michelle gunnin writing advice in a world of topics two drops of ink

Writing Advice: In a World Full of Topics

By Michelle Gunnin


As writers, we are always looking for material.  It is a built-in instinct for us to keep eyes and ears open for the next fantastic idea.  We carry laptops to coffee shops.  We always have a pen nearby in case we are struck by inspiration.  We have written hooks on napkins and the back of business cards.  Our active imaginations are part of the package which comes with our propensity to take in our surroundings.  In school, we got in trouble for daydreaming, or doodling, or both.  We see things differently than others, and we are insatiably curious about, well, everything.  You would think all of this would translate into millions of topics to write about.  However, sometimes it only clutters our desks with scraps of paper and half-finished ideas.  If we don’t have some kind of system, in short order, we will likely be buried under a mountain of our own making with nothing to show for it.  Add to that the pressure to always be producing something new and different, and it can spell disaster.  Our minds are constantly thinking of dialog, or bullet points for our next piece, or our current one. It puts us in the position of being so tuned in that we are tuned out to the immediate opportunities, or to simply watch what is going on around us.  What if we didn’t clamor for material?  What if instead of typing away in the coffee shop we just sat back and took in the ambiance?  Instead of always chasing the topic, I think there is something to be said for patience and waiting for the topic to come to us.  Here is an exercise for finding just the right topic.

  • Put down your pen/computer. For once try NOT to think of what you want to write next.  Don’t carry your computer with you.  I know it will feel like you have lost your right arm, but just give it a try.  No pencils, pens, or paper for this exercise. Try to clear your head of your deadlines and current works in progress.  It might sound impossible, but I have confidence in you.
  • Go places. The coffee shop is not the only place in your life.  Take a walk/hike.  Go camping.  Find a new town near you and explore it.  Tour a museum.  Find a local fair.
  • Do not write. Withhold the desire to put pen to paper.  No hooks.  No figurative phrases. No prepositions.  No outlines.  No bullet points.  No characters.    Keep your head clear of all things writing.  That secret pen you stashed away in the glove box – leave it alone. No purchases of writing paraphernalia while you are out and about either.
  • Go more places. Take a trip to the beach or the mountains. Walk around a mall.  Go to the airport.  Visit a theme park.  Meander into a winery. Travel to a foreign country.  Visit an elderly relative.  Make this as elaborate or as simple as you want.  The more place you go the better (hint: It’s called living your life).
  • Pay attention. This seems pretty basic, but in our rushed and highly scheduled world, it is a rarity to give your full attention to anything.  There is always a text, or a call, or a calendar to demand your time.  There is laundry to be done, projects to complete, a party to plan, or dinner to make.  While you have put away your computer, you might also want to put away your phone to avoid selfies or the notepad.  Okay, maybe just put it on silent while you are venturing out, but do not cheat by trying to capture the images in any way.  In these places, you are only allowed to turn on your curiosity.  I say that as if you could ever really turn it off!  Simply, let your mind capture the images and details.  Don’t write them down, and don’t think about how you will write them down later.
  • Be patient. This is the hardest part.  After you have gone to all the places, wait.    Do not rush anything.  You may have come across some eccentric person in your outings, the perfect character for your new novel.  Resist the urge.  There may have been an obscure artifact in a museum which fueled your desire to do some research.  Stop.  Do not do it. Be patient.
  • Let ideas germinate. Soak them.   Reflect.  Converse with your spouse or a friend about your experiences.  Think, about the things and about the small, non-descript details. What made that river trip so great?  The crazy people you were with, or the flow of the river?  What fascinated you about the potter throwing a pot?  The person or the science of the wheel?  What made the fishing expedition worth it?  The reeling it in, or the dinner afterward?
  • Find ONE that resonates. NOW, pick up your pen/computer and write your list of ideas.  No developing them yet.  Just a quick list of the experiences, broken down into specific pieces and details. Do not elaborate.  Once your list is finished, put it away.  I can hear you thinking, ‘What?  Put it away?’    Put it away, for a day or maybe two.  Block off some time before you pull it out again, and go to your writing place.  Read the list and pick the one that jumps off the page at you. That one is your topic; it found you.
  • Develop it. Finally, it is time to develop your topic. Create your character.  Research your subject matter.  Design a storyline.  Write an outline.  Follow your usual process for elaborating and writing your piece.  You will find it has more depth because of the extra time and thought put behind it.  You are more intimately involved with the topic because you didn’t just rush to grab it. You let it grow within you from your experiences. It will flow more naturally, and maybe more quickly than usual because you have bottled it up for a bit.  Like a soda bottle that has been shaken, when you take the top off, the release from the pressure is like a signal to your brain that it is time to pour it all out. Your readers will thank you.
  • Create a system. I can hear you thinking again, “All of this for ONE idea? This is so time-consuming!”  Yes, it is.  Consider it an investment in your craft.  Technically, there is more than one idea on your list, but only one jumped out at you.  That doesn’t mean that the next time you look over your list another one won’t do the same.  The key is to create a system for filing those ideas away.  No more little scraps of paper, unless you decide to get a file box for them.  I have an idea list and a working list.  The idea list is where I go to pull from when I need new material.  The working list is items that are under development.  My system may not work for you, so you need to find one that will.  In reality, this activity creates a wealth of usable ideas so it is worth the time it takes to NOT write.


