Ideas for writing a book: where they come from, how to get em

We once got a strange email from someone saying that he wanted to write a book. He was sure he was a good writer, though he hadn’t actually written anything and didn’t actually have an idea for a story. On the plus side, though, he told us that he had thought of a brilliant title: Ghost Enemy. Unfortunately, he said, he didn’t know what his title meant, and could we possibly enlighten him? (Not that he quite put it like that. His email was three lines long and had no punctuation at all.)

Now, that writer was probably rather extreme in his lack of obvious qualifications for the task ahead, but we’ve all been in similar places ourselves. Getting ideas – where the heck do they come from? And how do you know if they’re any good?

Humph. Big questions, but let’s see what we can do to help.

You probably already have your idea.
Almost certainly, you have the worm of an idea squirming away somewhere. It’s not a question of forming the idea, but of recognising the one you already have. So do this. Make lists of:

  • things you daydream about
  • your special interests (medieval churches, IT security, tattoos)
  • your areas of expertise (that might be something cool, like internet bank fraud, but it may well not be. Maybe you’re just an expert on swimming lessons for toddlers, social hierarchies at the school gate and how to get baby poo off a new dress. That’s still an expertise.)
  • your current passions – things that get you off on a rant or long-winded explanation
  • things you loved as a child – it’s amazing how often the child seems to predict the adult. Look back and see what you loved in the past.
  • books you loved as a child
  • books you love now.

Write actual lists of these things. Not in one single half hour session, but bit by bit, over time. Let things stew and bubble up. Almost certainly, you’ll find something nagging at you. Something that stays with you after you leave your lists. That right there is your idea.

Don’t expect miracles
Trouble with ideas is that they seldom come fully formed. (My first novel was an exception – that did arrive pretty complete. All the rest have had to be hacked out of the rock.) But that’s fine. Development is easy and fun. The first thing to know, then, is that ideas take time. You don’t get from nowhere to perfect in one leap

Know the market
For heaven’s sake, don’t try to develop your idea without knowing damn well the relevant bit of the market for fiction. That means you need to read the area you are going to write it. Read widely. Stay current. Know the new names, not just the old ones. It’s a massive mistake not to do this – and most new writers don’t.

Start developing
Get a sheet of paper and write down what you do know about your future book. That might be very little. It might be no more than this:

  • Antarctic setting
  • Scientific team
  • Weird earth tremors, totally unexplained by science
  • Some ultra-secret weapons testing

That’s not a story. It has no characters, no plot arc, no meaningful line of development. but who cares? It’s a start. So just stay with it. See what comes to you. Try out new things. Add new elements:

  • ex-SAS man turned seismologist is out there.
  • Has baggage from the past (a mission gone wrong?)
  • meets Olga, glamorous Russian geologist

Do these new ideas work for you? How do they feel as you mull them over? I jolly well hope you think they’re crap. The bits we’ve just added feel forced, cliched, bland, generic. So let’s try again. Scratch that last bit and instead add:

  • Leila is a seismologist & triathlete (British)
  • loves extreme adventure
  • sampling ice cores to track past earth disturbances
  • finds weird, inexplicable traces – far too recent
  • multinational team. Hunky Russian and American scientists are there.
  • The Russian seems spooky somehow (but will be the good guy)

Better? I hope so. Maybe we haven’t yet nailed it, but it’s that forward-back process of development that brings the rewards. The only test of whether something works is whether you have a deepending tickle of excitement about it. If that tickle fades, you’ve gone wrong somewhere. Find out which element isn’t working, delete it, and try again.

Remember to give yourself time!
If all this takes a week, it’s taken you far too little time. Three months would be decent going. If it takes six months, that’s fine too. My most successful novel took two years in development, then was mosty written within two months. Development matters!

Technique matters too
By far the commonest reason why good, passionate amateur writers give up on a project is that they don’t have the technical skills needed to complete it. They start out in a rush, then notice that things aren’t quite working, don’t quite know how to analyse what isn’t working, then give up – probably convinced that they don’t have the talent.

And that’s rubbish. It’s a completely untrue conclusion to draw. Writing books is tough, and you have spent no time learning how to do it. So get the help you need. A course is probably the best way for total beginners (our online writing courses are absolutely excellent. Or, if you really want hand-holding, then our super-deluxe complete novel course is a possibility.)

