Storming Your Brain: How to Wrangle Ideas from That Stubborn Grey Matter

By on April 24, 2014 . Category Column

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

― W. Somerset Maugham


Today’s column was inspired by my inability to come up with a topic for my column.

Sometimes, your brain just doesn’t want to cooperate.  You need to work on something—be it the outline for a new book, or fine-tuning the details of an important scene—but you just…can’t.  The ideas aren’t coming.  Unlike the other times, when your brain is like an open fire hydrant spraying ideas all over the place (usually when you can’t write, like when you’re driving or showering or in a meeting), it seems all those ideas disappear when you sit before the computer and prepare to work.

So, what to do?  We make inspiration strike!



Grab a pen and paper and start jotting down ideas.  Don’t have any ideas?  Force yourself to come up with one—challenge yourself to come up with the dumbest idea ever and write that down.

The beautiful thing about brainstorming—whether it’s just a list, a vague outline, or a bubble map—is that it doesn’t have to be coherent.  The sentences don’t have to be full and the words don’t have to be properly spelled, just write.  Write nonsense.  Write drivel.  You have my permission to write the worst writing anyone’s ever written.  Just get the ideas on paper.


Vacate the Area

By which I mean, “Go do something else.”  There’s only so long a person can stare at a blank page before they start to die inside.  Writers do enough dying inside as it is, so once you hit the point where, as my friends on Twitter like to say, you “can’t brain” anymore, then go ahead and do something else.  Work in the garden.  Wash dishes.  Take a nap.  Go for a jog.  Draw a picture.  Read a book.  Listen to (or play) some music—do anything to get the writing off your mind.  Because often times, it is only by being away from our work that we can arrive at the answers we need.  Give yourself a break.


Coffee With A Friend

Similar to the Vacate the Area tactic listed above, but with a twist:  You find someone who is understanding of—or at least open to—your creative needs, and you chat with them.  Talk about your story (or lack thereof), kick around ideas, tell them about characters, discuss how you want things to be in your writing.  If you have anything written from the story, even if it’s character bios, read it to them.  You would be amazed at the power and value of a fresh set of eyes; take advantage of their perspective.


Do What You Want

Is there a scene you’re dying to get to, full of funny exchanges, or awesome action, or a big reveal, but it’s on the other side of a story void, wherein you have no idea what to write?

Skip the void!  Just ignore it!  Jump from point A to point Q!  It’s your book, you can write it in whatever order you want.

If you genuinely have no idea where the scene would go, write it anyway and store it in a folder, or an Evernote notebook, or in an actual notebook.  It doesn’t matter where you keep it, so long as you can find it again later.

Sometimes, writing the parts of the book you want to write can help you work through the scenes you’re not quite sure about.  Fill in the spaces you’re excite about, and work on connecting them later.



This is one of those “force yourself to be creative” tactics—you sit down and you write.  Even if it’s drivel.  Even if it makes no sense.  Even if all you write for the first five minutes is, “I don’t know what to write this is a stupid exercise I have no ideas I hate writing I HATE MYSELF,”…write.  Eventually, something will come of it.

Some of my best scenes have actually come from pushing through the terrible writing until something amazing appears on the page.  Once, I was in the middle of the worst piece of writing I think I’ve ever composed…and I was hating it.  Absolutely hating it.  It was weak and tell-y and boring and it went nowhere.  But I kept writing.

And then, while two characters were talking, one asked the other a question that changed the entire book.  To this day I cannot figure out where this question came from—I don’t remember thinking it, it’s almost like it just appeared on the page.  It was amazing, it revitalized my story, and it added an excellent element to the whole book.  And it gave me the fuel I needed to write a lot of really good words.


There are a lot of ways to get past mental blocks and inspiration dry-spells; all you have to do is keep going and never give up.


What do you do when you’re stuck?  How do you get the muse to speak to you when she’s giving you the cold shoulder?


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