Ideas for writing a book

How to get ideas. How to develop them. How to make them better.

We once got a strange email. It was three lines long, from someone telling us he wanted to write a book.

He was sure he was a good writer, which is great . . .

but he hadn’t written anything . . .

and he didn’t have an idea for a story.

Oops. Not a great start, maybe, but on the plus side, he’d thought of a brilliant title. Unfortunately, he didn’t know what his title meant – and could we possibly enlighten him?

Call me a pessimist, but I’d guess that guy still hasn’t written his book – although he probably still thinks of himself as a great writer.

Now, OK, we’re probably not quite that bad, but all of us know what it feels like to feel uninspired and stuck in a rut when ideas just won’t come. And this post is all about solving that problem.

Where do ideas come from? How do you know if they’re any good? And how can you take your existing ideas and make them better?

Big questions, but let’s see what we can do to help. What follows is a simple idea generator method.

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.

How to have ideas: the good news

Consider this. It’s not a question of forming the idea, but of recognising one (or ones) you already have, so let’s do that.

Make lists of:

  • Things you daydream about;
  • Your special interests (medieval churches, IT security, tattoos);
  • Your areas of expertise;
  • Your current passions (things that get you off on a rant or long-winded explanations);
  • Things you loved as a child (amazing how often the child seems to predict the adult, so look back, 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, bubble up. Almost certainly, you’ll find something nagging at you. Something that stays with you after you leave your lists.

That there is your idea.

How to handle ideas for books (what to expect)

The trouble with inspiration is it never arrives fully formed. Writing is messy. Few novels arrive complete. Most have had to be hacked out of rock.

It’s okay, though, if you decide development is easy and fun, and remember ideas take time. You don’t get from nowhere to perfect in one leap. It’s not a generator. It’s an incubator.

You don’t find your idea. You grow it.

We’ll talk a little more about that shortly but first, ask yourself. Is your book idea any good?

Be sure your idea is strong enough to carry you to publication before you start writing.

There are techniques for (a) figuring out if your idea is strong enough and (b) adding sparkle to it if it isn’t, fortunately.

Learn the market

Read the area, niche, genre in which you are going to write. Read widely. Stay current. Know new names, not just old ones.

It’s a massive mistake not to do this, and many new writers don’t. You should, because these are the books your ideal readership is reading.

Start developing

Get a sheet of paper and write down what you know about your future book, or interests you’d like your story to make room for, to explore. That might be very little at first. It might be no more than:

  • Antarctic setting
  • Seismology
  • Secret weapons testing

That has no characters, no plot arc, no meaningful line of development, but it’s a start.

Not just that, but it’s an exciting one. There’s a frisson of interest there already. A stew that might bubble up into something wonderful.

So keep going. Whatever comes to mind.

Jot down words and sentences. Note down anything that comes to mind around plot events, themes, settings, ideas for your protagonist.

Keep listing, see what comes to you.

Try out things. So you might find yourself writing things like this:

  • Ex-SAS man turned seismologist is there.
  • Baggage from the past (a mission gone wrong?).
  • Meets Olga, glamorous Russian geologist.

How do you feel about those? Take a moment to see what your actual reactions are.

Me personally, I think the ex-Special Forces seismologist could be a decent character, but the glamorous Russian Olga feels like a bit of a cliche. I feel I’ve seen her too often before. And the ‘baggage from the past / mission gone wrong’ element feels dangerously on the edge of cliche.

That’s fine. Remember that this whole process is a development exercise. So you can try things out, see how they feel, and discard them as much as you like.

Discarding stuff is good – that shows that you’re pruning the bad stuff and keeping only the good stuff.

So maybe we try again. We might start sketching something like this.

  • Leila – who is ex-Special Forces – is a British seismologist.
  • She loves extreme adventure, including climbing, sky-diving.
  • She’s sampling ice cores to track past earth disturbances.
  • She finds weird, inexplicable traces – too recent.
  • A multinational team – many scientists there.
  • Russian scientist, aloof, unnerving (will turn out a ‘good guy’). …

… And so on.

Maybe we haven’t yet nailed much with this list, but it’s the forward-back process of development that brings rewards, helping you make subsequent connections (e.g. perhaps you decide Leila’s the only woman on that team, perhaps she needs to prove she’s as strong as any of them, etc., etc.).

The only test of whether a list like this works is whether you have a deep-ending tickle of excitement about your jottings. If that fades, you’ve gone wrong somewhere, so find out which element isn’t working, delete, and try again, following your intuition.

Following your own personal excitement and enthusiasm is one huge key to developing your ideas. Looking for that edge, and avoiding cliche, is the other. Do those things right, and you’re on the path to success.

Remember to give yourself time

Give yourself time to muse over your book.

If all this takes a week, it’s taken you too little time. Three months would be good, but if it takes six months, that’s fine, too.

Jack Kerouac, famed for writing his draft for On the Road in twenty-one days, pondered his ideas for years.

My most successful novel (Harry Bingham writing) was two years in development, then written within two months – so development matters.

Real inspiration takes time, care, effort, and thought.

Technique matters, too

Often, new writers can give up on a project by starting in a rush, noticing things aren’t quite working. They don’t quite know how to analyse what isn’t working, though, so give up – probably convinced that they don’t have the talent.

And that’s not just untrue, but a shame.

Writing books takes time and needs patience. It is also tough, and some new writers spend no time learning how to do it.

Get help if you need, sourcing free advice like ours, finding a course like one of ours, or exploring manuscript feedback.

Look up how to borrow a plot, if you’re feeling truly stuck – and if you are, it’s okay.

Keep returning to those things you already love for writing material to beat the block.

Some tips on how to fail

If you rush your idea (buying into words like fast-track and hack, versus care and attention), you’ll fail.

If you don’t know today’s market for fiction (understanding popular books your readership’s enjoying today), you’ll fail.

If you don’t practise or learn your skills, it goes without saying, you’ll fail.

If you expect miracles, and are ready to give up if you don’t find them – well.

That’s the bad news. Or rather, it’s the good news, because it needn’t apply to you.

Take this project of yours seriously. Develop your ideas, build your skills and, 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.

Happy writing!

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.