7.12.2018

Trolling for Ideas

One of the most fertile sources of ideas is, not surprisingly, other books. That’s because the acuity of a good writer often reminds you of thoughts you yourself have had before. I should pause to clarify terms. I am a staunch enemy of plagiarism, as is anyone engaged in the book industry and knows how hard writers struggle. The mining of ideas I am suggesting operates at a plane once removed.

Rather than copying the written words, you can jot down the concept that struck you. For example, let’s say you’re reading about a young man who, being awkward at parties himself, becomes jealous of his girlfriend for spending too much time enjoying the company of another man at a party. You realize that for your book, such an incident would be perfect for demonstrating the character’s overall decline into paranoia. What’s more, you are struck by how well the author captures not only the initial poisonous simmering at the party, but how the character thinks about it afterward. At a conceptual level, you see the technique employed, and that becomes a springboard for your original train of narration.

At a lower level, reading other books can remind you of details that you want to add to scenes. Again, don’t steal what is original, but use the book as you would any other source you research. If the author is writing about dogs, you can seize upon appurtenances that help fill out your possibly vague memory of when you owned a dog. You can convert items such as dirt smearing the dog’s red collar or dried hanks of fur where the dog has wallowed in mud into your own wording. Just as valuable, you may read something that sparks off in your mind a memory of how you felt about your dog at a certain time, perhaps the way you felt about the white hair that slowly ringed its muzzle as it aged.

Remember the reason you’re looking for ideas: to feed more ideas into your book. By the same token, I have deliberately rented movies merely to pick off details that relate to a setting, often in the past, that reside in the back of my mind and will not come to the forefront on its own. You are a hunter, so go gather for your book.

Exercise: Keep a pocket notebook or iPad at your side when you read your next novel. When you see a striking idea, stop and write, in your own words, how that idea would fit into what you have in your story. It may well be that what you write down has nothing to do with the book you're reading—but rather it sparked off a new idea.

“The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything.”
—John Irving

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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