One of the questions authors are asked most often is how they get their ideas. Unfortunately, there isn't a secret idea speakeasy where you can buy them in bulk (or if there is, no one has ever given me the password). There are, however, some steps you can take to generate new ideas when you're feeling blocked. Here are five ways to find writing inspiration.
Go for a Walk
No seriously, get up right now and go for a walk. We'll wait. Stanford researchers have found that walking really does boost creativity--something that visionaries from Steve Jobs to Thomas Jefferson have long understood. If walking isn't an option, any moderate, repetitive exercise can provide similar benefits.
Freewriting--getting words down on paper without structure or limits--can unlock your creativity in unexpected ways. "The results are sometimes unpredictable, but the most surprising images, characters, memories and stories started to pour out onto the page," recalls writer and indie publishing guru Joel Friedlander of his experience with freewriting. "Where was it coming from? I was mystified, and stunned. Somehow this practice had connected to that deep stream of creativity we all have running, somewhere deep underground, and allowed it to manifest in writing."
It's easy to do: just grab a notebook or a blank word document, set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes, and write steadily until your time is up. Don't worry if it's grammatically correct (now is not the time proofreading!) or even makes sense.
In his excellent book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." Great writing can inspire you to new heights, but don't underestimate the power of reading lousy work, too. You may find yourself so frustrated with the poor quality of the writing that you simply have to go forth and write something better.
"If you're looking for inspiration, the last thing you want to do is check your Twitter feed, your email, or anything else online," cautions consultant Steve Tobak. "That's just a bottomless pit of distraction and instant gratification."
When you want to get some serious work done, turn off the TV, lock your phone in a drawer (in another room, if necessary), and use a browser plug-in such as LeechBlock, Block Site, or StayFocusd to temporarily block your access to sites where you regularly waste time. You'll be amazed at the ideas that emerge once you give yourself a little peace and quiet.
Observe and Record
Yes, I know that the writer sitting alone in a coffee shop, bar, or other public place with a notebook is a bit of a cliché, but try it. Go out and spend twenty or thirty minutes watching people. Observe how they speak, the gestures they make, the clothes they wear. That hipster with the sad eyes and wilting handlebar mustache, the mom talking on her phone about money troubles while her two kids slurp down overpriced milkshakes, the couple who hold hands while both surreptitiously check out other people--they're all walking goldmines of inspiration.
Make up little stories about them and their lives--give them names if you want to--and write down your thoughts and observations in a notebook. Just try not to be too creepy about it, and limit outright staring to a minimum.
What do you do when the creative well runs dry? Share your strategy in the comments!