9 min read

What to Do When You’re Out of Ideas

What to Do When You’re Out of Ideas

The Stradivarius violin has an unparalleled reputation for tone and clarity, and a single instrument is worth up to $16 million.

Now, that’s a lot of money to pay for a violin, so why is the Stradivarius violin so lust-worthy?

Only 600 of these Italian violins exist today… and it’s impossible to replicate them. Recently, a team of Dutch scientists led by Dr. Berend Stoel scanned five of these instruments and compared them to modern violins.

A Stradivarius violin

The famous Stradivarius violin

They discovered that the Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari created these violins from wood affected by a mini-Ice Age during the 1700s. Stoel said:

“If you look at any piece of wood, as long as it’s not tropical, you have these year rings.”

“The differences between these rings are the density — the wood is more dense during the winter than it is during the faster growing period of the summer. That pattern is influencing the resonating quality of the wood.”

His team added that Stradivari might have treated this wood in a way unknown to craftsmen today.

According to folklore, Sradivari used water from ancient churches alongside a secret ingredient.

What does this talk about violins have to do with finding creative writing ideas for your book?

Well, you need great materials if you want to create your masterpiece.

Hell, you need good materials if you want to never run out of ideas again.

You need good materials if you want to write something that sells.

By materials, I don’t mean a pot of ink and a golden pen with a twelve-inch pink feather dangling off the end.

I’m talking about the kinds of ideas that are everywhere and that you can use to write a great book… if you know where to look.

Confession time (gulp)

When I was a fresh-faced freelance journalist in my early twenties, I didn’t care for recording ideas or researching my articles.

I spent days sitting on my ass waiting for my editor to send me a commission when I should have been on the lookout for ideas and news stories.

I’m a writer… I don’t have time for research.

I had this limiting idea that writing meant pressing my fingers against the keyboard and filling up the screen with my random musings about what it’s like to have a quarter-life crisis.

Picking up the phone and talking to living, breathing people felt like a distraction from doing the work of putting one word after another on the blank page. I should have listened to Truman Capote, who said, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

If I sound like I was at least a hard-working (if misguided) freelance writer, don’t be fooled.

I’d more than enough hours after work to sit in the front of the computer screen in my underwear, picking at half-eaten chocolate bars, drinking cold tea and playing World of Warcraft until 3.23 a.m.

Who has time to interview people or read through old books when you could be going on a four-hour dungeon raid?

I didn’t bother looking for materials and ideas for my writing, and suffice to say, my editors didn’t call with new commissions.

I watched as classmates from college landed jobs with national newspapers and radio stations while I languished on the sidelines.

After a stint on the unemployment line, I quit on journalism, but I didn’t quit on writing. I looked at successful authors and wondered: where do they find their ideas?

How do they get inspired to write?

They treat their work like a professional.

Let me explain:

I know a smart freelance writer who keeps a future file of news stories and other articles that she has worked on or read. She returns to these articles every few months to write an updated version.

Her editors love it.

Who uses these types of writing tricks to plan that far ahead?

Freelance writers who earn six figures a year, that’s who, and it’s a strategy I wish I’d known about before I handed back my press pass.

Then, there was Thomas Jefferson who jotted down notes about everything from the growth of plants and flowers to observations about daily life.

But I’m a storyteller, why should I care about future files and swipe files?

Well, if you wait for inspiration or creative writing ideas to arrive, you’ll be stood up.
From the age of 19, Mark Twain carried a personal pocket notebook with him and recorded his observations. The novelist

John Cheever kept a journal throughout his life, and he often wrote about stories he was writing or wanted to write.

George Lucas too keeps a notebook with him when he’s shooting a film.


…you collect stories from your personal life in a journal — like the time your 2-year-old daughter jammed a pink crayon up her nose, and you had to buy a pair of tweezers to take it out (this happened to me)?

…you collect small details from your day — like the time you ordered a lasagne and salad and the waitress heated both in the microwave?

…you collect random moments — like the time you were waiting outside the gym to collect your wife from yoga, and you watched a body builder walk out from the gym beside the yoga studio, open a pack of cooked chicken fillets and eat them one by one?

It’s all material.

I’ve always loved to read, but when I was a budding journalist, I preferred reading mostly fiction that I enjoyed. I didn’t spend much time reading non-fiction books outside my comfort zone.

Now, that might be okay for somebody whose career doesn’t involve moving around words and ideas, but it’s poison for an ASPIRING PROFESSIONAL AUTHOR.

If you’re writing a non-fiction book, then reading is part of your job.

You must read OUTSIDE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE, the work of writers you admire and the work of writers you detest, all the while copiously taking notes and writing down ideas.

If you want to get inspired, read new writers.

Read old, dead writers too.

Because, as Austin Kleon writes, you must steal old stuff.

If you fail to feed your mind, don’t expect it to serve you quality ideas when you next sit down in front of the blank page.

