When You Have No Ideas at All

This article originally appeared on a blog called Revive Your Creativity. The angle here is more for writing fiction, but I believe it's useful for generating creative ideas for a number of art forms.

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any. - Orson Scott Card

Let’s get this out of the way even before we get into this discussion. It’s not that you are completely without ideas. They just need some uncovering.

So, here is what we are going to do.

First we’ll talk about a bunch of ways that you can generate ideas. There are endless possibilities, and I’m sure we’ll only cover a few, relatively speaking.

Second, we’ll create some definitive plans of action (one of my favorite words when it comes to creativity), depending on whether you trying to create your first artistic project in a long while or if you are trying to write your next major work.

I love having options, but sometimes too many options can cause us to feel lost in the possibilities. Then nothing gets done, and that’s the exact opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish here.

Ways to Stir Up Your Ideas

Writing does not have to be a solitary pursuit. We think of the lone novelist locked away in a cozy cabin somewhere churning out the next great novel, but plenty of people write stories together. In fact, practically the entire television industry is built around the concept of the writer’s room, where several writers work together to pound out weekly episodes.

I’ve used collaboration on a few projects, including my most recent story Titanic Sinking with Erik James. In this case, he had the rough idea (an idea for an entire storytelling world, in fact), and I was able to work with him to find all of the specifics that related to our tale. Erik is actually working with several collaborators in fleshing out his stories.

Another way to find ideas is to go back through journals or notes you might have kept in the past. I keep tons of spiral bound notebooks of ideas that didn’t work at the time. I’ve later been able to turn some of those notes (definitely not all) into something meaningful. Sometimes, I’ll even just use a few characteristics of a villain or a setting to help enrich a current project.

If you are just looking to get started with anything creative after a long time away from writing, then you need to pick up some story prompts and not put too much pressure on yourself. Writing prompts don’t have to come from a book or website dedicated to the subject. Look for what inspires you. With so many photo sharing sites readily available, you can easily find inspiring artwork online.

Use writing prompts for short stories. See if they inspire anything that you might want to explore in a larger context. I go through periods where all I do is crank out short fiction. Some of it is simply dreadful, but I’m able to explore ideas without committing a year to it only to find out I didn’t like the idea after all.

Sometimes, writing prompts don’t give you enough drive to get a story done. You might be able to get the first few hundred words down in a flash, but the rest of the story gets stuck. Try adding some extra motivation with a deadline to help push you past your own mental barriers. Enrolling in a writing competition is always a great way to give yourself a firm deadline and the added weight of knowing that someone is going to read your work with the express purpose of judging its merit.

One point that I keep coming back to in my own writing time is to get away from the computer. If you just sit in front of your screen and tell yourself to be creative all day, you’re going to have a tough time. Scientists have shown that breakthrough moments of inspiration often come when you’re not directly focusing on the problem. By allowing your brain some downtime, you actually help it to be more productive.

I love exercise or even just a quick walk for small jolts of inspiration in my schedule. If you have time, scheduling a vacation or camping trip can give you even more time away to let your brain rest and to work on ideas in a non-active mode.

Plan of Action: Sparking the Storytelling Flame

Let’s move from general ideas to practical application.

The goal here is not to write the next Harry Potter series. We just want to write a short story that’s engaging and can stand on its own.

The plan is to find a writing prompt that inspires you and to write a first draft of your story as quickly as possible. Don’t give yourself time to doubt your word choice, your character’s name and origin, or the plotline. There’s always time to revise later. You goal is to get that first draft done.

Looking for a writing prompt website? Check out the Write Practice and the flash fiction challenges from Terrible Minds (though the site adult language is not for everyone).

Or, check out DeviantArt, Tumblr, and Pinterest for some artwork to create your own writing prompts.

Plan of Action: The Next Big Work of Art

Let’s say you’re past the short fiction stage, and you’re ready for a big challenge. The only problem is you don’t know what to write about.

You’re going to love me for this one. Wait.

The pressure right now is to just rush from one thing to the next, and we all too often cheat ourselves of a strong enough story. I’m not advocating that you do nothing, but hold off on the writing for the moment.

Start taking notes about the subject that interests you. Write out little plot ideas. Keep them all in a handy note-taking software like Evernote or even (gosh!) use an old-school notebook and pen.

Compile your ideas until you feel that you can’t wait any longer. Allow yourself to feel excitement for your project before you start. (If you’re not excited, I can guarantee we won’t be excited.)

What Other Tips Should We Know?

These are my tips and observations on the idea-generating phase of writing. Like I said earlier, this list is far from exhaustive. I’d love to hear what you do to find inspiration.

Tip of the hat to Writerz Blox for the Orson Scott Card quote.