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7 Ways to “Cheat” Writing Inspiration
Waiting for inspiration to strike could take a lifetime. Here are 7 ways to jumpstart your writing without having to wait around.
Songwriters are known for using personal trauma as the catalyst for hit tunes. The Police classic “King Of Pain” was written by front man Sting about his long and messy divorce from his first wife. Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” was written about the death of his toddler son. But structuring a three or four minute song around a moment of grief is a lot easier that crafting three hundred page novel or even a short story. That’s not to be said that it can’t be done. It often has been. Author, Akhil Sharma’s gut wrenching Family Life, which was basically the thinly fictionalized story of his own family’s tragedy, when a freak accident left his brother severely brain-damaged, and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land, is one recent novel that springs to mind. But it took Sharma 12 often painful, soul-searching years to write. Most people, Sharma included, don’t want to take that long to write a novel, and wallowing in anguish in order to create is not recommended on an ongoing basis.
If there’s something in your personal life that inspires you to write, that’s wonderful and you should go for it. But what about the times when inspiration doesn’t strike? Are you going sit around and wait? The good news is that you don’t have to. There are several ways to “cheat” inspiration—a kind of artificial insemination which can still give birth to a wonderful story and keep you writing in the process. We’ll take a look at seven of the most popular ways, which many of the authors I’ve interviewed over the years have told me they use.
1. Local Newspapers
Notice I’ve mentioned local newspapers here as opposed to national ones. That’s because the kind of intimate, folksy stories that often make the best fiction can be found in smaller papers. I’m not saying you should completely hijack a story and use it as your own but rather use it as a springboard for your imagination to take over. You might read about an immigrant family surviving extreme hardship to send their youngest son/daughter to an Ivy League school on a scholarship. What about if one of the family members had to do something which was a little shady to get the money for private tutoring or to pay the fees? A father or older sibling worked for a criminal, the mother found out something incriminating about an employer and extorted money? Now, as their child stands on the precipice of a great career which will transform all their lives, payback comes along and threatens to ruin it all?
Just out of interest when writing this article I went online to my local newspaper and read the following headline: “‘It was a bad scene’ judge says of severed hand home invasion”. I’m already thinking of possible scenarios! The great thing about a local newspaper is that it is filled with details that can be further researched and ones you will probably be familiar with. That’s where the authenticity and credibility comes in—filling in those fine shadings with information only you and residents of your local town could know about—the school math teacher who used to run a New York modeling agency, the Indian restaurant owner who’s sister was raped and killed by an abusive husband she was trying to leave.
If you’re a budding Tom Clancy or John Le Carré national newspapers may provide inspiration. You would already have the kind of background that could read a story about an arms deal or diplomats or spies being expelled and use your imagination to create something brilliant. But that’s not most of us. Rather, I think we all know the kind of small town characters that appeared in Elizabeth Strout’s brilliant new novel, Anything Is Possible. What she was able to do was insert the darkness, pain and secrecy under the surface, of seemingly everyday characters, which made her novel so compelling.
2. Family & Friends
I once listened to a lecture during my MFA which argued that most stories in fiction can be traced back to famous fairy tales, which themselves can be traced back to stories thousands of years old. There’s a lot of validity in it. Revenge, lust, betrayal, escape etc. are all themes which can be found in fairy tales or Greek mythology or even many religious texts. Basically, when it comes to stories, to use a cliché, there’s nothing new under the sun. What is new, and what makes everyone’s story unique, are the characters and intimacy of the world they inhabit.
Where better to find that intimacy than your own family?
There are countless books that have been inspired by family events. I already mentioned Akhil Sharma’s which was specifically about his own family. I’ll also mention Ann Patchett’s engrossing Commonwealth as a recent novel which was inspired by her growing up in a blended family. Your extended family is also a great resource. They may know about your ancestors and may even own artifacts which can help in your research. Next Thanksgiving or family cook-out, get chatting to your relatives and ask them what’s going on in their lives—just don’t let them see you taking notes!
3. Famous Pop Culture Events From The Past
When I was first sent a galley of Marlon James’ 2015 Booker Prize winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, I read the accompanying press release which stated that it was centered around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. I was immediately interested without even reading a word of the text. There was something magical about ’70’s Jamaica when Marley was at his peak. The era was sexy, dangerous, and filled with great music. When I read more about it and saw that there were cameos from Mick Jagger, a CIA operative, drug lords, a Rolling Stone Magazine reporter, and the action switched from Kingston to New York, I couldn’t wait to get started. It turned out I wasn’t alone in wanting to write about it. Almost every magazine and newspaper featured James and his novel. He’d intrigued us all and in doing so gave the novel a head of steam that few other books that year could match.
