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What do you want to write? What do you want to write about?

How to come up with ideas for a book

What are you going to write about?

It’s all very well deciding to write a book, but what some people call ‘a lack of ideas’ is a big stumbling block – you simply don’t feel like you have enough of them to keep you going. I dispute this, because there are literally ideas all around us wherever we go and next week I’m going to post a series of exercises that will help you to generate ideas. But first an introduction: even the most mundane object has a story to tell. Try the following and you’ll see what I mean.

Pick up an object

Pick up any object close to where you are now. Now ask yourself the following and make up the answers if you don’t know:

  • Where is it from?
  • What’s it made of?
  • Where is that material from?
  • Who made it?
  • How has it been used?
  • Who used it?
  • Who owned it in the past?

It’s not exactly lack of ideas that’s the problem, but how to funnel all the possible ideas ‘out there’ or in you head and apply them in a coherent way to the book you want to write.

Let’s break that down a bit

For now, we’ll break that down by looking at two seemingly simply questions:

  • What do you want to write?
  • What do you want to write about?

Two different but related questions! I’ll give you an obvious example to illustrate my point:

  • What do you want to write? A poetry collection.
  • What do you want to write about? Productivity for small business owners.

It’s pretty obvious straight away that the one doesn’t fit the other. Now you could, if you wanted to, write a poetry collection about productivity for small business owners. There’s nothing stopping you. But I’m guessing that poetry probably isn’t the most appropriate way to communicate about the topic.

You can start with EITHER question

It actually doesn’t matter which of these questions you start with, but you’d be amazed how many times I’ve spoken to writing students who – when I start to drill down into it – know the answer to one but not the other. This only matters if it stops you from writing, because if you write for long enough, you’ll eventually provide yourself with the answers, but as we’re on the subject, why not stop for a moment and see if you can answer both? Ask yourself: What do you want to write? What do you want to write about?

More questions

Now you’ve got the answers to those down, use these questions to think them through:

  1. Does your answer to one match the other? Does the subject matter match the way in which you’re planning to communicate the idea?
  2. Would a memoir, short story collection, essay collection, self-help book, poetry pamphlet or collection, novella, zine, comic book or novel work better for this idea? Try to be as specific as possible.
  3. Look at what you’ve said you want to write about. Hint: focus on your values, on what you really care about, on what gets you out of bed in the morning, or on experiences or places that have had a big impact on you. For example, kindness, singing, family, grief, North London.

Here are some examples

I’ve made up some examples to show you how getting specific helps you to identify an opportunity and an idea. For instance:

  • What do you want to write? Nonfiction
  • What do you want to write about? Etiquette

Could become:

  • What do you want to write? A regular column (with illustrations?) for Women and Home magazine, that I could turn into a light-hearted how to book one day
  • What do you want to write about? Dinner party etiquette

Specificity is the key

Getting more specific like this not only helps with idea generation, it also helps in three other important ways:

  1. It helps you to identify your ideal reader. In this case, people interested in dinner party etiquette. ( Don’t know why I came up with this – I don’t know much about it! But I guess that proves that you can have an idea before learning about a topic.)
  2. If you want to sell your writing, it helps you to identify a target publication, competition or market. In this case, you’d obviously need to be an expert in etiquette and a professional illustrator first, but the target publication is Women and Home magazine or similar.
  3. It gives you a clear next step. In this case: pitch a column on dinner party etiquette to the editor of Women and Home magazine and see if they are interested in your cartoons. Then you could research other similar target markets.

Let’s look at another example

This time, I’ll apply the questions to a different kind of writing.

  • What do you want to write? Poetry
  • What do you want to write about? Nature

Could become:

  • What do you want to write? A poem I can enter for the Ginkgo Poetry Prize
  • What do you want to write about? The wildlife in my garden

This time, getting more specific would have helped you to:

  1. Work out the kind of poetry you’re going to write and the kind of poetry you can read to get a feel for the style. In this case, ecopoetry
  2. Identify a target competition. In this case, the Ginkgo Prize.
  3. Come up with a next step. In this case, research the deadline for the Ginkgo Prize and read some examples.

One poetry competition entry isn’t a whole book but the questions – as thinking tools – would have given you enough space to come up with a theme for a pamphlet or collection and one place where you can go and read other poets who are writing about nature. In other words, this idea could one day become a whole book, and that’s all you’re after at this stage.

The answers could easily have been different. Here are other ways in which they could have evolved:

  • What do you want to write? A book for primary school teachers
  • What do you want to write about? How to teach kids in years 5 and 6 to write and illustrate poems about nature

Or:

  • What do you want to write? A poetry collection
  • What do you want to write about? Walking the Cornish coast

By the way, I’ve created a course for beginners on writing poetry – you can sign up here.

Here’s another example

In this example, the questions help my imaginary writer friend to come up with the genre they’re most interested in:

  • What do you want to write? A novel
  • What do you want to write about? Magic

Could become:

  • What do you want to write? A series of fantasy novels
  • What do you want to write about? A fantasy island in the sky, inhabited by magical people

Next steps might be to work on outlining the novel, to read more fantasy fiction or to work on some character sketches.

Over to you

So as a thinking exercise, ask yourself (write it down!) what do I want to write and what do I want to write about? Then drill down into the answers. You might surprise yourself.

Next week I’ll be posting a series of exercises on how to come up with ideas for a book. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

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