Writing Techniques: How to start writing when you have no ideas
September 12, 2015
This technique is for generating the earliest ideas for a book, when you have nothing, no ideas, no concept, no nothing.
A lot of writers that I've met get stuck at this stage, 'I want to write a novel, but I don't have ideas, I don't know where to start, or what the novel would even be about'.
This is the stage that is ignored at every writing class I've ever attended. As a result, lots of talented people who want to write never understand that their inability to come up with ideas doesn't mean they are not a writer, it just means they have not yet learned techniques or a process for coming up with ideas.
This is the technique I personally use now to cope with that stage, in the earliest beginnings of writing a book – before plotting, before character creation, before everything.
Finding your Ultimate Book
Everyone has an Ultimate Book. Your Ultimate Book is the book that you are searching for every time that you go to the library or to the bookstore. It's the book that you want to read, but never find, not exactly.
If you want to try this exercise, first, try to get in touch with your Ultimate Book. Imagine that you are going into the library or the bookstore, browsing the shelves. There is a book that you wish was there waiting for you, the book you want to sink down into for hours or days, the book you want to immerse yourself in completely. Think about this book. You will have a basic sense of it. Try to write answers to these three questions about it:
1. Is it in a particular genre? If so, which genre?
2. Is it like any other book(s) that you have read? If so, how is it alike? How is it different?
3. Does it have a particular set of emotions attached to it? How does it make you feel (how do you want to feel reading it)?
After you have written your answers, stop, and make sure that you have answered honestly. Do not, at this point, make the Gladwellian error of saying that you want a rich, dark roast. By this, I mean the psychological phenomenon, known in market research, by which people do not admit what they actually want. Gladwell describes the scenario in which the 80% of people surveyed about the type of coffee they liked, responded that they liked a dark, rich, hearty roast, when in fact the percentage of people who purchase a dark, rich, hearty roast is only about 20%. Most people purchase weaker, milky coffee, but never respond "I like a milky, weak coffee" to surveys. This is thought to be due to factors such as perception pressure (they want to be seen as someone who drinks rich, dark coffee), or aspirational pressure (they want to BE someone who drinks rich, dark coffee).
Cast off perception pressure and aspirational pressure! Don't think about the book that would look cool if other people saw you reading it, or the book that satisfies your idea of the type of person you are, or wish to be. Think about the book you actually want to read. The true, guilty pleasure book. You know it. You're always searching for it. That book.
If this is the book that you have actually described, continue. Otherwise, go back and answer the three questions again.
Now it's time to go into a little more detail. You may be able to answer some but not all of these questions:
- Does this book that you want to read have a particular tone? Is it tense, lighthearted, suspenseful, funny, epic, hopeful, sad, romantic, or desperate? Or some other tone?
- Do you know anything about the sort of characters in this book that you want to read? Are they everyday people, extraordinary people, heroes, antiheroes, villains?
- Do any of the characters embody certain qualities or dynamics that you are often drawn to in books or other media? What are these qualities or dynamics?
- Do you know anything about the sort of relationships in this book that you want to read? Are they families, lovers, friends, rivals, enemies, colleagues, or something else?
- Does this book that you want to read contain particular moments that you enjoy? A betrayal? A first kiss? A battle? A slice of ordinary life? A sudden insight? A reversal of fortune? Or some other moment?
- Does this book contain particular themes or narrative elements that you are yearning to read about? Spies? Magic? Warring families? Animals? Technology? One character against the world? A rise to power? The past? The future? Or something else? What are these?
- Is the book set in a particular time? Past, present or future?
- Is the book set in a particular place? Rural or urban? The country where you live or somewhere different? Is it set in our world or a different one?
When you have answered as many of these questions as you can, read over your answers and see if they can draw you into more detail.
Discuss your answers with a friend or a brainstorming partner and see if you can learn more about the book this way. If you are doing this with someone else, make sure it is someone you can trust to help you find your ultimate book (not impose their own). Perhaps get them to ask you questions that will help explore your own likes, and what you are most drawn to.
No two Ultimate Books will be alike, so be aware that what you have outlined in its first blurry shape the book that only you can write.
This blurry shape is still a long way from being a novel, it needs a premise, plot and characters, but now there is a shape, a place to start, an idea.
Here are my answers to the exercise so that you can see how the idea starts to take its shape.
The book I want to read is a fantasy novel.
I basically want to read Lymond with magic.
No -- that's not it at all. I don't want it to have the story of Lymond or even the character of Lymond, I just want it to make me feel the way that Lymond made me feel when I read it. I'd prefer to read a book about a character who is in constant agon with another character, a hero versus a villain, rather than Lymond who for most of the series was a hero without a really terrific foil to be in tension with. I like Antihero versus Villain more than I like Antihero Sallys Forth Alone.
It's about extraordinary people, heroes and villains. It may involve family, friends or lovers, but more important to me is that characters have powerful, sometimes unbearable, tensions between them.
The tone is epic but it has intimate character tensions, character driven yet with epic stakes, tense, immerses me into a world, contains moments of beauty that might involve magic or moments between characters, transports me, when I read it I go "in" to the magic world and "in" to the characters. I live the character's journey, as I read I want to be in the world and experience it myself.
A reversal, a paradigm shift in understanding, characters who are initially misperceived, biased viewpoint, family is the enemy or - the enemies are those closest to you, not outsiders or strangers. Something that must be put right but cannot be put right.
Not a contemporary real-world setting. It's fantasy but not urban fantasy, no computers, no modern technology, characters are not phoning each other. Over the top actions have to be plausible without their modern consequences (police, a trial, jail). It's a world where one character can be trying to kill another character without the repercussions of modern realism eg a restraining order, a police investigation.
The next step
I'll briefly describe my own process from this point onwards, in case it is helpful for anyone. My next step might be to make a to-do list of "idea work" and brainstorming work that I would need to do based on my answers. For example, my to-do list would look something like this:
* I want this to be about heroes and villains so I will need a hero (an antihero?) and a villain (I use these as gender neutral words)
* I want my characters to have epic tensions between them, so I will need some sort of tense epic backstory for my hero and villain
* I want high magic, so I will need to create a magic system that is cool and alive to me
I would expect each of these things to take dedicated time to create, and my own process is generally to brainstorm both in solo sessions pen to paper, and in sessions with a friend, bouncing ideas back and forth (I have friends who will "swap" brainstorming sessions with me, half an hour on my book, followed by half an hour on theirs). I'd also expect answers to raise further questions, that would also take work to resolve. A plot premise (something in the plot that needs to be resolved) and a character premise (something between the main characters that needs to be resolved) will usually show themselves during this stage, and -- again speaking of my own process -- they are the two things that I need most before I can start writing.
The most important thing for me personally throughout the process is to keep checking back in with the idea of the Ultimate Book – imagining myself walking into the bookstore and making sure that the ideas that I come up in brainstorming are the things I feel excited by and want to read in my ultimate book. When I took creative writing at university, it was startling how many of the writers in my classes were writing stories that they themselves would never read in a million years. They were writing for an imagined readership that did not include them. Writing a book that you're just not that excited by is a trap that it is (oddly) easy for a writer to fall into. This technique helps me to guard against that.
So good luck! If you try out this technique on your own blog or tumblr, I'd love to read the answers, so link them in comments!
You can find a complete list of the writing techniques covered in the series at the Writing Techniques Master Post