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Summoning the idea fairy – how to find a great premise for your novel... and see it grow

Mama, where does inspiration come from?

Well child, that’s a good question. Let’s ask Uncle Neil, king of the awesome idea.

For me, inspiration comes from a bunch of places: desperation, deadlines… A lot of times ideas will turn up when you’re doing something else. And, most of all, ideas come from confluence — they come from two things flowing together. They come, essentially, from daydreaming. . . . And I suspect that’s something every human being does. Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea — it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else; we just notice when it happens a little bit more.— Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman quote

What is inspiration? And where do you find it?

We can always look in the dictionary.

Inspiration: /ɪnspɪˈreɪʃ(ə)n/

the drawing in of breath; inhalation

Inspiration means to breathe in. It’s instinctive and unconscious and we need it to live.

Like air, ideas are all around us. We just need to be open to them.

Creative guru Julia Cameron has this to say:

As artists, we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them — to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well.   —  Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
Julia Cameron quote

I cannot recommend The Artist's Way too highly: it’s a gentle, practical guide to freeing your creative spirit. One of Cameron’s key principles is that you should take yourself on artist’s dates at least once a week.

What could an artist’s date be?

  • A walk

  • Watching a sunset/ sunrise

  • A solo visit to a concert

  • A visit to an exhibition

  • Cooking (for pleasure not just sustenance)

  • Drawing/ colouring

Anything that’s just you, alone with your thoughts.

Sounds fun, right? It is, and you may feel guilty about it, but remember it's actually work. Commit to claiming time for yourself. It always seems a good idea to start out with, and you may do one or two, but then chores or commitments will creep in, or someone will ask if they can come with you. It’s all too easy to give up this solo time. Guard it.

We need this time because writing isn’t always sitting at your desk staring at the page or the screen. Writing happens when you give your mind space to open up... when you are quiet, and listen to the ideas your subconscious has been working on while you were busy elsewhere.

So where do the ideas come from?

  • They might be a “What if...?”

  • They might come from research into a topic or era

  • Or come from personal experience or family history

But the truth is, ideas come from anywhere, and they can be as detailed or as tenuous as you like.

What does a good idea look like?

  • It makes your heart quicken

  • You can’t stop thinking about it

  • More and more threads begin to grow from it

... controversially, I would say that your initial idea doesn’t matter that much. It’s what you do next that matters.

And what do you do next?


This is the most joyful and exhilarating point in any project because anything can happen... and I mean anything! The key at this point is to open yourself to all possibilities and not shut any ideas down.

I keep my mind open by looking to my background in improv comedy and playing a little: "Yes... and."

"Yes and...." or "But then...."

Begin by brainstorming as freely as you can. Write down every thought that your idea sparks. Don't worry about logic, or exactly how things might work. Just see what feels exciting and explore every possibility. This is the time to block your ears to that critical, internal voice that says things like "this is stupid", or "that won't work". You're just playing now. Enjoy exploring.

Using the improv prompt "yes and" can take you down one path, where the story spirals upwards in excitement. You can also play with the words: "but then", where you put a variety of obstacles in the path of your characters. Challenge them. Make things harder. Raise the stakes. Again. More. Yup. And again. Keep raising them. Is that high enough?

Most of all, keep pushing. That idea you envisage as the climax of your story... is it enough? Could you push it further? Could that be the mid point, and the story escalates from there?

Great idea, but will it fly?

We've all had a breath-taking, beautiful idea that seems full of potential, but when we sit down to write it, we end up staring at the cursor, blinking accusingly on a blank page. How do you know if the idea you've come up with has the potential to turn into an 80,000-word novel?

Test your idea to see if it feels robust. You'll need to ask yourself some key questions before you launch in. You'll find some of them in this post: Is this a story or is it just a scenario?

Good Luck!

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