Everything begins with the idea.
Simple as that.
It doesn’t matter if you can craft beautiful dialogue. If your prose makes people accept the existence of God. Or if your metaphors are good like chocolate cake.
That was a simile.
Even if you have all that, it doesn’t matter. Not if the best idea you can come up with is the story of a shoe box trying to jump over a paper clip.
Actually, that’s not bad. Shotgun.
Ideas are key.
Take J.K. Rowling, for example. Was she the greatest writer going when Philosophers Stone appeared on bookshelves?
Hell, no. She loved an adverb.
But she had this idea. A winning idea.
More important… a marketable idea.
There’s never going to be a shoe box land, is there?
It all starts with the idea but… how do you get them?
A few ways…
1. Write what you know
The age-old maxim.
The question I am most often asked (or would be if anyone ever asked me anything) goes like this:
Fan: Mark, your books changed my life and I would recommend everyone visit Amazon and buy Poor Choices now. [Winks, as if at camera]. So, allow me to ask you, how can I write what I know if I’m more boring than Danny Lewis?
Me: Who’s Danny Lewis?
And I say, brushing over that Danny Lewis bit, ‘don’t worry, you’re not alone.’
In fact, many of you are nodding along right now.
I know because I have felt the same and also I have cameras in your bedrooms.
You feel my question asker’s pain. You’ve been there.
Truth is, most of us are boring, but does that mean writing what you know is a bad idea?
Don’t try and change what you write. Try and change what you know.
Increase the scope of your experience.
I was stuck in this very quandary not long ago (not to be confused with the time I was stuck in that quarry). I wanted to put my God-given gift for writing to work on a story about murder and kidnap, but I couldn’t. Where was my frame of reference? How could I make the reader believe in these acts if I had never committed them myself?
I needed to write what I knew. but first, I needed to know what I write-d… uh, wrote? Something.
So I went out there. I found an unwilling victim, and I gained myself a new experience. I opened up a host of new ideas for a fantastic psychological thriller that would feel ever so real.
It’s like Shakespeare said… how can we get inside the hearts and minds of our audience if we’ve never disposed of a body?
I call it… method writing, and while there are inherent risks in pursuing such tactics, they are more than outweighed by the benefits.
For example, I now have all the ideas for my psychological thriller AND, all the time in the world to write it.
Because I’m in jail.
Now that’s what I call a win-win.
Exercise: Go out and get some know for you to write about. Want to write a romance? Go and fall in love. Want to try a thriller? Get a gun and start shooting up shady looking places. Want to write the next Harry Potter? Go to Scotland and push an old man out of a castle.
Then go home, ideas in hand, and begin your bestseller.
2. Engage in active following
So you feel writing what you know is beyond you, even with your criminal record.
Not a problem, there are other ways.
Many writing coaches and other such creatures will talk about “active listening”
This is like what you do with family and friends, but the opposite. Instead of making them think you’re listening while actually thinking about biscuits, you listen, when they think you are not.
Active listening is a great way to pick up on the way people speak to develop your dialogue. But it’s also great for coming up with ideas.
See, people don’t think strangers will listen in on their private conversations. Even in a public space. They expect you to “respect their privacy”. To “not record them”, and to “not use said recording to blackmail them. For weeks. Laughing like a madman down the phone as they send you the latest wad of cash to keep their dirty secrets.”
Hey, people are stupid, that’s why active listening is so great and blackmail is so easy.
But actually, I don’t think it goes far enough.
To really get your ideas flowing, why not try active following?
This is simple as it sounds. You find someone that looks interesting and follow them. Track their every move to discover what’s going on in their lives. Take meticulous notes, and videos, and voice recordings. Do anything the law might consider a gross invasion of privacy IF it wasn’t for research purposes. Which makes it okay. I think.
Course, you might not find someone interesting first time. That’s okay. Find someone new every week. Track them for a few hours. If they seem interesting, start planting bugs in their house. If not, move on to the next one.
Sooner or later you’re going to come upon a winner.
But what, I hear you say, if they realise they’re being followed?
See, if a person thinks they are being followed, they start to freak out. They get afraid. Their heart starts pounding. They start going to desperate measures to avoid their stalker.
At this point, don’t turn away. Turn up the heat with classic stalker tricks. Send them menacing notes (illustrated with badly drawn dead unicorns). Sneak into their house and hide their remotes. Find their eBay profile and give it a poor score.
It’s active following meets method writing.
That’s what I call a jackpot.
Exercise: Get out there this weekend. Find someone interesting and follow them for an hour. See what they get up to, who they meet. Listen to what they say.
Then, go home, sit down and think. If you have an idea for a book, that’s great news.
If you don’t have an idea for a book, but you enjoyed yourself? Well, you’re a pervert, aren’t you? Seek help.
