JK Rowling came up with her big idea on a delayed train, Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games fame was inspired by a war report, and Stephen King came up with The Shining while staying with his family in a hotel where they were the only guests. A novel will include lots of themes but there will often be one central concept which provides the framework. However, coming up with that idea can often be the hardest part of the process. The timing of this post couldn’t be more appropriate as I’m currently brainstorming ideas for my third book so with that in mind, here are five ways to come up with the big idea for your novel.
1. List Your Own Life Experiences
When I wrote The Good Mother, I had given birth the year before and had a second child on the way. This experience brought up strong emotions and was a powerful influence when writing the novel. But motherhood was just one memorable life experience on my initial list; others included my time at university, a car crash incident, and backpacking around India. By making a list of your own significant life experiences, you can harness the power of those emotions for a brainstorming session that will definitely give you a few ideas.
2. Ask Questions
Interviewing yourself is a great way to stimulate creativity. Answering questions such as What makes you angry? What makes you sad? What do you hate? What do you love? can yield some interesting and perhaps surprising information. Ideally, you should write down your responses and keep writing until you can’t think of anything else. Again, it’s about enticing strong emotions and feelings that can then be used as the basis for an idea. Another question starter is What if? This is a great way of stretching your mind to come up with impossible or unusual situations. For example, Michael Crichton’s iconic novel Jurassic Park was based on the question What if dinosaurs came back to life?
3. Read the News
It could just be a small story that captures your attention and sets the wheels of your brain in motion but reading the news, whether in print or online, could provide a few ideas that you could leverage. When I listened to renowned author Peter James talk about how to create a page turner, he recommended reading local news specifically as there tends to be a lot more detail in the stories. If you do browse online, a word of caution – set yourself a time limit so you don’t look up and find several hours have passed!
4. Burroughs Cut Up Method
This idea generator is named after the American author William S. Burroughs who would take a piece of text, such as an old book or newspaper, and cut it into strips of individual words and phrases. He would then rearrange them at random to create new sentences and new ideas. Old magazines would work just as well. This is great technique if you're the type of person who thinks best when doing something.
5. Record Your Dreams
For many people, sleep can bring a whole new world that can be used for potential book ideas. Keep a notepad and pen by the side of your bed and try and record those fragments as quickly as possible. Do it for several nights in a row, even if you don’t think the dreams (or nightmares!) are particularly interesting and it will soon become a habit. After a week or so, read your notes and see if you can combine two or more points for a unique idea.
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