Archive for the ‘ 5. Writing Reflections ’ Category

Writing Reflections: Everything’s New Under the Sun

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On Originality

The question of originality is something of the bane of a writer’s life. Quite often, new works which take an old theme and twist it are praised for being original, innovative, inventive. Other, less successful works might be tagged as derivative, unoriginal or just plain cliche. But what is originality really? A dictionary definition tells us that originality is: “the quality of newness that exists in a piece of writing; that which has neither been produced before nor derived from any other source.” Or even, “the aspect of created or invented works by as being new or novel, and thus can be distinguished from reproductions, clones, forgeries, or derivative works. An original work is one not received from others nor one copied based on the work of others.” (Thank you, Google.)

At first glance, then, it seems that to be original means to be unprecedented. Unique. And absolutely bloody impossible. How can one be original anymore when everything seems to have already been covered?

  1. Everything is Original. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in some ways, everything is original. And this is because you are original. Every individual writer has their own unique and unprecedented combination of skill, talent, education, background, viewpoint, opinion and thought process. So, in essence, everything you write – unless you copy someone else word for word – is going to be your own. If it is similar to that of someone else, perhaps you had the same influences and ideas but you are not the same, and therefore your approach to the topic, your plotting, pacing, characters and emphases will all be different. Everything you create as a writer is something that has never been done before.
  2. Nothing is Original. At the same time, nothing is original, and not just because it’s all been done before. Human beings do not exist in a vacuum; centuries of language, culture and history go into forming the environment of each individual person, whose very identity and approach to life then rests on tradition and inherited understanding even if they are not aware of it. Every new thing we create is derived from something which came before it, no matter how indirectly. Human beings themselves operate according to similar patterns, emotions and needs. The only way to be truly original in this context would be to be from another planet, and even then, there would probably be similarities. Therefore, who needs to be original? We’re all part of one great big story: the Human Story. When we read, we want to encounter other characters in this plot of life. The things they share with us make them relatable; the ways they differ from us make them interesting, in ways which are already familiar to us. Different characters (assuming they’re well-written) are just different psyches, all modeled on a human ideal.
  3. Plagiarism is the Sincerest Form of Unoriginality. The only way to be truly unoriginal, I think, is to either copy word for word or directly lift a plot/idea from someone else with the intention of writing ultimately the same thing. As a corollary, the only way to ensure you’re being original is to be true to yourself and rely on your own ideas. You may find that someone else has got there before you. This doesn’t necessarily mean your idea needs to be scrapped: just that you need to work harder to make it your own.

I’m always on the look out for books that are similar to novels I’ve written or intend to write. In fact, I’ve found some of my favourite books that way. It’s made me have to work harder to ensure that I don’t directly copy from them, but I’ve learned from them too, things about my own style and what I like in a novel. Ultimately, I think, true originality is a myth that writers should leave to the critics – instead, we should focus on developing ourselves as writers and not worry so much over whether what we’re producing has been done before. With the depth and breadth of human history to pick from, chances are it almost certainly has!

Writing Reflections: The Invisible Man

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On Characters as Representations

As I was saying in last week’s Reflection, in message fiction there is often a tendency for readers (and to some extent, the writers themselves) to treat individual characters less as individuals and more as representatives of their entire gender, race, or sexual orientation. While a case could be made for the characters of message fiction being constructed this way by sheer definition, its when that kind of approach to characters (and authors) extends to other types of fiction that it starts becoming untenable.

There is a particular logical fallacy which illustrates what I mean. Take, for example, the statement that atoms are invisible to the naked eye. Knowing this to be true, we might therefore reason as follows:

1. Atoms are invisible to the naked eye.
2. Human beings are made up of atoms.
3. Therefore, human beings are invisible to the naked eye.

