Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Pathological Need for Ideas

Something That Might Free You…

I have heard lately from a few beginning writers who are afraid they won’t have enough ideas. Now I hate to admit this, but I have no ideas. Haven’t really even thought of an idea for a story or novel for decades now.

Never occurs to me.

I just write books, get inside the character, let the character tell the story, and find the ending when I type it. And as many of you know, I often just start with a title that is a mash-up of two other titles. Just a trigger.

This is called writing into the dark.

Yet I have heard from writers afraid to move on, to finish a book, because they might not have another idea. So the fear holds them rewriting or researching over and over the one “good” idea they think they have had.

A tragic way for the critical voice to stop a writer and I have seen it more thousands of times than I want to admit.

In April I was doing those thirty short stories and about sixteen or stories in I found myself writing about this really fun detective superhero in my Poker Boy universe. Not a clue where she came from. I ended up writing thirteen or fourteen more stories from her point of view. Really fun and the stories will come out later this winter.

But if I had been worried about ideas for those thirty short stories, I never would have written any of them and never would have found this nifty new character.

So a suggestion. If you are one of those writers who needs to make up an idea first from the critical brain because you are afraid of sitting down and writing without an “idea” of some sort, just stop.

Ideas will also kill your writing when you are going along and suddenly a third of the way in you have this critical voice need to know what happens next. Your critical voice has convinced you that you can’t write another word without knowing what happens next.

I have talked with many writers about this who are trying to write into the dark for the first time. When that fear and drug-like need to know what happens next hits you, ignore the desire to figure things out and trust your creative voice and write the next sentence.

And then the next.

I know, I know, telling you to write without ideas is more against all common knowledge then telling you to write one clean draft instead of rewriting. Some of you have now thought I have gone too far. (grin)

But I am just saying that if you really, really, really want to have fun telling stories, free yourself from the pathological need for an idea. And just write a story, letting your creative brain tell you the story as you go along.

You might be shocked at what happens if you have the courage to try this.

Ideas really can be deadly to your writing. Who knew? (grin)


  • Linda Maye Adams

    That did happen to me on my first novel. I got stuck at the 1/3 point and thought rewriting would solve the problem. I also thought maybe I should toss it out, but there was one voice saying that I’d already done so much work on it (with all those many revisions!), but another voice was in a total panic. I had no more ideas!

    But it’s also a a skill that’s hard to learn. My first workshop was that one. I’ve now launched off of something as simple as Hollywood 1940s mystery – no murder – private detective.

    And there’s a lot of fear associated with it. Not just writers. I’m on a productivity message board, and periodically someone will ask “How do you store you ideas?’ Everyone is shocked when I say I don’t bother. Most say they don’t get many, so they have to record every single one so they don’t miss out on any.

    But the idea is also often presented as the silver bullet. If you get the right idea, the book will get published. If you get the right idea, the book will become a best seller. I still remember one guy, new to fiction writing, who had about 2-3 ideas. He was trying to either copyright or trademark the ideas (sorry, don’t recall what any more). I looked at the description of them and thought Hollywood had done them a bunch of times. Low hanging fruit ideas. And probably that fear of ideas being scarce drove that, and also writers who fear it will get stolen.

    • dwsmith

      Sometimes I get one of those “That would be a fun story” ideas… It usually passes like bad gas pains.

      Ideas like that are like waking up in the middle of the night with a great idea, scribbling it down, going back to sleep, and not being able to read your own writing or remember the idea in the morning.

      The real ideas, the real stories, come through character in a setting working to solve a problem. It really is that simple. But you never know the idea until you sit down and start telling the story.

      And right now most of your little voices are shouting “He’s full of shit!”

      Yup, maybe, but not full of ideas that get in the way of having fun telling stories.

  • Philip

    You’re on a roll this week, Dean. It must be the magic of Vegas.

    I didn’t realize you could take Writing Into the Dark this far. Perhaps I need to re-read it.

