As authors, writing is both our joy and our business. Carolyn Grady explores what we can do when the idea well dries up and we are left searching for inspiration for our next story.
Your book has been published, the publicity links have been made, and royalties are beginning to arrive as you breathe a sigh of relief.
Then realization hits – you need an idea for your next novel. Maybe because your previous book just flowed so easily, you took it for granted that an idea for your next book would be there when you were ready. But now there is just a blank page instead of a great rough draft.
So many authors seem to be prolific – authors like John Grisham, James Patterson, and Danielle Steel seem to produce new novels almost monthly.
However, most authors have periods of emptiness.
Sometimes an idea for the next novel just doesn’t come easily. A terrifying image of F. Scott Fitzgerald, an author who turned to alcohol, or Ernest Hemingway, whose depression led to suicide, may come to mind. And a horrifying phrase keeps sneaking into your thoughts – “writer’s block.”
There have been hundreds of books and articles published on how to recognize and cure writer’s block, so why read another list of suggestions? Perhaps, because these recommendations may actually work, there may be an idea that no one else had thought of, or because this concise, quick read worked for me.
An idea for your book can sometimes creep into your dreams or a thought evolves from a magazine article or a conversation. A sliver of an idea can grow into a plot while observing the idiosyncratic behavior of an interesting woman seated across from you in a restaurant.
The persona of the UPS driver who just delivered a package can expand into a hero and the emergence of a novel begins to take shape.
But what happens when those concepts just don’t develop?
Perhaps one of the following suggestions will click and the concept for a new story will suddenly flow.
1. Routine can be important
Before John Grisham became a famous author, he had a strict routine that worked for him. He would get up early, shower, and start writing.
His goal was to write at least a page a day, five days a week, before heading to his “real” job as an attorney. Developing and sticking to a routine can work for you too.
2. When inspiration doesn’t come, take a break
Walk around the block, visit a local park to watch the ducks, visit a children’s playground and observe.
Go to Starbucks and bring your laptop. You never know when an idea will hit.
3. Take a bigger break
If possible, taking a vacation can be helpful in clearing out the cobwebs and giving you a fresh perspective on what to write.
Out of your comfort zone, study the people you come in contact with, ask questions, converse, be friendly. Visiting a small town off the beaten path can provide a wealth of characters whose traits you can use when building a cast of players for your story.
4. Read, read, read – not just books
Look through magazines; perhaps an advertisement for a skiing vacation will turn into a novel about a murder on a ski lift. Head to the local library and look at books in your genre, skim through the pages and tables of content.
Sometimes a phrase will spearhead an idea – i.e., the new client, a face in the crowd, or the horrible accident.
5. Write, write, write
Put something on a page, even if it is just a rough draft, an outline, or a summary. Then print and edit it.
Seeing the printed words can give a new perspective that can ignite your creative juices. Create a chart of characters you might like to use in your new book.
6. Keep your hand moving
Instead of sitting at your computer looking at a blank screen, grab a tablet and pen and start writing. A change of habits can refresh your perspective instead of reading a book in the afternoon, jot down ideas.
Take a pad and pen whenever you know you will have to wait — in a doctor’s waiting room, your child’s school parking lot, or the hair salon – be ready to write down your thoughts. Keep a journal of your day, write down random ideas, anything – just put something down on paper
Develop a ritual before starting to write – perhaps a cup of tea, a few light calisthenics, cleaning and organizing your desk, or a moment of meditation might brush away the state of sluggishness.
Think of a topic and start writing down whatever comes to mind. No organization, no order, no sentences, just write. You may be pleasantly surprised that you discover a precious idea in the middle of the chaos.
Good ideas are usually in your head, you just need to flush them out. Think about past experiences in your life. After periods of writing inactivity, you may discover your mind has been quietly developing some interesting concepts.
10. Writing is your job
You need to eliminate social distractions and daily interferences. This can be difficult, especially if you are the parent of young children. Try to find a time to write when interruptions are least likely to disturb you – early in the morning, late at night, or when the house is empty.
Perhaps the biggest cause of writer’s block is expecting perfection every time you write. Maybe your last novel received praise and great reviews and you don’t want to disappoint your readers or maybe this is your first novel and you don’t want to let down the people that encouraged you to write.
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author of the popular Handmaid’s Tale, once said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
Don’t think of your writing as a finished project, simply consider it as an outline or a preliminary version that needs – in addition to loving care – editing, proofing, and necessary revisions.
What do you do when you're searching for ideas for a new book? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Carolyn Grady lives in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, with her husband. Carolyn spent most of her career in the field of education working for a large Phoenix public school district.
Her latest novel, The Girl in Hemingway’s Studio, was given a 5-star review by Readers’ Favorite and was featured in Midwest Book Review’s magazine “Reviewer’s Bookwatch” in their August 2019 issue.