It’s clear that something has gone wrong here, isn’t it? The problem is, we are committing the Fallacy of Composition: assuming that the properties of one part of a human being (an individual atom) necessarily apply to the whole. Similarly, it often seems to me that people assume the properties of one character necessarily reflect either the properties of all similar people that character represents, or the direct opinion of the author of whom they are a part. One might also call this a fallacy of conflation.

In my opinion, a character is a character is a character, and must be addressed first on his or her own terms as an individual, not as a commentary on anyone or anything else. In the first place, if we start assuming that writing a negative portrayal of someone necessarily means the author is prejudiced against them, we might as well give up on fiction altogether. The unfortunate fact of life is that there are people of all shapes, sizes, colours, creeds and sexual interests who are not altogether nice or good people. It is a writer’s job to reflect this reality, in any number of different ways. If we consider each character as an atom and an author writes about an invisible atom, we should not therefore assume the rest of the man is invisible, or even that the author believes this to be the case.

In a sense, all characters can be considered representations, insofar as the atom we just discussed represents my opinion (we’ll call it an opinion) that some atoms can be invisible and that this is how those invisible atoms might act. But that’s as far as it should go. Ideally, it will be fairly obvious that the author’s opinions are well removed from the novel, since the characters’ actions and attributes will be believable and comprehensible within the story’s universe. But sometimes they’re not, and this is where things can get confusing. How do you know if character x is intended as a commentary on a certain type of person, either consciously or subconsciously, or whether they’re just an individual, invisible atom in a thoroughly visible human being?

Personally, I’d say it boils down to motivation – the character’s, that is. Those characters whose attitudes and expressions reflect authorial prejudices have a tendency to act in certain ways because they’re female/black/gay/Catholic or whatever. That is, whatever negative (or positive) traits they possess can usually be traced back to a single source, the one about which the author is making an implicit or explicit statement. There’s a difference between character x being, say, scared of spiders because she’s female, and being scared for other (presumably understandable, if not necessarily valid) reasons. Of course, this can be tricky, because sometimes the authorial assumptions are one step removed; for example, perhaps in her backstory said woman’s brother once put a spider down her shirt, which is what turned her into an arachnophobe in the first place. Okay, this is conceivable – people react to that kind of thing in different ways. But it also strikes me as having an element of, if not cliche, then perhaps stereotype: the assumption that she would necessarily react to this with a lifelong fear of spiders rather than, say, getting him back by pretending to die of a spider bite. And once we start veering into stereotype territory the waters get murky, since you can’t be sure that the character is not part of an invisible man. However. I think the discerning reader will be able to tell, if only because those authors who use stereotypical elements to tell a truly individual character’s story usually have the ability to make you forget it’s a stereotype, until you look back later and thing, “…hang on, I didn’t even realise but that is kind of cliche. Huh.”

It is entirely possible for writers to write convincing characters who are entirely different from – even opposite to – themselves. As readers, we need to remember that characters frequently take on a life of their own, and while they may or may not agree with their creator, they should not be taken as indicative of a writer’s opinion unless there is good reason to believe this is the case. As writers, we need to be careful that our own assumptions don’t trip us up and mess up the dynamics we’re trying to portray. All too often have I read books wherein the female lead was repeatedly described as “independent” and “liberated” only to have her revert to stereotypical weakness and dependence the moment the hero was introduced to the narrative, not because this was characteristic of her as a person but because that’s what the author thought a woman would do. There’s a fine line between keeping a character visible, and having them turn into the invisible man – a representation (positive or negative) of a whole rather than an individual human being. Personally, I prefer mine visible. It’s the only way I can keep tabs on what they’re doing!

Writing Reflections: Welcome to the Puppet Show

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On Messages in Fiction

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I’ve been reading a fair few books lately which were designed to have a “message” – that is, to convince the reader of a certain point of view, using fiction as a medium for the author’s voice. Message fiction and I don’t usually get along: I have never enjoyed being told what to do, let alone what to think, and most of the time the “message” part tends to get in the way of the “fiction” part, spoiling my entertainment. Even if I agree with what the author’s trying to say, it’s kind of irksome to have someone I don’t know and will probably never meet forcing their philosophy into my brainspace, and the book often becomes like a puppet show, with the characters and plot serving the message instead of the other way around.

