Sunday, 4 March 2012

20 Tips on Mugging Your Muse

After my success last week I've been trying to come up with some more short story ideas. The hope is to have a couple finished in the coming months and then send them out to earn their keep, or at the very least get a rejection slip with some constructive feedback. This confronted me with the bane of many a writer's life; coming up with ideas. One of the most common questions for storytellers is "where do you get your ideas," which is actually a coded way of asking "how can I get me some of those ideas?" It's a very hard question to answer, and I don't think there are many people who do anything creative who can honestly explain where or how they get their ideas. They just seem to happen. But I do know there are some techniques I use to get and develop inspiration so thought I'd share them below, along with some truths about the idea process. They may help, they may not. But they're worth a go if your muse is being particularly stubborn. Please to enjoy.

1. Having an Idea Should Not Feel Like Giving Birth
I've heard that bringing an idea into the world is like bringing a baby into it, all slimy and new, watching it grow and turn into a spoilt teenager who blames you for all their problems. But this suggests you have to give birth to the idea first, labour pains and screaming included. And if it's that painful and difficult, the idea probably sucks. It shouldn't be a mental torture to come up with an idea, or to make it work. If it's too hard then leave it alone - it may make more sense later, it may not, but either way leave that idea alone and move on to other things. Ideas are more like eggs - they may hatch, they may not but if you try to crack it open all you'll end up with is an icky mess to clean up later.

2. Ideas Don't Like Fences
Related to the above, your ideas shouldn't be limited from the get go. Trying to come up with an idea in a specific genre or theme is bound to leave you with a headache and no story. You may want to write a paranormal, urban fantasy about the pointlessness of cheese, but your muse isn't going to be happy with the ring fencing. Let it run free into the wilderness and it will return with lots of lovely fluffy ideas to be dropped at your feet. Force it to run around a room and it will just rip the furniture up and piss on your shoes. Let your muse run free.

3. Take the Heat Off
Sometimes the best thing to do when you want an idea is to not think about it. Or rather to not think about it knowingly. When I want to come up with an idea (normally when I have had a few already but don't know how to merge them) I'll think about it actively for five or ten minutes before bed. Then I try not to think about it at all for a few days. Most of the time my subconscious will have an answer for me during that time and I'll do a little "ah ha! That's how a miner and flamingo can get out of that dungeon" and then I write that new idea in my notepad. (I am assuming that anyone reading this who wants inspiration has a notepad with them at all times. AT ALL TIMES. If not, smack yourself upside the head and go get one.)

4. Daydreaming is Not a Waste of Time
I don't know if anyone else was told this as a child, but I recall a teacher saying to me once that I daydreamed too much, and it was a waste of time. Oh, how wrong they were; daydreaming is brilliant if you're looking for inspiration. Like point no.3, it allows your subconscious to throw a lot of stuff at you and see what sticks. I've come up with some of my best and most enduring ideas from daydreaming. Just try not to do it when you're out with your hubby for dinner. During work meetings is totally fine. In fact, it's highly recommended.

5. Succeed With Sneakiness
Ideas are shy things. Look at them directly and they'll hop away out of sight or take to the sky. But if you keep your head down, and look like you're doing something else, they'll sidle up next to you. I've found I have the most ideas when I don't directly think about them too much. Instead I think around the problem, over and under it. So instead of trying to think about 'the astronaut', I'll think about the ship he's in, the planet he's travelling to, or the place he's come from. Then, out of no where, it will hit me and I'll realise the astronaut is actually an alien, pretending to be a human being. Ah, of course he is. But if I'd just kept thinking about that astronaut it would never have occurred to me. The muse is a fickle mistress.