Some tips on how to fail. (And some on how to succeed).
And finally – please, please, please don’t read this post and think it doesn’t apply to you. It does. And that means all of it. If you cherry-pick the bits of advice you like and reject the ones you don’t, you will probably fail.

If you rush your idea – you’ll fail.

If you don’t know today’s market for fiction – you’ll fail.

If you don’t have the requisite technical skills – you’ll fail.

If you expect miracles and are ready to give up if you don’t find them – well, guess what, you’ll fail. What’s more, you don’t deserve otherwise.

That’s the bad news. Or rather, it’s the good news: good news, because it doesn’t apply to you. You’re going to take this post seriously. You’re going to do as it says, develop your idea properly, build your skills, know the market – and then, with luck and a following wind, you’ll succeed more than you ever believed possible. We hope that happens for you, and if we can help, we’d love to. Good luck.

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49 Responses to Ideas for writing a book: where they come from, how to get em

  1. Pingback: How To Get Ideas for Writing Your Book | Articles Carrier

  2. una coates says:

    what about love stories or friendships or ex lovers

    • Harry says:

      Sure thing, but there are two things you need to be careful about. First, as a legal matter, you’re looking for trouble if you start talking about real people. Secondly, as an artistic matter, you risk getting too stuck in the real life story with the result that your novel never has the freedom that it needs. On the whole, I’d recommend avoiding a real life love story in which you are one of the participants.

  3. katy says:

    Dear Sir/Madam

    i am writing a book I’m only on the first chapter and I’ve quite good so far. It’s a murder mystery this lady while walking her dogs find a body reports it to police and police discover its might be the lady’s daughter, I am having one big problem I cant come up with a good title.

    miss wainwright

  4. Sara says:

    I am giving a newsletter a new lease of life and want to really inspire the target audience [project managers] to read it and send in inspiring articles for others to read.. I am struggling to come up with a fun and captivating name for the bulletin, something that will get their attention.

    Sara Chines

  5. Abigail Page says:

    I have this great idea for a book, but I still don’t know if it’s the right one. Every time I start to write, I end up crumbling the pages up. I know i want to write this book. So what do I do?

  6. Forgham20 says:

    There is an excellent site called Ideas4Writers co.uk. You could do worse than subscribe to it for life, a great investment as you can download books for future reference.
    and there is an excellent subject index as well. Also, build up a hard copy folder as well and set aside an electronic one on your computer, using the notebook or pad
    provided, even Word if you prefer so you can transfer your handwritten ideas noted – if your handwriting is anything like mine,you
    will be glad you did it.

  7. Karyn Lee says:

    Hi,
    I’m currently writing a blog about our rescue dog Louis, there are almost 800 people reading it, 10 are in the USA, 2 in Russia, 1 in Belgium and 1 in Germany. I’ve had many people say I should write a book, but I’m not sure. I find it really easy to write his Blog, and I would love it to be published but I don’t if it’s good enough.
    Any feedback would be great if possible.
    Thanks

  8. Chris L says:

    thankyou, having just read this post, i realise what i’ve been doing wrong.But maybe i can correct it before coming to york. see you there harry thanks again

  9. Jacob says:

    I used to have a large flow of stories that popped into my head everyday and I would write everyday some where good sellers about a hand full and the rest other 100′d i wou0dl just post on a fanfiction website or something like that. Now since this year started 2012 I have drawn a huge blank. I can’t even write a full sentence. I think my brain has been washed up.

  10. Andy P says:

    Your line “By far the commonest reason”. Surely “By far the most common reason” is a better use of English?

    Maybe a bit over critical, but you’re the writer.

  11. Nanditha says:

    Thank you for this article! I’m a thirteen year old girl who loves to read, as well as write. I read everything, books from Paulo Coelho, Jodi Picoult, and Khaled Hosseini to the fantasies like Lord of the Rings, Eragon, and Artemis Fowl. I just finished writing a fan-fiction for Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series and long to write an idea of my own. I’ve been stuck though, and pretty much guessed that if I was taking so long just to develop an interesting idea, that then I must lack any sort of imagination. Thanks for giving me hope by saying that it’s normal for ideas to form over long periods of time, sometimes up to two years, even though my initial reaction to the number was a groan typical of a lazy kid. :D I have a question though- do ideas come naturally or do authors have to work their brains and creativity for a good plot? Thanks again, the advice here seems very promising!