There are always messages in fiction, of course, even if they’re only implicit ones. In fact, most such messages aren’t obvious. They tell us things about life, about the author’s understanding of the world, and often convince us to change our minds about things without ever having to come out and say it. And for the most part, I prefer this kind of novel. I want to be able to do my own thinking and come to my own conclusions – and most of all, I want to be able to read and enjoy the book without being able to see the strings. Still, there are some authors who manage to do it, and sometimes there are messages that need to be written. So how do you go about talking to your audience without alienating them or turning your novel into a puppet show?

Let the characters do the talking. By which I mean, think about whether or not they would believe or agree with the perspective you want to give them, and give them a reason to do so. If you must, have them disagree with this position and learn to change their mind. Character growth can often be a great way of getting the audience invested in the book, and if they’re invested, they’re most likely going to be open to what you have to say. Be careful, however. There’s nothing that annoys me more than the way some authors seem to imply that, naturally, everyone will come around to The Right Way of Thinking (aka their opinion) with nothing more than a slight, well-intentioned nudge in the right direction. Any change must be natural, necessary and nuanced. Few people go from homophobe to GLBT-ally overnight.

Don’t make the message your main reason for telling the story. Every author has something they want people to take away from their book. Sometimes, this will just be this person is an amazing writer, but most of the time a writer tends to have a theme that becomes their message to the reader: what they want them to learn, or to think about, both while reading the book and after they close the covers and walk away. Ideally, the theme is obvious to the observant, but does not dominate the novel — it’s one element of the plot, not the sole reason for its existence. One of the failings of message fiction, therefore, can be that it focuses too much on the message, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. A novel which insists on telling you what it’s all about shows you its puppet strings, hell, it shows you the puppeteer, and just like that the magic is gone. Instead of a whole new world of interesting thoughts, feelings, and characters, what you hold in your hand is a literary Trojan horse, smuggling an authorial screed dressed up as fiction.

Be original. Originality is at times the bane of a writer’s life and it is all too easy to fall back on the old, “nothing new under the sun” canard. But the fact is, message fiction in particular is one area where you can almost guarantee that someone else has written about it before. Women are equals? Done. Racism is wrong? Done. Nuclear proliferation is the only way to secure peace? Hell, that’s been done too. So obviously I don’t mean that your message has to be something nobody has ever heard before. But I do think that doing some research is a wise idea. Novels about gay teens, for example, usually carrying the message of tolerance, have a tendency to follow the same tropes of bullying, bigotry and eventual physical violence. While this is based on a reality, the fact remains that after a few of such books they all start to read the same. So you have to work to make them stand out by mixing up the elements or trying a fresh approach. Riding on the coattails of an emerging trend (ahem, vampires, I’m looking at you) isn’t going to cut it for the discerning reader: you have to add your own twist to the approach, or they’re going to you tune out, and they’ll tune out your message too.

Ultimately, I think message fiction fills a necessary niche in the literary world, but I can’t say it’s one of my favourite things to read. It has a tendency towards Unfortunate Implications, for one thing. Once you make a plot a vehicle for something other than itself, particularly a political thought or idea, you get into the sticky position wherein each character may be seen to Stand For something. Each gay person stands as a symbol for all gay people; each woman becomes a proxy for All Women, and so on. As a particularly annoying side effect, this outlook sometimes seems to bleed into the way people read other books as well, so that a novelist with a racist character might find himself being judged as racist, even if he is the most egalitarian of men, and so forth (more on that in next week’s Reflection). It is important, therefore, to remember to ask yourself: do I need to write it this way? Is this the only way I can get my message across? Because, honestly, half of the time I think authors would have done better just writing an essay instead.

