How to Get a Book Idea

Four Parts:Finding Inspiration in Your Own ExperiencesFinding Inspiration through ResearchDeveloping Your IdeaDeveloping a Writing Routine

The inspiration to write anything, much less a book, might seem like a mysterious and fleeting thing. But one thing that most successful writers agree on is that waiting around for inspiration to strike is a fool’s errand.[1][2] It doesn’t matter whether you want to write a novel, a nonfiction book, or a book of poems. You have to discover ideas by working at them.[3]

Part 1
Finding Inspiration in Your Own Experiences

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    Brainstorm. Begin by making lists of your interests and your areas of expertise.[4] What are you especially good at? What are you passionate about? What would you like to learn more about? In addition to listing, there are several other brainstorming techniques you can try. Consider the following strategies:
    • Examine a topic from 3 different perspectives. 1. Describe the topic: What is it? What are its constituent parts? What makes its different from other similar topics? 2. Trace the topic: What is the history of your topic? How has it developed over time? What are the most significant events in its history? 3. Map the topic. What other topics is your topic related to? How is it influenced by those topics? How, in turn, does it influence those topics?[5]
    • Use similes. Complete this sentence: “My topic is like _________.” Try to list as many similes as you can.[6]
    • Visualize your topic. Create a map, a web, or cluster. First write your topic at the center of a large sheet of paper. Then, write down as many related topics as you can around that central term. Which topics are similar? Which topics are very different? Finally, circle the most interesting terms on the paper and draw lines connecting related terms.
    • Use the classic journalist’s questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?[7]
    • Author Neil Gaiman recommends that you ask yourself “What if?” and that you complete sentences that begin “If only…” and “I wonder,” “What if I woke up one day only to find out that I was a giant cockroach?” or “If only there was a simple way for busy parents to organize their lives.”[8]
    • As you brainstorm, resist the temptation to censor yourself or to edit as you write. Instead, write everything down. Some ideas will be terrible, but you’ve got to weed out the bad ideas in order to arrive at the good ones.
    • Do this for a set amount of time, say, 15 minutes. Don’t stop until that time is over.[9]
    • It may take several brainstorming sessions before you feel like you’re getting anywhere. This is normal. Don’t give up!
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    Freewrite. Examine the lists you’ve made during your brainstorming sessions. Identify the most interesting ideas. Working with one idea at a time, write—without stopping—about that idea. In freewriting, the only rule is that you write without stopping. If you don’t know what to write, then you should write, “I don’t know what to write!” At this stage, the goal is to generate material as much material as possible. Think quantity over quality.[10]
    • As with brainstorming, the point here is to write and keep writing. Give yourself a set amount of time and don’t stop until the time is up.[11]
    • Experiment with your approach. Try writing a story, a poem, or an autobiography.[12] Trying on different techniques at this stage can help you see your ideas from different angles.
    • Limit yourself to one idea per freewriting session.
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    Keep a journal. Writing in a journal everyday is a great way not only to keep track of your experiences but also to reflect on those experiences. Reflecting on your experiences can help you understand them. Try asking yourself questions like, “Why did my co-worker get so angry when I complimented him on his haircut?” or “What did that strange dream I had last night mean?”
    • Since a journal is private, you can confidently experiment with different styles, voices, and ideas, without worrying about too much about mistakes.
    • Give yourself a set amount to write—say one page—everyday.
    • See How to Keep a Journal for more information and advice.
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    Share your ideas with others. Consider joining a writing group or taking a creative writing class. Share your ideas with your friends and family. Keep track of the responses you receive in your journal.

