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How to Generate Ideas

IMG_0416One of the most common questions I’m asked is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I’ve always said that if you ask me to write a story about a woman in a red dress sitting at a bar, I can do that without batting an eye, but ask me to write a story about whatever I want, and I can feel the panic setting in.

So, here are a few of my favorite ways to generate ideas:

1. Consider what you’re reacting to. If you have an opinion, maybe you have a story idea.  When someone posts an update on Facebook that makes my eyes roll, I often find that there’s a story there (I’m a contrary person, so a lot of times my ideas have to do with “what is the opposite of what everyone else is writing about these days?”)

2. Be mindful of your ideas. Ideas flit into your mind all the time. They just flit out again if you don’t pay attention. So, start paying attention.

3. Think about markets. It’s easier for me to think of an idea for a personal finance story to pitch an editor I know at than it is for me to think of an idea.

4. Respect the idea. If an idea comes to you, pin that sucker down. I was sitting at a beachside diner last summer, chatting with my daughter and waiting for a storm to pass when I had an idea. I grabbed a pen and some napkins and caught that idea before it went away (see illustration).

5. Listen and watch people.  I do a lot of work in coffee shops and not just because I get tired of my living room. People spark ideas all the time.

6. Keep a journal. I have vivid dreams about all kinds of things, and I’ve written several books based on themes or feelings that arose when I was dreaming. I wrote those ideas down before I forgot them.

7. Think about what you know. For years what I knew about was martial arts. I tried to find ways to talk about martial arts that not everyone was already doing.

8. Research. Sometimes we think that ideas should just come to us out of the blue, but they don’t. They have context. So, if you have an area of interest, try reading the newest studies about it. Take a class. Talk to a teacher. Go to the library.

9. Develop a habit. Look for ideas. Look for them everywhere. Write them down. Pretty soon your problem won’t be not enough ideas but too many ideas to ever be able to write about in this lifetime. That’s a good kind of problem to have.

What are some methods you use to generate ideas?

Bigger than One Book

While many authors are content just to have one book under their belt, it helps to think bigger than that. After all, your one book will eventually become outdated or you’ll have new ideas about your subject matter that you’ll want to share. So, from the beginning it makes sense to think series.

Agents love a series because they can count on you as a client over the long-term – they won’t do all sorts of work to get you the attention you need and only have one book to show for it.  Editors love a series because they can invest in you and build your brand over time – it’s not just a one-shot deal.

  • As each book comes out, it brings attention to the other books in the series.
  • Readers love series because they get to know you and they like to know what they’re getting. It’s the same reason McDonald’s is so popular.
  • Creating a series allows you to build your own brand.  You have one consistent message that you can communicate to the media and in speaking engagements. Once you’ve discovered your message, you can write about it and promote it from as many different angles as you can come up with.
  • Make a series by changing your audience.  Dojo Wisdom is targeted toward women who want to take control of their lives.  Dojo Wisdom for Writers is meant for writers.  The third book – Dojo Wisdom for Mothers – appeals to mothers of young children.
  • Brainstorm “products” related to your book.  If you’re writing a book on creativity, a related book could be a workbook or a journal or a calendar.
  • Point out in your proposal that this book is the first of a projected series.  Describe what the theme of the series will be, and give the title of a few of the future books you envision.

Merging Two Ideas into One

A popular trend in books is to merge use one subject to shed light on another subject. This creates a new take on a subject that’s been covered before. For example, take Steve Jobs (Subject A) and leadership (Subject B) to come up with Steve Jobs: Ten Lessons in Leadership.

But your two subjects don’t have to be as closely tied as Steve Jobs and leadership. You can use very different subjects. Answer the question, “What does x know about y that other people should know?” If you train pets, you might answer, “What do bull dogs know about leadership that business managers should also know?”

The beauty of this approach is that you can take almost any area of expertise and apply it to another area, thereby increasing your potential audience while still staying within a niche (and niches sell).

Make it Simple!

Writers often bemoan the fact that readers have tiny attention spans these days. But instead of complaining about it, help those readers out! A great way to write an appealing book is by simplifying complex problems. For example, if I want to learn how to start a blog, don’t tell me about HTML. Tell me about WordPress.

In other words, readers need you to help them figure out what’s important (about a process, a subject, a hobby) so that they can focus their attention on that rather than on the less important aspects (such as the history of the process or predictions about the future).

You do this by using straightforward language and getting right to the point without bogging readers down with a lot of unnecessary trivia.

I’ve written or coauthored a number of For Dummies books and Complete Idiot’s guides, and these are among my most popular books. The first time I tried to write one, I put in a chapter about the history of martial arts, which the editor made me reduce to approximately three sentences in Chapter One. Yet, amazingly, the book still manages to convey all of the important information a reader needs to know.

Give an Old Idea a New Twist

If you’re thinking about writing a book but are stopped because you can’t come up with something that hasn’t been done before, relax! You don’t have to come up with an idea so unique and original that no one else has ever thought of it. In fact, that’s the kind of thing that scares agents and editors because if no one has thought of the idea maybe that’s because no one wants to read about it.

What you can do to create a saleable book is to give an old idea a new twist. For example, if you have a lot of subject matter expertise in yoga, you’ve probably thought of writing a general yoga book to introduce your ideas to readers. But there are already many many general yoga books on the market and unless you’re well-known or have a huge platform already, yours is not likely to stand out.

But you can tweak that idea. Maybe you can write about doing yoga at your desk at work, or in five minutes a day. Maybe you can write about adapting poses for people who have physical challenges. Or maybe you can write about yoga for kids, or yoga for kids and their parents to do together. Or yoga for people who hate yoga.

See? Now you’re getting somewhere.

What's the Big Idea?

If you’re a nonfiction writer, you may have toyed with the idea of writing a book but aren’t quite sure what that book would be about. Maybe you doubt you know anything worth sharing. Don’t let that doubt stop you! You’re unique–and you have something special to say. To come up with potential book ideas, think big. For example:

  • What are the guiding principles in your life? For me, thinking about what I’d learned from the martial arts led to a series of books (the Dojo Wisdom series–when people who know me think about the books I’ve written, these are the ones that pop into their minds).
  • What causes do you believe in? Maybe it’s sustainable agriculture or organic food. Turn that into a book.
  • What are you known for? Ask your friends and colleagues what you’ve taught them. It may not be what you think.
  • Have you ever thought, “There ought to be a book about …”? Write that book!
  • If you ran the world, what would it look like? Why?

Writing a book doesn’t have to be a process where the golden idea falls into your lap and then you try to sell that idea to a publisher. You can hunt those ideas down!