3. Join a writers group
Having been banned from at least three writers groups, I understand their value. Now I want to share with my students how you can use (/ exploit) them to further your career.
But you’re thinking: “Mark, why would I join a writers group? Writing is a solitary art and, if the rest of the writing world is like me, they’ll all be awful humans I wouldn’t want to meet.”
Well, you’re right about one thing, writers are all like you. Awful. And chances are you won’t like a single one of them – I know I don’t.
But that doesn’t mean writer’s groups don’t have value, and one of the main ones is to do with idea generation.
As the old saying goes, many heads are better than one.
Remember that listening you practised in step two? It’s time to bust it out again when your fellow writers start blithering.
At first, this will be boring. No escaping that. At times you will want to fall asleep or hurt someone but persevere. Sooner or later they’ll start talking about their latest ideas, and you’ll take notes.
Now, after every session, you’ll have a whole host of ideas to work from. Most of them will be crap, but after a few sessions, you’re bound to have something to work with. It’s the law of averages.
Exercise: Pretty obvious this one.
Join a writers club and start listening. Pick a great idea and use your herculean writing talents to create your next novel.
And if you get accused of plagiarism? That’s okay.
Remember, if it wasn’t legal, why would they have a word for it?
4. Borrow from the classics
Don’t feel comfortable stealing from your peers?
But also, don’t worry. If you don’t want to steal from the living, why not steal from the dead?
This one’s so commonly used it almost doesn’t feel like cheating any more.
Still, that’s not to say it isn’t worth trying.
It’s easy. Take a look back at one of those famous writers from the past (i.e. Shakespeare, Jane Austin, or God), take a story, and work with that.
Talk about a ready made idea, with guaranteed success attached.
But how can you change an idea enough that you get away with it, but little enough that it doesn’t take any work?
Turns out, it doesn’t take much. Here are a few ideas.
1. Keep the story, but change the characters for animals or some other non-human entity. Examples: Lion King from Hamlet. Lion King 2 from Romeo and Juliet. Gnomeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet)
2. Add some outlandish fantasy/ horror element to an otherwise ‘normal’ story. Examples: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies from Pride and Prejudice. Romeo & Juliet vs the Living Dead from Romeo and Juliet).
3. Modernise an existing story. Examples: Pretty much every story ever told from the resurrection of Christ. Rockin’ Romeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet.
Exercise: Go through a load of old classics, find your favourite and, –
Oh forget it. Just pick Romeo and Juliet like everyone else. Make Romeo a monkey, Juliet a zombie, and set the whole thing in Milton Keynes.
5. Take hallucinogenics
My Headmaster back at Primary School, Mr Estasy used to say: “when in doubt, do drugs.”
This was advice I took to heart, especially after Estasy tragically and unexpectedly passed away of a heart attack brought on by many years of drug abuse.
The thing about the methods above is they all involve work. You have to go outside and interact with people or, even worse, read stupid old books.
Who can be bothered with that?
Besides, are you ever going to be able to get to the best ideas with your mind stuck in reality?
No. Otherwise, it would be called creativity, not reality.
You need to think outside the box. And, when people say ‘think outside the box’ what they mean is: ‘do drugs.’
They’re just being cute.
Okay, you say, but what if you have a bad trip?
J.K. Rowling populates a dark woods full of massive talking spiders.
That terrifying madness is not the result of a sober mind, nor a ‘good trip’. That’s the kind of idea you only get sitting in the corner of your living room rocking backwards and forwards, screaming that the walls are moving and Phil Mitchell off the telly is coming to get you.
Trip good and you’ll come up with some perfectly nice ideas. But for the real dark, twisted, compelling characters like Sauron, Peppa Pig or Teresa May, you’ve got to trip bad.
Exercise: Don’t go out buying drugs. Drug dealers are dangerous. That’s why they’re called drug dealers and not drug cuddlers.
Just make your own.
1. Buy a bag of normal mushrooms from your local supermarket.
2. Get home and open said pack of mushrooms, pouring the contents into an old sock.
3. Bury the sock in the ground (at least three feet down) and pour a vodka and rum mix over the top.
4. Leave for 48 days or until you get bored.
5. Dig up the mushrooms, boil for six minutes in water and just a drop of blood from an Andorran Sheep. (available at all good Andorran Sheep shops)
6. Wrap in a tortilla, dip in salsa, and get chomping.
Let’s get tripping.
I’ll see you there.
Without top ideas, we have nothing. No story, no readers, no movie franchise, and no money.
Without a top idea, the rest of my course will be useless.
So get out there, give the discussed tactics a try.
See what works for you and, if you’re not in prison, I’ll see you at the beginning of April for the next part in our series.
See you then.