Just Keep Writing: Where Ideas Come From

Just Keep Writing is a series of pep talks I am giving to myself during my writing journey in the hopes that they will encourage you, too!

At the beginning of summer break, I had to decide what project I was going to work on over the summer. That meant I needed to look at my idea journal and see what stood out to me.

If you don’t have an idea journal, I highly recommend one, even if it is just a note on your phone. If you’re like me, ideas come rarely. When they do, you need somewhere to write them down.

I used to struggle with coming up with ideas. I would sit down in silence with my journal and try to muster up some kind of idea. Sometimes I would listen to fantasy music to imagine cool scenes. But the problem was that, not only did this make me sleepy, it didn’t often conjure any cool ideas.

While it’s good for me to occasionally sit down and write down ideas I’ve already been thinking about, it doesn’t often work to sit down to brainstorm without any other input.

If you want output, you need input.

From my experience, and from absorbing the knowledge of published authors, ideas come from curiosity, observation, and the writing process.

When I sat down to look over my ideas and decide which one to work on, I realized that my better ideas came from nature, science, and media. They came from reading about scientific discoveries or watching a film or reading a book.

Two of the ideas actually did come from a “brainstorming” session, but they came from things I had already been thinking about. If we’re going to write stories about anything other than another writer having an existential crisis, we need to be taking in as much of our world as we can.

For me, this looks like having hobbies, listening to podcasts like Stuff You Should Know, watching documentaries, and reading great books.

Once you have these inputs, you can explore them. As a fantasy writer, I explore them by adding fantasy elements.

I love kayaking, for instance. So how could I put kayaking into a book? What if canoeing was the only means of transportation for the main characters? I used this idea in my book, Son of Moss and Mountain, by having my characters live in a swamp.

I have also been into survival shows and books since I was young. I love learning about people who overcame physical and mental hardships. As a kid, I read books like Island of the Blue Dolphins or The Diving Bell and was fascinated by the way the characters fought to survive through innovation.

The story from my journal that I latched onto was a similar type of man vs. nature story but in a fantasy setting.

Once I had chosen the idea, I wrote down some ideas about where it could go until I had a rough outline.

But the idea wasn’t firmly developed until I started to write.

I have to come believe that ideas come best when we are using our right brain. For some reason, brainstorming and outlining alone haven’t worked well for me. I overthink and get stuck. I’m thinking about structure, but I’m not immersed into the story.

I had written maybe three sentences when I realized this story was going to be different than I had planned. The planned story was alright. The story it became when I shifted into my right brain was better. Once I did that, I could rework my outline to fit it. But I imagine many more changes are still to come.

I’m sharing this knowing that every writer is different. But it has taken me years to develop any kind of process. The main thing, though, that I had to learn was to not overthink it when choosing ideas. One of the best things I learned from Brandon Sanderson’s podcast, Writing Excuses, is that ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s the author who makes the idea awesome. A good writer can make a bad idea into a work of art; a bad writer could take a great idea and still have a mediocre book.

I chose the idea that I knew I would have the most fun with and that I felt skilled enough to write. It feels great to be writing again, and I can’t wait until the day I can share my writing with you.

How do you come up with ideas? How do you decide which ideas to pursue? I’d love to see your answers in the comments!

3 responses to “Just Keep Writing: Where Ideas Come From”

  1. Hi Emily,
    So wonderful to read your thoughts on writing. I’ve wanted to comment several times before and procrastinated myself right out of it. You may recognize my name. John went to school with my 2 oldest sons, Matthew and Michael. I hope you and John are doing well, we miss you guys down here in Waverly.
    Your newsletters are golden and I’m so very glad you put them out there. I’ve been writing for several years, and I get quite a bit of inspiration from what you write.
    You mentioned curiosity, observation, and the writing process itself. You are right about all 3, but I’ve found the writing process itself to be the most interesting of all. It seems that while I am writing, ideas and phrasing of words seem to come from somewhere that I have no control over. I love that part of writing. So many times, I’ve planned to word something a certain way, and then something completely different comes along during the process and blows me away. It’s not something you can conjure up on impulse and sometimes you think it may never show up again, but when it does, it is such a satisfying element of our craft.
    Thank you again for all that you are doing with “Little Did She Know.” Keep up the good work and please tell John I said hello.
    Best to you both,
    Frank Larkin


    • Thank you so much, Frank! I have met your sons and Sam! I hope you all are doing well. I didn’t know you wrote! That is wonderful. I’m glad this blog has been helpful. Thank you for your observations. I find that to be true for me as well. I will have a certain plan I want to follow, and then it all changes as I begin to write!


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