Weekend Edition – Idea Math for Writers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Writer = Idea Machine

From "a little market" via Pinterest

From “a little market” via Pinterest

If someone asked you to name your stock in trade as a writer, what would you say?

Your knee-jerk response might be “words.” Words are the building blocks of our stories. They are like the painter’s pigments or the sculptor’s clay.

But, are they really your stock in trade? No.

As a writer, your stock in trade is your ideas.

Without ideas, there are no words. Ideas are where the process starts. They are the seeds that blossom into word-laden forests. My dad has always told me that the ideas -not perfect execution – are the thing. Anyone can learn to do a thing well, whether that thing is painting a picture, taking a photograph, or writing a story. These are technical skills you can practice and hone until you achieve a high level of mastery. But, without a good idea to drive your technical excellence, all you have is an empty exercise in rote execution. What you create will have no purpose, no meaning, no soul.

And, that’s no good.

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So, ideas. Where do they come from?

The Muse, you say? Really? I like to think the Muses are kind of like Sharon Stone’s character in Albert Brooks’ film, The Muse. (If you haven’t seen this, please watch it. It is fabulous from any angle, but from the writer’s perspective it’s especially funny.) Stone plays Sarah Little, a modern day Muse whose tactics are more than a tad unconventional. She is petulant, feisty, demanding, and – more to the point – she never actually gives anyone ideas. She doesn’t consider that to be part of her job.

So, if not the Muses, where do ideas come from?

They come from you, silly.

And, like any other skill, idea generation is something you can practice. It’s not magic or a creative gift or the whispers of those pesky Muses. Idea generation is about treating your brain like the muscle it is and working it out to improve flexibility, stamina, and strength.

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Though he is sometimes a little over the top for some people, I kind of adore James Altucher. He’s more of a business/finance/entrepreneurship blogger, but many of his ideas apply beautifully to writing. One of my favorite posts of his is The Magic of Idea Math, in which he outlines seven different ways to generate ideas:

  • IDEA ADDITION: Take a big, popular idea and add something to it.
  • IDEA SUBTRACTION: Think you’re stuck in a situation with no options? Consider your situation without the roadblocks. Just take all the “can’ts” out of the equation, and see where you go.
  • IDEA EXPONENTIALS & SUBSETS: Start with ten ideas and then add ten ideas for each of your original ten, and so on. (This, as Altucher points out, is a good recipe for writing a book.)
  • NEGATIVE IDEAS: Look at opposites and opposing forces to get a completely different perspective that opens your mind to new possibilities.
  • IDEA MULTIPLICATION: Take a good idea and figure out how to scale it through replication.
  • IDEA DIVISION: Take a good idea and divide it again and again in order to break it down into its component, “niche” parts. I picture cell division that breaks one big cell down into dozens of smaller, more specialized cells.
  • IDEA SEX: This is similar to idea addition, but more integrated. Altucher uses the example of “sampling” in the music industry. The popular term “mash-up” also applies here.

Go ahead and play around with these ideas in the context of your writing or your writing career. This is all about “thinking outside the box,” as the tired cliché says.  It’s about training your brain to think about problems (and possibilities!) in different ways.

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I use the word “training” intentionally. As I mentioned earlier, you need to treat your brain like a muscle. You need to exercise and stretch it constantly. It’s the old “use it, or lose it” idea.

My daughter and I recently discovered, courtesy of another mom, a great show from the National Geographic channel called Brain Games. The series is a fascinating exploration of how our brains work. Much of what we’ve learned by watching so far has surprised the hell out of me.

One thing that didn’t surprise me, however, is the fact that our brains are amazingly adaptive machines that learn at an incredibly fast rate, but will atrophy if not properly exercised. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that brain training falls into two categories: strength and flexibility.

Strength exercises help you hone your memory, analysis, observation, and problem solving skills. I subscribe to a great brain-training tool called Lumosity to help me with these kinds of exercises. Using my desktop computer or their handy mobile app, I play fun games that are scientifically designed by neuroscientists to help me improve these basic mental skills. It’s easy, fun, and kind of addictive.

Flexibility exercises are the ones that help you improve how creatively you think. This is where the “outside the box” stuff comes in. One of the best ways to increase your thinking agility is to “think like a kid” by removing any assumptions you have about how a certain problem “should” or can be solved. A Brain Games episode we watched recently demonstrates the power of thinking like a kid by asking adults and kids to describe what they see in an abstract drawing. Adults can usually only come up with one or maybe two ideas, while kids can go on and on (and on!) as their imaginations rev up.

