(Dear Shaunta is a weekly column. If you’d like me to answer your question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I want to write fiction, but I freeze when it comes time to actually start writing. I feel like I don’t have any good ideas. What should I do?
From, lots of frustrated Ninjas
I get it. But also? I think you have it wrong. It isn’t that you don’t have any good ideas. The problem is you have too many, and you haven’t figured out how to tap into them.
It’s kind of like going into a new restaurant and being handed a menu. Only instead of an In-N-Out Burger menu with just a few easy choices (one patty or two?) the menu is a novel and there are hundreds of choices.
If you choose the meatloaf, you might never get to try the fried chicken. You already know you like the spaghetti. What if you order the turkey club and it sucks and you missed out on something you know you love?
There are two dozen side dishes and you only get to pick two? Come on.
Okay, I’ve beat this metaphor into the ground. Just know I get it. Choosing what to write about can be paralyzing. And that can leave you feeling like you actually have no ideas at all.
The first thing I’d like you to know is that you do have ideas. I don’t even have to meet you to know that. If you’re old enough to read this, then you’ve had years of life experience. You are full of ideas. You just need to figure out how to ferret them out.
Here are a few ways to do that.
Combine Parts into a Whole
In his book Choose Yourself, James Altucher calls this Idea Sex. Throw two things together and see what happens.
For my upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe, I combined two ideas that had been brewing in my mind for years.
A) My daughter, Ruby, loved superheroes when she was very young and used to run around with her bathing suit on over her clothes and a baby blanket around her neck. We called her Wonder Roo.
B) I spent my teenage years visiting my dad at a civilian prison at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.
These aren’t an obvious match-up, but they came together into a story I really loved telling.
Notice that A is a character and B is a situation and a setting. When I put them together, they turned into a story.
Get a notebook today and start making lists. Characters. Settings. Situations. Just do a giant brain dump. Once you have your three lists, you can start pulling from them and tossing things together to see what happens.
Plagiarize (a little and only for yourself)
If you find that you just can’t get started, try this. Pull a book from your shelf and type out the first paragraph. For me, this has worked best if I choose a book I haven’t read so that I’m not tempted to follow someone else’s work too closely.
Sometimes it’s just the act of getting your fingers moving that kicks your own idea maker into gear. It’s also easy to get stuck on the idea that your first line has to be perfect.
So steal someone else’s. Just for a little while. Copy a first paragraph and then write from there on our own. This exercise isn’t about stealing ideas. It’s about priming your idea pump so that you actual get over the hump between writing and not writing.
This is actually a trick the main character in the movie Finding Forrester.
When you’ve written your story, go back and change the opening. Don’t forget this part! The kid in the movie didn’t do it and Sean Connery had to save him.
Pick a book off your shelf and type out the first paragraph or two. Maybe 100 words. Then put the book away and go from there on your own.
Use a Tool
I took a class at my last MFA residency with a teacher named Joe McGee. He brought this little box of cards to class — half of the cards are situations. The Storymatic comes with a bunch of ideas for using the cards. Joe had us draw cards and we built a world and a story together in class.
The simplest thing is to just draw one card from each side and put a random character in a random situation — and see what happens. Let it guide you toward a story. I bought my own set of cards and I’ve noticed that they tend to spark my own ideas.
Remember those lists? The characters and situations on the cards bump up against ideas that have already been bubbling away under my surface somewhere.
Ray Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers was to write a short story every week. I think drawing two Storymatic cards a week and writing a short story, or even a piece of flash fiction, around them, would be a great way to flex your idea muscle.
Get your hands on The Storymatic. Choose a character and a situation card and write a short story. Repeat once a week. As new ideas come to you, make sure to keep building up your lists from tip #1.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nationand the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.