By Lucia Tang
Writers aren’t prophets. No matter how hard we wish, we can’t just take dictation from some divine voice in our ears — we’re supposed to find our own inspiration. But when you’re on the run from a deadline, in a fight with a chapter, or just sick of wishing the book in your head would magically appear on your laptop, finding inspiration can feel like a DIY root canal.
Luckily, inspiration is everywhere! Whether you’re in the middle of a floundering project or at a complete loss for something to write, these ten tips and tricks will have you typing away in no time.
When you’ve got a project in mind — but you’re stuck:
1. Write it in an email draft
Word processors can be intimidating. Something about them demands a certain level of literary care from the get-go. So pretend you’re not a serious writer today — just someone trying to draft an email.
You don’t have to actually write anything in epistolary form. The point is to take advantage of email’s non-threatening aesthetic and low-key familiarity. It’ll trick your brain into thinking your draft is no big deal.
2. Talk yourself through it — and record it
Maybe you’re paralyzed by high stylistic standards: You want your prose impeccably polished right out of the gate. But your attempts to channel Nabokov aren’t doing your word count any favors — you just keep deleting and retyping “the”.
To get at the crux of what you’re trying to say, actually say it. Talk through the content you want to cover in a single, manageable chunk of your project — a section of a chapter, a single scene. Record it, and then type it out. That transcription won’t make it into your manuscript word-for-word. But odds are, you’ll find some unexpected gem — an illuminating metaphor you invented on the fly, or a simple yet effective turn of phrase.
3. Mind map it out
If you’re having trouble thinking verbally, try operating visually: make a mind map. This brainstorming exercise helps you see connections within your story, untangling a twisted skein of ideas to make a beautiful tapestry.
Mind maps are essentially nonlinear, pictorial outlines. Traditionally, they feature a main idea at the center, with related ideas branching off. But you don’t have to do it that way. You can plot out relationships between characters, or brainstorm alternate endings — the possibilities are limitless.
4. Do a writing side quest
You’re stuck on one thing, so write something else. Pick a task that’s related to the part of your project giving you grief — you can keep subconsciously mulling over the old problem while you tackle the new. If you’re stumped by a certain scene, switch over to a different one with some characters in common: You’ll get to know them better — while getting a break from the plot issue that’s got you frustrated.
Think of this as a writerly side quest. Sure, you’re going slightly out of your way. But you’re building up stats and gaining tools that’ll serve you well when you make your way back to the main quest.
5. Try a mini genre mashup
You could go full Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but there’s no need to scrap your planned Regency romance in favor of a zombie thriller mashup. Just consider how techniques or conventions from a different genre can enhance your work.
Say you’re writing a contemporary YA romance set in a prep school. Could you take inspiration from fantasy worldbuilding to bring that setting to life? Or maybe the love triangle in your space opera’s falling flat. Try studying actual romance writers to see how they get readers invested quickly.
When you have no idea what to write:
6. Let the internet take the wheel
When you feel like your wellspring of ideas has run dry, it can be liberating to cede control to someone else — or something else. Maybe you’ve got a vague premise in mind, but no actual plot to drive it forward. Perhaps you’re having trouble getting started because you’re still calling your leading lady “Main Character” in your head in your head. From plot to character names, no matter what part of your story is the missing piece, you can find an online generator to supply it.
7. Exploit the public domain
E.L. James of Fifty Shades fame became a wealthy woman writing Twilight fanfic, which she then self-published with great aplomb. But she was hardly the first author to find success working with someone else’s material — and she won’t be the last.
You could follow her in her footsteps, mining a mega-popular franchise that’s still under copyright. But why not explore the public domain instead? Whether you turn to Greco-Roman myth or Shakespearean tragedies, there are plenty of vivid characters and rich stories ripe for rewriting — all of them up for grabs.
8. Make literature out of a different medium
Have you ever heard that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? No one seems to know who first made this quip, but when it comes to writer’s block, they’re wrong. Sometimes there’s no better cure than writing about music… or dance, or painting.
Authors have long been inspired by other media. Tolstoy had a novella that came out of a Beethoven sonata. Tracy Chevalier built a brand around historical novels that take behind-the-scenes peeks at iconic artworks. Have you found your muse masterpiece?
9. Ask the cards
You don’t need to be a fortune-teller to use tarot for plotting — being a storyteller is enough. In fact, the Italian novelist Italo Calvino called a tarot deck “a machine for writing stories”. Take a look at the cards, and you’ll find a fascinating ensemble ready to cast in your novel — from figures like the Magician and the Empress to more abstract forces like Justice and Death.
There are endless methods for using tarot as a plot generator, but here’s one of the simplest: Using either a physical deck or a tarot app, draw three cards at random, and work them into a story. You can choose to research traditional tarot symbolism, but feel free to make your own associations, responding to how the cards’ imagery makes you feel.
10. …or ask an agony aunt
You’ve probably heard that you should eavesdrop when you’re on the hunt for a plot. But what if you’ve been keeping your ears peeled, but they only fill up with boring conversations? Try “eavesdropping” on people who never seem to have that problem — advice columnists.
The advice-givers at the helm of Dear Prudence and Ask Polly have no shortage of material on their hands, from the lurid to the heartbreaking. Find a letter that moves you, confuses you, or just makes you want to know more — it’s ready-made inspiration for your next project!
Lucia Tang is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s very best editors, designers, and marketers. Reedsy also provides tools to help authors write and format their books, as well as free learning courses and webinars to help them learn more about writing and publishing.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published July 2019
Some wonderful advice here. I’m stuck on the middle of a fantasy novel. I think some of these ideas might help.
Great article, love these tips. My current story is a mash of inspiration from tarot and mythology. Inspiration really can come from anywhere and I LOVE mind mapping.
PS: I tried to “like” this post, but the like button never appeared, just kept saying “loading”.