··• )o( •··

That’s kind of what ideas are all about, right? Imagination. And isn’t imagination the domain of a writer?

We writers ply our story trade by repeatedly asking the all-important question, “What if?” This deceivingly simple question is the key to opening a world of possibilities. Though the process may start slowly with a grinding of the wheels in your brain, once you get going all kinds of ideas jump out at you.

“Possibilities” – you may notice I’ve used that word a number of times in this post. That’s because ideas are about possibilities. Ideas aren’t intrinsically right or wrong, they are just potentialities to be explored and tested.

And they aren’t just for stories, either. There are countless possibilities to explore in your real life, too. We often get stuck thinking about our world and our lives from only one perspective and based on one set of assumptions. But, what if we looked at our situation with the eyes of a child?  What if we used Altucher’s negative ideas mind math to remove the obstacles that we assume are keeping us from achieving our goals? What if we let our imaginations uncover new solutions to our problems?

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Your stock in trade as a writer is your ideas. They are what set you apart from everyone else. They are what capture a reader’s attention, whether you are writing fiction, nonfiction, or marketing copy. As much as you practice the craft of writing – style, voice, syntax, and all that good stuff – you must also practice the craft of idea generation. Give your brain the opportunity to stretch and play. Make coming up with new ideas part of your daily writing routine. Drop your assumptions and inhibitions and see how bizarre and silly you can get. You never know what bit of brilliance will emerge from the chaos.

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What I’m {Thinking About} Writing:

Wall art by spellandtell via Etsy

Wall art by spellandtell via Etsy

As I mentioned above, considering “what if?” possibilities isn’t an exercise that’s only good for writing stories. It can be a powerful and transformative tool for shaping your life and your writing career.

I have been working as a freelance marketing writer for almost the last decade because I asked myself, “What if I gave the copywriting thing a whirl?” I’m so grateful that the answer to that question turned out to be the successful business I’ve got now. But, even while I deeply appreciate each and every client and project that enables me to keep a roof over our heads and Boboli pizzas on the table, I can’t quite seem to stop asking, “What if?”

  • What if I tried my hand at nonfiction … maybe writing a book about writing?
  • What if I did a self-publishing experiment around a serialized story?
  • What if I offered custom stories about people’s pets?
  • What if I …

You get the idea. Sometimes we get too tied up in thinking about “writing” in only one way. We think that being a writer means being a novelist or a journalist or a screenwriter. We stop seeing other opportunities, we forget that there are all kinds of species of writers and all kinds of different ways that stories and information permeate our world and our lives. If we stop assuming that, as a “writer,” we can only exist within the confines of a very specific identity, all kinds of new possibilities open up to us.

It’s something worth thinking about.

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What I’m {Remembering About} Reading:

Jessie Willcox Smith - Mother and Children Reading

Jessie Willcox Smith – Mother and Children Reading

Last week’s Friday Fun was all about early influences on our writing. My response took me on a walk down memory lane where I recalled the books I’d read as a child. It was interesting to look back on my long list of favorite children’s and young adult reads and see some patterns in the kinds of stories, characters, and themes that I’d been drawn to. It’s also interesting to see how my preferences have evolved over the years.

But, one influence I thought of after the Friday post was published was how my mom read aloud to my sister and I right through our teen years. Though the specific stories she shared with us did influence me, what was more important was simply being exposed to and enveloped in my mother’s love of books and reading. Experiencing that passion first hand made a lasting impression that has sustained my own reading and writing ever since.

Now that I’m someone’s mom, I have spent countless treasured hours reading aloud to her, starting with picture books and graduating over the years to easy readers and novels. Now that she’s almost too old for bedtime stories (at least, she thinks so), I’ve introduced her to the wonderful world of audio books. She has spent dozens of hours this summer, listening to fantasy novels while coloring or doing some other creative activity. I just love knowing that her head is filling up with stories and adventure.

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A Personal Announcement:

By SusanBlackArt on Etsy

By SusanBlackArt on Etsy

So, in case you missed my post about the influence of “place” on writing, my daughter and I have been dealing with some upheaval in our housing situation.  I am excited to share with you today that as of this past Monday I am, once again, a homeowner. After nearly three years of house hunting, the demolition-driven crisis we were in turned out to be  just the thing to push me out of the nest, or … er … into the nest?

Either way, we found a charming cottage-style cape that is in the same neighborhood we’ve come to love over this past eighteen months. My daughter is over-the-moon thrilled, and – even though there’s some work to be done and money to be spent – I’m pretty much right there with her.

