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. What follows is our simple book ideas generator – patented by us, but free to all.

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. Indeed, calling this post a “Book Ideas Generator” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not a generator; it’s an incubator. You don’t find your idea; your grow it.

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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