How to Turn a Simple Idea Into a Killer Story 2

4 Steps for How to Turn an Idea Into a Story That Rocks

How to Turn a Simple Idea Into a Killer Story PinterestAh, ideas. To a writer, is there any sweeter word? But as we quickly learn whenever we try to trap those ideas on paper, the real magic trick is figuring out how to turn an idea into a story that first works and then rocks.

Bar none, my favorite part of the writing process is the conception stage. That magical moment when an idea comes to me like a surprise gift and fills me up with its effervescent fizz is the high that keeps me toiling at my computer through the difficult stages of the process.

I also enjoy working on ideas. That’s why outlining is my second favorite part of the process. There’s no spit and polish at that point. There’s no finicky prose or narrative techniques to fuss over. There’s just me playing catch with my idea, like a kid bouncing a baseball against the wall of the garage.

But in itself, an idea doth not a story maketh.

The Cult of Ideas

Think of anybody anywhere (who hasn’t completely divorced themselves from their imagination and intuition) and odds are good you’ll discover that person has some kind of a story idea kicking around somewhere. The subtitle on Publishing Perspectives post from a few years back notes:

Some 200 Million Americans say they want to publish a book, but lack of attendance at the [Independent Book Publisher’s Association]’s Publishing University at [Book Expo America] suggests a disregard for the craft of book publishing.

In an earlier article on the New York Times‘ website, Joseph Epstein claimed:

According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them—and that they should write it.

Human beings aren’t lacking for ideas. Writers joke about being routinely assaulted with more ideas than they know what to do with. We’re constantly distracted from the down-in-the-trenches work of our current book by the beautiful promise of new ideas fluttering around like sunshine-y clouds of swallowtail butterflies.

If we take into account the average time it takes me to write a novel (and count only ideas I’m reasonably convinced are “major” enough to turn into full-blown stories), I currently have enough ideas to last me the next 36 years. At that point I’ll be closing in on 70—and will probably have gathered enough new ideas to last me a further 36 years.

That’s awesome.

I can’t imagine a life without ideas. They’re my recreational drug of choice. But as I’m reasonably convinced anyone reading this blog already knows, great ideas don’t metamorphose into great stories all on their own.

G.R.R. Martin went so far as to say:

Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.

Ideas are effortless. Intuitive.

Wrangling those ideas into resonant and cohesive art? Ah, that’s what separates the weekenders from the warriors.

Today, I want to take a look at how you can set up personal systems within your creative discipline to help you:

  • Become receptive to your best ideas.
  • Figure out which ideas are worthy story material.
  • Remember all pertinent bits of random inspiration for future reference.
  • Evolve your ideas into full-blown stories.

1. How to Find Good Story Ideas

Ideas are everywhere. Good ideas? That’s something else again.

Inspiration is a mistress to be courted. Fail to spoil her with extravagant attentions, and she’ll stop waiting for your visits. The longer I am a writer, the more I realize ideas will only come to me if I’m creating a lifestyle that invites them.

Here are four things you can do to beckon the best ideas into your imagination.

1. Be an Information Omnivore

Inspiration is born of information. And its birthplace is in the gaps that call for intuitive leaps.

It can’t be said enough: inhale information. Facts, images, experiences, the stories (true or not) of other people. Don’t discriminate. It’s all grist for the mill.

If you do nothing else as a writer in any given day, then at least wake up in a conscious pursuit of creativity. What can you learn today? What you learn needn’t have anything to do with writing, or even anything to do with the kind of stories you prefer to write. Indeed, focus on broadening your horizons a little more every day.

2. Dreamzone

Sometimes ideas will flutter right on through the window and perch on our shoulders. We don’t need to do anything to claim them; they claim us. But sometimes we must exert a little more effort. I’ve noticed that the older I get and the more I “adult,” the less often I experience spontaneous visits from the muse. I have to make a conscious and deliberate effort to meet inspiration halfway.