    • Harry says:

      Hi Nanditha – nice comment! I’d say that the answer to your question is usually a bit of both. You can’t force things too much – but at the same time, if you don’t consciously spend time thinking about the ideas you have, they’re unlikely to come to proper fruition. So it’s a combination of (in my case) hard graft and taking the dogs for long walks. Needless to say, I prefer the second part of that regime!

  12. Victoria Renwick says:

    Hi Harry. Wonderful advice in this section. I have a query though – is it possible to put too much new information/learning into a book for a reader? I have started developing a fantasy adventure aimed at ages 11+ but if you look at the likes of Harry Potter and the amount of learning involved in those book (creatures, spells, objects, enemies, languages etc) is it possible to put too much new information / fantasy detail into a book? Or worse – not enough? I’m nervous about finding a suitable balance between exciting/valuable and plain old information-overload. Thanks in advance for any assistance.

    • Harry says:

      Yes, there is a balance – and it’s possible to put in too much or too little. It’s hard to give a clear rule of thumb in answering the question – basically, you need to do the best you can yourself then, when it’s time, get some decent feedback on your writing from someone who understands the YA fantasy market. (A service that we can offer, needless to say …!) Sorry not to be more helpful, but it really does come down to a matter of judgement on the specific story you’re writing.

  13. Katrin Plain says:

    Hia

    I am having trouble with a story idea. I don’t have any ideas. Sometimes my mind goes blank and that’s when I have no ideas. Please reply and give me an idea because I’m only 10 and I love writing stories.

    Katrin xxx
    Ps. Please reply and give me an idea.

    • Harry says:

      Katrin – you do need to come up with your own ideas. That’s sort of the point! But what are your favourite things? Or your worst day at school? Try writing about those. Good luck

  14. Karl says:

    I am having trouble coming up with ideas for my second book, i am 12 and my first book was called predator in the snow, I have run out of ideas please help me .

    -Karl

  15. Minahil says:

    Thank you!
    I think my problem is that I start a story, get writers block about a quarter of the way through and then start a new one (note that the previous one is then forgotten and will probably end up sitting inside my drawer for years to come).
    I’ve joined a website called Wattpad and I think that’s helped a bit because people are relying on me to finish my story.
    Another problem is that when I struggle to come up with chapters or even sentences sometimes I tend to copy other authors without realising it. Do you have anything that could help me with that?

  16. Kiaira says:

    Hello,
    I’ve been writing ever since I can remember from short stories to novels but my problem is im having a hard time following through I have about 4 stories unfinished and every time I go back to them, I find myself stuck and not knowing how to continue the story. What would be your advice on how to finish my books?

    • Harry says:

      It’s almost always a technical issue (often to do with plotting, or points of view) that impedes your progress. Basically, you find things collapsing at the point where more confidence in how to manage your plot would get you through the difficulties.

      Your best bet is to go on a good course – any one of ours, for example – and get the skills you need to complete the story you’ve started.

  17. Hope says:

    Hi!
    I was born a writer by blood. My mother was a great writer and it goes on from there but I don’t really have the patience or time to say how far. Anyways, I really want to write a book, and I always have millions of ideas but I can’t seem to pick a dreaded idea and go on from the there, so really what I am asking is if you can help me find a way to make my idea choosing at least a bit simpler.

    Thank you,
    Hope

    • Harry says:

      Hi Hope, most people who start books and can’t finish them have a problem with the technical aspects of writing: turning that initial idea into a full blown plot, peopled with characters, with points of view all well-managed etc.

      In other words, the ideas are OK, but they seem to run out of steam because you don’t yet have enough technique to develop them fully. By far the best bet is to take one of our novel writing courses – you’ll be able to go from idea all the way through to final draft. Best of luck!

  18. Claire says:

    Hello Harry,

    Your article was an interesting read.

