Where do you get your ideas? 

Probably the question authors get asked more frequently than any other is:  Where do you get your ideas? I love it when kids ask this question, because it's an important question. Everyone needs ideas, not just writers. Whatever job you do, you will do it better if you are a creative thinker. 

I'm going to share with you my current strategy for generating ideas, but I have to warn you, it's a complex, interconnecting system of questions and practices and routines and naps. Naps are important. Never underestimate the creative power of a nap. 

Every writer is different, and there's no one secret formula to thinking up ideas. My system was developed after listening to a lot of authors talk about what works for them, trying those things out for myself, and maybe adapting them a little bit so they work for me.   

I'm going to reveal my system in parts, and we'll start with the first piece of advice I got many years ago, and that is to look around and ask... What if? 

Part 1: What if?

"What if?" is a great question to ask if you're looking for story ideas. What if you could suddenly talk to trees? What if aliens came to Earth, but only shared their knowledge and technology with spiders? What if your tears had magical powers? Try it yourself, it's fun! 

And now for a quiz. Below are some books that answer their own interesting "What if?" questions. Guess the book, and then click it to see if you got it right. 

What if you found a magic coin, but it only granted half your wish? 

What if your grandparents lived on a preserve for magical creatures?

What if you were stranded in the Canadian wilderness, and all you had to survive was a hatchet? 

What if you moved to your uncle's farm and found it inhabited by magical chickens? 

What if you lived in an underground city that was running out of supplies? 

What if you had the ability to read characters out of books and into your world? 

What if you were an orphan, raised by ghosts in a cemetery? 

What if you were one of five kids who won a tour of a reclusive candy maker's factory? 

What if there was an adoption agency for ghosts, so they can find a nice home? 

Part 2: R.O.C.K.

Part two of my idea generating system can be summed up with the acronym R.O.C.K., and the R stands for...you guessed it - 

R = Reading

Click on the book and see where it takes you...

Part 2: R.O.C.K.

O+C = Observation + Curiosity

The "O" in ROCK stands for Observation. You observe by being aware and noticing what's going on around you. Writers are constantly collecting images and sounds and smells and storing them in our memories for future use. We do this because you need a lot more than one idea to write a story. You need a LOT of ideas. In addition to ideas about your premise and plot, you need ideas about characters and settings. Twists and reveals. You need so many ideas. 

It sounds like a lot, but fortunately, ideas are everywhere. You just need to know how to find them. You can be inspired by just about anything. You don't have to wait to see something extraordinary, just change the way you look at the world, or ask a bunch of silly questions. It's fun. Why are clouds only white and gray? What if you had a magic spider who spun silk that could make you invisible? What if trees could walk? Or talk?  

And that's where the "C" comes in - be curious. Use your imagination to turn an everyday sight into something new. 

I made some 4x6 index cards to practice this skill, you can see them here: 

Part 2: R.O.C.K.

K = Keep a Journal

Keep a journal, and try to write in it everyday. And by "journal" I don't mean a diary of everything you did that day, though it can be that if that's what keeps you writing. But really, you can do anything in a journal - you can keep an idea journal, or a joke journal, or a journal of books you've read or things that surprised you. You can keep a journal about sports, you can draw pictures in your journal (in fact, you should draw pictures, it's hard to draw pictures quickly and this is a great way to get into a creative state of mind). 

So that's the end of Part 2 of my idea generating system. Read, Observe, Be Curious, and Keep a Journal. This is a part of my creativity-boosting system. And we all need a creativity system, because creativity is like a muscle - the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. If you have any tricks that work for you, or routines that are a part of your creative life, let me know. 

Background cover art by Adam Rex

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© 2016 by Sheila Grau