told someone a new idea, the first thing they always did was say something like... “that reminds me of this movie such-and-such.” That led to instant deflation, and my idea would be in real danger of withering on the vine. I wanted to be original! I wanted to come up with something never done before! And I equated plot elements with originality. Don’t do that!

You, I, and every writer I know are too late for the originality game. That ship sailed when the first humans sat around the fire thousands of years ago. That’s because humans design stories and while we’re pretty complex, we display strong patterns of behavior and thought which are found in every story you read. In the writing world, we call those themes. So while your story won’t be brand new, it will be your story, and YOU are the only one who can tell it with your insight.

So stop waiting for the next blockbuster idea (can we even still use that term?) before you start writing. Here’s some tough love for you—if you’re waiting for brilliance, you’ll never get there. To be a writer you must write.

Where Ideas come from-

We all get ideas in different ways, and after talking with a bunch of my writing friends it seems like they usually start out as a small pondering and then they literarily take over your life until your characters scream and their challenges seem more urgent than you cooking dinner for yourself or your family.

I remember that an idea for a short story came to me on a walk. I was strolling along this river in Oregon, the canopy of trees swaying above me, and suddenly I had this thought, “what if this lovely scene was underwater?” There! I had a setting. That was enough to take me on the wild adventure that is world building and I had a blast writing that story. In fact, I don’t think I finished the story and I anticipate returning for the next chapter.

But picking a setting doesn’t have to be the only way to start a story! In fact, that is one of the few times I’ve ever started something out that way. Some writers hear characters talking, or see someone interesting in their mind, or they ruminate on a theme, or they have a big event (usually which will start a story or end it). There really isn’t a right way to get an idea. You just have to get one!

What if an idea doesn’t come?

I could almost hear the grumble through the internet—well, that’s great Heidi, but what if you can’t get one? This is what I say to you—put yourself on a deadline and hold yourself to it, and some sort of idea will form.

I learned this from my MFA degree, the one a lot of writers say you don’t need. And some people absolutely don’t! But I did. I learned that with deadlines I can produce. If a teacher needed something, then I made it happen. Now I set those deadlines and hold myself accountable. You can do the same thing and if you need an accountability buddy... you found her!

To review-

1) Don’t wait to have an original, out of this world idea before you write.

2) Ideas can be small! A setting, a line of dialogue, or a unique way a person walks can all morph into entire novels!

3) Learn how to give yourself deadlines and hold yourself accountable, and it will amaze you how the ideas roll in!

A challenge-

So here’s a little challenge for you!

From whenever you read this post, jot down three story ideas in the next three days! Don’t worry about originality, worry about meeting the deadline. Originality will come later!

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Jun 17, 2021

I really like your encouragement and honesty about ideas! I have been struggling for about 6 months to get back into writing my book that I started beginning of 2020. I don’t want to give up on it but have been struggling with where to go next. It was also easier at the beginning with ideas flowing and now (because it’s a challenge), my brain would rather read or watch a show. I plan to get back on the writing train soon (maybe even tonight..?!)

Heidi Sawitzke
Heidi Sawitzke
Jun 17, 2021
Replying to

Yes! The middle seems to be the hardest part for me too. The beginning is fresh and exciting, and the end goes so quickly with all that action, but the middle of a long work seems to drag. I'll be doing some research on it and make a post about them soon. I absolutely think you should get back to it tonight! Even if you set just a small goal like 300 words, that is 300 words closer to reaching your goal and feeling great about yourself!

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