Writing Reflections: When Plots Go Bad

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

When Plots Go Bad

I confess, I love reading bad books almost as much as I love watching bad movies. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I do know that they tend to make me laugh a great deal, and like most people I love things that make me laugh. But quite apart from their humour value, I also think they have a lot to teach me as a writer, specifically about what not to do when you’re writing a story.

One of my favourite memories is from one of the first disaster movies I ever saw. I can’t remember what it was called, or what it was about, but it must have had something to do with an earthquake because I distinctly recall one scene in which a very tall, very thin building was about to fall down on some hapless pedestrian, who was, of course, running to avoid it. Why I remember this scene in particular is because the guy in the movie was running straight ahead, with the building falling down in a straight line behind him. And I remember thinking, quite irritatedly, why doesn’t he just run to the left or right? Then at least he’d have a chance. But no. He just kept on running straight down the center of the road, and got killed almost immediately.

What did I learn from this? Aside from the fact that characters in disaster movies tend inevitably towards stupidity, I learned something very important: don’t get so caught up in the plot – in demonstrating the power of that earthquake – that you forget to think. Not only is it possible that there’s a better route out there, it’s entirely too easy for a writer to be so limited by their own vision of what the story should be that they fail to account for the way their characters would (or could) act in a given situation. That’s when you get wooden characters with inconsistent personalities, or worse, when your characters make choices for reasons that are paper-thin or virtually non-existent. How many times have you told that girl in the horror movie to just call the police? How many times have you been irritated by characters who make stupid choices because it serves the plot?

Engaging with a text I don’t consider to be well written forces me to think about what I don’t like in a novel (or a movie), and what can go wrong in spite of a writer’s best intentions. In addition, through understanding more keenly what I don’t like, I learn not only to appreciate those things I do like, but also to examine my own stories more critically. It’s so easy to get caught up in what you think is happening, or pay so much attention to the smaller details that you don’t see the bigger picture, just like that poor cannon fodder guy running from a falling building. It always pays to consider other options. To keep thinking. To keep asking why. If you keep running straight ahead, that building is gonna squash you flat. If you don’t weigh up your characters choices and provide adequate motivation for them, even if they ultimately end up making the “wrong” decision, your plot’s gonna be flat too.

Writing Reflections: My Shoes are too Small, My Head is too Big

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On Fitting into a Character’s Shoes

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As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I love best about writing is the fact that it forces you to really empathise with your characters – at least, if you want to write something well. In general, this means stepping outside of yourself and frequently outside of your comfort zone, as the people you’re writing about won’t necessarily be like you, your friends, your family, or, in fact, anybody you know in real life at all.

There is an old writing canard that urges writers to “write what we know,” and to a certain extent that is good advice. In my opinion, however, people are too apt to take it literally. “Oh,” says the scientist. “I’ll write about a scientist who discovers the cure for cancer.” Or, “Oh,” says the blogger. “I’ll give my main character a book review blog…”

Knowing a great deal about a subject, particularly if it is important to the plot, is definitely a good thing, as it can give your novel a sense of grounding that it might not otherwise have. Likewise, it makes it easier for you to write the character with attention to detail and realism: after all, he or she closely resembles yourself in an important way. Have you ever noticed how many protagonists are writers? Quite a few, right? And that’s the problem. In my own writing, at least, I’ve found that writing characters who are too close to home tends to make me sloppy. I stop asking myself about how that specific character would respond to that situation, and the lines between them and me begin to blur a little too much. It is embarrassingly easy to spot those pieces of myself, those autobiographical fragments, wherever they pop up in the text.

In addition, I have to confess to some mostly-joking contemplation in the past as to how crime writers go about writing about crime novels if they have never, actually, (for example) murdered someone; if writers write what they know, then ought we to go around arresting these people for dozens of unsolved crimes? Obviously not. How, then, does one apply “write what you know” in a useful way?

