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I've done some writing in the past - mostly short descriptive pieces, although I once wrote 9000+ words of a story idea I had.

What I enjoy about it are the technical, intellectual, creative challenges involved in every level from the sentence to the plot arc. I am analytically minded: I enjoy identifying a problem, clarifying it, breaking it down, and solving it. I don't really do unrestrained creativity, I need a concrete problem, which "make up something interesting" isn't. Anything I've written in the past, I've just happened to get an idea: then I had fun solving the concrete problem of communicating that idea as well as possible. But coming up with the idea in the first place was just a happy accident.

I've considered more conceptual forms of writing, like philosophical stories (dystopias etc). But is that the only way? Does anyone want to read a story written by someone who doesn't like coming up with ideas? Have any popular writers (past or present) been similarly-minded to myself? Or am I overthinking my problem, and this is something everyone struggles with? If so, what are some techniques for coming up with ideas when you don't care what you write, you just enjoy writing fiction?

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What, exactly are you looking fo find out? How to keep writing when you're blocked? How to stay productive? Are you looking for exercises? Because the question here is a bit vague. There's some good advice in the answers, but is any of it what you're looking for? –  Neil Fein May 12 '13 at 4:47
    
You could go to a news website where new stories keep popping up. Go to a library open a random book to a random page. There are so many places to get an initial idea - and then apply the suggestions in the answers below. How does "Genetic sequencing of the floating bladderwort" sound for a starting point (found on wikipedia's home page just now)? It even sounds funny to start with. –  Joe May 15 '13 at 6:49
    
@NeilFein The question is: what do you do if you enjoy writing fiction, but have no ideas, and you're indifferent (within reason) to what you write about, you just need some idea, any idea. –  Jack M May 16 '13 at 12:42
    
Okay, with that in mind, the answers by Matt and Dale look to be particularly good. While this could be said to be a particularly chatty question, it's an important one for writers. –  Neil Fein May 22 '13 at 18:11

14 Answers 14

up vote 6 down vote accepted

This question reminds me of Dan Heller's advice about getting started in the photography business. He's talking about a different situation (photography apprenticeship), but he makes a point that applies equally well to the writing business:

[They] start by being photographers of things ... that they know really, really well. Usually the kinds of things they did before they took up photography. This may include a previous career, hobby, interest, or degree they got in college (outside of photography). The better you know something else, the better your chance for leveraging that knowledge to build a photo career. Anything that separates you from everyone else.

In short: Your best art comes from stuff that you know, that you're passionate about. Writers know this idea well: Write what you know. Heller also cautions about the dangers of working with subjects that you aren't passionate about:

So, here's the caveat: those who have no substantive background before photography are not likely to do well in this business. Yes, this applies to the wide-eyed and ambitious 18-year olds who email me saying, "I don't care what I shoot, I just want to learn the business and have a career in photography." Such people who intern for other photographers almost always end up either assisting their entire careers, or they lose interest in photography and go elsewhere.

So if you don't have any writing ideas that you're passionate about, think about what you do care about and look for ideas there. Is there some social problem you care deeply about? Frame it as speculative fiction. Love puzzles? Write a whodunit. Is there a fiction genre you especially like? Think about what's missing from it and fill the gap. Figure out what you know and care about and write about that, so that you don't burn out.

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Although everyone gave great answers, I'm going to pick yours as accepted because it strikes me as the best solution for me personally. I'd just like to say that my choice is subjective. –  Jack M Jun 3 '13 at 11:57
    
Great advice -- can apply to several other fields too (i'm thinking programming in my case). –  martin f Mar 25 at 17:28

What do you do if you enjoy writing, but have no ideas?

A few ideas:

  • technical writing

  • any form of nonfiction

  • edit other people's stories

I don't really do unrestrained creativity, I need a concrete problem, which "make up something interesting" isn't.

