Friday, 21 June 2013

Running on Empty

Published authors are often asked the infuriating question “Where do you get your ideas from?” I think a much more appropriate question might be “How do you keep the ideas flowing?” Working in a creative industry, it can sometimes feel like you are being constantly asked to come up with new ideas, many of which will never go anywhere. When you’re in the zone, innovating like this can be a totally exhilarating experience. But when the workload is high and deadlines are pressing, coming up with new ideas and new approaches can be exhausting.

So that’s where I am today, out of good ideas and wondering what to blog about! Work is really busy (which is great) but also occupying increasingly large portions of my brain, as I try to juggle five different projects in various stages of completion. I’m also - if I’m being honest - desperate to work on the second draft of my novel (I actually escaped for five minutes and worked on it just now – did you notice?)

Headspace is vital to idea generation, which is probably why focused brainstorming sessions are so effective. Being put in a room without distractions for a couple of hours and forced to innovate can be a remarkably powerful way to unlock the subconscious, building new ideas in a collaborative way. Packaged fiction is often built in this way, with the whole editorial team coming together to hash out the concept, approach and possible market for a new book series.

However, not everyone can work like this – brainstorming favours extroverted people who aren’t scared to speak up, which can be a problem in the slightly introverted, left-brained environment I work in. From an author-led fiction perspective too, I’d also say it’s important not to let other people’s feedback in too early, however hard the process of coming up with your own ideas is. After all, they do need to be your ideas. Yes, sometimes a critique group member will come up with a completely brilliant idea for your book, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to use it. Even experienced editors are by no means infallible, and can suggest changes that are completely out of step with your vision of the work. Like it or not, 90% of the time, the best ideas for your book will be the ones you generate yourself.

What to do, then, when the ideas just aren’t coming? I love using [square brackets] to denote bits of my manuscript I need to come back to, although they’re not as useful if you’re up against a hard deadline. Changing modes is always good – I find long periods of uninterrupted time very difficult, so at the SCBWI retreat I tried to change my approach every hour or so. Much of my best work on the novel during the weekend wasn’t done at my laptop, but walking along a farm track with a notepad and pen. I also take a fifteen minute walk every lunchtime before I start writing – leaving my desk, wandering around Oxford and then returning to our in-house library to work on my fiction. At first, I thought this was a waste of good writing time, but I swear I get more done in the remaining forty-five minutes than I would if I had the full hour.

Idea generation is hard but essential – without new ideas we are no longer writers. Nourish your muse: read good books, watch good films, TV shows and plays. Accept that you won’t always be on top form and plan for how to manage those fallow periods. Of course, if all else fails, you could just write a blog post about how difficult it is to constantly think up new ideas for blog posts!



  1. Funny - I was earlier thinking about the importance of nourishing one's muse ... except where to find the time! Like you, I walk. It's a brilliant way to get into the creative zone ...

  2. Good post...when you walk away from the work, the work usually tags along!