For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that “writing what you know” isn’t actually talking about things like studying, blogging, reading or the like. Rather, it is referring not to the subjects but to the content of what you write. For example, suppose in my current project I have a character whose lover is cheating on her, and she finds out. I have never personally had this experience. However, I do know what it’s like to be betrayed, so, in order to write this situation, I will look to what I know about betrayal to understand how my character is feeling and how she might react. In this way, I can expand my  “knowledge” to situations I technically know nothing about. I can fit into my character’s shoes.

I read somewhere once that the best writing is always a little uncomfortable – both to write, and to read. This can be particularly true if, say, you find yourself forced to step inside the mind and motivations of a murderer, as with crime fiction, or even just someone you completely dislike or disagree with. Then the shoes pinch, the clothes feel uncomfortable, and you worry – what must people think of me for writing this? What kind of person am I for reading this? Or even just, I’m totally not qualified to be writing this, am I? But personally I think that if you’re human, you can write anything, as long as you remember what size shoes you’re wearing (and you have the skill to pull it off, I suppose, but that’s another kettle of fish pair of shoes altogether).

Nobody can really know how something feels to someone else, even if they have experienced the same thing in identical circumstances, because different people feel and react differently. And that applies whether you’re male, female, tall, short, black, white, straight, gay or anything in between. Thus in order to empathise with someone, even on a daily basis, we are required to use our imaginations and draw from our own experience. In a way, writing is just like having a conversation with a friend and trying to see their point of view. Not everyone does it (we’ve all read books where the characters were just too perfect, or obvious author facsimiles), and not everyone does to the same degree, but at the end of the day, I think that’s what makes both reading and writing so worthwhile; they can help challenge you to grow as a person and give you insight into all the different corners of the human psyche. As Elizabeth Knox puts it in The Vintner’s Luck: “I read to learn what people think. Not about each other, but about themselves.”

Writing Reflections: Writing as a Hostage Situation

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On the Trials of an Inner Editor

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I have frequently heard writing referred to as a “socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” In part, I consider this an amusing reference to the fact that (most?) writers live with other people inside their heads – their characters – and make their living by looking at things through someone else’s eyes. But there is also another reason why writing can perhaps be seen as a somewhat schizophrenic profession: the Inner Editor.

I don’t know about anybody else, but I assume there are a lot of you out there like me (“inner editor” brings up over 2,750,000 hits in Google), and I tend to be of two minds regarding my work, whether I’m just doing a daily 1000-word exercise or in the midst of a long project. Some days, I’m absolutely thrilled with what I’ve written. I think it’s brilliant, everything is flowing wonderfully, the characters are vibrant and alive and I begin to feel that maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to get the hang of this writing thing. Maybe I can make a go of it after all.

And then there are those days when all of my previous optimism drains away, leaving me feeling beaten and hopeless. The descriptions I loved previously turn into flowery, clunky prose; the characters become puppets; the plot loses momentum and drags through wallowing, incomprehensible twists and turns. It is somewhat like I imagine the sensation must be for those in fairytales who, upon sitting down to what they think is a feast in an enchanted castle, bite into the food only to discover it is really made of ash. Who am I kidding? I ask myself. I have no idea what I’m doing. Nothing I write is of any merit whatsoever. Why am I wasting my time with such an impossible pursuit?

Speaking from my personal experience, I think the social conception of writers as reclusive, unstable geniuses prone as much to the depths of despair as amazing flights of fancy comes from the fact that a fair number of us are pretty insecure about our work. As many others have said before me, and as I mentioned in last week’s Reflections, writers put a great deal of themselves into their writing. That is not to say that they necessarily make their characters in their own image – rather, they infuse them with their own perceptions and ideas, their own understanding of the way the world works, how people think, what people do and why. It is in many ways a risky profession, at least in an emotional sense.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, there is, I think, for some writers an almost overwhelming tendency to self-censor, to self-criticise, to hate one’s creations almost as much as one loves them. There is often a little voice in your head that nags and nags: this doesn’t work, that sounds stupid, he’s an idiot, she’s completely 2-dimensional, and so on, and so forth. The Inner Editor (which is how many of us typically refer to this nagging voice) can be useful for pointing out those aspects of a novel which need to be improved, and bits you need to work on. Dissatisfaction, after all, is the main impetus for improvement. However, the problem with some IEs is that they don’t know when to shut the hell up and let you write.

