6 Ways to Find Your Best Ideas Before You Start Writing

For writers, ideas are the primal matter. No ideas, no stories. But sometimes trying to figure out how to find your best ideas is like catching butterflies. They flit in; they flit out. If we aren’t paying attention, sometimes we don’t even recognize that they’ve been there. Even when we do stop short in awe of their beauty, we risk damaging them if we get too excited and try to capture them too quickly or too forcefully.

Not all ideas are this fragile, of course. There are different kinds of ideas. There are solid, logical, left-brain ideas. These are the ones we feel in control of. We come up with them. We guide them. We get to decide whether our protagonists take Road A or Road B because we are the ones who have also decided what’s going to be at the end of those roads.

But other ideas—the butterfly ideas—are more ephemeral, spontaneous, right-brain ideas. These are the “inspired” ideas, the ones gifted to us from beyond our own conscious understanding. These are the ideas that happen when our subconscious takes over. The story writes us rather than us writing the story.

Although both types of ideas are crucial to the process of wrangling a story into cohesion and resonance, I’d argue the right-brain ideas are really the true substance. Inspiration, after all, is every writer’s absinthe. But inspiration cannot be forced. Indeed, inspiration can’t even really be caught. When the left brain tries to take over a new idea and tame it, the idea may either die in captivity or fade to a pale version of itself. As Natalie Goldberg laments at one point in Wild Mind:

[The] problem was that I froze the inspiration into an idea before I even began to actually write.

Subconscious ideation can only be observed, appreciated, and recorded carefully. We must each find our own balance for making sure our ideas don’t leave the preserve, while still letting them run wild on the page. But this can be easier said than done, since all creative spontaneity and no conscious control doesn’t lend itself very well to the true craftsmanship of writing.

6 Ways to Find Your Best Ideas—Before You Start Writing Them

In the 20+ years I’ve been writing, I have noted that my best process is never one that hurries ideas. It lets the ideas come to me—as gifts, surprises. And then it waits, patiently, to see if another idea will come and perhaps yet another.

A motto that has served me well is:

One idea does not a story make.

The rationale behind this is that if I try to sit down and write an entire story based on just one idea (or perhaps even a small handful of ideas), I inevitably end up filling in most of the story with left-brain ideas. The stories can be still be pretty good this way, but in my view neither the process nor the product is the same as the stories with a higher ratio of right-brain ideas.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

I feel this holds true whether your preferred process is to discover your story in the outline or to discover it in the first draft. Regardless, it’s about getting our conscious brains, with their know-it-all tendencies, out of the way long enough for us to tap into the zone and see what might be waiting for us in a deeper reservoir of inspiration. Goldberg went on to say:

The initial subject matter might not have anything finally to do with what we really need to say. Just keep your hand moving and let whatever is about to happen unfold. Let writing do writing. Don’t manipulate it with your ideas about what you think should happen.

Obviously, there is a time and a place for doing exactly the opposite. For example, this is not the approach you want to take when troubleshooting your plot. But it’s also true that it’s difficult to truly discover a story when your conscious brain is determined it already knows what it’s going to find.

If you’re like me—with an inordinately loud and bossy conscious brain—then you might benefit from the following six ways to find your best ideas as you cultivate, channel, and honor your deeper inspiration.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

(And if you feel your left brain is the half that most needs the gym, I recommend studying plot theory, particularly story structure, which will help you make better conscious decisions about your story. Also see this post: “Writing as the Art of Thinking Clearly: 6 Steps.”)

1. Treat Ideas Like Butterflies—Just Watch at First

I still believe the best part of the writing process is the daydreaming. That’s how it all started for me, as I imagine it did for many of you, just lazily watching the “movies” in my head—random images, characters, and scenarios that would present themselves to my mind’s eye. It’s the adult(-ish) version of playacting in the backyard. There’s no forcing, no pursuing—just watching and appreciating.