6. Ghostwriting (No Ghosts Necessary)
When you're trying to come up with an initial idea, before anything has occurred to you about the story or what it's about, there are a few constructive things you can do to gather random ideas and capture them in your paper fortress. Mwa ha ha ha. Ahem. Anyway, a technique I started long ago as a means of letting off steam has morphed into an idea farming method and it involves doing something mediums of old used to do; free writing. The idea of free writing is to not think about what you write, just put a pen in your hand, touch ink to paper and go. No thinking allowed. It sounds weird, and it is, but it's amazing the things you can come up with. In my case it looks like the mad, tortured ramblings of a doctor imprisoned in Alcatraz for thirty years, but among the scribbling I'll circle a few words that take my fancy and out of that have garnered some basic notions for stories. The mediums used to claim it was the spirits moving their hands. If so, then thank you spirits for the inspiration. I'll leave some cookies out for you.

7. Take cover! Brain Storm Ahead!
Another great technique, if you prefer your ideas to make a bit more sense then they will from free writing, is to brainstorm. Or mind map. I prefer the term brainstorm - sounds more dramatic. Anyway, don't stress too much about the words you put down. Clear your mind and just write the first word that occurs to you. Then write another word connected to it. Then another, then another, etc. If you want to write sentences instead go for it, though I've always thought a brainstorm should be short utterances, rather than fully formed sentences. "Cattle falling from sky" > "Alien Olympics" > "Humans misunderstand" > "Aliens turn us into jello". You get the drift.

8. Don't Watch the News? You Should
It's hard to come up with ideas if you don't pop your head over the parapet now and again. If you're not a news reader or watcher then that's the first thing you'll have to change. It's positively teaming with story ideas. Mainly of the dystopian variety I'll grant you, but even those little snippet reports about a dog that caught the bus to the pub could be just the thing you need to get a story idea. Even your journey to work, your colleagues, your friends or that grumpy neighbour with the gnome in his garden could all be the source of your next story. Pay attention and you might be surprised what you notice.

9. Passion Makes Perfect
Everyone has a passion. I defy anyone not to be passionate about something. Passions come in many shapes and sizes, even if it's just chocolate bars or fossilised faeces, everyone is passionate about something in their lives. Your job is to work out what you're passionate about. Get your pen and your notepad (you know, the one you always have on you) and write down your passions. What makes your heart beat that little bit faster? Once you know your passions you can use them to inspire your story ideas. Mad about golf? What would happen if a passionate golfer got struck by lightening but instead of dying got even better at golf? Your passions can be your inspiration.

10. Steal Ideas
Seriously, am I the only one that finds these paintings
creepy as hell? Anyone? Just me then.
Okay, I'm not advocating outright copying someone else's ideas. Unless you want to write a crime novel 'inspired' by the works of Ian Fleming of course... But you can be inspired by and build on someone else's ideas. And it doesn't have to just be from stories either. Listen to music, look at some art, or photography and ask yourself questions about them. Who did in fact let the dogs out? And why? Is it connected to those dogs playing poker? Actually now I think about it, there does seem to be a connection there... I knew I never trusted those dogs. You know they're all cheating.

11. If Everyone Goes Right Then Go Left
This one is easier said then done, and really depends on how your brain works. As has probably become clear I am someone who makes odd connections and I have been described as "a bit weird" in my life more than once. I take it as a compliment and am thinking of having it as my motto, with a badge, a hat and a mug made with those words printed on them. But I truly think anyone can teach themselves to make strange connections and think a bit left of the field if they just let themselves try it. You will feel odd, and may even think the stuff you come up with is stupid. That's good - it means you're on the right track. Just remember that in the idea stage you can come up with whatever random, odd, and bizarre stuff you want. No one will ever know unless you tell them.

12. Asking the Right Questions
Coming up with ideas out of nothing is hard but sometimes a carefully timed question can be all it takes to get the grey matter working and the muse singing. "What if..." is a great question. "What if cake was a figment of our imaginations?" "What if all dogs don't go to heaven?" "What if all the politicians disappeared tomorrow?" Other good questions are "I wonder..." and "How does...", among many others. Apply them to the things in life you hardly think about and you should come up with something.