If you try to do it all at once, "make up something interesting" can certainly be a tall order. Try breaking it down: first come up with something -- anything -- and then make it interesting. Start with any boring old cliché; now the problem isn't to come up with something interesting, it's to make the thing that you've got interesting. That's a much more concrete problem, and you might have an easier time being creative when you're not working with a completely blank slate.

Anything I've written in the past, I've just happened to get an idea

I think that's pretty common in any field -- people get ideas in the shower, while they're sleeping, driving to the office, pretty much anytime other than when they're sitting at a computer ready to work. So try to be open to ideas whenever and wherever they might drift into your brain. Some people keep a notebook at the bedside or even a grease pencil in the shower.

Also, sometimes the first idea you have will turn out not to be such a good one, but it may lead to other, better ideas. There are lots of different exercises that people use to get their ideas flowing. You could try something like:

  • Write down 10 ideas, no matter how bad they are. Keep each one to a single sentence.

  • Pick the best 3 ideas of the 10 and write a complete but extremely short story for each. Give yourself a limit, like 150 words or less.

  • Expand the best of the three into a few pages.

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Take some very generic, very simple, completely trivial and trite theme - something entirely unoriginal - and try to write it best to your ability... no, not even best, just adequately, correctly. Start writing it, and if your imagination is taking you places, let it.

Last week I started off with a Romeo & Juliet balcony scene knock-off. Yesterday it turned into Inception-like battle across multiple levels of dream between "The Romeo" and a succubus demon impersonating "The Juliet", with "the real Juliet" trapped and held hostage by the demon in the dream world (and not being just a generic passive damsel in distress either...)

EDIT:

Now, how to approach turning a simple scenario into a complex one: first, use some artistic liberties in execution. Stylization, mood, change of events. Sooner or later your modifications will create errors; characters acting out-of-character, time dependencies broken, enemies acting like idiots, suspension of disbelief shaken, things coming out easier than they normally happen in life, little inconsistencies. Don't correct them! Embrace them and modify the behind-the-scenes circumstances to fit the bill. Hidden agendas, foreknowledge, utter negation of events. Then let the story flow with the new motives, and their (dire) consequences.

So, my Romeo sneaks through the gardens to his Juliet, then meets her. She's totally out of character, far too sexually aggressive, dominant, demanding. I'm just about to scratch that when I recall: The gardens are guarded by quite an elite of security. What are his chances of sneaking past them? About none. So, no, he didn't get there at all. He got shot with a tranquilizer a third of the way in, and he's dreaming currently. And the out-of-character, sexually aggressive Juliet is not Juliet at all. Moreover, he notices that! Our protagonist did have an event involving some nondescript mighty enemies in the past. So let's adapt the reality, pick a sexually aggressive, powerful enemy. The lore suggests a succubus demon fits the bill, let's run with that and solidify the nondescript past enemies into demons, with the succubus as their leader. So, do we get through the story without the real Juliet? No way. She's in there, pulled into the dream by a quirk of the lore. For now it's a quirk, but it will earn significance later.

Given these premises, this set of conditions, this conflict, let's roll with the battle, sides taking turns in the battle, hitting the other where it hurts, seeking inner strengths where it matters, losing and finding faith - we got the action story in full flair. We just report the progress of events, it's bound to take us to an interesting conclusion no matter how it goes.

That way two gaping plot holes (incompetent security and OOC protagonist) in a clear-cut run-off-the-mill cliché get transformed into an interesting premise.

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Me wants to read! –  Mussri May 11 '13 at 19:12
    
Also, 3 Q's: How fast do you 1. concept-write? 2. type? 3. handwrite? –  Mussri May 11 '13 at 19:40
    
@Mussri: I'm no speed demon typist. I don't concept-write at all; the concept is too malleable for any medium, even computerized - I try to hold it whole in my mind. I type on a computer, still, it's thinking that takes most of the time. I used to handwrite a lot but computer editing capability is far too helpful to go back to that. ps, how do you feel about "My Little Pony"? –  SF. May 11 '13 at 21:36
    