2. Capture With Care—Don’t Touch

When I was young, I would catch butterflies—Monarchs and Yellow Swallowtails. I’d pinch their wings between my fingers for a moment, just to get a better look. But then I noticed the colors of their wings flaking off in my hand and learned that my gentle inspection might just have crippled those delicate butterflies. I let the butterflies alone now.

And in their early iterations, I treat my ideas the same way. I don’t let my conscious brain anywhere near them. In the very beginning, I won’t even scribble down notes. I relate strongly to what Goldberg reported about “freezing” inspiration before it even has a chance to fully emerge from the cocoon and reveal to me its true (and often surprising) potential.

3. Keep Watching—Add More Ideas to Your Collection

The longer I’m able to wait and watch my growing collection of ideas for any particular story, the richer the trove I end up with. Some stories have matured, undisturbed, for years. Those are almost always my favorite ones to write. When I sit down to outline, the plot is usually all but complete. All I have to do is tweak a few things and add a few scenes. Other stories, with far fewer organic ideas to draw from, are still rewarding to write, but they’re almost always a lot more work—and, interestingly, not always as logical.

Of course, you don’t have to wait years for ideas to mature. Indeed, if your best writing process is to use writing itself to ideate, then just letting rip in the first draft, as Goldberg suggests, can afford you a deep, almost meditative brainstorming safari. Regardless your process, your right brain is usually a better judge of a story’s readiness to be written than is your left brain. I often gut-check myself with Margaret Atwood’s pithy notation:

 …you know when you’re not ready; you may be wrong about being ready, but you’re rarely wrong about being not ready.

4. Seek Them Out—Purposefully Dreamzone

Even when you’re trying to get quiet and let your right brain speak to you, nobody says you have to wait for ideas to come to you. Jungle expeditions are always valuable. Discovery writing, as noted above, is one way of doing this. Just… write. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and see what you find.

One of my favorite exercises is one I’ve discussed before. I call it “dreamzoning.” Basically, it’s daydreaming on steroids. Make a date with yourself to sit down, zone out, and intensely focus on imagining your story. You’re not logically creating a plot or solving problems. Rather, you’re visiting that same place in your brain where you go to daydream—where pictures and ideas arise spontaneously. For me, semi-darkness and music is helpful for tapping into that place.

5. Let Your Subconscious Write More of the Story Than Your Conscious

Even if you’re a heavy-duty outliner who plans all the big-picture twists and turns of the plot before writing the first draft, you will still want to approach the actual writing of the story from a place of curiosity and surrender. One of the chief pitfalls of writing with an outline can be the loss of spontaneity and inspiration in the actual writing. Instead of methodically plodding from known plot point to known plot point, seek to access that same “dreamzone” when in the throes of hammering out the words of your story’s first draft. Even if you need to stop and check your map every now and then, focus on the lived experience of dreaming the story onto the page.

6. Brainstorm to Fill in the Gaps—Carefully

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

None of this is to discount the importance of consciousness and logic in crafting your story. Story is both art and craft. At a certain point (probably many points) in the process, you will need to step back from the heady rush of writing from the zone and examine your story logically. Everything from spelling and sentence structure on up to plot structure and character arc will benefit from a conscious organization.

The trick is to do this carefully, to use your knowledge and understanding of story technique to help you fill in blanks and guide the story on its most resonant path—without disturbing your connection to your deeper creativity. We’re unlikely to find all the ideas or guidance we need in the dreamzone. We have to surface for air and orientation every now and then. But we should be seeking a balance between the raw flow and the careful course-correction. To the degree we over-correct, we often end up feeling, as Gail Carson Levine put it, that:

Ideas are ideas, and words on paper are words on paper; they’re not the same thing, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves.

***

The amount of time you need to spend in the wilds will be different for any given story. But returning again and again to this primal inspiration will keep your compass straight and help ensure you’re writing the stories you really want to tell. In relation to all this, I also found the following quote from Goldberg to be resonant and inspiring:

[I realized] I wouldn’t be so afraid to die because I would have been busy dying in each book I wrote, learning to get out of the way and letting my characters live their own lives.