Part 2
Finding Inspiration through Research

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    Gather information about a topic. Food writer Michael Ruhlman attended the Culinary Institute of America so that he could write The Making of a Chef. If you’re trying to learn something new or write a how-to manual, this might seem like a no-brainer. However, even fiction writers and poets will need to learn the facts about a topic before they begin. James Joyce’s descriptions of turn-of-the-century Dublin in Ulysses are so detailed that there a walking tours that follow the main characters’ travels throughout the town.
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    Look for gaps in an existing conversation. As you find information about a topic, you’ll begin to get a sense of what others have written.[13] Try to notice what’s not being said. Ask yourself, “Do books currently on the market have the most up-to-date information?” “Is there a perspective that hasn’t been covered yet?” Brian A. Klems, author of Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters, researched parenting guides for fathers and noticed that there were none dealing with raising young daughters.[14]
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    Identify a problem. Then try to solve it. The entire field of self-help literature does just this. See, for instance, Dale Carnegie’s best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People, which adapted to principles of psychology to help readers master social situations.
    • You can discover problems in your own life (“Why am I always late for work?”) or in your research.
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    Study the market. What books have been best-sellers? What do these books have in common? Why have these books been so popular?
    • Even novelists and—perhaps to a lesser extent—poets need to know what the book market is like.[15] Besides, you don’t want to write the same thing that someone else has already written, do you?
    • Capitalizing on a trend can be risky. You might be viewed as a copycat.
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    Examine different genres. Research can provide a great deal of inspiration, not just in terms of content, but in terms of form as well. As you research, you’ll familiarize yourself, not just with what’s being said about a topic, but also with how it’s being said. For instance, you might discover several novels dealing with your topic. Rather than abandoning the topic altogether, you might ask yourself, “Has anyone written a book of poems about this?”

Part 3
Developing Your Idea

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    Focus your efforts. By this point, you should have not one but several good ideas to choose from. Now you’ve got to choose one of them to pursue further. Be honest with yourself about which idea has the most potential and will keep you interested.
    • Ask yourself, “Can this idea be sustained for the length of a book?” Books vary in length, yes, but an idea for a book needs to be a “big” idea.
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    Choose your genre. Are you interested in writing fiction or nonfiction? In the former category, you could write a novel or a collection of short stories. In the latter category, you could write a biography, an analysis, a history, a how-to manual, or a reference work. Sometimes authors find great success in adapting topics for an unusual genre. For instance, W.G. Sebald’s work combines elements of fiction, history, biography and photography. Other authors like Stephen King and Don DeLillo, in 11/22/63 and Libra, respectively, have experimented with what’s known as historical fiction, fictional accounts of actual historical events.[16]
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    Consider your audience. Great book ideas could come from taking a well-worn book type and adapting it for a new audience. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has made a career out of writing about science for general audiences. Ask yourself, “Who might benefit from learning about this topic?” “What might they like to know?” “What kind of background information will they need?”

Part 4
Developing a Writing Routine

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    Devise a plan. Writing a book is a serious undertaking and can be overwhelming. This is why it’s important to break up the process into smaller, more manageable tasks. Even if you feel like you have all the time in the world, setting goals is an important first step in getting things done. Give yourself daily, weekly, and monthly goals.[17]
    • Specific goals are much more easy to achieve than abstract ones. Rather than telling yourself, “I’m going to finish a chapter this week,” you should tell yourself, “I’m going to write 3 pages this week.”
    • Reward yourself for meeting those small goals. Write 500 words, then go for a walk or play with your dog. [18]
    • Be realistic about the amount you can accomplish. Planning too much in single day will only discourage you.
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    Write, and write often. Establish a regular writing routine and stick to it. Set aside a block of time each day during which you can write uninterrupted. Plan to write for a certain amount of time (say, 1 hour) or up to a certain number of words (1000).
    • Write at the same time everyday.[19]
    • Write regardless of whether or not you feel inspired to do so.[20]
    • Consider signing up for a writing reminder service like the one at
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    Start a blog. Rules for My Unborn Son by Walker Lamond, This is Why You’re Fat by Jessica Ameson and Richard Blakely, and Stuff White People Like by Christian Lander are just a handful of the blogs that became books. See How to Start a Blog for more information.


  • Give yourself enough time. Good ideas take a while to fully form. Stick with it.[21]

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Categories: Better Writing