I need more ideas! Where do they come from?

I've been doing well selling my writing but I seem to be running out of inspiration.

Published June 2, 2008 10:31AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

You seem to have been answering a lot of questions from writers lately, but at the risk of annoying your nonwriting readership I'd like to ask another one. (At least this one extends to other professions as well.) Where do ideas come from? I seem to be out of them. I am a journalist with a specialized beat. I've been freelancing for close to two years. Scared of failing, I approached the first year with a lot of energy and ended up earning slightly more income than I'd ever made from the staff jobs I'd held. This last six months or so, though, I feel like I've lost steam. I'm still disciplined; I keep regular hours and never turn on the TV during the day. But my work volume is down, and I don't know how to turn it around.

I write often for certain less prestigious publications for which I'm a regular contributor. Although they don't have newsstand flash, they pay well and the editors usually come to me with ideas that they know I'll be able to tackle well. Occasionally, I write for more prestigious publications that reach big audiences. I'd like to do more of that, but clearly these publications are not knocking at my door begging me to grace their pages with my words.

I need to convince them both that I can write and that I have ideas worth writing about. Every now and then I have a spark of brilliance and pitch a great idea that goes somewhere. But I need to be pitching weekly, not bimonthly, if I want my career to go anywhere. I read the breaking news, I take walks to clear my head, I browse at the library ... yet I seem stuck, unable to manufacture the bright, shiny new ideas that I need to compete. Am I just not an idea person? Or is there a way to become one?


P.S. For the record, I know you're a fan of writers groups, but there don't seem to be any in my area, especially not targeting my particular specialty.

Dear Thoughtless,

Although I love the question of where ideas come from, I think this is more about business performance and selling.

You already have what it takes. You are doing amazingly well. To go freelance and actually do better than you were doing on staff -- that's amazing! To have done as well as you have, you must be quite good at selling already.

There are only so many ideas in news. You cannot manufacture news. You can only come up with so many angles. So I don't think you need more ideas. I think you need to sell the ideas that you have. You need to compete. News is a finite resource and many, many people have access to the same news.

Since you have done well so far, you are in a good position. Now you need to become an even better salesperson. You need to fine-tune your sales operation. You may need to gain a more sophisticated and detailed intelligence about the markets you are selling to and your competitors. You may need to learn how to respond quickly when one market suddenly contracts -- how to take advantage of it instead of being thrown off by it. You may need to learn how to break into new markets, such as those lucrative, high-profile publications, and close tough deals.

So I suggest you seriously take this on as a business thing. Learn to be a salesman.

And learn it from people who know how to do it.

Buy some books and take some courses.

Don't try to learn it from me! I am the worst salesperson in the world. I can think this stuff up but I can't do it.

Heck, when I was freelancing, I had ideas! You should hear some of the ideas I had! But I was a freelance disaster, a half-mad surrealist masquerading as a journalist, playing a diabolical, self-defeating game for his own obscure purposes! I was terrible! I did not understand the market and the business, but, even worse, my own psychological needs got in the way. I was asking favors. Please, please will you let me write a piece for you? Will you please let me write in my strange, noncommercial way even though you are a commercial publication? Please will you risk your job and your standing among your colleagues to help me, even though there is no bond of trust between us? Because I'm special? Please?

That is not sales. That is begging. I was begging.

(Gawker must be loving this.)

Anyway, I was not a salesperson.

You, on the other hand, are obviously doing it very, very well. You would not be making money as a freelancer if you were not already selling your ideas and your ability. So, again, I suggest you approach this as a coaching and learning opportunity. Move forward. Tweak the machine. Learn more about selling. Learn advanced selling techniques. Learn how to sell to the harder publications. Learn how to solve problems in sales. Learn how to close the deal.

How do you do that? I have no idea. But when you find out, let me know. I need to learn how to sell, too. And then, maybe we could sign up for the same course, and you could give me a ride? See, I have this book ... and this publishing business ... and these workshops ... and am organizing these creative getaways ... want to give me money? (See how bad I am?)

I should ask my life coach.

(Did you know that if you are engaged in a creative business in San Francisco, the city government will give you free life coaching? Now there's a story idea!)

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