To me, this speaks of tapping that deep, raw creativity and letting the stories write us as much as we write the stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Where do find your best writing ideas? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Usually, I have more of a problem with structure, but this time I’m having problems just enjoying the process and letting the story flow between the plot points. I feel like my creativity is smothered in a heavy quilt. This post is a great reminder to connect with playfulness and joy of story.

  2. I always get ideas for characters first, which makes sense because my stories are very character driven and I struggle with plot. I got an idea for three of the main characters in my current WIP years ago and I’ve tried to force them into a couple of plots since then. But like you said, they needed time and when I let the ideas come instead of forcing them, I got a much better story for them. I do have to at least write notes down when I have ideas because I have a terrible memory, but it’s more like sketching the butterfly than capturing it.

    I find it so interesting to hear different writers’ processes and how we can all be so different. Ann Patchett doesn’t write anything down while in the daydreaming stage because she thinks whatever she doesn’t remember when she sits down to write wasn’t meant to be remembered. But Judy Blume fills notebooks full of all of her thoughts about the story, setting, and characters before starting to draft. I tried that with this book and it’s worked really well so far.

    • “sketching the butterfly”

      I love that!

    • I’m the exact same. No problem coming up with characters (in fact, I love making up story people!) but when it comes to create a plot where they actually have to do stuff, it just feels like all my ideas have abandoned me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I used to follow a principle similar to Patchett’s. But then I started forgetting too much, so it went out the window. :p

  3. I loved this morning’s post. Your podcasts always help me begin my week with an intention for writing and creativity, but this morning’s discussion about capturing ideas and dream walking really hit the mark on so many levels. I have one question: Can you embellish on the concept you broached early in the podcast that “Inspiration, after all, is every writer’s absinthe.” I’m curious to understand what you meant by that. Thank you for sharing your left- and right- brain inspired insights each week with your posts!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Mostly, I was just being flowery. :p What I meant was that inspiration is the most enjoyable part of the process, the intoxicating part, where we get that hit of creativity and excitement. Everything else we do as writers is *because* of that bolt of inspiration.

  4. I actively practice this. I put in my ear buds and put on the song associated with an idea and just play with it. Eventually I get new insights and realize this connects to that. Like growing crystals in a lab.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. Music has always been a huge part of inspiration for me, usually just listening in the car while I drive around on errands or something.

  5. Along the road from my home on the farm to my day job in a small town, inspiration flies at me from nature. More like birds than butterflies. That drive is my dreamzone. I love mulling over the darting flight of inspiration until an idea develops into a premise, pitching a story to me. Starting with that premise I begin writing and watch how it develops. With some or all of the first draft on “paper,” I let my left brain start critiquing. That’s when deeper meanings emerge from the masses of words, plot holes get filled, and character arcs take on smoother shapes. Each part of my mind enjoys having its turn to contribute.

    This is how it worked for my latest short story in progress. Sometimes the process takes a slightly different path.

  6. Daydreaming is my favorite and sometimes with music!

  7. Colleen F Janik says

    I came up with an absolutely brilliant idea last week and I’m always convinced that this is a full story egg just waiting to be cracked open and hatched. I thought, “It’s all right there,” Why do I always think that? After four pages, I’m stuck. Who are these people. Why is he doing that? Who is the bad guy? Is he really a bad guy?
    And I’m starting from scratch, as you say after opening my hands and finding all the pretty colors on my palms, the butterfly on the ground.
    Well, that one didn’t survive.
    I’m getting the candles out now. What sort of music do you listen to? My office floor is covered with dead butterflies.

