Monday, September 10, 2012

Ugh, What Do I Write About? The Struggle for Ideas

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

ETA: Quick shout out! An interview with me is up over at Creative Juicer about being creative and how to keep that creativity flowing. Come on over and say hi! (now, back to our originally scheduled blog post)

This past weekend I sat down to write my weekly blog posts and found myself staring at my topic list and not feeling it. I have some great topics there, too: working setting into a scene naturally, dealing with "when" statements, setting tone, tightening up your prose. But nothing was clicking with me and I couldn't find the right way to start any of those posts.

To kill time, I hit Twitter, tweeted about my dilemma, and had a lovely conversation with @authorjennelle about the struggle for ideas. Voila, I had a blog post. (Thanks Jennelle!)

Whether you're a new or experienced writer, you're going to struggle at some point over something you're writing. Writing is a creative process and every book is different. Every scene can be different. I've written over a thousand blog posts, half a million words, had ideas on paper, and I still didn't know what to write about today. Pros struggle same as newbies. The reasons might be different, but there are aspects of writing that are the same no matter who you are.

When I get stuck on an idea, it's usually due to one of two things: my idea feels like it's been done to death, or I just flat out don't what to do.

Done to Death Ideas 

I've written about setting before. And when statements. And tone. I've read other great blog posts about all of those topics. It's easy to see why they didn't grab me. Why rehash what's been done already?

(More tips on adding a new twist to an idea) 

I've had novels where I've felt the same way. Ideas for books or just ideas for a scene or plot point that felt familiar. On paper they look great, but they just don't get me excited or motivate me. Even worse, I want to use those ideas, can't think of anything else that works better, but I feel like I'd be writing the "same old same old" and the scene will read like a hundred other scenes. A bad scene I can handle, but predictable and familiar? -shudder-


There really are no new ideas out there. Every book you pick up will have another book, TV show, or movie that did that idea. It's impossible to be unique in fiction these days. While that might sound like a huge downer, it's actually liberating. It gives us the freedom to write the ideas we like and feel excited about, and not worry so much if they've been done before because they probably have. What makes it fresh and original is how we treat it. How we bring that idea to the world.

When you're looking at a not-so-original idea, ask yourself:

What's different about my take on it? If there's nothing different in how you're doing it, then yeah, maybe you have a done-to-death idea and should keep brainstorming. But if there are differences, and those differences take that idea to a new place, then it is a fresh idea.

What do I bring to the idea that hasn't been done before? Making a vampire the ultimate "bad boy" love interest was new when it was first done. Then others tried different paranormal creatures as hunky heroes and heroines. At first it was, "oh cool, werewolves," but now the idea of that supernatural hero is old news. Using a selkie or tengu probably isn't different enough (and one reason why it hits us as not being original enough) to stand out. But what hasn't been done with supernatural heroes (or whatever genre or subgenre you're writing in)? What about that idea hasn't been explored? Maybe look at:
  • Is there anything about this idea that always bothered you?
  • Is there anything that seemed silly or too far-fetched you could rift off of?
  • Is there an accept you always wanted more information or history on?
  • Is there an area that gets you especially excited?
Just because you love a done idea doesn't mean it's dead. It's going to be harder to find something fresh in it, but it can be done if you really dig deep.

Should I do it anyway? As writers, we see a lot of stories. Plots and ideas that my non-writer friends have been surprised over were predictable to me. Just because we think it's old hat doesn't mean it actually is. If that not-so-fresh idea is the perfect idea for you, why not go for it? Even though I know how every sports underdog movie is going to end I watch them anyway because I love that story. If you offer a compelling story with great characters to a reader, they won't care all that much if they've seen it before.

No Clue What to Do Ideas
These are so much harder, and can hit in all kinds of ways. No story idea, no blog ideas, no clue what to name characters or what setting to do. (I won't even get started on the in-progress stuck on what to do aspect) Frustration levels can go through the roof. I spent two hours the other day trying to think up five names for a new book I'm starting. Still not done with them.