From Where You Dream Robert Olen ButlerMy favorite way of doing this is what Robert Olen Butler called “dreamzoning.” To do this, I put myself in an environment that allows me to zone out into that subconscious playground that we often tap most readily in the space between wakefulness and sleep. Basically, I’m diving deep into the ether of daydreams. I watch and I listen as my subconscious parades its treasure house of images and sounds and feelings across my mind.

3. Elope With Someone Else’s Characters

Not literally, of course. If your latest idea is about a chap named Larry Blotter who attends a school called Bogworts, then that’s not really your idea, is it?

That said, art is the gift that keeps on giving. An artist inspires you and you inspire another artist.

The vast majority of my best story ideas originated because I fell in love with someone else’s character. I ran away with that character, made him or her my own, juxtaposed that bit of inspiration with a bit of inspiration from somewhere else, and suddenly something new and wonderful and entirely mine sprang up around it.

Pay attention to the characters and ideas that trigger your excitement, curiosity, and happiness. This goes for your experiences with books and movies, and it goes for songs and paintings, as well as other art forms.

4. Seek Sensory Stimulation

One of the best ways to dive deep inside your mind is to first mildly stimulate your senses. Ground your body so your mind can fly free. Listen to music in the dark. Watch a fire. Take a shower. Even the act of typing helps free our creative brains.

2. How to Go From Idea to Story

A long time ago someone whose name I neglected to record asked me:

How do you go about generating your ideas or forming fragment-ideas together to then have enough of a story (and characters) to start building your structure and plot?

In other words: How do you evolve the caterpillar into a butterfly?

The short answer is you don’t.

You don’t have the ability to force an idea to grow into something bigger. All you can do is create a safe, warm incubation space while you watch to see whether or not that idea has what it takes to grow beyond an amusing little treasure into the real deal.

I’m a dedicated brainstormer. But I never subject my delicate baby ideas to the maelstrom of conscious brainstorming. In the beginning, I do nothing more than hold them, admire them, enjoy them.

And that’s the key.

If you want to see an idea develop, make space for it within your life. If you stuff it way back in some dusty corner of your brain, your subconscious might occasionally bat it back at you. But if you want it to grow, hold it in your mind’s eye. Don’t force it. Don’t dictate what it must or must not do. But watch it.

Deep-dive into the dream zone and just let the idea roll around. See what it has to offer. Sometimes you’ll come to what seems the end of its potential, only to have a new fragment of a new idea glom onto the first one and evolve into something new. If that happens often enough, presto-chango, you’ve got yourself a butterfly.

3. How to Organize On-the-Go Ideas

In another email, Michael Saltar described a familiar experience for writers:

When I’m out and about, ideas strike me, so I keep a running virtual notepad on my iPhone in a Google Doc. Little nuggets that will improve my work in progress, each separated by a row of hyphens.

This method works great, but if I let them pile up, then I’m in big trouble because what results is a monolithic project to fold this huge mass of notes into my work. Worst of all, they’re usually terribly out of sequence.

My hindsight isn’t even 20/20 in this case. My clunky remedy is to take the time now to cut/paste them into my outline (in sequence)….

Have you already done a blog on recording on-the-go inspiration (without sabotaging one’s progress)?

For me, the conception stage on any given story can last years. Remember all those story ideas I mentioned earlier? At least one of them is going to have to wait around for another three decades before I’m able to write it. Imagine how many little ideas and notes I will have accumulated by then!

I used to believe the only idea worth writing was one I could remember. That hubristic notion has since gone smash on the wayside. But a similar belief remains. Like Michael, I know I’m not going to remember every little idea I come up with for any given story (even the one I’m currently working on). This is, however, far more true of logical ideas than it is of visual ideas.

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandThis is one of the reasons I do very little logical plotting on a story before I’m ready to start outlining it. Rather, I focus on collecting mind-pictures. For example, here are some of the snippets I collected prior to writing  my work-in-progress Dreambreaker (sequel to my portal fantasy Dreamlander):

  • Pitch crosses—Brooke tries to kill him with a broom. He and Chris go back to Lael together.
  • New Cherazim? Sophisticated, world-wise, long leather jacket, slick black hair.
  • Cults sacrificing souls in Ori Réon to go to the other side.
  • King-shaped sarcophogi?
  • Allara jumps out a window onto the Garowai’s back.
  • Chris and Allara go through Réon Couteau’s wreckage and find clues on the fallen ceiling murals.

