Write Your Novel Step by Step (Step 2)

Step 2: How to Come Up with Ideas  

Raw creativity is all about coming up with ideas from scratch – in other words, making something from nothing.  But when ideas won’t come, we are suffering from the all-too-familiar “writer’s block.”

Though creative blocks aren’t exclusive to writers, (i.e. a batting slump or derivative music), writers have to be more continuously creative, moment to moment, in a way not many other professions require.

Even more common are the less extreme cases wherein ideas come like molasses.  Sure, you make progress, but the pace of it is so excruciatingly slow!  Worse, the more you try to force it along, the more the pace declines.

If you’ve ever suffered through a creative bottleneck or a complete shut down, fear no more!  Here in Step 2 of How To Write Your Novel we’ll provide you with a whole toolkit of surefire techniques for banishing creative blocks and slowdowns once and for all.

To begin with, there are two causes of writer’s block which, when remedied, open the valve to full creative flow:  One, a mental obstacle to creativity and two, a lack of fresh input.

In the first case it is as if a mechanism in the mind has seized up – not unlike a stuck gear.  Other mental processes may be working just fine, but the place that generates the particular kinds of ideas you need won’t budge.

This is, in fact, the way half of all cases of writer’s block feel while they are occurring: as if something in your mind that used to work has frozen in place, put up a moat, or become impenetrably dark.

The second type of writer’s block feels like a great emptiness, as if the mind is a desert in which nothing can grow – the mental equivalent of a blank piece of paper and you’re fresh out of mental pencils.

In this version of the writer’s block issue, the mind’s machine is running just fine – like a windmill in a favorable breeze.  Problem is, there’s no grain for the mill to grind.

We’re going to explore these one at a time, then bring our conclusions together into a single methodology for putting writer’s block behind you once and for all.

Writer’s Block Type One: The Seized-Up Mind

To understand how to break-up this kind of mental log jam, we first must understand how it happens in the first place.

Creativity is half intellect and half passion.  Each is a separate mechanism and, left to its own devices, functions quite fine.  But our minds mesh the two together, one driving the other, then the other way ’round, all in the hopes of reaching a consensus.  When it works, we spout brilliance.  But when the results of these two parallel processes are in conflict or contradiction, and when repeated attempt to resolve that differential fail, the force of both processes collide like two meshed gears trying to move in opposite directions, and the flow of ideas grinds to a halt.

The solution to this problem, surprisingly, is stupidly simple:  Don’t use both processes together.  Now what could I possibly mean by that?  It’s like this….

Use your passion to generate ideas and your logic to analyze them.  In other words, give yourself a temporary mental lobotomy and let each process work on its own, one at a time, alternating between the two rather than trying to force them to work together simultaneously.

Here’s how it works….

Partially paraphrased from the earlier article,
 “The Creativity Two-Step

When you find yourself stuck at some point in a project, as counter-intuitive as this may sound, shut off your creativity completely – it’s not getting anywhere anyway.  Just put on pause any efforts to come up with solutions and new ideas for a bit.  You’ll come back to that later.  For now, you need to stop beating your head against a wall and clear your mind.

A lot of writers have learned to “just walk away” from their story for a while, but that doesn’t really work.  Usually, the creative block is still there whenever you return to try again.  Sure, the idea behind taking a break is that you’ll think about other things, get new mental patterns going, and come at the problem from a new direction that bypasses the mental obstacle.  Unfortunately, this does not work all that often or all that well.

We’re going to try something else instead.  Once you’ve stopped “working” on the problem creatively, you need to shift from that passionate state into a logical one and immediately approach the problem analytically without missing a beat.  In other words, you’re going to shift gears, rather than shut off the engine.

To do this, try to stop looking at your story as the author and try looking at it as if you were a reader or part of the audience.  This helps you take a more objective view of whatever you’ve written or developed so far and makes it easier to stop being overly passionate about your own work and adopt a more analytical perspective.

Once you are thinking analytically, re-read through your material and scan for holes and inconsistencies, just like an audience would.  If you really were the reader rather than the writer, you’d have no idea about what you intend to do – just what’s actually presented on the page.

Since it is a work in progress, there’s going to be a lot of material missing.  But rather than try to fill it creatively, just describe what isn’t there.  Do this in the form of analytical questions.