(Guest author Myra McEntire did a great post on brainstorming)

What makes no-clue ideas so hard, is that no one can tell you where to begin. I know what works for me, but if you're the type of writer who always starts with characters, a plot jumping off point will get you nowhere. If you build up from a premise, tossing in cool characters might muddle your brain.

  • Research: World building and setting can offer lots of inspiration
  • Image Search: Look for photos of characters and places that spark ideas
  • Names: Search through baby name sites or find names that inspire characters
  • Go Online: Ask questions on social media sites. You never know who might say something that triggers an idea
  • Talk it Out: Ask other writer friends, or talk it over with friends and family
The struggle for ideas hits everyone at some point, no matter what stage of their career they're at. If you're banging your head against the keyboard and feeling like a hopeless newbie, know that somewhere, some bestselling author is doing the same thing.

What do you do when you get stuck for ideas? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Thanks for this post. I've been struggling with an idea that has been done before (Magic school), I made a few changes, but I definitely will be using your questions to clarify the story and try to make it different, but still familiar.

  2. Najela, good luck! It's more challenging with that familiar kind of story, but if that's the story you're passionate about, that passion will shine through. Hope you find your fresh take!

  3. This is so know that you have these moments too!

    I was struggling for a character's last name the other day, and I fell asleep with the news on. In my sleepy fog, I heard a name and thought, "That's it!" I dragged my sleepy self out of bed and wrote it down. This stuff comes when we least expect it :)

  4. Hi Janice:
    I deleted the previous comment as I'm having difficulty because I use (a, self-hosted blog)instead of blogger. Just wanted to let you know I love your posts and
    I follow you faithfully.

  5. Julie, it really does, and we all have our brain dead moments when nothing comes.

    Tracy, thanks so much!

  6. Yep...had hours when I just stared, typed, deleted. For me, I just have to go at it sideways then. Or put it on the shelf and come back later (or wait for the moment in the shower a few days later! HaHa! )

    I like trolling around Pinterest for cool pics/images that are inspiring. I was able to come up with some cool stuff that was visually inspiring to help the other side of the brain that needed to come up with the words.

    Sometimes I just need some music, change to another project for "Just one hour", or do some mindless task like folding laundry or scrubbing the kitchen floor. (I have 5 sons, so I always have one or the other to do.) When my mind wanders, it usually stumbles upon something that gives me the "aha!" I needed.

  7. Amelia, it seems counter-intuitive, but walking away and ignoring it does work. I meet so many folks like you with examples. 5 sons!! How do you get any writing done, lol.

  8. When I'm looking for an idea, I just look to the world around me. Two candles for a 911 ceremony became a story about women soldiers stranded in a ghost town, ready to sabotage the enemy. "Voices in the fog," which was a writing prompt, two photos, and a location because a story about mermaids. An army private ordered to do something that could result in their death was another idea mashed into two anthology themes.

    To avoid the "Done to death" ideas, don't pick the first thing that comes to mind. That's what everyone is doing. Work at it a bit and come up with three or four other options.

    1. Great idea. What around the house would make a good story?

      The "skip the first idea" advice is actually one of the things I like about summarizing our outlining my stories, because I get to throw out those first few ideas long before I start writing.

  9. The best email I ever got one morning was from Seth Godin.

    Of course it's all been done before but it HASN'T been done by YOU!

  10. I start with a 'what if' question that is usually plot-based or setting-based. I write sci-fi so the world is important to me. For me, characters come last. It's funny because my writing is always strongest in plot and world building and weaker in character. Shows how my mind works. I do have to work at getting ideas. They don't come naturally to me. I allocate hours to it, some sat at my desk thinking and researching (one thing I find it helpful is to browse Pinterest for ideas and prompts), but also time spent doing chores or going out for a walk to mull things over.

    1. Same with me (maybe it's a genre thing?) and plotting. I use my first drafts to get to know my characters, and then flesh them out once I see how they act in the story.

      I just started playing with Pinterest, so we'll see how it works on the next novel. :)

  11. i like pinterest i use it to get some writing ideas also i get side tracked lol

    1. Lol easy to do! I use it to create idea boards, and to collect images for my world building.