"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: Inspiration - where does it come from?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Inspiration - where does it come from?

Update: Apparently all of my business files – including the hundreds of manuscripts submitted to Magellan Books – are sitting in a storage facility somewhere unspecified while my computer hard drives are being fixed.

But I did manage to get the computer I’m working on now up and running. It’s actually less than five years old but seems ancient – its fan makes as much noise as if it were powered by steam! But at least this laptop works (as long as I don’t unplug it) and I can answer emails again and put out today’s newsletter…

Of course the hardest part about using a different computer is having to load all the software you’re used to using – and remembering all those darn passwords!


This week’s article is:

Inspiration – where does it come from?

I gave a talk last Friday about inventing fiction stories. One of the exercises was to come up with new characters on the spot, with a view to creating a plot around them.

What became clear was that most writers invent characters in the following way:

  1. Based on someone they know / knew
  2. Based loosely on themselves
  3. Based on someone they’d like to be
  4. Based on some other author’s character
  5. Based on a flash of inspiration

All of these ways are valid – as long as it’s a starting point – depending on what you do with the character once they’re ‘invented.’ Because originality is not in the inventing process, it’s in the process of development after invention. What you do – and the way you do it, is what makes your character unique.

Getting inspired is not like shopping for groceries. You can’t go down to the store and buy a bag of inspiration, 500 grams of great ideas or an assortment of original thoughts.

Also, you can’t wait around for inspiration on a street corner like you were waiting for a bus. You gotta use your brain – because deep inside, all the ideas you want are already there, waiting, perhaps dormant, hibernating, ready to pop into your consciousness.

All you have to do is somehow access them…

What’s also clear is that once you begin to study ideas and compare notes with other writers – as happens in TV and movie writing for instance – you quickly realize they’re ain’t no such thing as originality anyway. Everything – and I mean everything – has been done before. Everything. Did I say everything?

Inspiration is really just a new combination of previous ideas neatly re-jigged to appeal to the current zeitgeist – a handy German word meaning ‘spirit of the times.’

The ability to seem inspired is about other people’s perception – and not really about new ideas at all.

But seeming original is easier – all you have to do is know your stuff… your influences, your genre and pretty much everything else that other people in your field are doing. The more you know – the more educated you are about ‘stuff’ – the more likely you are not to repeat someone else’s good idea.

Let me explain.

Put ten writers in a room for an hour and ask them to brainstorm an idea. In the first ten minutes, the majority of people will come up with things that have already been done, developed and explored – usually unbeknownst to them.

The minority, who have probably studied their genre well, will be fiercely trying to find new angles on old ideas – using their lifetime of acquired knowledge as a springboard for new scenarios.

At the end of an hour, the ten writers will usually agree that the best idea was the one that seemed new in the current intellectual climate – but is often an old idea re-jigged and repackaged to appear more relevant than its previous context.

So – inspiration is not the ability to come up with new ideas.

No – it’s the ability to take disparate ideas and create new blends that have a modern flavor.

And how does one develop this knack of seeming original – and coming up with a stream of inspired ideas?


  1. Know your stuff. Study everything, follow other artists, stay informed.
  2. Be inventive. Imagine alternate contexts for each new idea you process.
  3. Remind yourself daily you are an inspired thinker – and remain flexible.

You don’t run out of good ideas when you commit to looking for them constantly.

You don’t get less inspired as you get older. But it can seem that way when your mind stagnates.

It would be nice to think that people got wiser as they got older but have you noticed this doesn’t seem to happen? No, people often get more rigid, more stuck in their ways, more prejudiced and intolerant as the synaptic grooves in their brains deepen.

The trick to staying young (at least mentally) is remaining open – to new ideas, to new ways of thinking and above all, being non-judgmental.

Flexibility in your thought processes is the key to acquiring a stream of inspired ideas.

Once you think you already know everything there is to know about an issue, a type of person or a series of activities, your usefulness as an original writer is compromised.

Good writers remain open and adaptable. True wisdom comes from the ability to merge experience with elasticity of thought.

In the same way as there are no new ideas under the sun, there are also an infinity of new and inspired ideas bombarding you every day, but only if you keep your eyes, ears and mind open wide and receptive enough to notice them.

Keep Writing.

Rob Parnell
The Easy Way to Write

PS: There's another great review for my free novel, Willow, here.

No comments:

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!