I wasn't notified. \\ Then you must have a hell of a concentration ability :) My mind is somewhat like perfume/spirits; ideas are always very brittle so I have to blurt them out to a recorder and end up the idiot of the scene whenever I'm outside. - I don't watch MLP but I'm aware of it, esp its FF scene. What about it? –  Mussri May 12 '13 at 9:54
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I wish for software that would be easy and robust enough to easily store that kind of data. I tried concept-mapping software but it usually focuses on pretty presentation, not on getting the whole grid jotted down without getting muddled in the details like sizes of the text boxes. I've got in the works something so complex I can't keep it whole in my head and that problem is really a roadblock. If you want to contact me, try randomblank@derpymail.org ; Random Blank is generally the nickname I use in the MLP fandom. –  SF. May 13 '13 at 23:54

If you really don't care what you write, it's easy to come up with ideas.

Lately this is all I need to get started: Character + setting + problem. This is from an old "seven-point plot outline" that Algis Budrys taught to a zillion writers you've heard of.

Start by writing about some character in some setting with some problem. That's all you need for an opening. Then write about how the character tries to solve the problem, what goes wrong along the way, and what happens when the character eventually puts everything on the line to make one final attempt.

If a story doesn't go anywhere, set it aside and try another character in another setting with another problem. But before you give up on a story, just try to write one more sentence. You don't need to know anything beyond that. Just one more sentence.

If you honestly don't care what you write about, then any character in any setting with any problem will do. Put a character in a setting with a problem, then write the next sentence. Something will happen. It might even be a good story.

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That may work for you -- maybe not for the OP. –  martin f Mar 25 at 17:32

Do you read? Study anything? Noodle around with puzzles or technical problems (in any field)?

If so, try reacting to that. Write about something you've just learned and what further thoughts and questions it prompts. Write about something you've just read -- not necessarily a review, but perhaps the world-building grabbed you and you want to explore the setting more, or you just loved that one character and would invite him for dinner and conversation if you could (so what would you talk about?), or perhaps there's some problem you're trying to solve and doing the written equivalent of rubber-ducking it could lead you to a solution.

I find it helpful to do this on a blog rather than just for myself. The questions and comments I get help me to see where I've been unclear, and besides, the conversations can be interesting in their own right.

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Maybe you could write about the problem of coming up with ideas? Write a story about someone who has troubles coming up with ideas. Think about which solutions he might try, and how those solutions work or don't work.

This has two effects: First, you already have one idea for a text, and it's something you definitely can relate with. Second, by doing so, you force yourself to seriously think about the problem from a different perspective (namely, from the perspective of a subject of a text, instead of the perspective of a problem you have), and you might just find a solution that works also for you and not just for your protagonist.

You wrote:

I am analytically minded: I enjoy identifying a problem, clarifying it, breaking it down, and solving it.

So do exactly that with the problem of finding ideas. Take it as a problem just like any others you like to solve.

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Collaborate with somebody who loves to come up with new ideas but hates the process of writing. There must be piles of people with vivid imaginations but no patience for the hard labour of writing it all down.

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Assuming you want to write non technical stuff, I think the best way is to start writing. I'm not kidding, even without ideas, doing nothing is a GREAT way to never get an idea. Inertia is true to human mind and if you don't start, you will stay exactly in the way you are.

The point is: how to start writing if you have no idea?

Answer: by the basics, or, the characters.

What kind of character do you want? A police officer? A medieval warrior? An modern cultism? A Journalist? Start with his profession and then develop who he is, what he does, what are his goals in life, resuming, his background. By doing that, you will start to have starting points.

You can extend your character with related characters and locales, what will also give more starting points to develop ideas. By experience, as you write the background and what is happening with the world, you will start to imagine what can happen with the character to start a story.

The real deal is inertial. The background is important but more important is that, once you start developing the roots of your setting, your mind will start focusing in it, and the ideas will start to appear. You can't expect -- even happening sometimes -- the muse to appear in a miraculous way and enlighten you with some outstanding plot. You need to go to work everyday because you need, not because you like it.