    I have been writing since I was a child and have always been surrounded by books.
    I have not, to date, written a full length novel but it has always been a niggle in the back of my head to do so. General life, children, general life, children (you get the picture) etc…made it easy to keep the desire on a safe back burner.
    Now I have stumbled across an idea; it came out of the blue and was prompted by some family news.
    I have the underlying psychological concept of the story. I know the style and format in which I would like to write it. I’m not worried about the technical process of arranging a story.
    What I am struggling with is this – do I take the fundamental elements of the real story and apply to a separate fictional story or do I just write the actual story ?
    I would prefer the former.
    So, I’m struggling to come up with a story framework, when I already have the psychological background. I don’t want to force a scenario out of nowhere, but not sure where to start.

    Claire

  19. ajay says:

    how to know the market for this?
    please reply

    • Harry says:

      You know the market by going into a bookshop and seeing what’s selling. That, and reading lots and lots of current fiction.

  20. Danielle says:

    Hey I am ten and I have been writing and reading ever since I can remember. I have a vague idea of what kinda book i wanna write but I can’t seem to make much sence of it. I mean I always seem to be adding ideas from other books. I want my book to be about murder. But not like someone found a dead body. More like a nuclear war has started and America has taken over. They make the people compete for their lives in some sort of battle. Please help what could they make them compete in ?

    Danielle

  21. callum says:

    Hey I’m 14 and still in school, I have always had a passion for writing as well as enjoying and being talented at it; consequently I get really good grades the only problem is writing long stories…
    I never like short stories and always want to write a long novel that keeps the reader hooked and develop a close bond with the characters but I always seem to hit writers block.
    I like novels like “Eragon” and “The deed of Paksenarrion” exciting fantasy novels about castles, soldiers and the medieval age, and would write things like this, (maybe even modern warefare) but I can never continue after chapter 2 (700 words) or so; HELP please.

  22. Freelancer says:

    Interesting article.

    How to write short stories.

    How to write biography?

  23. Ojas says:

    Sir/Madam,
    I wish to write a novel related to fantasy.But,the thing is,I have never ever written before, and I am interested in starting a long story directly rather than writing short stories.I have even thought of an idea,but I have developed only half of it.And I have not even thought of a proper beginning.Now this time consuming process of thinking is reducing my confidence and has really frustrated me.Please Help.

    • Harry says:

      You probably need a beginners writing course. Try our Creative Writing Flying Start or our How To Write A Novel course. The full menu is available here.

    • callum says:

      I don’t know what others think, but I like writing long stories but never seem to be able to finish them. But I wrote loads and finally came up with a good sketch of a background and am still writing it…
      Sometimes it’s best to see where the book takes itself write what comes into your head and then improve. If you write something your bound to think; oh but if that happened this could be a dark secret in the storey or something

  24. Tony says:

    I start with core idea and an appreciation of how my characters would react to various situations and then I write. I love the way that whilst writing some situations just evolve. I know it sounds corny but sometimes I finish a chapter surprised at the way the story went. I thought it would go one way but, once in the zone, the characters reacted differently . It did not make sense fro them to react in the way I originally thought they would. I am not advocating just free form writing. I writing the chapters out before I start. A paragraph per chapter is my rule. If i can not make enough chapters up, then I have not got a strong enough story.

    The key is to write. It is easy to browse a site like this when you are dreaming of being a writer rather than actually writing. Please do not get me wrong. I love the website but sometimes I use it as an excuse not to write. If i find myself on this site, I actually tell myself to write at least one page and then reward myself with the web afterwards (did exactly that this morning, 4 pages and now I’m resting with a read of the site. )

  25. ========= says:

    I have to write a book of 200 pages wth 20 chapters (as a skul assignment).
    Frictions my theme but i dono how 2 get started… could you help mi out?

  26. Elsie says:

    your advice a brilliant

  27. princess14 says:

    i have written over 10 books they all start off great but i just dont know how to end them

  28. Rhianna says:

    Hey,
    Is there an ideal amount of main characters in a book you should have? Two or three maybe? Also I always find it difficult to develop my characters and I feel I do not know them so how on earth will the readers know them? Is there anything I can do to get to know the characters that I create? I’m not sure my questions make sense so apologies, basically how do I successfully portray my characters to the target audience?
    Thanks :)

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