There Is No Muse: Where Writers Really Get Their Ideas

Creative writers dread the question, “Where did you get your idea?” I was asked this question recently and answered it as honestly as I could. But in fact, I’m not sure the question has an answer. Ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. They come from our imagination, from the whispers of forgotten memories, from our own experiences, from our friends’ experiences, from books and songs and movies. Writers draw their stories from the amalgam of their lives.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve told myself stories. Author J.D. Rhoades says it’s like having a movie playing continuously on the inside of your forehead. I can’t understand having a brain that doesn’t work that way. So I don’t quite understand what people want to know when they ask where I get my ideas. I’m torn between giving a simple, concrete answer or a more theoretical one that reveals the artistic process.

In the mind of a creative writer, ideas are like a throng of brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange screaming for attention. Novelists don’t write because they get ideas—they write because they need to get rid of ideas. They write because an idea is burning a hole in their skull, and it won’t stop until they let it out. And if you’ve never had that experience, then my telling you in a simple, concrete way where I got my idea won’t get you any closer to understanding where stories come from.

But do people who ask that question really want to know where stories come from? I don’t think so. I think they want a simple answer so they can nod and think they understand a process so mysterious that no one can ever understand it. They want an answer that gives the illusion that the artistic process is linear and predictable, when in fact it’s dark and chaotic.

This concept that a Muse from on high touches you with her magic, and suddenly an idea bursts forth, is a fallacy. The imaginations of creative writers are constantly churning. At some point, we grab an idea from that fermenting brew and channel our energy into making a full-blown story or novel out of it. One thought builds on another until a world is born. And I think that’s true regardless of the author’s preference for sensing or intuition. Sensing types may be more drawn to stories that come from something concrete—like a saga from their family’s history—while intuitive types might prefer more imaginative stories like fantasy or science fiction. But I don’t think either type suffers from a shortage of ideas. We suffer from a plenitude of them.

Related posts:
Incubating Your Fiction Ideas
Writing and Creativity: Going Outward to Go Inward

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication

The Myers-Briggs theory teaches that we each have preferred ways of communicating. But our preferences may not be the best way of making the message clear to the audience. When writing, we have the luxury of editing what we wrote. Not so in speech. Either way, misunderstanding can ensue when we don’t adequately consider the needs of our audience.

Sensing vs. Intuition

Often, preference isn’t about what we do, but the order in which we do it. For instance, when I’m writing a scene for a novel, I start with the dialogue. Once that’s in place, I’ll add gestures, facial expressions, and movement. Setting and sensory detail come last, because sensing is my inferior function. That part of the scene doesn’t have meaning for me until the rest of the scene is in place.

But the setting elements of the scene must come first for the reader. Readers can’t immerse themselves in the scene until they know when and where it’s taking place, and which characters are there. Is the environment light or dark, quiet or noisy? Are the characters happy, angry, or frightened?

So, too, in spoken communication, Continue reading “There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication”

Punctuation and Personality Type in Fiction

In his blog post The Great Semi-Colon Debate, author James Scott Bell says that semicolons should be avoided in fiction. I agree to a point, but I wouldn’t ban them altogether. If used skillfully, semicolons can reveal character in dialogue and internal monologue.

In my own fiction writing, I associate certain punctuation marks with the speech patterns of certain personality types. These aren’t hard rules, of course. But here’s my list of punctuation marks and the personality types that go with them.

Semicolons: INPs

INFPs and INTPs communicate with the world through extraverted intuition. Intuition naturally sees all ideas as connected. But as introverts, the INPs think before they speak. This combination of tendencies leads to sentences that are long but carefully constructed; the semicolon is the best punctuation mark to communicate this quality.

Comma splices: ENPs

Continue reading “Punctuation and Personality Type in Fiction”

Incubating Your Fiction Ideas

Do introverted writers have an advantage over extraverts when it comes to developing story ideas?

In her classic book Becoming a Writer, author Dorothea Brande admonishes writers against discussing their story ideas with others:

Your unconscious self … will not care whether the words you use are written down or talked to the world at large. If you are for the moment fortunate enough to have a responsive audience you often suffer for it later. You will have created your story and … will find yourself disinclined to go on with the laborious process of writing that story at full length; unconsciously, you will consider it as already done.