So, if my posts over the next month or so start to wander off into home-related tangents, you’ll know why. I promise to stay as focused as possible on writing-related topics, but I’m sure that some domestic themes might sneak in there. At the very least, I’m sure our mini renovation adventures will yield some worthwhile anecdotes.

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And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

Image from Pinterest

Image from Pinterest

Here’s to lots and lots of new ideas, having fun playing with possibilities, and finding (and making) your own, sweet home. 
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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52 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Idea Math for Writers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

    • Yep – it’s the “in a jiffy” part that can make you crazy! I love the idea of a daily idea practice that makes it less painful for me to generate ideas in short order. 😉

      Glad you found the post helpful. Thanks for coming by.

  1. I find its taking an idea or concept and bringing it into something worth reading by others. The idea is often just a small part of the finished product. Thanks for the post. I can’t read it all now but will catch up later 🙂

    • Yes. In the end, the kernel of the idea may be only a tiny piece of what evolved into a much larger and more complex work, but without the initial idea, the larger work would not exist. Conversely – an idea without the work to make it something worth reading dissolves into nothing.

      Hope you had time to catch up (and catch a break!). Thanks for coming by.

      • I’ve not had much chance to catch up yet. I hope to soon and I’m hoping to be posting some of my first written scrawlings soon. It’s always time that’s in short supply though.

    • Welcome to blogging! 🙂
      My advice is to write about the things that make you curious. I think it was Elizabeth Gilbert who suggested that artists trade “passion” projects for “curiosity” projects … maybe in a TED talk or something. I love the idea of using curiosity as both inspiration and fuel for our work. All comes back to that “What if?” question.

      (And – YES! – chocolate!)

  2. Thanks for sharing your advice. I don’t know whether I am a writer or not. But i do that I want my ideas to be heard and felt and responded to, like a budding flower desperate to be appreciated for its beauty. 🙂 My education is totally utilitarian and it doesn’t require any imagination. I mean engineers do not debate on ideas much, it is black or white for them. 🙂

    • Whether you are a writer or not, I can’t say, but if you want your ideas to be “heard and felt and responded to,” I’d say you are definitely an artist of some kind. And don’t despair about spending your days as an engineer in a world where things are black or white. Often, people who work in those types of jobs find that they have much more creative energy reserved to devote to other projects outside of their work than people who, for instance, work as commercial writers during the day and have to try and muster up some additional energy in the evening for their creative work.

      Either way – good luck on your journey!

      • Thank you for your reply. It means a lot. It is true that I want my ideas to be “heard and felt and responded to”. I am still discovering myself. Thanks again for your reply.

  3. Hi Jamie, what an awesome post! I am new to your blog and really loving it. The idea math is such a fascinating idea. I often find free writing is a way that helps me play with ideas when I am stuck and get things swirling again.

    • Hi! Thanks so much.
      I love free writing, but I often forget to use it. Thanks for the reminder to keep that tool at the ready, and for the reminder to PLAY! (Always a good thing!).

      Thanks for coming by.

  4. I always like reading your posts but this one was so good I was inspired to tell you so. Loved the Math angle for generating ideas.
    Enjoy your new home. I’m looking forward to reading about your renovations!

    • Thanks so much. I’m tickled to know this post inspired you to pop in and say hello. 🙂

      And thanks for the nice wishes for our new home. It’s all a little crazy at the moment, but I’m hoping to be (mostly) settled by mid to late October. Can’t wait! (And, yes – I’ll share!)

  5. Hi, love this post. I’ve been working on stretching my mind to see things differently. Today I’ve created a situation map for my (maybe) novel. I didn’t realise I was so visual – I’ve always thought that it was words that inspired me. But then, reading through your blog, I realised that I first learned to read by following a picture book whilst my mum read the words which accompanied the pictures. It was a long book for a 4 year old – a Ladybird book ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ – and I loved the pictures and then the words. Blogging, and reading others’ blogs, is really helping me to understand myself – it’s taken many years to do that 🙂

    • Hello, Ruth.
      Thanks so much for sharing a bit of your story. I love that you’re rediscovering the visual side of your creative process. Such fun! I’m glad I could play a small part in your journey of self discovery. That’s an adventure each of us is on for the long haul, and it’s always fun when another piece of the puzzle falls into place. 😉

      Thanks for your lovely comment.

  6. Great post. Reminds me of a book I found at a museum book store (my wife and I went there to “feed our muse”). “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. Most artistic endeavors simply build on the past and find new ways to tell the old human stories. This is why we always encourage writers to be good readers.