    But it makes sense because I’ve found the second I come up with an idea, my next question is: “Yeah but is it marketable?” Obviously, that’s the nasty critical brain.

  • Michael W Lucas

    I had the “ideas problem” for a while. I think my solution fits into your language pretty well.

    It’s the same creative voice/critical voice problem, at a slightly different angle.

    Ideas are everywhere. Ideas are common as Cheerios in daycare. But we crush them.

    Suppose you’re hanging out with friends. Someone mentions the movie Lethal Weapon, and a little voice might pop up saying “I’d like to do the old, serious cop with his new, lunatic, bigoted partner, but IN SPACE.” Your critical voice will pop up straight away to declare that a stupid idea. Do that enough, and you train yourself to think that you have no ideas.

    Switch yourself from crushing stupid ideas to encouraging them. Deliberately tell yourself “Good brain! More of this, please.” It requires watching your own thinking. It might take a while, depending on how self-aware you can be. Pretty soon you realize your brain can pour out endless ideas, and that the only thing between you and a story is your butt in a chair.

    When you sit down at the keyboard, will you write that buddy space cop story? Maybe. Maybe not. The important thing is, you’ve trained your brain to idea on demand.

    My most successful books are from what any critic would call my dumbest ideas. I mean, orcs during Prohibition? By Literary Standards ™, that’s pretty dumb. But some people love them…

  • Law

    I’ve found that the more I write, the easier it becomes. I have the complete opposite problem. I have too many stories to tell, they just won’t stop coming to me. I think those kinds of writers just need to read more and write more. Most writers I know who say that are the ones looking for that one big story idea that will make them rich and famous, forgetting that ideas are cheap and it’s the execution that really matters.

  • Diane Darcy

    I can totally see that! Once I start writing, magic just shows up.

    I write romance. My friends and I used to go to a charm store. We’d look at the charms, pick one that sparked an idea, and go home and write it. I’ll often look at tropes now. Pick one that sparks an idea and then write it. Fake fiance. Fairytale. Enemies to lovers. Love Letters. He’s really an alien, haha! It doesn’t take much, just something that ignites that spark. It usually only takes a few minutes and makes it fun!!

    • dwsmith

      Diane, Agreed… I think instead of talking ideas, writers should talk triggers. Titles trigger me writing. They don’t trigger ideas, they trigger the typing to get to the story, nothing more.

  • Edward M. Grant

    I think a lot of it may come from an early-writer belief that you must have that super-duper, never-been-seen-before, unique idea for your story or it will just suck and no-one will ever want to read it. Whereas a quick look at the average bookstore shelf would tell you that 99% of successful books there are based around ideas people have written thousands of times before, and it’s the telling that counts, not the idea.

    Certainly that held me back for a long time when I first began writing seriously. Even though, when I go back now and read many of the stories I loved at that age, I can tell the writer just began with an interesting scene and interesting characters and was making the rest up as they went along.

    • Janine

      I think it’s the belief that only “original” ideas should be bothered to deal with. Fellow writers and agents talk about how original ideas sell and non original ones don’t, when that, to an extent is not true. It’s interesting and compelling stories, and I think the original ideas is more of a short cut if anything for those looking to get rich overnight.

  • J.A. Marlow

    Put me on the list of a writer who can’t live long enough to write all the little characters and scenarios that pop into their head. I don’t write down ideas very often, and those that I do will usually turn into a story rather quickly. Because if they are exciting to me enough to start writing it down, then it means the story is compelling *to me*. And since I write for myself first, well then…. LOL.

    It just doesn’t compute to me when a writer tells me they have a hard time coming up with story ideas. Good grief, they are everywhere! Get out of your own way and just start writing!

  • Janine

    I honestly think that the big problem is that writers are told by advice articles and other writers that “only a few ideas are worth writing about”, saying that “readers are tired of these ideas, don’t attempt them, they are boring”, so it leads to lots of self doubt in your stories as “too cliche” to even explore. It’s apparently all about original ideas only. Though if that was true, why is Hollywood rebooting old franchises more than ever before it seems like? It feels odd that writers are being told that cliches and old hat don’t sell and are not worth it, but everyone else is cashing in on old hat and cliches.