Most introverts should have little trouble following this advice. During early drafts, they like to work in isolation. But extraverts prefer to develop their ideas through talking about them with others. So how can extraverts follow their preference without killing their passion for the story?


Neuroimaging studies suggest that introverts are more likely than extraverts to engage in self-talk. When developing a story, try talking to yourself, whether out loud or inside your head. Take notes of the conversation you have with yourself. Get your ideas on paper—don’t let them vanish into the ether.
Continue reading “Incubating Your Fiction Ideas”

Using Personality Type Theory to Develop Fictional Characters

index boxIn her 1929 novel Murder Yet to Come, Isabel Briggs Myers used her knowledge of personality type in creating her fictional characters. The novel won the national Detective Murder Mystery Contest, beating out a work by Ellery Queen. Her success suggests that personality type theory can add depth to fiction and help authors develop more believable characters. But doesn’t the author also risk stereotyping characters? What’s the best way to use personality type in writing fiction?

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing.” In my experience, starting with a personality type in mind is the hardest way to create a character. It limits you. You end up making choices based on personality type rather than story. A novel is an organic thing. If you don’t let it evolve naturally, it will never breathe.


What does your writing say about you?

magnifying glassI got a hit on my blog based on the search, “Do you think it is appropriate for people to be judged based on their writing?” It’s a great question from a philosophical standpoint. But it may be an even better question from a technical perspective. What does your writing say about you?

Magazines make it seem so simple. Tell them your favorite dessert or 90s rock band, and they’ll tell you what sort of person you are. Maybe there will be some science behind it. Maybe the descriptions will be just general enough to have a sliver of truth that applies to everyone. But writing is more complex and personal. It should be a better indicator of personality, right?

The short answer is, probably not. Students and beginning writers don’t have the skills to control their message. Their work lacks subtlety and nuance. As a result, their expressions may sound much stronger on the page than they intend—stronger, in fact, than the writer feels. Newbies also have little understanding of audience reaction, so their prose can elicit a negative response that they never expected. And by definition, they’re still learning grammar, usage, style, and form. Mistakes are natural, and not a good indicator of potential.

Intermediate writers have a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses. They understand audience reaction, but they haven’t yet mastered all the skills needed to create the desired effect. They may overcompensate—for instance, by adding too much sensory detail because they naturally tend toward the abstract. And in areas where they excel, their writing is polished to suit the purpose of their prose. It may sound natural, but chances are, they crafted it to sound that way.

Experienced writers may adopt a persona in their writing. They may appear to reveal private details about themselves or their mindset, when in fact they’re using practiced techniques to create an impression or to manipulate audience reaction. They may play devil’s advocate. They may use irony or satire. They may express an opinion that’s the opposite of their own because someone’s paying them to do it. (After all, writers have to eat.) They may be writing according to the requirements of a particular genre that doesn’t allow them to reveal their true self. Or maybe they’re private people who don’t want to reveal their true self.

Writing is controlled communication. It’s impossible to tell which elements of a written work express the writer’s personality; which are the product of craft; and which are artifacts of the writing process. To judge someone based on their writing is misguided at best. The purpose of writing isn’t self-revelation. The purpose is to transfer knowledge from the writer to the reader. And in that space between writer and reader are truths and falsehoods that neither could have imagined on their own.

Writing and Creativity: Going Outward to Go Inward

Over the past six weeks, I’ve been doing something I rarely do in the evenings: watching television. Mainly the History Channel and NatGeo—I’ve learned a lot about how the earth was formed and what John of Patmos was really writing about in the Book of Revelation. I suppose I could feel guilty that I haven’t gotten as much writing done as I otherwise would have. But I don’t.

Why? Because writers need to replenish. It’s easy for writers to get locked up in their own heads. If their inward focus becomes too extreme, they won’t have anything interesting to write about. Or they’ll keep writing about the same things over and over again, with no new ideas to freshen their work.

By exposing myself to subjects that I rarely encounter in my own life—like earth science, history, and theology—I reignite my curiosity. I doubt that I’ll have use for these subjects in my writing. But they’ve gotten me thinking in new ways about human resiliency. Will our race be wiped out by a giant asteroid hitting the earth, or perhaps by an epic battle between good and evil on the fields of Megiddo? I’m skeptical.

