How to Never Run Out of Ideas — For Anything


Part of being prolific is having a great many ideas for stories, from among which you can pick and choose what inspires you the most.

Also part of writing quickly, is having plenty of resources at hand for ideas for characters and settings, story beats, personal ticks and characteristics, and much more. Quirky appearances, habits of speech, how a setting feels when you’re right there .

From such details, stories rise.

Only, when you’re in the middle of a white-hot writing session, you can’t linger to dream up a lively setting, or a fascinating character.  At times like this, frequently you will call upon clichés and stock characters, and settings that are already well known to you, and could have been used in previous stories.

One of my favourite novels is The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham. It’s an interesting apocalyptic story where the antagonist never actually showed its face.

I read the novel when I was quite young, still in my midteens. Even then the story was quite old, but what fascinated me was the two protagonists, who were radio journalists. Quite often, they referred to their notebooks, whether they were picking up notes they had written for themselves previously, or were struck with a phrase or an idea that they scrambled to record before it got away.

This is the generally accepted way to use a writer’s notebook.  A good writer’s notebook can provide all the beats, images, phrases and rich details that you need for your writing.

But there is an even better tool out there, that will defeat this personal cliché channeling.

A writer’s sketchbook.

A writer’s sketchbook is different from a writer’s notebook. We are constantly admonished/advised to carry with us a notebook and pen at all times. Or index cards, or whatever your shtick may be.

While I agree with the idea of always having pen and paper to hand — or in my case, my Galaxy 8 cell phone, with a digital stylus that lets me take notes on the fly – such notebooks and notes are for ideas that happen to drop into your mind while you’re busy doing other things.

By the by, it is now possible to buy a notebook and pen that is waterproof, and can be stuck to the wall of your shower stall. Now you no longer have any excuse for not recording any ideas, no matter where you get them.

How a sketchbook differs from notebooks is that rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, you do what artists do with their sketchbook: You park yourself somewhere where the world is around you. Any public place will do.  With pen in hand, you make observations of everything around you. You write out sketches of what you see, instead of drawing them.

Say you are sitting in a coffee shop and find the barista with the dreadlocks and the unicorn tattoo interesting. Using the tightest and best language that you can manage, capture that barista in your sketchbook.

You can do the same with settings, objects, weather, the taste of food, absolutely anything at all that provides an interesting sensation or image or evokes an emotion.

Sitting for just thirty minutes and deliberately sketching what you experience with all your senses will rapidly build for you a file of settings and character ideas, even small pieces of action, and conflict.

What to do with your sketchbook

Managing just a few sketches is not a big issue. It’s when you get notebooks full—and these sketches will rapidly build up—that you need to do something intelligent with them.

The goal of your filing, archiving or indexing is to be able to extract the precise sketch you need from them as quickly as possible.  Because I have electronic notebooks, it is easy for me to tag and to add keywords to snippets, so that when I am searching for inspiration later, I will find them. I have a list of categories for which each snippets or sketch is tagged.  Because my files are electronic, every word in the sketch is also searchable.  Even if I only vaguely remember a sketch, a quick search will find it for me.

If you’re using pen and paper, then you can actually tag with coloured tags from the office supply store, or highlight, or bookmark.

There is a modified bullet journal method, where you number every page, then build an index at the front that is broken up into the different categories. Under each appropriate category, you put the page number of the sketch that fits that category. Eventually, you will have a list of, say, park scenes, or character twitches, which, when you need one, you can swiftly look up all the sketches you’ve made so far, and see if one suits your purposes.

Often, you can dump sketches virtually unchanged into your manuscript.

Other uses for your sketchbook.

Sketchbooks are not only useful for providing beats and characters etc. for your work in progress.

If you browse through and read your sketches on a regular basis, you will quite often find that the stronger images and sensations will suggest story ideas of their own. During such a browsing session, you can expand on those notes, and maybe develop a story idea from them.

Then you can move the story over to your story development process, and see if there is the potential therefore a complete story.

Also, regular browsing through your sketchbooks will remind you of sketches and lodge them in the back of your mind. Then, when you’re writing your manuscript, you may find that the perfect sketch pops into your mind as your writing. You can either use the memory itself and rewrite the sketch/beat, or you can go and find the sketch and copy it into your manuscript. (Although, I would suggest finding the sketch later. Put a marker in the manuscript to remind yourself to go find it, then get on with the story.)

Practically speaking, you can use your notebook as your sketchbook, and vice versa. There is no need to keep separate notebooks going. The resulting notes and sketches will be indistinguishable from each other. However, a sketchbook and sketching, for a writer, is far more intentional than merely capturing ideas as they pop up.

Give it a try, next time you are somewhere away from your usual workplace. Even ten minutes of capturing what is around you will give you some great little snippets and sketches for your next writing session. It could also spawn a lifelong habit that provides rich story inspiration for years to come.

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