These probably make little sense to others, but for me each immediately triggers the visual that inspired it. During the early ideation stages on a story, I will occasionally make a note about whether I think a scene might end up being the Inciting Event or the Midpoint or something, but I never try to force early ideas to conform to structure.

Imposing a logical structure on a story too soon would likely stunt its natural growth and possibly even kill it. More than that, I know I’m not going to remember any logical decisions I make early on. I only remember the good stuff, the juicy stuff.

That’s all I try to remember. The rest will come later.

4. How to Move From Ideation to Creation

Ideas are gifts. We don’t create them; we just receive them.

What we do create is the story itself. We take the raw ingredients of our ideas, and we put them together into a cohesive storyform—which is nothing if it is not a medium for shared dreamscapes.

Let’s say you’ve dreamzoned your way to a gazillion “visual ideas,” which you’ve collected in a Word doc. Those collective ideas feel rich and weighty with potential. But how do you take these primal offerings of your subconscious and turn them into a story?

This starts with reaching reasonable certainty that your collection of ideas really is ready to be shared. Are they finally ripe? Although there are some things you can do to figure out whether your ideas are ready to be written, for the most part you just have to feel it out. I always go back to Margaret Atwood’s vague but shrewd rule of thumb:

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

If you’re pretty sure you’re not not ready, then it’s time to start putting ideas on paper, slowly tightening them up, figuring them out, and imposing the logic of story and writing techniques upon them to see if they can bear up under and fill out the necessary requirements to become more than just pleasing notions from the playground of your mind.

For me, this is the process of outlining (which I talk about extensively in my book Outlining Your Novel and this follow-up blog series). This is where I apply brainstorming methods to slowly shape my raw clay into an articulated statue with specific features. This is where I begin looking at my story logically and critically. For others, this process can take place during the rough draft. This is much more a process of feeling out an idea in order to see what it might look like in the harsh light of actual narrative scenes and descriptions.

Either approach will get you to the same end. The idea will cease to be an idea. It will become a reality.

It actually makes a ton of sense that G.R.R. Martin uses the word “execution” in contrast to “ideas.” When we start writing about an idea, we execute it. The enchanting caterpillar must die on the page. It will never again offer the same embryonic possibilities as it did when it lived exclusively in the warmth of our minds.

You will no longer see it for what you hope it will be, not even for what it means to you personally. You will see it for what it really is, in both its excesses and its limitations.

The idea will either rot away on the page, or it will re-emerge from the cocoon as something else entirely.

Love your ideas. But don’t fall in love with them. Learn to recognize them, nurture them, and when the time is right discipline them into the maturity of full-blown, excellent stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your personal steps for how to turn an idea into a story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m a novice writer. I started with a theme that exploded into a couple of main characters, the first plot point, mid point and a rough idea how the story would end over the course of an afternoon. The next day I started writing my rough draft with the target of creating a 95k word novel.
    It took six months to imagine and hand write that first draft.
    I read your books and your blog and spent a year turning the first draft into a well-paced novel.
    I read and learnt more about the craft of writing and spent another six months polishing the plot and characters so that my readers can be as captivated by my theme as I am.
    I think the difference between an idea and a story is that an idea has no sensory component nor coherence. An idea might grab someone’s attention, but a story grabs their heart and imagination.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, our imaginations can make perfect sense of a bunch of random and even contradictory ideas. It’s only when we’re forced to put them on paper that they become truly coherent.