This activity can take an ordinary experience and make it into a wonderful story.  For me, it took a curious little lady in Paris and made her into a story like this one: The Bag Lady, Hopefully, it can help you find a new topic or character too.

Monthly Contributor: Michelle Gunnin

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Michelle Gunnin – an everyday woman who is a writer, a wife, a mom of four nearly grown children, a teacher, a colleague, a sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, a caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. She has more questions than answers, and she writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her. You can follow her blog at michellesmosaic.wordpress.com

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  1. I get many ideas from real-life. As I have said before I cannot write in a coffee shop, it is a place to observe and see how people interact and react. I have been known to write while waiting in a doctor’s surgery (the location is typically boring). My wife is not a writer, so I have to leave the tablet at home when we go out together, but that is okay because our relationship is more important than the writing.

  2. Hi Michelle, the similarities I read for processing our thoughts for the purpose of writing amazes me. We kind of do all the things you mentioned, but utilize them or incorporate them as we see fit. Loved how covered this topic. John.

  3. Michelle, thank you for this wonderful advice. I appreciate this validation of a process I rely on, yet, at times, doubt. I begin each day with prayer and meditation, after which, I write one prayer poem.
    I believe that most writers, like myself have thousands of thoughts swirling about, often during inopportune times, like the shower. I use to fret, wondering how I would remember a thought or image. But I am learning to trust that the writing that must be written, will, in fact, surface from the recesses of the mind.And I am also learning that there is no need to be territorial with my thoughts, after all, where do mine begin and yours end?
    Having been a potter for over forty years, I have learned the value of stepping away from the wheel, returning to it, and even becoming one with it. I believe the joy of the creative process comes form “mixing it up” and trusting in one’s own voice. Thank you again for your wonderful insight.

  4. Michelle – The timing on this is perfect! I have been trying and trying to think of what to write about this weekend for my first fiction piece!
    And I haven’t been able to think of anything.
    I love the ideas in your post and I naturally do some of them – but you have put a major twist on them – no writing!!
    I honestly don’t know if I can go anywhere without a pen or my phone or iPad or some sort of writing device. I have found myself in coffee shops or restaurants without a pen and – well, let’s just say it closely resembles a panic attack! I have to borrow a pen from someone….the waiter, the next table, etc. This will be as bad as caffeine or sugar withdrawal (both of which I have successfully survived in the past).
    But I’ll give it a try. I was thinking about your “Bag Lady” as I read this! Your story was wonderful!
    Are we allowed to ask people what their story is? I absolutely can’t resist asking people about themselves when I go out. 🙂 I promise I won’t write down any answers, phrases, words or a even a doodle to remember by. I won’t have anything to write it on – except my phone of course, which is always with me, even in bed! lol!
    Love this challenge – do we get a prize?!!

  5. Great advice Michelle. I think we can apply to this to our every day tasks too. Too often we’re trying to do too much at once. It’s time to give the current task full devotion. This will help you remember it later. The older we get the more we need to focus on one thing, so we remember what we did.

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