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Let's Think of Something!

Updated: Jan 15

All Ideas Grow Out of Other Ideas Amish Kapoor quote on staircase with woman walking past

This is the second post in my "Let's Make a Book!" blog post series. Today, let's look at inspiration and ideas: a plot is the foundation of a book, after all! I've already discussed the topic of inspiration in my post here, but it's a subject worth revisiting.

If I somehow found myself with three hours of uninterrupted, unclaimed time (a laughable concept at this stage of life), I could try to force myself to sit down and come up with an idea for the next New York Times bestseller. Unfortunately, I would likely finish that extended brainstorming session with nothing more than a few uninspired sketches and random ideas scribbled in my notebook. Why? Inspiration can rarely be forced or conjured out of thin air. While it is true that inspiration can "strike" when we are least expecting it (such as while reading, taking a shower, or going for a walk), it is challenging to forcibly move the vehicle of creativity when it is not already in motion.

So where do great ideas come from? Let's refer to a few well-known books and their authors to see if there are any common sources of inspiration.

- J.K. Rowling devised the Harry Potter books while at a train station and on an airplane. - Laura Numeroff contrived If You Give a Mouse a Cookie while on a car trip. - J.R.R. Tolkien was grading papers when his mind spontaneously and inexplicably invented hobbits. - Eric Carle's inspiration for The Very Hungry Caterpillar was a holepunch. - One of Margaret Wise Brown's dreams became the basis for Goodnight Moon.

- Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat was a notable exception to the "wait-and-see" approach, but the resulting

agonizing process took almost a year of waiting and an additional year of creating. As you can see, novel ideas come from a variety of sources, and there isn't a fool-proof formula for creating them. As an author, this truth is both encouraging and disheartening. On the one hand, the aforementioned authors were not engaged in extraordinary, unusual activities when they conceived their most famous stories. Rather, they were simply shuffling through their everyday routines as travelers, parents, employees, and artists. This truth makes writing a great story a far more achievable goal for the average writer. Yet on the other hand, this truth also means that inspiration does not have a straightforward source.

9 3/4 train station platform
"Harry Potter," one of the most famous book series in history, was invented in a train station

For example, my free time is currently limited due to being a stay-at-home parent of small children. However, I would perhaps place more emphasis on carving out an hour or two each day if I knew that extended writing sessions would guarantee inspiration. Unfortunately, time, on its own, is rarely the answer, at least with regards to devising an initial story idea. Instead, the authors of our favorite tales seem to share three simple, yet vital, traits: they are well-read, they are tenacious, and they love to ask "what if?" "What if?" is the driving question that conceives stories. Anyone can ask this question and invent ideas, but writers move beyond the theoretical: they give this question a form, a body, a soul. When we focus all of our efforts on materializing ideas out of thin air, we usually fail because we have stopped asking "what if?" Let's take our previous examples and rewrite them as "what if" scenarios:

- What if... a "boy wizard [] went to wizarding school"? - What if... you gave a mouse a cookie?

- What if... there was a hole in a hill, and this hole was home to a human-like creature? - What if... a caterpillar ate so much that it gave itself a stomachache? - What if... I turned my dream into a story? - What if... 'cat' and 'hat' could be transformed from mere rhyming words into a fully-fledged children's book? See, if you reframe the original examples in this way, the famous, fantastical stories we know and love can all be sourced from this one question. Now, the authors clearly did not always ask this question intentionally: sometimes the question asked itself, in their subconscious, and the answers thus seemed to appear out of nowhere. However, this is where the importance of reading emerges.

Stack of classic books
"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." - Stephen King

Our brains often operate best when they have time to wander and explore (you can learn more about this phenomenon in this Headspace article). If you aren't reading regularly, you have less 'source material' to utilize for creating new ideas and connections. Now, I will be the first to admit that I spend far more time watching television than I spend reading, as television is an easily shared experience that my husband and I can do together at the end of the day. Yet while movies and shows can and do inspire creativity (I first began writing after watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example), books are arguably the best teachers for those seeking to write new books. As this article explains, "Books [] develop their characters much more [than movies do] and add multiple dimensions to them; such as detailing their emotions and thoughts. Books also improve your vocabulary. You may not notice it but while you['re] reading a brilliant novel you are improving your spelling, punctuation[,] and grammar" ("Are books better than films?").

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
"Goodnight Moon," one of the most famous bedtime books for children

In conclusion, if you want to write the next bestseller, you (and I) need to keep our to-be-read piles stocked and active. We also need to continually question the world we see and the worlds we read about. Great stories require far more effort and imagination than simply asking "what if?", but that inquiry is one of the best places to begin. Finally, we must be willing to accept that our first, fifth, or even fiftieth ideas may not be original or entertaining. And, even if we like our ideas, we might find that others aren't as excited about them as we are. As briefly mentioned above, great writers are tenacious: they keep dreaming until they stumble across an idea they love, and they believe in themselves and in their stories enough to push through repeated rejections. I will wholeheartedly admit that I am preaching to myself in writing these statements: it's simple and painless to agree with these ideas, but it's far more difficult to put them into practice. Nevertheless, in order to write a story, we must begin with an idea. What is your next big idea?

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