      • bill murphy says:

        Basing a story on an incident that occurrd a hundred years ago leads to problems with knowing enough about then to make the story “be alive” for me. Taking the idea into the present day takes something away from the original idea. What way is there to write a story of the past into a present day setting?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          This is kinda the reason I write primarily fantasy. I love history and most of my ideas are historically-inspired. But I’d much rather write the story in a setting that lets me bend the rules however I want. It’s no different when updating the setting to present-day. Some things will have to be sacrificed or changed, but the core of the idea can maintain its integrity.

  2. robert easterbrook says:

    It’s ok if you’re 23 and have 50 odd years of writing ahead of you, but it’s not ok when you’re 60 and you’ve only got a few years in which to achieve your writing goals. You come across as ageist here, and that is annoying.

    I write fast because time is not my friend – I don’t have the luxury of time, to sit around doing nothing but watching things germinate. I’m not rich enough to have no worries; about where my next meal is coming from or whether I will pay the rent on time.

    I am conscious of my limitations. I consciously get involved in an idea when it first presents itself as worthy of my time and energy. I must impose logic on everything I do, from idea to story. And do it in the most time efficient manner. Call me an economic rationalist. Or not.

    I may have 36 ideas today to turn into stories, but I won’t be here in 50 years. I may not even be here in ten years. Life is what I make of it now. I didn’t begin writing until late in life; I’m no longer 23. If I write, I write for today, and as swiftly and perfectly as I can.

    Now that I’ve found the joy of writing, I regret not pursuing it before I was 23. When I was younger (I had thought about writing then), but I chose to focus on other things. I just hope I can accomplish my writing aspirations before I leave this world. Leave something of myself behind; something I’ll be remembered for.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Having something at stake is good. We spend so much of our lives trying to avoid stress–like deadlines. But stress creates stakes, and stakes create meaning. We should all write as if Death is always barking at our heels.

      • What Robert Easterbrock wrote, applies spot-on to me too. I’ve always desired to be a writer, but didn’t feel ready until a few years ago, so no regrets, so far. But there are, thank God, a few illustrious examples of late starters (notably Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”, which the author never saw in print).

        Thanks for your blog, KM, which is a constant prompt to me.

    • A good solution would be to write short stories, you can pack a whole world/characters/ plot and theme in less than five thousand words and they are much faster written than a 60k novel. I am currently writing an anthology and loving it because I can put all those ideas out there in only a couple of years and I am a very slow writer, I writer a short story per month.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I used to write short stories by the dozens. I keep getting more and more long-winded, so writing them again would probably be good practice. :p

    • Maxwell Downham says:

      To Robert Easterbrook:

      Cheer up, Robert. Everything you’ve learned this life goes with you to the next. Next time you’ll hit the ground running. Bone up well while you can.

  3. I definitely have a tendency to kidnap my favorite characters and drag them into my own stories. I currently have someone who started out as Taran of Caer Dalban and someone else who began life as Barda from the `Deltora Quest’ series. By now they’ve become their own people, with different backstories, interests, and mannerisms. Really what I did was grab Taran’s impulsiveness, impatience, and compassion to build a character, and took Barda’s bluntness and strength for another.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, for me it’s often a filling-in-the-blanks process. I’ll start asking questions about a character: “What if they’d done this?” “Or had this backstory?” “Or been put in this position?” And new stuff emerges.

  4. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    I tend to noodle around with distantly related scenes as they come to me.

    In my first novel, it took quite some time to process the scenes, build relationships between them, fill out material between them, and point them all in the same direction.

    In my second novel, which was similarly (un)structured when I first began developing it, I picked it up again after many years of neglect, found it about half done, and organized a spreadsheet with a row for each anticipated chapter, and a column each for 1) what that chapter addressed, 2) what else needed addressing, and 3) backstory that informed the chapter or its scenes without necessarily needing to be included in it.

    I included a column, too, for the chronology, by month earlier on, and by week and day as I approached the story’s peak, which helped me to see when actions were out of order.