    For instance, they are telling YA writers that “chosen ones” are not worth telling anymore for the most part and audiences are tired of reading about them. But seems like there’s still a high interest. I wonder if part of this is to sabotage other writers…

    • dwsmith

      There are only seven plots (or eight or eleven or fourteen, depending on who you ask) and they have all been done, so why bother? How silly is that? What makes those plots original and what you copyright is your presentation of the idea, the story, the characters.

      I had a kind of guideline. When the “they” told me to not do something, I went right ahead and did it. Usually sold the story or the novel.

  • jaran

    I’m a beginning writer who has a scrivener file with 100+ ideas all categorized 🙂
    I have only finished one story since I started down this road of learning fiction a few years ago. It was my first story and I powered through telling it just to see if I could. It sucked bad because I did not even understand point of view when I wrote it.

    I read somewhere that Stephen King is against idea’s as well.

    My biggest issue is I started down this path because I want to escape working for other people so the critical voice takes over and laughs at every idea that is not the next Hunger Games.

    I have read Writing into the Dark, but it did not really set in that I just need to start with a character solving some problem until I read this post.

    I’m just over 40 so it’s now or never. I have to try this way because nothing else is working for me.

    Thanks for the post!

    • dwsmith


      Find Heinlein’s Rules and climb on them like a bucking horse and hold on and never miss. Treat them like they are rules to die for and never miss. (You will fall off at times, we all do, but climb back and and keep riding.) You do that and you will be fine.

      And 40 is young. So no worries there.

  • Chong Go

    I’ve been discovering that while I have some great ideas, it’s the characters, setting, and interaction that makes the story interesting. The big idea itself, well, it’s kind of sterile without the rest. It feels more and more like a Mcguffin.

  • emmiD

    This: “free yourself from the pathological need for an idea. And just write a story ….
    Ideas really can be deadly to your writing.”

    The writers that I encounter (in person and online) who are narrow-eyed on ideas are the ones desperately seeking a quick way to make the big bucks. They’re looking for a unique twist on an idea like LOTR / Potter / Hunger Games etc. After a few years and the obligations of job & family, they get bitter and stop writing for the sheer joy of exploring character and telling story.


    • dwsmith

      And sadly, emmiD, if they realized that Potter and Hunger Games were huge rip-offs of very old ideas, they would be shocked. The hidden English boarding school idea goes back hundreds of years before Potter, actually. Hunger Games was done numbers of times 50 or so years earlier as well. What made them special was their telling, the author’s voice, the approach to the old idea.

      And sadly again, you are right about what happens to them, all because of the fear of ideas and feeling like they must come up with an original one, where if they just wrote and had fun, they would have lots of stories that felt to readers they were original because of the telling of the story, not the idea.

      Just hard to say that ideas are a deadly thing in fiction writing. Part of the myth I haven’t been willing to even flash a sword at before now. (grin)

  • Vera Soroka

    Well, I never ran out of ideas. There were a few times when I thought what am I going to write but was short lived. One month ago I set up a little challenge. Today marks the day I completed 30 stories in 30 days. I set this up not to see if I can do it or not but to create a distraction from another distraction I’ve had in life. It was interfering in my creative space. It was a short story/flash fiction challenge. I labeled that even though it wasn’t really. I’m a huge fan of flash fiction. It was wonderful! I started my day off with this and it got me back into writing my novel and doing edits on other projects. I did have to switch it up as it was interfering with the novel writing so I put it at the end of the day. Which was great. It was almost like getting a treat at the end of the day. I went into many worlds across the genres. Science fiction, fantasy and whimsical. It was like opening a door and you didn’t know what was on the other side waiting for you. it was exciting. I met all kinds of characters and five series came out of it. I didn’t expect that.
    Anyway I’m hooked and plan to keep going. Might not write everyday but if I can do at least three stories a week, that will be fun. I will take this first batch and send them out to markets. This will be new for me. I completed about 18 short stories and I did find some markets for the flash fiction. I don’t expect to sale any but it will be an experience.
    So, I highly recommend this. You have to let your imagination have freedom and not be afraid to open that door to see who is on the other side.