    • I haven’t read that book all the way through, but I love the bits and pieces I’ve picked up in my travels, and my dad raves about it. It’s so true that all our work is derivative in some nature, but that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Each derivative work is, in fact, a new twist on an old saw. There is always some different angle or perspective or context that makes the old new again. I agree that writers must be good readers so that they can fill their creative well with all kinds of raw materials from which to craft their own work. (Plus, it’s FUN to read!) 😉

      Hope your poetry work is going well. Thanks for coming by!

      • The poetry book is going well. Right now I have a trusted friend and family members doing an editing pass for me. Next step is find a professional editor to do an edit for me, before moving on to figuring out getting it published. Thanks for asking about it.

  7. Love this. Anytime the word “math” is inserted into any sentence, it makes me want to break out in hives. But this is such a new and helpful way to look at idea building!

    • I am also intimidated by math, but I can also kind of geek out on the order it brings to chaos. I’ve recently been hooked on a show called “Numbers” on Netflix. It’s become a guilty pleasure for many reasons including the way that the characters in the show use arcane math concepts and formulas to solve crimes. Pretty cool!

      Anyway – glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks!

  8. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Idea Math for Writers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips | speakingfromanopenview

  9. “What If.. ?” Is going to now be something I remember to ask myself when a new idea comes along. and I’m not sure how to process it. I’ve been in such a funk re: creating new content, but this post has given me a bit of a jolt. Thank you for this!

    • I love that this post may have helped “jolt” you out of your funk. That’s awesome. Truly. Thanks & good luck pondering the “What if?” question. You never know where it might lead you!

  10. I am horrible at idea generation, so your post is a ‘MUST READ REPEATEDLY’ for me 😉

    I never told you how much I enjoyed your previous blog post either, but I am going to drop a comment on last week’s Weekend Edition this week #HUGSSS

    LOVE ya
    Kitto

    • Thanks, Kitto. I have a few of those posts myself … gentle (or not-so-gentle) reminders about Big Things I need to learn. 😉

      TKS so much. Glad to have you here, always.

    • Excellent! Good luck with your seminar. That sounds like great fun. I can’t believe NanoWriMo is right around the corner again. Where DID this summer go?!?

      Thanks for coming by!

  11. You are spot-on again, Jamie. I can appreciate how much hard work and thought go into your terrific posts. You make it look easy, which reflects the caliber of writer you are! You took me down memory lane when you mentioned your mother reading to you. Mom did too. She would be dead-tired, but made the time. Sadly, the demands were so great on her time that only rarely could she indulge her love of the printed word. Perhaps part of why I write is for her.

    • That’s a lovely thought, Elaine – that you are in part writing in recognition and gratitude of your mother’s love of story and the printed word. Each of us carries our legacies in different ways, don’t we?

      Thank you for sharing, and for your lovely compliments. This weekend edition series has become quite the labor of love, and I enjoy each week’s exploration to the fullest because of people like you who come and add their own stories to the mix. Love it!

  12. Thank you for this. I love the idea-machine concept and the idea math; great tools for creative thinking. I expect to make good use of these. I think it’s really helpful to have a variety of approaches and techniques to help generate that creative, playful state of mind, particularly when old ways don’t seem to work.

    • I agree- variety is key! The same “fix” won’t work every time. Sometimes we need to trick our brains into doing our bidding by changing things up a bit. I say – whatever works! One day it might be this, the next day it might be that. It’s all good.

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  13. Really great post! Thank you for sharing Altucher’s Idea Math.

    I’m always the most motivated by the plot, I have to know what happens to these people I just met!

    Also, congrats on your new home.

    • Thanks, Morgan.
      I’m happy to share James’ concept. I think it’s just too good to keep to myself. 😉

      And, thank you for the congrats on our new home. We’re very excited!

  14. Ooh, I love your ideas about different types of writing you could be playing with. It’s true – all of the best things in our life started out as an idea…
    Wow, your mum read to you as a teenager! An image popped into my head from Little Women (one of my childhood influences) :). Truthfully, I don’t enjoy being read to, mostly because I don’t take things in well through my ears…I need to read the words with my own eyes. I actually understand a movie better if it has sub titles :). My son is like that too – at 11 he has his own taste in books and goes off and reads them. My daughter loves to be read to though, and tonight I started reading Anne of Green Gables to her (another fave from childhood). I am not sure how it will go – the language is surprisingly complex, which I had forgotten or just not realised.
    Hey, and congratulations on your new abode – may it provide security and homeliness to you for a long time to come xo

  15. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Idea Math for Writers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips | childsupportall

  16. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Temporarily AWOL | Live to Write – Write to Live

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