Monday, May 23, 2011

Tips for writing features #7: Where ideas come from

It took 16 months of posting six times a week, but the day finally arrived. I ran out of things to say. I was sitting here tonight, fingers on the keyboard, willing them to just start without me, hoping they'd type something sensible, but no. All was still and silent. My hangnail looked at me accusingly.

So I did what any sensible person does in the middle of the night - I asked Twitter. "What should I write about?" I tweeted. "Taking requests." The answers came back thick and fast:

"Merkins." (Thanks Mrs Woog - strangely not too many of those in the Fibro.)

"The weather." (Thanks Melissa - been there, done that. At least twice.)

"True love. Chocolate. Cars. Masterchef." (Thanks Lucy for that Mystery Box of ingredients."

And so it went on, with requests for photos of my brother TICH (apparently this would bring much traffic to the Fibro...), to a great idea for a story starter from Cath at Leaf Journals, which I'm going to save for my Writing Club at the school tomorrow. Trish from My Little Drummer Boys chimed in with a request for an "original idea", and that got me thinking.

There are two questions I'm asked most often when people find out I freelance:
1) Where do your ideas come from? and
2) Do you come up with the ideas or do they tell you what to write?

Clever observers playing along at home will note that this is actually the same question. The truth is that when you're starting out, the ideas come from you. Nobody will tell you what to write if they have no idea who you are, what you're capable of producing or whether you'll even get the story in - let alone on time. These days, I do a combination of stories that I'm asked to write and stories that I come up with. I'm still always on the hunt for a story idea.

My friend Alex Brooks and I once organised our thoughts enough to present a workshop on freelance writing at an RWA Conference. (You can read our thoughts on pitching here.) This is what we came up with for ideas:

"With magazines, newspapers and websites there are ideas and ideas. New ideas based on changes in society, newsworthy events, scientific breakthroughs. Then there are stock ideas done in new ways – an example here might be a breast cancer story – every October, in support of Pink Ribbon month, most Australian women’s mags run some kind of related story. The trick is to present material that might be familiar to a reader in a new way. Presented with this challenge one year, I suggested that we do a story on the ways in which men cope when their partners are diagnosed – it created a lot of reader interest and comment.

So where do they come from? From the news, from reading other mags, from talking to friends and family (if a subject comes up over and over, chances are there’s a story in it), from looking at what a particular mag has run previously, from movies, from the internet, from professional associations (archicentre or housing industry association, for instance, if it’s homes stories that interest you), from your life experience (renovations, babies, marriage etc), from the ether. As with fiction writing, it’s a good idea to carry a notebook and jot down possible stories so you don’t forget."

To that list, you can now add 'canvassing your network on Twitter'. You may not take up any of the suggestions - but who knows where a simple question might lead you. And if anyone asks, just tell them a little bird told you.


  1. Am gagging to see snap of TICH now...

  2. You are amazing - you had your post idea all along :)

    ..ask twitter.

    Love your ideas though on how to get blog/writing inspiration.

    The little birds are adorable.

  3. Good tips; thanks for sharing. And any excuse to spend more time on Twitter is fine with me...

  4. We want Tich! He's the missing link.

  5. Don't tease, TITCH! (please:)

  6. My blog post today came from asking Twitter and Facebook followers a question. The responses flowed in - not only convincing me that the topic was ripe for discussion but that I now had a stack of "quotes" to base the post on.

  7. thanks for the ideas, I keep a small notebook to jot down ideas as I walk through my day. When I've gotten frustrated w/ subject matter, I look around and try to focus on a small object and run w/ it. This world is full of things to write about, we will never starve

  8. Poor TICH. His swelling head must be hurting right now, all these birds gagging to see a picture of him.
    Great post. You started off needing one idea, and you came up with an infinite number of ideas. This is why we visit the Fibro.

  9. Another wise and wonderful insight from the Fibro! Its also just like I learned at SWC; you must look at the world with eyes wide open, always thinking "is there a story in that?"

  10. I often just put up a photo. Jotting ideas in a notebook sometimes works, but often enough I don't have it handy, for instance at work, I can't be scribbling in a notebook when I'm manning the checkout. By the time the shift is over the idea is gone.

  11. I started a 'pick a pook' post series. When I'm not sure what I want to talk about I turn around to the bookshelf and pull out a book - I talk about the book, and what it means to me... Less of book review, and more talking about some kind of topic that interests me. Works a treat.


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