  • CEC

    Just my perspective, but I view having a key idea as a comfort crutch. For me, it’s typically a ‘what if?’ question that I decide I want to answer for myself. Sometimes the answer is the story, sometimes the characters bring up other aspects and the question becomes a subplot to the main story. Either way, having that idea/question to answer gives me something to tell the critical voice to shut up when it’s trying to shout down my creative voice.

  • Alex

    One thing I’ve been doing since starting my own “story a week” challenge is using improv comedy apps, like, for locations, relationships, and keywords… though sometimes I have to keep shuffling them to find a combination with the right “spark.” It’s definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone at times–I’m not sure I would have written a story about a farmer going clothes shopping with a scarecrow if it weren’t for these suggestions. On the other hand, I’ve also been trying to learn not to get too attached to the exact suggestions–I’ve written one story based on “Caller/911 Operator” where the 911 operator barely turns up beyond the first paragraph.

    Lately I’ve also been interested in the word-association process Ray Bradbury described in one of his essays:

    “It was with great relief, then, that in my early twenties I floundered into a word-association process in which I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head. I would then take arms against the word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my own life. An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be finished and done. The surprise was total and lovely. I soon found that I would have to work this way for the rest of my life.”

    • dwsmith

      Exactly like Bradbury in my reaction. I am always surprised and entertained by what comes in a story, and I can’t imagine writing now with “ideas” at all. Just set the character off and see what happens. Great fun.

      • Alex

        Well, I tried a word-association exercise yesterday and started building a short story out of it; then today I realized it actually wanted to be a novel, or at least a novella.

        It’s fun to be surprised.

  • BDS

    When you strip most great stories down to the “idea” they sound pretty silly. “A bunch of brave rabbits scamper around the countryside. Oh, and one of them is psychic” sounds absurd, and completely unmarketable to boot. But the actual story, WATERSHIP DOWN, is a beloved classic.

  • Andrew Hickey

    I just want to say that this resonated very strongly with me, and came at just the right time. I’ve been trying to write more fiction for *years*, and have put out four novels (three of them in the last year) and sold a handful of short stories. But I’ve been hamstrung by the need for ideas — especially since the stuff I like to read in short form is not the pulpy adventure stuff that Mr. Smith talks about (not that there’s *anything* wrong with that — that’s meant as a descriptor, not a criticism), but rather people like Greg Egan or Borges who are all about having one big central magnificent idea in a story. And I’ve been terrified to sit down and write anything that isn’t another Library of Babel or something.

    But for the last couple of years I *have* been writing fiction of a sort — I’ve been being commissioned to write YouTube videos, little stories aimed at eight-year-old girls, about mermaids and princesses and that sort of stuff, often two or three of these a week. And that’s started to dry up and I started hunting around a week or two ago for another source of income. And I realised — I’d *never* sat down with “an idea” when writing those videos, and there was no need to with short stories. Just sit down, open up a blank document, and force myself to start typing.

    Got four short stories written and submitted to paying markets last week. That’s more than I’d done in the past three years.

    • dwsmith

      Andrew, amazing how in our own lives we all have examples of how this works, yet when we make fiction “important” all of the learning goes away and the myths and critical voice comes roaring in. Sounds like the “important” problem will be something you will battle for a long time.

  • Chong Go

    This has been nagging at me for the last week, and I think I finally figured out why “the big idea” doesn’t work (for me at least): It comes really close to being outlining. In order to get the ending I want, I almost have to set a course, and force the characters to stick to that. No wandering off on their own, which means none of the surprises that I like when writing fiction.