In the past few months, I’ve been doing more and more talks, particularly to students, and one of the questions I’m often asked is some variation of: Where do you get your ideas?
Now, when it comes to fiction, I’d have no idea how to answer this. The idea fairy? Santa brings you some if you’ve been very, very good? Prayer and tears and the blood of sacrificial virgins?
Luckily, for nonfiction, there are ways to sniff out the most amazing stories just by training yourself to look for them. Think of it this way: There is a story muscle in your brain, and if you exercise it enough, you’ll eventually get to a point where that sucker is just rolling along all by itself, pumping stories into your imagination like adrenaline through your veins, getting you fired up to start writing.
Here are a couple of ways to train that muscle:
- Every time you watch or read the news, ask yourself what’s missing. Whose voice isn’t being heard? What aspect of this aren’t we seeing? How can you add value for readers?A few months ago everyone was getting worked up over the Richard Huckle case, and stories of paedophilia started popping up everywhere. What was missing among all the stories of people’s experiences and all the “how to protect our children” and “how to spot a paedophile” stuff that everyone was producing was what you’re supposed to do once you actually do spot a paedophile. So I wrote it, and it went on to be shared over 3,000 times on social media.
GILA was borne out of the realisation, not that we’re NOT talking about mental illness in Malaysia, but that we’re only talking about it in certain ways, and that there were many voices out there not being heard.
Switch your point of view. If you’ve been zoomed in, zoom out. If you’ve been focusing on the star, turn your attention to the supporting cast, or to the bit players. Try to see what everyone else is missing.
- Social media goes beyond selfies and food photos. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, are great ways to see what people in your age group and community care about. As a writer, there’s no better way to figure out what’s trending with your audience. If everyone, for example, is sharing articles about paedophilia (I know this is a weird thing to harp on, bear with me), then you know what’s relevant to your crowd. Your task is then to find the twist, the missing voice, the kelainan.
During the last SPM exams, Twitter was abuzz with some…questionable questions in the Moral paper. While everyone was reporting on it, nobody was explaining how exam questions are even decided on in Malaysia. Boom, article idea!
- Get yourself into the hunting mindset. If you view the world as always having stories to tell, the stories will reveal themselves to you. Honest! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read news articles that have tacked on throwaway lines towards the bottom of articles that made me stop and think “Hang on. Hangonaminute. There’s a story there.” Off the top of my head, I can think of two: A primer on the Official Secrets Act, and one on the Social Contract.
- Don’t be a news snob. Read everything. Read the pro-government papers. Read the anti-government papers. Read the independent websites. Read the far left, read the far right.You don’t have to agree with everything you read, but taking in everything everyone else is saying will help you see connections you may have missed, gaps that need to be filled, missing links, trends.
I wish I could tell you there was an easier way, but as with most things, the idea-getting bit of writing requires some solid effort on your part. The good news is once you have the idea, the rest is easy-peasy. HAH! No, it really isn’t. But don’t let that put you off. There are few things as satisfying as a really immersive, well-told story that just happens to be entirely true. Go out there and find one worth telling!