Lots of writers use their curious side-interests and hobbies for their works.

The British author Virginia Woolf chronicled her long walks around her neighbourhood in her journals and essays. The American novelist John Cheever wrote dozens of entries about swimming, cycling and his extracurricular activities.

He writes:

“I do have trouble with the dead hours of the afternoon without skating, skiing, bicycling, swimming, or sexual discharges or drink.”

Now, Cheever might have liked to fill a glass or take off his pants to pass the time, but if you’re struggling to find creative writing ideas, stand up, put your book and your pen (or your partner) down.

Go for a short walk, work out in the gym or do something strenuous. The flow of blood and change of environment will kickstart your brain in exciting directions.

Think of yourself as like the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote early in the morning before setting off for an afternoon walk around Copenhagen. Then, he returned to write in the evening.

Charles Dickens was another prolific walker you could aspire to. On a given day, Dickens walked 12 or more miles around Kent or through the streets of Victorian London.

He used many moments from these walks as inspiration for his novels. In Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, critic G.K Chesterton writes:

“There are details in Dickens’ descriptions — a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door — which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are.”

Even if you don’t think of an idea while exercising, you will have more energy and enthusiasm for tackling your creative problem afterwards.

Vladimir Nabokov

Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), renowned author… and butterfly hunter.

The ever-humble Russian writer Vladamir Nabokov fed his writing with one of the stranger hobbies I’ve come across.

He had little time for eating, socialising or drinking coffee with friends.

Instead, he loved to solve chess problems and study butterflies. Both interests informed his work; his novel, Zashchita Luzhina (The Luzhin Defense), features an insane chess player.
Nabokov writes in his memoir:

“And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.”

Often, the best ideas arrive when you’re not writing.

One Sunday afternoon last July, I spent two hours trying to write a chapter in a book. Getting nowhere and being all out of coffee, I put on a pair of trainers and went for a run.

I was 10 km in and half-way around the local park when I thought of a breakthrough.

Covered in mud, I stopped running, pulled out my phone and opened the voice memo app.

There I was standing in a puddle with water up to my ankles, soaked in sweat and roaring into my phone about ‘needing more butterflies’ in my life when a 72-year-old lady and her manicured white poodle walked around the corner.

She mouthed ‘morning’ and hurried along with her dog.
When I got home that evening, I wrote for two hours without interruption; that woman and her judgmental poodle be damned.

So the next time you feel stuck or uninspired, read, pick up the phone, interview someone, go for a walk with your poodle or chase rare butterflies… no matter what type of writer you are, your side-interests will help you reignite your creative spark.

Every time you do this, you’ll learn more about how your creative process works and where the best ideas for your book come from.

Best of all?

Taking a break will help you get motivated to write.

You need a swipe file too.

As a writer, your first job is to keep a swipe file where you store facts, figures, headlines and ads relating to your area of interest or book.

You could swipe headlines and first lines, inspiring videos and pictures (Pinterest is a social swipe file) and compelling emails.

Your file is a repository of information that, if it’s not relevant to your book, will be of use at some point.

Copywriters and advertisers keep ideas, research and information they can use for future campaigns in their swipe files.

One of the world’s most famous copywriters, Gary Halbert, wrote a letter from prison telling his son to keep his swipe file up to date with “hot new ideas, good layouts, unusual propositions and so on”.

Harness the Power of Creativity and Finally Unlock Fresh Thinking Today

You can also take notes using digital tools, like an app on your smartphone, or by using a small notebook that fits in your pocket.

I like using the tool Evernote. It acts as my digital brain and enables me to tag each idea.

I save interesting articles, research, quotes, thoughts about books, anecdotes and more into Evernote. I also categorise the notes by project and type.

When I was researching my last book The Power of Creativity, for example, I used the tag ‘creativity’ for relevant notes and creative writing ideas I wanted to find later on.

Look, don’t obsess about finding the right digital tool to capture your ideas.

And I say this writing on Medium!

You don’t have to use Evernote or worry about painful categorisation methods. Use the note-taking app on your phone, record audio files using the memo app on your phone or use a simple plain text editor.

Shakespeare did just fine without his digital brain. Record your creative writing ideas down on the back of your hand if you must. When I do this in public, people look at me funnily.

William Shakespeare: didn’t care much for digital note-taking apps

‘There’s that weird guy who looks off into the distance and then scribbles on the back of his hand.’

If this happens to you, pay no attention to these misguided fools! You don’t want to sit down in front of the computer and realise “Baby, I’ve got nothing.”

What to Do With Great Creative Writing Ideas

I can’t promise your book will sell for $16 million in three hundred years’ time, and I don’t have any ancient water from a church to offer unless you count whisky.

That said…

Sitting down in front of the blank page will feel much easier if you’ve got lots of great creative writing ideas to draw from.

And that’s a reward for any writer.

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