13. From the Mouths of Babes (the child variety, not the female kind)
Once you have ideas you can use even more questions to make them better. I highly recommend the favourite of every kid everywhere; "Why?" So much is expressed in those three little letters. Why are we here, why are we pink, why do we cry, why does poop stink (ooh, I rhymed!). The eternal search for answers. It's up to you, the storyteller, to work out those answers.

14. Do As Authors Do
Make it up. Seriously. That's what it all comes down to at the end of the day. Think of a word, any word. Then make up a story. Done. I know it's not that easy, but when you boil all this down into the gooey marrow at it's core, that is all story creation is - making it up. And when you realise that it can feel like a great weight has lifted and the ideas can float free.

15. Creation I - In the Beginning
Not good at coming up with random ideas? No problemo. Instead try creating a character. Just one character. Decide on gender, ethnicity, hair colour, eye colour, sexuality, religion (if any) and away you go. Think about where they come from, what their childhood was like, what their favourite food/music/sexual position is. Get under their skin. During the course of character creation it's amazing how many story ideas can float to the surface. Note them down as you go, and keep building up that character. By the end of it you may not want to use that character, but you should have a few ideas you can work with.

16. Creation II - Think Bigger
If a character doesn't work for you, if you're maybe a bit more of a Sim City fan, or just like the idea of being a deity, go the whole hog and create a world. What's on that world? Water? Oxygen? Methane? Chlorine? High gravity or low? What would any of those things do to the flora and fauna of your world? Are there seas of lava? Fields of emeralds? Don't let your internal editor stop you; whatever you come up with write it down and keep asking yourself logical questions about the things you're creating. Before long you'll have your very own little planet of dystopian elephant trunked methane breathers to worship at your feet.

17. The Ol' Catch-22
It's a truth that life is full of catch-22 moments. If you don't know what a catch-22 is go read the book and come back when you're done. Finished? Good isn't it. Anyway, as I was saying, life is full of those moments and writing ideas are no different. You see to get an idea it helps to have one already. And once you get one there will be more. Many more. So many you won't be able to keep up with them. It's as if, by coming up with an idea (especially one that really tickles your wiggles) the floodgates your muse had shut up tight come flying open, and ideas start to drown you.

18. Ideas are like Buses
Similar to the above, is this warning; you may find that you get more ideas then you can handle. You'll be trying to come up with ideas for future stories and nothing comes. I mean nothing. All you've got is tumbleweeds rattling through your brain. Then, suddenly you get an idea. But wait, it isn't just one idea. It's two, three, five, ten! They all arrive so quickly you can hardly tell one from the other. You try to note them down, but as soon as you start looking at one it skitters off, and you get distracted by another one wiggling it's little cute nose at you. You dive for it, but it too bounds away, and you're sure you heard it giggling as it disappears into the edges of your mind again. By the end your notepad is full of half scribblings, words and utterances that make no sense at all. You cry. Then you drink some whisky. Looking at those random notes again you realise some of them work, and they work together. Then the bouncing ideas are back, darting all over your internal landscape. And the chase begins once more...

19. Practise, Practise, Practise
The brain is a muscle. In fact it's made up of lots of little muscles, all of which do different things. The bit for "making toast" might be very developed because you make toast every morning. The bit that "controls your temper when the boss is making a suggestion" may also be very developed as it has to do it's thing five days a week. Odds are though the part that "makes up ideas" doesn't get brought out of the dark, dusty cupboard much. It's going to be a bit slow the first few times you wind it up, but if you do it often and regularly, it will soon be chugging along even when you don't need it. If you want ideas, give your brain some time each day to come up with something, even for five minutes. It really does get easier the more you do it.

20. Don't Give Up
Possibly this is the most important thing about coming up with stories; never, ever give up. All those people who say they never got published? They gave up. That's why. Yeah, it's hard and you'll fail more often then you succeed, but the only person who can put a stop to your writing, to your stories, is you. Never give up, and the ideas will come.

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