For example, if you wrote “A Marshall in an Old West border town struggles with a cutthroat gang that is bleeding the town dry.” and then got stuck, you might come up with a list of questions as follows:

1. How old is the Marshall?

2. How much experience does he have?

3. Is he a good shot?

4. How many men has he killed (if any)

5. How many people are in the gang?

6. Does it have a single leader?

7. Is the gang tight-knit?

8. What are they taking from the town?

9. How long have they been doing this?

Certainly, you could come up with an almost endless list of questions about what you don’t know about the embryonic story concisely described in that one little sentence.  In fact, you might want to try this right now on your own story just to prove to yourself that it isn’t too hard to think of a whole variety of questions that spring from just about anything you might write.

It’s really pretty easy.  After all, it is always a lot easier to criticize than to create, and if you remove yourself passionately from your story you can tear it to pieces just like your readers or audience will.  But you don’t have to be that hard on yourself.  And you don’t even have to creatively try to define what ought to go in a hole.  Just read what you’ve written and ask questions the way you might if you were playing “Twenty Questions.”

Now for step two.  We’re going to move past your creative block by using each question as a branching point for your next step of story development.  To begin, its time to shut down your analytical side and re-start your passionate, creative side.

To do this, take each question, one at a time, and see how many different answers you can devise with absolutely no deference paid to whether your answers are logical or practical.  Don’t allow yourself to even consider how each answer might fit in with what you’ve already written or what you have in mind.  If you were to think about that you’d be trying to use logic at the same time as passion again and you’d grind to a halt once more.

So, just throw caution to the winds, pull out all the stops and write as many different answers to each question as you can.

Here’s an example:

Take the very first question, “How old is the Marshall?”  You might come up with a list of answers similar to this:

1) How old is the Marshall?

a. 28

b. 56

c. 86

d. 17

e. 07

f. 35

While some of these answer may, at first blush, appear ridiculous or unusable, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Fact is, most stories are pedestrian simply because they stick to the common, expected, tried and true elements.  Writers often try to play it safe by toeing the line.  But a story written in that manner has nothing about it that stands out and makes the story special and memorable.  It becomes nothing but another bland, sausage-machine crank-out, with no personality at all.

Having come up with your answers, it is time to alternate back to logic again and ask questions about each one, just like we originally did with the first little snippet we analyzed.  So, turn off the creativity again and put on your objective hat.

For an example, lets take answer “c” – the Marshall is 86 years old.  What questions come immediately and easily to mind about an 86 year old Marshall?

Here’s some examples:

c. The Marshall is 86 years old.

1. How would an 86 year old become a Marshall?

2. Can he still see okay?

3. What physical maladies plague him?

4. Is he married?

5. What kind of gun does he use?

6. Does he have the respect of the town?

Again, there must be a hundred questions you could ask right away about an 86 year old Marshall.

Now, switch off the logic and switch on the creativity again.  For example,

5. What kind of gun does he use?

a) He uses an ancient musket, can barely lift it, but is a crack shot and miraculously hits whatever he aims at.

b) He uses an ancient musket and can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But somehow, his oddball shots ricochet off so many things, he gets the job done anyway, just not as he planned.

c) He used a Gattling gun attached to his walker.

d) He doesn’t use a gun at all. In 63 years with the Texas Rangers, he never needed one and doesn’t need one now.

e) He uses a sawed off shotgun, but needs his deputy to pull the trigger for him as he aims.

f) He uses a whip.

g) He uses a knife, but can’t throw it past 5 feet anymore.

As you’ve no doubt figured out by now, you could go back and forth like this forever, branching wider and wider with each series.  On top of that, you could go back to your questions from the first branch point and follow each one just as far into detail or farther.  For example, question 2, “How much experience does he have” could easily have several interesting answers, each of which could lead to more questions.

The best part of this system is that you spiral into minutia of little details when you keep branching off, you just come up with more and more quality material of the first order with which to flesh out your story.

Also, though we have focused initially on the Marshall, you might have focused on the plot or the theme as well.  And if you develop those areas of your story using the same technique is doesn’t take long before you have more material than you’ll every be able to use in a story.

Branch by branch you develop your story’s world.  When you finally come up for air (or lunch) you’ll find that you’ve completely side stepped your writer’s block simply by employing your logic and your passion in alternating sequence, rather than at the same time.

That may be all well and good, say you, but what if I can’t come up with any ideas at all?  What if I have Writer’s Block Type Two – The Empty Mind?

Well, I hate to leave you hanging, but there’s only so much we can cram into one newsletter, so you’ll just have to wait for the next issue when we will continue with:

Step 2: How to Come Up with Ideas:
Part Two, The Empty Mind

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This step by step approach is based on our best-selling
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