Every writer who has ever accomplished anything is asked the same question by some fan at some event (or just online, since access is instant these days): Where do your ideas come from? (I have also been asked this, but by my mother who I’m not sure I explain things to properly. And she asked it in a more exasperated “Why are you doing this to me?” sort of way.)
While I’m not a massively successful writer, I do have some advice on coming up with ideas. This is tried and tested to help you find at least one good idea, while simultaneously providing you with more bad ones than you care to think about. It’s not a trick. It’s not going to get you a bestseller. And it won’t make you a better writer.
You need only a piece of paper or a notebook, a pen, and a timer. Give yourself five minutes, and write down ten ideas on a piece of paper. Random words and phrases, whatever pops into your head. And do this every day.
Not every idea is a story. Not every idea is even remotely useful. “A cat staring at people from a driveway” isn’t a particular useful idea. It’s also a little bit less original since Harry Potter. “A boy wizard” isn’t original, even when Rowling wrote a series of books around those three words. “A school for wizards” already existed before Hogwarts. Small, simple words and phrases look like nothing on a page. They’re random. Unconnected. Useless. Until you use them.
I keep a notebook of random ideas. Some of them have become stories. Some of them are merely elements of a tale. Many more are useless, simply part of the habit of writing down whatever comes to mind. (As a planner, not a pantser, this is a good way of getting beyond random spontaneity in the middle of a story that doesn’t contribute in any way. Inspiration still strikes, but it’s usually connected to the book I’m working on!)
How do you tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea? You can’t. They’re all bad until you use them, until a narrative starts to form around them. Ideas themselves are so often considered precious gems to be protected that no one ever talks about what they’re working on. But give a dozen writers one idea to work from, and you’ll get twelve original stories.
I’ve used this idea generation method for a lot of stories over the past couple of years. I picked it up from Tim Ferriss’s podcast, and while I haven’t been consistent with it for two years, I make a habit of taking at least a couple of weeks per year and following through on the daily ritual. It gave me the only novella I published this year, A Death in the Family, and it gave me a ton of short stories (and even a comic script) that, one day, may see the light of day.
With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, it might seem a bit late to start with a fresh idea. My advice, for the late starters: bullet point a dozen chapters of a book, to vaguely plot a start-to-finish, and then fill in the gaps as more detail reveals itself to you. It might amaze you the stories that’ll reveal themselves to you if you just let them.