I believe humans can, and will, overcome anything—maybe not as individuals, but as a species. The record of our time on earth demonstrates how we continually adapt to the challenges we face. This is what drives me. At the core of my fiction is a fervent belief in human resiliency—a belief I want to share.

It’s good for writers to be reminded of why they write—and to remember that the themes that permeate their writing grow out of other, seemingly unrelated parts of their life. New ideas and experiences nourish you as a writer. Take the time to embrace them.

Do you have any tips on how writers can renew their creativity? Leave a comment!

Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability

Good design makes reading more relaxing.

Self-publishing has made it easier than ever for authors to get their words into print. However, many authors of self-published books have little or no training in page layout. The design principles of desktop publishing can help you improve readability and customer satisfaction. Help build a loyal following with these six techniques:

1. Use white space.

When you’re paying to publish a book, every square millimeter is precious real estate.  But white space isn’t wasted space. White space gives the readers’ eyes a place to rest. More importantly, it gives their mind a place to rest, so they can reflect on what they’ve read. This enhances the learning process so that readers will retain more.

To provide white space, use adequate margins.  Favor short paragraphs over long ones. Consider page breaks at the end of sections. The small increase in cost will dramatically improve readability. Continue reading “Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability”

Breaking the Rules: Question Marks in Dialogue and Informal Communication

When it comes to writing, rules can be a wonderful thing. They help ensure consistency, and they relieve writers from having to make endless decisions about mundane questions like which punctuation mark to use. Sometimes, though, usage rules can get in the way of clear communication. In creative writing or informal communication like email, writers have the freedom to reject those rules if they don’t find them useful.

The rules say to use a question mark in the following situations:

  • At the end of a direct question: Whose meatball is that?
  • To express doubt or uncertainty: Leona was born in 1960[?], which would mean her current age is 49.
  • To express confusion or disbelief: You call that a sandwich?

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, a “courtesy question” does not require a question mark. For example, “Will you please remove your shoes before entering the sanctuary” is a statement, not a question.

In Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner puts it this way: “A question mark follows every question that expects an answer.”

Sometimes, though, I expect an answer even if I don’t phrase the sentence as a question. Consider the following: “I wonder if I have time to stop at the post office before lunch?” This is the reverse of a courtesy question: it’s a question phrased as a statement. What I mean is, “I want to stop at the post office before lunch. Do you mind?” But this phrasing makes it awkward for someone to say, “I’ve got a 1:00 meeting.  I was hoping everyone could be at the restaurant by noon.” So I cloak my desire in an absent sort of wondering to make it easier for someone to tell me no. Continue reading “Breaking the Rules: Question Marks in Dialogue and Informal Communication”

Hooking the Reader: It’s Not Rocket Science

I hate to contradict Rodgers and Hammerstein, but the beginning is not a very good place to start. Whether you’re writing a biography or describing a bird, the best place to start is with the most interesting features.

Before naturalist Roger Tory Peterson came along, a typical description of a robin started at the tip of the beak and ended at the tip of the tail. It wasn’t until you were halfway through the description that you learned a robin has a red breast. Peterson changed that. As the inventor of the modern field guide, he used descriptions that focused on distinguishing characteristics, so birders could accurately identify different species.

Likewise in a biography, start out with what makes the individual unique. Here’s an example of a rather uninspiring biographical note from a portrait at the San Diego Air and Space Museum:

Wernher Von Braun
Rocket Scientist
Born Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912. As chief scientist at the Peenemunde
Rocket Center in Germany, developed the first long range ballistic missile, the V-2.

Before I even get to the interesting part (that he invented the first long-range ballistic missile), I’ve already stopped caring. Impatient readers might stop reading. I’d rewrite this note as follows:

Wernher Von Braun
Rocket Scientist
Developed the first long range ballistic missile, the V-2, while chief scientist at the
Peenemunde Rocket Center in Germany. Born Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912.

In the very first sentence, give readers something to care about. Capture their imagination. Propel them into the second sentence, then into the third. Today’s readers filter the mass of material that confronts them. You have a few seconds to convince readers that your story, article, or paper is worth their time. Don’t waste a sentence. Don’t waste a word. Compel them to read.