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Looking for Lightbulbs: How to Generate Story Ideas by Liam Brown

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Article by Liam Brown ©.
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We’ve all heard the old Edison quote about genius being one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. But how do we go about unearthing that elusive one percent?

You know the cliché. The tortured artist moping around their studio, waiting for the cartoon lightbulb above their head to flicker on. The former genius whose muse has sadly eloped, leaving them artistically (and financially) high and dry. Well I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it. I’m not saying that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been too sad or mad or drunk or distracted, or just too plain lazy to sit down at the keyboard and force myself to write.  But for all of my excuses and procrastination and lack of motivation, I don’t think I’ve ever struggled to come up with something to write about. If anything, the opposite is true. I tend to have at least a dozen ideas for novels constantly jostling for position in my head at any one time. And so the issue becomes trying to pick the winning horse from the pack and then committing to them for the long race ahead…

Equestrian metaphors aside, it’s only recently, while writing my most recent novel, that I’ve stopped to think about where these ideas actually originate from. And while it’s not always easy to pinpoint the exact moment a story germinates, there are some habits I’ve picked up over the years that certainly seem to help make my brain-soil more fertile. And so, in time-honoured click-bait format, here are my top five tips for getting your mind juices flowing:

1: Get on the road to nowhere

Climb into your car and drive in circles all night. I’m serious. There are scientific studies that show the brain is more receptive to creative ideas when we’re both relaxed and slightly distracted (apparently it gives your subconscious a chance to leak out and do some of the heavy-lifting for you). If you don’t have a car, walking or running is another great way to shake out some ideas, and the fresh air will probably help clear out the cobwebs too. Failing that, a long hot shower is another classic great place to find your muse. Whichever you choose, just make sure you keep a notepad close by to scratch out any ideas you have. Which brings me to my next point…

2: Become a thought hoarder

Write everything down. Scraps of dialogue. Character sketches. Opening lines. Good locations. Most of all, you need to be open to these ideas at all times, not just when you’re sitting at your desk to write. Whether you’re in bed, at work, on the train, in the supermarket, you need to be prepared to get it down before it evaporates into the ether. No matter how slender an idea seems at the time, you never know how valuable it might become later on. Especially if you…

3: Learn to eat yourself

Over the years I’ve, I’ve come to believe that cannibalism is the greatest gift going. We’ve all been there, ten-thousand words into a story, when the engine suddenly falls out. The temptation of course is to gnash and wail. To douse your laptop in gasoline and take a blowtorch to the keys. Stop. Take a moment and mumble to ten. It’s okay. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked away from something only to realise years later that it contains the exact scene or phrase that I need. Or how about taking a character from one steaming wreck of a failed story and transplanting them to the scenario you’re currently working on? I’ve heard this called idea-sex before, but I prefer to think of it as simple recycling. As my grandma used to say about butchering a pig: ‘Nothing is wasted, not even the eyeballs…’

4:  Work it through

So you have an idea, but you’re not sure if it’s any good. What do you do? You crack your knuckles and get to work. I find I need to write at least a few chapters before I know what I’ve got and if it’s worth anything. And if, as is more often the case, I find it’s not working, sometimes I need to strip it right back to the skeleton of the idea and try and work it through all over again. Or sometimes there’s simply nothing else for it but to drive out to a deserted lay-by, dig a shallow trench, toss the story in, and cover it over with wet leaves and gravel. Then, you can return a few months later and dig it back up and look at it objectively to see if what you’ve got is worth resuscitating. Or perhaps you just need to think of a new idea altogether. In which case, there’s for it but to…

5: Jump off a cliff

Why the hell did you want to be a writer anyway? It certainly wasn’t for the money, otherwise you’d have studied computer coding like everyone else. No. You wanted to write because you had a story to tell and you thought you were the one to tell it. So take a step back and think about it. What is a story? When you shake away the dirt and debris and hold it up to the light, it’s simply a case of taking an interesting person or persons and put them in a horrible situation. And then making it worse. That’s all there is to it. A character and a situation. If you’re really struggling to think of one or the other, try turning on the news. Personally, I find small regional papers have the weirdest people stuck in the strangest circumstances. Why not try taking one of those articles as you’re your starting point. And then all you have to do is close your eyes, my friend. Take a breath. And jump…

(c) Liam Brown

About Broadcast:

Inception meets Black Mirror for the YouTube generation.

The idea behind MindCast is simple. We insert a small chip into your skull and then every thought, every feeling, every memory is streamed live, twenty-four hours a day. Trust me – within a few months you’ll be the most talked about person on the planet.

When David Callow is offered the lead role in a revolutionary new online show, he snatches at the opportunity.

Rapidly becoming a viral sensation, David is propelled to stratospheric levels of celebrity. However, he soon realises the downside of sharing every secret with the world.

A prisoner to both his fame and his own thoughts, David seeks to have the chip removed, only to discover the chilling secret lurking at the heart of MindCast, and the terrifying ambition the show’s creator has for him.

Broadcast will fry your mind and haunt you until your dying day.

Order your copy online here.


Liam Brown is a writer, filmmaker and former life model. His debut novel Real Monsters was published in 2015, and was followed by Wild Life in 2016; both were long-listed for the Guardian's Not the Booker prize. He lives in Birmingham with his wife and two children.

Follow Liam on Twitter @LiamBrownWriter or visit him at www.liambrownwriter.com

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