    This served as an outline, although kind of after (or in the middle of) the fact, which was a major asset to help me see where the story was coming from, where it was going, what I had accomplished, and what I needed to do. I don’t know that it will be useful at the beginning stages of putting the next story together – it may well be, if I teach myself to use it that way. In any case, it will continue to help me master the story once I have something like a framework established.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Something I’ve learned is that every story is a new adventure. Although our writing process may stay essentially the same from book to book, there are always things that evolve too. Every book requires its own process to some extent.

  5. Thank you! Someone’s finally explained that earliest phase of ordering an idea–and what you call early outlining is merely what I thought of as brainstorming: I can handle this; suddenly all the outlining advice doesn’t sound nearly so vague or intimidating.

    I’ve always wondered how seasoned outliners could jump right in and begin imposing plot points drawn from the ether–and at last I see, you do not. This gives us a method (again, saying structure at this juncture would scare me off) to accomplish that colossal leap from idea to story-with-format.

    As a bonus, thanks for acknowledging that some of us aren’t even inspired by snippets of plot points, but by characters. I put relatable but different characters in conflict and the dialogue produces theme, then I reverse-engineer those conflicting viewpoints to events that may have engendered them.

    That’s how some of us have to find story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, the idea of Roman-numeral outlines gives me the winkies too. Outlining is fun because outlining is free-stylecreativity. It’s a structured form of daydreaming.

  6. Robert Billing says:

    Once again you have given us a brilliantly insightful post.

    OK, I’ll come clean. Have a look at the character of Zoe, played by Wendy Padbury, in Dr Who in the 60s. She was tiny, fun, brilliant and brave. I started wondering what she would have been like if she’d grown up in a less sophisticated society, then gone on to a career in space.

    That’s partly where Jane came from, and she is now the protagonist of two novels.

  7. I liked this post. I work roughly this way, although we are all a little different.

    I didn’t start writing until middle age. I still don’t have a published work. I’m querying a novel now. I may have to self-publish it. I’m working on another book, non-fiction about pets.

    My take, from trying to write for a few years now, poorly most of the time, decently at times, reading lots of advice, and going over my own writing many times to improve it, is that there is tension between formula and ideas. Inasmuch as we stick closely to formula and rules, start with a plan, and stick to it, we are doing something that has been done before. That may be the goal! Maybe I want to write traditional Rom-coms. I can follow rules. But inasmuch as I want to explore ideas and break new ground, I have to muck through my ideas. I need to see what they are, at least.

    We rarely know what we are thinking when we sit down to write, especially at first. It’s the same reason we pay therapists. They have a perspective that is not ours. Writers get something like an outside perspective by putting down cherished ideas and images, going back to them, and frowning. That wasn’t it, at all. We meant something else. We were concerned with something else. It is a discouraging process. It would be easier to write a killer outline, follow it, and get it right the first time. Mechanics learn to make a repeated process easier and faster. But minds and new ideas don’t work like that. We have a maze of filters and misunderstandings to work through, between what we think we think and what we really do think. Finding the truth is like excavation.

    That said, I find no reason not to just write. We don’t get closer to discovering our ideas, and the structure of our work, by inaction. The brand, spanking new writer, just off the assembly line, writes a sentence and thinks, “Whoa! That sentence is awesome. It will look great on the printed page. People will probably quote me.” The more experienced writer thinks, “Whoa! Not great. But these ideas get me closer. I have a lot to look at here. Stuff to build on. Stuff to slice out. It’s a process. I had no idea this aspect of my character was so important. I have work to do.”

    It takes, more than anything, a willingness to rewrite.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “There is tension between formula and ideas.”

      True. This creates problems and confusion and stress sometimes. But tension points are also what create almost all the good stuff in life.

  8. Great post, per usual, Katie. But one step missing for me is the positioning of the idea in a commercial context. I’m dealing with this right now. Do I stick with my current genre (historical fiction) or shift to something with more “potential”? This is what happened with Ken Follett early on. He wanted to write HF but his agent urged him to write a Thriller. The rest is history ;-).

    I’m thinking this—genre/sales potential—is a Step 1B or 2B. Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My priority is always going to be about finding passion projects, rather than specifically angling for a market. There are pros and cons to this, but I sincerely recommend it to all writers.