The bad news is that Marley is now taken. The good news is that there’s no shortage of pop culture events that ring the nostalgia bells in thousands of readers. They can incorporate film, TV, news, and sporting events—anything that helps frame the time period of your novel and inspires both you and thus your readers to delve deeper into that world.
Jane Anne Phillips wove fiction in her 2013 novel, Quiet Dell which was centered around the actual brutal slaying of a family in the Chicago suburbs in the 1950’s. Jeffrey Renard Allen’s Song Of The Shank: A Novel (2014), was a fictionalized tale about the real life, largely unknown blind piano prodigy and autistic savant Thomas Wiggins (Blind Tom). He was born into slavery in 1849 and went on the play at the White House and in concert halls in Europe. Ryan Gattis’ All Involved (2015) which depicted Latino gang rivalry was set around the 1992 LA Riots.
4. Reading Book Summaries And Synopses
I’ve often attended writing workshops when agents have asked authors to describe their novel in three sentences or less. Sometimes I’ll browse through websites and see how some of the most successful novels can be broken down to its core elements, whether in a few sentences, or in one page synopsis. This is not only a great exercise for writers see if their work can stand up to being stripped down but can be incredibly inspiring for other writers who are trying to create compelling plots.
5. Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone
For many years I was a music journalist and record labels would pay for me to fly around the world to interview their artists. I know, tough life! I used to love those trips, not simply for the travel, fancy hotel and free food but because I was always filled with ideas when it came to writing the story. It made a huge difference compared to the customary phone interview or sterile record label conference room setting. I would often find myself incorporating snippets of conversations with a taxi driver, descriptions of the city we were in, gossipy details from backstage at the show. When you are out of your normal surroundings your antennae are raised and you’re naturally more inspired to create. You don’t have to fly half way around the world, just take a trip to somewhere you’ve never been and you see what a difference it makes.
6. Fan Fiction
If you’re struggling to come up with fully formed characters, why not borrow some? Fan fiction, where authors write their own spin offs/prequels/sequels of already popular novels or films, is probably the easiest way to get writing. You already know the characters and what their personalities are like. What a fan fiction writer has to do is create a new scenario for them and see how they’ll react based on what you already know. Theoretically, you have a potential audience hun-gry to take a look. Don’t think that fan fiction is just for amateurs. Fifty Shades of Grey, one of the best selling novels of all time, started out that way as an homage to the Twilight vampire novels. It first surfaced on a small website with no agent attached and then proceeded to hit the stratosphere.
There are dozens of websites that publish fan fiction. One of the best known is wattpad.com, which carries user written fiction about absolutely everything you can think of—celebrities, video game characters, YouTubers. Its latest trend is fiction in the form of text messages known as chat stories. Sure, it’s not Nabokov but it’s fiction, easy to write and can be oddly addictive. Stories that have appeared on the site, which is free to use, have since gone on to get major book deals become TV series and major movies.
7. The Day Job
Most people want to become writers so they can quit their day job but the day job is where a writer might receive their greatest inspiration. Anytime a disparate group of people are brought together, placed under stress, and forced to react with one another, you are bound to get something you can use in your writing. Even the most banal and boring jobs can produce great drama. Case in point, “The Office”. Ricky Gervais used his experience of working mind numbing office jobs to create some of the most memorable television ever made because so many people could relate. We all know what it’s like to work for an annoying, egomaniac of a boss, so how much fun must it be to satirize them?
A year ago I was given a writing assignment that required me to work as an in-house writer for a real estate publication. At first I was unsure about the corporate nature of the job but it was decent money to put words on a page and most writers will tell you that can be a rarity. What a wellspring of inspiration it turned out to be. I sat next to a good-looking Chinese/American millennial lady going through relationship drama. Across the room was an aging hipster who seemed to spend as much time on his Tinder account as his work computer and my supervisor was a cool, gay Latina who used to play soccer for Venezuela. There was also a single Russian mother who was an avid kick boxer and blasted thrash metal on her headphones. I’m sure if they were all writers they’d have a suitably apt description for me too. Spacey Anglo-Indian writer who became morbidly depressed when his soccer team lost! So now you know, the next time an agent reads your manuscript and succinctly tells you not to quit your day job, it might be the best advice you’ve ever received.
If variety is the spice of life, Jeff Vasishta’s writing career is a vindaloo. As a music journalist with Rolling Stone, Yahoo, and Billboard, he’s interviewed Prince, Beyonce, and Quincy Jones. Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, along with Richard Price and Ann Patchett have been quizzed by him for Interview Magazine and he also writes about gentrification for amNEWYORK.