The writing life is an unusual one. During creative seasons, writers can be swimming in a sea of ideas. Other times, it seems ideas are as scarce as water in the desert. If you’re feeling a little dry, here are a few ways you can discover and develop great ideas:
You’ve got to have down time …
Ever notice our best ideas come to us while we’re in the shower? Free time–especially boredom–has been shown to have an enormously positive effect on creativity. (Another reason to limit your kids’ time on electronics!) If you find your mind constantly spinning through the items on your to-do list, it’s important to allow time to let your mind wander. This advice can seem suspicious to those of us who have wrestled and refocused our attention, insisting that our minds bend to our will. Some of us have fought the urge to daydream for so long that this tip feels like recklessness!
It’s not reckless or lazy or a waste of time–you simply must have scheduled free time in your weekly routine. And do schedule it, because when things get hectic, your stretch of free time will be the first casualty. Choose a time and place to enjoy a half-hour of creative quiet. Turn off your phone and defend this time. Once again, this is necessary, not frivolous. Bring a notebook and a pen with you, but don’t fiddle with them. Just keep them close in case you want to write down a thought. Don’t feel frustrated if you have a blank page after the first few practices. Keep committed to your free time, and your subconscious will start saving snippets of inspiration for you!
… or you’ve got to be busy on another project.
One thing that’s guaranteed to bring a bunch of new and irresistible ideas is an existing project. I can’t tell you the number of distracting ideas that have come to me while I’m in the boring middle stretch of a novel–you know, that section that makes you feel like a hack and a phony. These new ideas can sing like sirens to draw you away from your work in progress. But understand, if you heed them, you’ll be wrecked on the rocks of your current project. If you allow yourself to be drawn away from your work in progress, you’ll find it nearly impossible to finish anything. From there, you’ll be sucked into the vortex of despair, wondering why every other writer you know is so productive, why you can’t get your act together, and whether you should just quit.
The solution? Capture the new ideas, and stay faithful to your WIP.
Create a capture process.
So how do you know when a new idea is worth your attention, and when it’s a distraction that lacks substance and quality?
Decide how you want to document new ideas, and make sure you’re ready for the next one. The tool is less important than your decision to record your ideas the same way each time. If you stick to your preferred method, you can always be prepared. Also, you’ll always be able to find your idea and save yourself the hassle of searching through email, paper notebooks, the backs of receipts, and a half-dozen apps.
Many writers swear by EverNote or Bear. Lots of folks are loyal to a paper journal. Whatever you choose, commit to the system for at least two months. If, at the end of that time, you loathe it–change your process.
Let it breathe.
Once you document your idea, you should allow it rest for a while. Don’t poke, prod, or fiddle with it; just let it lie quietly for a few days. If you find your attention drifting back to it again and again, notice that feeling, but don’t mess with it until the rest period is up.
This will prevent you from succumbing to shiny object syndrome, and give you enough distance to come back and judge it with more objectivity.
Introduce it to your trusted friends.
Once you’ve rolled an idea around in your own head so long that you’ve mushed down all objectivity, it’s time to bring in other opinions. Call it your mastermind group, your inner circle, your round table — whatever — but you need a few friends and colleagues you can trust for feedback. These are people who are comfortable enough, and who respect you enough, to tell you when it’s time to pitch an idea into the recycling bin.
You know you’ve got a gem when, after explaining your Next Big Thing, your friends’ eyes light up and they get as excited as you are. If, however, you’re greeted by a long beat of silence, a clearing of the throat, and a question or two for clarification, it may be time to polish that rock of an idea or simply throw it back into the river and keep looking.
That’s how I discover and develop great ideas. The key is to be at peace with the process. Ideas come and go. Some are right, some are bad, some are not appropriate for the season. It’s important to remember that the idea is not as important as the work. The idea is only a vehicle to express creativity and to grow as a writer. So if you feel like you don’t have the chops to do justice to your incredible idea … you don’t. None of us do. So what are you going to do? Write it anyway!
NOW YOU: What are your favorite ways to discover and develop great ideas?
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