  9. Curt Wellumson says:

    As a late bloomer, I’m delighted to have writing as my “retirement” filler, and I’m also blessed that my life experience often brings clarity and depth to my work. If I’m fortunate to be known for only one excellent work (think Harper Lee) I”ll be happy.
    A question please: A short story I penned was published in a national magazine. Does the check they sent me take me from writer to author!!
    Thanks KM for your wonderful teachings.

  10. Michael says:

    I think it is important to not get side tracked by every idea. I’ve written a bunch down over the years, but I leave them there. I want to focus on the one or two that I really want to give my time to for now. We only have one life and one chance at every day.
    I can have loads of ideas and always have. Wherever I walk, what every I am seeing, or feeling, even differences in lighting all create atmosphere and speak to me of some unknown scene of someone’s story which I could write. But I believe its important to choose what one I really want to write that will mean something to me when its all done and hopefully mean something to others.
    I think that when you find that story, character that you would enjoy developing that is a good place to start and distinguishing between actual enjoyment of what you are creating as opposed to the enjoyment of creating itself which I believe are two distinct dimensions.
    If you simply enjoy creating you could enjoy starting, and never finishing, a thousand stories. But seeing what you are creating (the ‘vision’ or end result of something) and enjoying the process of getting their and ending well is something else.

  11. I have many ideas but what I often feel is that in at least my ten last short stories always the same themes arise naturally. I’m afraid of being seem as someone always taking another scenic route to arrive at a similar goal. What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have a theory that we all have only one story to tell–and we just go on telling it in different ways. For me, owning this has made it easier for me to recognize the scarlet threads in my work and consciously create new surroundings to explore those threads in different ways.

  12. Ryan Ouellette says:

    For me, when I get an idea, I write it down and add it to my collection of ideas in my notebook. I like to think of it as a little trophy shelf, even though it’s just information among other information in a cluttered notebook. After that, I leave it be and go back to focusing on the current story, but I often think about it when I have some time. Sometimes I get random bits of inspiration that I can tack on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “A trophy to myself.” I like that! Nothing is more fun than flipping through a well-stocked “idea” book.

  13. I love this. I definitely need to take along something to write random thoughts out on, and I use the line of hyphens too. 🙂

    I have to organize them too, or I’m left with an overwhelming mess that is hard to wade through. Sometimes I find the ideas I have actually can’t work well into my story structure like I first imagined, so I will daydream more of the scene, type it out, and then put it into a folder for ideas of future works in case they can be of any help later on. Or, sometimes I’ll have a whole story idea, and put the basic plot down for future use so that I don’t get derailed on the story I’m currently working on.

    Thank you for this post. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve learned to be specific in what I write down (which is why I rely on visual images). If I write down something vague like “Eiffel Tower” because I’m *sure* I’ll remember what it means, I never do. :p

      • OH my goodness, I’d never remember with just Eiffel Tower either. LOL I have to write down the ideas around it, who are in the idea, what the idea is going to grow into, etc. Usually for me, an idea is at least a page long. LOL Often closer to five. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I’ve written down note that are even more vague than that. It’s just like, “Whaa?” :p

  14. I keep a folder on my hard drive that I specifically call “Story Ideas.” Some of them are based on dreams that provide intriguing set ups. Others are based on stories that impacted me, where I say, “I want to write a story that evokes Emotion X the way Story Y evoked it in me.”

    Sometimes in that same folder I might write an analysis of just what element of Story Y managed to get to me, and carry what I learned into another project. I’m currently setting up a “series universe bible” with Scrivener, because after reading the Telzey Amberdon & Trigger Argee anthologies I figured out exactly what elements of their stories excited me: adventures on exotic worlds, suspense, mystery, some glitz & glamour. With rayguns! Because not everything needs to be Grim & Gritty, and the world doesn’t always need to be saved.