It is at this point that, in my mind at least, writing becomes a hostage situation. You pretty much have to sit your Editor down with a metaphorical gun to his/her metaphorical head, and force them to be quiet while you get that first draft done. Only then will you be able to write in peace, without obsessing, as Oscar Wilde joked, over the placement of a comma.

There are various ways you can do this. Some of my favourites include:

  1. Impose a time/word limit. Freewriting exercises, such as writing down your thoughts for a full minute, or writing as much as you can on any subject in five, ten, twenty minutes, can often help distract the Inner Editor. The pressure of “Oh my god there are only x minutes left!” overrides the instinct to polish the prose as you go, and can often lead to unexpected insight. On a larger scale, writing events with wordcounts and deadlines such as NaNoWriMo make it easier (and more fun) to overcome the Inner Nag.
  2. The “I’ll Do it Later” technique. Kind of like the time limit, but requiring more discipline, this essentially involves noting those places you want to rework (I use square brackets around a phrase) and forcing yourself to move on with the story, promising to come back to that part later. Works best for those niggly, “to comma or not to comma” parts rather than character or plot problems. See here.
  3. Proof of competence. You’re bound to have written at least one piece you’re really proud of. Maybe you won a story competition with it when you were a teenager. Maybe someone you respect said it was brilliant. Maybe it’s just a piece that makes you laugh when you read it. Whatever the case may be, have that piece of writing (and any others you particularly like) close by. When you get really stuck, read them through. Nine times out of ten, you’ll end up thinking to yourself: “Hey, that wasn’t too bad. Maybe I’m not such a terrible writer after all.” Which is exactly what you need to get yourself started. The rest will follow. And guess what? It doesn’t matter if today’s 1000 words suck like nothing has ever sucked before, because you know that you can write something good, you have written something good, and you will probably write something good again.
  4. If all else fails, shoot him. Okay, so that’s a little dramatic. Basically, I have this little visualisation I like to do when I really can’t stand my Inner Editor any longer. You know those old arcade-type games where you have to whack a jack-in-a-box on the head each time it pops up? Your IE is that jack-in-a-box. When s/he starts bothering you with ill-timed criticism, picture a huge mallet smacking him/her on the head. If nothing else, it’s guaranteed to make you smile!

So, how about you? What are some of your favourite ways to threaten, bully, coax, cajole, and otherwise con your Inner Editor into letting you write your first draft in peace?

Writing Reflections: There’s a Magical Fountain of Ideas in the Sky

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On Coming Up With Ideas

With SoCNoC looming on the horizon, I’ve been thinking a bit lately about where my creative ideas come from. Actually, I’ve been getting the feeling that I’m starting to harp on the same old theme over and over again, which has caused me to worry that I might one day run out of ideas — a thought which fills me with a flailing panic of a sort usually reserved for serious, life-threatening, trapped-in-a-burning-building kind of danger.

It seems to me there is a common misconception that novels (or the ideas for them, anyway) spring into the world fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. As if there exists kind of magical fountain in the sky, if you will, or a happy land from whence flow sparkling gems of literary wit just waiting for the right person to pluck them and turn them into best-seller gold. I know that’s how I always used to picture it, before I started getting into writing “for serious.” Where do ideas come from? What a silly question. Ideas just happen…don’t they?