Writing is much more method than creativity. Of course it's much better to have both, but by having method you can get somewhere.

And reading a lot helps. If you want to write about fantasy, read fantasy books, watch fantasy movies, play role-playing games. That will give you ideas.

Some may say that's cheating, carbon-copying, stealing, but it's not true. Creativity is an amazing thing and can create something completely new from what exists. Somebody already said that there's nothing new under the sun. It's true.

Never plagiarize, you need to have that in mind, but inspire yourself by what others do.

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But coming up with the idea in the first place was just a happy accident.

You are far from alone. Every time I've sat down and said to myself "Okay, think of an idea for a new story," I inevitably sit there for an hour then give up with a blank page. People (or at least I) just don't work that way.

So what I've done is find a way to make coming up with ideas routine. I've found that by decoupling the "think of an idea" from "and write a story about it", both parts become easier. When there is no pressure for your idea to be anything but a brief what-if, you allow yourself to be much more creative.

I do this by setting myself a goal of roughly 3-4 ideas per week. I will sit down, open up a blank document and a few specific websites. I'll open up Google News and Reddit Random and maybe a few other things, and just write down single words that jump off the page at me, with no particular goal in mind. When I get 5-10 words, I'll open up Flicker Explore and look for 3-5 pictures that grab me. Without fail, every single time, when I smash the words against the pictures, I'll get a small what-if nugget of an idea that falls out. I write 250-500 words on the subject, then file it away in a big directory with all the others, then promptly forget about it.

When the day comes that I say to myself I'd like to write a new story, I don't have to stare out the window anymore hoping for inspiration. Instead, I open up the directory that is chock full of dozens/hundreds of ideas I've already had (this is the important part!) and pick one, or two, or a handful. On their own maybe they aren't very good, but with time, a fresh perspective, and in aggregate, I always find something to inspire a new, full, story.

Hope that helps! Just remember that you aren't lacking for ideas, you're just looking for them at the wrong time & place.

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I like Flickr Explore as well! But nothing beats getting out & about & away from the writing desk :) –  micapam Oct 8 '13 at 1:04

Try writing some hard sci-fi, or historical fiction, or alternate history. They require the kind of research, analysis, etc. that you enjoy. Personally, I like the freeware FreeMind for organizing my thoughts.

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The best ways to get an idea or destroy a blockade are to...

  • read a book of a theme or genre you really like
  • take a shower
  • take a walk
  • jog
  • talk with other writers about their experiences
  • search for websites which especially are made for authors/writers
  • decide about what kind of theme you want to write (fantasy, history, love)
  • think about the things you've written
  • try to imagine what could have happened if the situation wasn't the way you wrote it
  • write down an own story of your characters and try to integrate it to your main story (but just if you liked the story and the way your characters interact with each other. No, you don't? Then write another one. Try your best again.)
  • make personal descriptions of each of your characters
  • give each of your characters a suitable story of their lifes
  • be motivated to write!!!

Writing other stories or personal descriptions of your characters will help you to create new ideas for your actual story. Going outside or trying to do something different than thinking about what you could write, will distract you. So there will be more space for spontaneous ideas. Reading books about themes you like, will help you to find out what kind of story you want to write; what kind of problems you want to integrate into your story and how you can solve them. Not the way it says in the book you read, but maybe you could get an idea how to continue with all those problems and solutions in your story.

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'Coming up with an idea' is a self-defeating exercise. Ideas are everywhere - you just have to get used to recognising them as an idea, catching them and recording them. My advice is simply to carry a small notebook and pen everywhere, and cultivate a sense of openness to experience and its possibilities.

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I start my story on Fablelane (http://fablelane.com) and let the community decide what happens. Then I use that in my novels.

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One solution is to team up with someone who has the opposite problem: someone bursting with ideas, but lacking interest in the actual craft of writing, like the original poster of this question.

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Duplicate of Koen Van Damme's answer. –  martin f Mar 25 at 17:35

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