A lot of writers are obsessed with originality, believing their ideas for stories must be, you know, 100% original and unique. Not me; I generally settle for 33% unique, with the other 66% being freely appropriated from everything else in the known universe. And while your exactly ratio of originality-to-borrowed might vary, the fact remains: There’s nothing new under the sun, and if you think you’ve got a story no one’s told before you simply haven’t read very widely.

If you’re struggling for ideas to write about, one possible problem is you’re being too precious about originality. Forget it. Try this: Take a very shopworn story idea, and just write a story. What gives your fiction value isn’t the elevator pitch, it’s what you add to it. So, for example, write a story about a wife and her lover who plot to murder her husband for his money. It’s so ancient! It’s so cliché! So, figure out how to make it sing.

Another thing to try is to cannibalize yourself.

They Taste Just Like Lady Fingers

We all have failed novels. I have several dozen. They all failed for different reasons, and they contain at least some good writing and interesting ideas, like a rotten plank that can be ripped down to healthy wood. If you’re currently not doing well in the inspiration department, why not go back through the graveyard of your failures and see if there’s a novel that had a great premise but didn’t work in execution, or a novel that took a wrong turn somewhere and died right under your hands. Start over.

Or, look for discrete sections in your failed novels that hum, that sing—and see if you can rip them out of their rotten narratives and combine them, or use them as the core for a whole new attempt, lathering on fresh words until you have a healthy novel.

Will it work? Sometimes, sure. Not always, certainly. But if you don’t have any ideas now, what do you have to lose?

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