Well, yes and no. If there is in fact such a source, I’m afraid I have yet to find it. I have never stumbled across some glittering story, sitting alone and fully formed by the roadside, begging me to take it home. Brilliance (sadly) does not occasionally see fit to rain down on me of its own accord. Of course, I do get moments of insight. Sometimes, I get the shape of a plot before the characters; sometimes the characters come first, and tell me their story. Sometimes I find different concepts that fit together in a kind of monstrous hybrid with strange subplots sprouting everywhere, but which nevertheless works for me. Whichever way it happens, I usually have to be willing to work, to wait, and to deal with the fact that ideas seldom create a perfect plot the first time round. Like most good things, good (by which I mean workable, and hopefully readable) ideas don’t always come easy. Sometimes they don’t come at all: sometimes, you have to go looking for them.

  • What If?

The biggest source of ideas for me is the “What if…?” game. Ever since I started reading (which is before I can remember) I’ve been learning things about the world; about how people’s minds work, about how they interact with each other, in situations and places beyond my own experience. This is the first basic step of speculation that leads to generation. Playing inside other peoples’ heads takes you outside of your own narrow experience. You start to think about things a little differently. You start looking at the way things are – in my case, bored only child in a completely ordinary world – and start asking yourself, What if this was different? What if that didn’t happen? What if this did? What if…?

As necessity is the mother of invention, “What if…?” is the mother of inspiration. This is how stories start.

  • Reading.

Most writers like to stress that you have to read to be a writer, and I agree. As far as ideas go, reading helps you to understand which ideas have been overused, which have not yet been fully exploited, and which appeal to you personally as concepts you would like to play with. Reading also does something else: it provides you with an almost endless source of what-ifs.

It is true that any novel you read is most likely the product of someone else’s what-if-ing about the state of reality. Sometimes this can be a source of envy when you read a book you love to pieces and wish like hell you’d come up with it first. This can be good, in a way — it usually inspires you to attempt something similar, but unless you’re very clever you usually end up (I’ve found) with nothing but an inferior knock-off of the original. But what about when the opposite happens? I recently had the experience of reading a YA novel that I both loved and hated: loved, because the idea was genius; hated, because the execution left me feeling like that genius had been wasted. And there’s another kind of what-if. What if this had been done differently? What if I took the same premise and built different kind of story (hopefully a better one)?

Obviously you have to be careful with this sort of speculation (here thar be plagiarists!), and the impulse to change the ending of a story or to alter small details to better suit your idea of the material or characters is the basic driving force behind most fanfiction. That said, with a hefty dose of originality, dissatisfaction with your current read can lead to some pretty amazing ideas of your own.

  • Dreams.

Naturally, this doesn’t work for everyone. Not everyone has vivid dreams, and not everyone remembers them. Speaking for myself, however, around 60% of the ideas I have written down in my “Potentials” folder have originally come from playing the what-if game with my dreams.

The great part about the subconscious brain is it doesn’t deal with things directly: it uses symbols and images to convey ideas. This seems to me to be an ideal breeding-ground for story themes and fascinating new approaches to subjects you might not otherwise consider. I’ve been keeping a dream diary for going on three years now, and while I can’t always understand my notes afterwards, sometimes just remembering how they felt can provide the raw material to generate a new plot or character. Of course, dreams about candy falling from a giant Easter egg flown by your Aunt Bertha may need to be edited so that they make sense, though…

  • Life!

And, finally, perhaps the best source of inspiration is life. I have a number of news clippings and things saved that have sparked my imagination – unusual, once in a lifetime things like people waking up from 23-year comas to reveal they actually heard everything all along and more mundane, everyday things like valuable old planes being stolen, or whatever. Too, I don’t think people realise how much of a writer’s self goes into their work: their perception, their hopes, their regrets…their own personal what-ifs. Writing for catharsis is probably the reason poetry was born — although, of course, it works best when this is at a distance, and in moderation!

Life is always changing and if you’re paying attention you can find a grain of inspiration in just about anything. Perhaps that spring of everlasting inspiration exists after all…