    • For me, it depends. A very recent idea has roots in rave culture so it is linking itself to The Prodigy’s “Their Law”. Previous butterflies have danced to the Beatles, Ministry, Kool and the Gang, Strauss and Tchaikovsky.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Symphonic metal has always been my go to for inspiration (Nightwish’s Tarja days were my fave for a long time). I really like the instrumental duo Two Steps From Hell as well. And I love classic Celtic stuff, like Alasdair Fraser and Alisa Jones. Oh, and Loreena McKennitt’s fantastic. But I write epic fantasy, so it all fits thematically. 😉

  8. I’ve been a daydreamer since childhood. Characters usually show up in my mind, wanting to do or say something. Sometimes I get ideas from something I’ve seen or overheard, and continue with ‘what if….’ I write ideas in a notebook to keep track of them, even if it’s just a title or a character name. Some ideas seem to pursue me, then I know it’s something I need to write down. Some ideas need time to form, others are ready for the page. I’ve used writing prompts, and the Zen method described by Ray Bradbury.

    I like your analogy to butterflies. Ideas are everywhere if we’re curious. But we can’t rush at them. It’s best to sit quietly, let them come into the garden, and observe them. I also like to just let the writing happen, “from a place of curiosity and surrender.” I love to play with an idea and see where it goes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Some ideas seem to pursue me, then I know it’s something I need to write down.”

      Totally. This is another reason I like to give ideas time to grow–so I can see if they have the “right stuff” to really make it as a full-fledged novel.

  9. This post rings very true with me. I got loads of ideas for stories going through my head but sifting through which ones to write about is another thing.

  10. Beautiful post!

    I get plenty of inspiration from observing the outside world. So much so that my fiction writing often feels like pasting together various things I’ve noticed (albeit not in the same place or time).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think we all do this, sometimes more consciously than others. I used to think I never wrote about real life, but in reading older novels of mine I’ve realized they’re always a hodge-podge of observed life, in one way or another.

  11. Lots of good thoughts here. I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this or not, but I have a different approach whenever I need an idea, or even to think through a problem. I hop on my bike and take a nice long ride without any music. I think a run would work too, and I used to be a big on solving my life problems by mulling them during a long walk. But for me biking works really well. Probably something to do with brain chemistry.
    Disclaimer – this is exercise and it’s important to be in shape for the exercise chosen and if its too intense it may be healthy for you (or not), but your brains going to be all tied up with keeping your heart beating.
    Bless you for the courage to share.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Someone in an article I read once called this “creative lollygagging”–weeding and washing dishes works well too, anything that engages the body while leaving the mind free to dream.

  12. Wow! What a deeply analysis of Idea Development and Testing. Thank you so much K. M. Weiland for guiding us the method of Idea Concept Development and Spontaneity. But we don’t maintain descipline in Cellphone era. I used to keep A Small Pocket Diary and a pen always in my Shirt Pocket. And I immediately noted down my ideas there. And when I go to home at night I used to write it in a Big 365 pages Diary. But after Smartphone, we try to note it down but sometimes your data might be corrupted. I still think manual Diary writing is better. When we get idea and forget to write it down due to lazyness, we killed so many possible good ideas. But some Gurus believe, if you can’t remember your ideas, they are not good ideas. But all professional writers keep a scrapbook or smartphone idea Notes. And test their ideas / concepts. Also thanks for Day Dreaming and other techniques.
    Kurush Deboo Actor

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I used to ascribe to the idea that if I couldn’t remember an idea, it wasn’t worth keeping. But… then Internet brain happened, as you say, and I started losing track of even ideas I knew were good. These days, I take notes. 😉

  13. I often get ideas just before I fall asleep, which is irritating because I have to get up and write them down otherwise they’re gone by morning.
    My WIP at the moment started with two characters, a married couple, whom I thought were going to live happily ever after. Nooo…as they took me along disaster after disaster. The only reason I was able to do that was because of you Ms Weiland- at the forefront of my mind was character arc – so I kept throwing things at them- to see how they re-acted.
    Their re-actions added more characters.
    After the first draft two more character appeared, both antagonists – and the husband became the third antagonist, sort of.
    I very much appreciate your tips and explanation – so thank you very much 🙂