    There is something to be said, too, for running away with characters from others’ stories. The seed of my trilogy WIP was in my sci-fi class in college. I was deliberately riffing on the style of a famous fantasy writer, snarkily setting up a plot with the characters as Famous Fantasy Writer would have written them. But when I looked it over after several years, I decided that anyone could be snarky. It would be more satisfying to write in a way that’s true to me. I was right! And I ended up incorporating the setup into a better story.

    I also understand having to wait to tackle a story. Sometimes more life experience is required before delving into certain plots or themes. I once thought I’d write something based on Lord of the Flies: what happens to Ralph and the boys when they’re off the island? What becomes of them, growing up knowing they have blood on their hands? I read LotF in high school and knew I’d need to live more before I was capable of writing that story. But now that I’m older I don’t want to 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I believe the right stories find us at the right time. In line with Margaret Atwood’s advice, we just know when we’re meant to write a story at a particular time.

  15. I was speaking with a friend tonight about how to better organize my ideas. Then I logged on to your post. What timing! Thank you for your practical insights.

  16. Hi,
    Let me start off with a simple thanks for all your hard work. Your posts are very quickly and effectively stripping me of excuses to hide from my writing. Thank you for the challenge you present with each post.

    As for my process, I’d have to say you pretty much nailed it. I’m in the midst of doing a re-write of the first draft of a novel series. The last time I got seriously stuck on a chapter introduction a so I had to let it germinate over a long weekend. When time came to write the intro it fit into the rest of the chapter like a perfect graft! So I appreciate and understand the importance of allowing an idea to unfold and incubate “in the warmth of our minds” and it’s true that nailing it down into something concrete is like wstching your kids grow. As infants we love their possibities. Then they start to talk back and establish their independence and suddenly you have real work on your hands. I’ve learned to love both stages because in each one I’ve learned something completely new about my idea and myself.

    Not sure if this all makes sense but this is the first time I’m commenting. I’m a little slow on the whole technology thing, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it. So you’ll be seeing me again soon! Meantime, please keep up your awesome posts. Thank again,
    MPHO

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Take that, excuses! :p

      And this: “Nailing it down into something concrete is like watching your kids grow. As infants we love their possibilities. Then they start to talk back and establish their independence and suddenly you have real work on your hands.”

      Perfect metaphor!

  17. Michael Saltar says:

    As a follow up, I’d like to add to my quote (in the post above) that I abandoned the practice of collecting random thoughts into a catch-all document. As I said above, the collection grows into an unwieldy mass of confusion. Without consistent maintenance, the method is counterproductive.

    As for what I’m doing now, it all depends on what stage of the writing process I’m in:

    1. If it’s pre-outline, then I’m going to adapt Katie’s brilliant word-picture notes. I like that. These images speak to the emotional core of the story and don’t usually die easily. I still remember specific life-impacting images from a project I started 9 years ago. But the story logic, plotting, analysis, etc.? Not so much. Images win.

    2. If it’s during (or after) the outline process that random improvements pop into my head (on the go), I still use my iPhone and Google Docs, but my working copy of the outline is there. It’s far easier now to add comments (Google Docs has that feature) to existing points in my outline, so everything immediately lands in its proper sequence the moment I record the idea.

    (One fine day, when I work up the nerve to switch to Scrivener, I’ll be looking for a similar net to store ideas on my phone. Does Scrivener have mobile-syncing capabilities?)

    Thanks again, Katie, for another inspire-you-right-smack-dab-where-you’re-at article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was gonna say, before I got to the end of your comment, that Scrivener is great for this sort of thing. You have the opportunity to collate countless files and folders into one document for organization that is both easy and super-complex.

      They currently have an iOS app (and are, I hear, working on one for Android), so you can sync between devices with any new on-the-go info.

  18. Jenny North says:

    Another wonderful post, thank you! And you’re definitely right about keeping oneself open to inspirations. I like to keep a running “idea file” where I can jot down ideas for stories because you never know when or where they pop up. Like the other week I was reading about how statistical analysis can be used to detect patterns of fraud, and I immediately thought how one of my very cynical characters could use a similar argument to justify his distrust. Never would have thought of that!