  14. Diane Young says

    I come from the other side of the fence–I’m a freelance magazine writer, probably in a tiny minority of your subscribers, but I’ve read your website for several years and like to include stories in my articles. The only real fiction I remember writing was in the 6th grade when I wrote a story about an average school day, as told by the classroom doorknob. I read my story in front of the class and was surprised when my teacher and the whole class burst out laughing at parts of my story! Well, I batted a thousand and left ’em laughing.
    I get my ideas for articles in high and low places, but I like to include a relatable, very short story, plus a bit of humor because nonfiction can be dry and boring when it only runs on facts. I
    do lots of research, but write in a conversational style to keep readers reading while I share interesting, useful, sometimes fascinating information. I do my share of daydreaming and find helpful ideas for nonfiction in your always excellent offerings. Maybe one day, I’ll venture out on
    that fiction limb again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the ideation I do for non-fiction, like these posts, is totally different from ideation I do for fiction. I treat those ideas more like little soldiers than butterflies. 😉

  15. Grace Dvorachek says

    Love the analogy of the butterflies!

    The count in my Ideas folder has nearly reach one hundred, so my struggle has lately been focused on choosing the right story to write. However, it was only about two or three years ago that I’d run out of inspiration… it was like my mind had gone blank. After taking a break, during which I really contemplated on whether or not I was cut out for writing, an idea finally came to me.

    Writing that story proved to be immensely enjoyable—even more so than usual—and I think it’s at least partly because I stopped taking ideas for granted and realized the importance of handling them with care. It’s almost as though the ideas didn’t come from my own mind… they were simply entrusted to me, and it’s my responsibility to shape them into something worth reading.

  16. A wonderful post. I love the butterfly analogy. Ideas are really like them. Beautiful, fragile and difficult to catch if you don’t want to harm them.
    I have an idea I actually started to write but it’s too soon, I think, after reading this. More daydreaming required.
    I don’t use music to either dream,or write. Either I listen to the music and don’t get on with the task in hand, or I don’t hear the music, and suddenly realise it’s finished.😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haha. Yes, the music has to be the right choice, or it can be more distracting than helpful.

  17. I spend a lot of time staring out the window and scribbling what ifs in a book. What ifs allow me to explore all sorts of things, without getting tied down to any. If I had a dollar for every question mark in my scribbly books, I’d…have a much larger book budget.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love “what iffing.” It’s one of my favorite brainstorming activities. 🙂

  18. For a long time, I was getting really frustrated with writing. I was trying to make it all up at the keyboard and it was just too much. I started dream zoning and writing down rough thoughts as they pop into my head. After several sessions of running it through my head and reviewing the notes, I organize it all into an outline. It has made a big difference and I am a lot less stressed when trying to write. I think before I was trying to do the left and right brain work simultaneously and just overloading. The good news is I finally finished a book, and I’m on to my second. Yeah.

  19. I love this post. My best ideas come when I’m not actively trying to hunt them down. In the shower. Washing up. On a walk. The subconscious knows where it wants to go, and it’s usually right!

  20. Felicia R Johnson says

    I love your posts! Since I write fantasy, the music that has inspired me most is Enya. And I use Tarot cards to envision my characters. I thought maybe I should pull one out and focus on it and see what comes to mind. Also, daydreaming in the shower sure beats staring at the page on my computer Ideas always seem to come to me then.

  21. Ralph from Chicago says

    ‘Where do I find my writing ideas?’ I got my first mystery thriller idea while watching TV; the victim character came from an autograph and the location from a local event. The 3 main characters were originally developed as writing Prompts. (Note that book 1 isn’t written or outlined, just a series of prompt scenes so far. I have a lot of research to do yet and no time budgeted in which to do it. But I also have victims lined up for books 2 & 3.) Some scenes might ruminate as I sleep. Other non-thriller book ideas (biographies, memoirs) pop into my head as I’m thinking of something else and because I’m my family’s historian for this generation (and researched ‘shadowy’ previously unknown ancestors).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Isn’t it great how ideas come from everywhere? Get two or three from different sources, and suddenly you have a complex story to work on.

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