    I’ve also been making a point to chat more with artists and photographers to get some insight into their creative process since they’re all about capturing a visceral moment which in many ways is the opposite of how I approach writing where I’m looking for a flow and always thinking about what happens next. It’s interesting to get different insights when it comes to the creative process…so much to learn!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s so much I want to learn about so many things. So many things I feel completely or only faintly educated on. And so little time!

  19. I love this post, so much! I’m also playing catch-up with your podcast episodes. I’m getting closer to finishing the first draft of the novel I started in 2012, which was my first-ever NaNoWriMo. I’m so excited! I’m at 41,000 words and counting. For me, I have a variety of ideas in my head, and a few in a notebook. I need to transfer the ideas in my head to said notebook. For now, though, my focus is solely on finishing the first draft of the 2012 novel. Then, hopefully moving on to finishing the first draft of the novel I started for NaNoWriMo 2013!

  20. Kristin Bradley says:

    Aptly put! I’ve found that when I invite the Holy Spirit into my crafting time, all aspects develop more quickly, including idea maturation. While God has given me a gift in writing, and I can write out of my own natural talent, everything is SO much easier when He is involved.

  21. Richard Jones says:

    Did I ever tell you that I think you a very good writer? This was a great, GREAT, article on the internal creative process. I enjoy your blog so much. It’s wonderful that you share so much. Thanks!

  22. Ibrahim Bechir says:

    Ideas are like raw materials that are not useful for construction until after a little processing.

    Add conflict: desire against desire, desire against insurmountable obstacles and desire against internal needs out of control.

    Secondly the conflict should lead to a significant resolution.

    I find the resulting building blocks easier to use in creating story than raw ideas.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      True. It’s like mining diamonds. There’s a lot of work to be done to turn them into something beautiful.

  23. I love the way you pointed out “Ideas are gifts. We don’t create them; we just receive them.”

  24. This may be the most useful writing article I have ever read. I expect to get some good work done tonight.

  25. This blog is amazing! I am trying to become an author when I’m older, but I have a hard time thinking of ideas. This blog helps others like me to come up with ideas and bring them to life.

  26. I have a few Evernote notebooks dedicated to new ideas. When I find myself repeatedly going back to add details to a particular idea I’ll create a new notebook for it so I can throw all the ideas in there. If I’m being goof I divide these notebooks with a line so I can somewhat sort story structure from world building or dialogue. I love going back to these notebooks and seeing the things I’ve saved as inspiration but have forgotten about.

    But most of my ideas are collected overtime on scraps of paper, old notebooks, and post-it notes until the stack beside my desk becomes so large that it’s fallen over twice and I have no choice but to pick them up piece by piece reading and sorting them as I go. I normally have no clue just how much thought I’ve given an idea until I type up these notes. I’ve written what if and consider this questions, character motivations, plot twists, thoughts about world-building, but my favorite story ideas are the ones that come with the climax in tow. Once sorted I add these ideas to their proper Evernote notebook. The notebooks I edit the most are usually ready for outlining as most of the work is there it just needs a little order. I’ve found that once I start scribbling dialogue a story is almost definitely ready for an outline.

  27. I’ve had an idea for a story for about two years now and it’s sort of developed into something, though still needs a lot of tweaking. I like your philosophy of allowing an idea to grow and develop on it’s own without forcing it into an outline too soon. I think that was my problem. I had an idea and tried too quickly to force it into a structure and it just turned into a mess. I’m constantly changing things as I write. At this point, I feel like I just need to write and see where the story takes me, without relying on an outline. My outlines are constantly changing anyway. Your post has definitely inspired me to keep going with it!

  28. I’m currently outlining my fantasy story, so I can get an idea of how the characters react and learn more about them. Though I might have to edit my superhero story.

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  1. […] beginning stages of crafting a novel can be the make or break point. K.M. Weiland has 4 steps for turning an idea into a story that rocks, Janice Hardy lays out 4 signs you might be confusing (rather than intriguing) in your opening […]

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