On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part V — The Quest


It’s been a few weeks now since the last installment in my series of posts on ideas.  And there’s a reason for that.  I left off after my post on Blindsides, Gaps, and Spinoffs, a post in which I promised that the next time I wrote about ideas, I would tackle “The Quest,” the process of forcing new ideas when you have none for your next project.

So here I am, faced with writing that promised post.  And the truth is, I have no earthly idea of where my ideas come from, much less how to force new ideas to enter my brain.  As I said in the first post of this series, “Ideas are funny things.  They come from everywhere.  They come unbidden, and will absolutely refuse to come if I TRY to force them.”  Given that I wrote that in part I, I really have some nerve promising a post about forcing ideas, don’t you think?

Is there a way to force those sparks that make us scribble down notes furiously on napkins or store receipts or the backs of our hands, the ones that keep us up half the night, staring at the ceiling, making connection after connection?  To be honest, I don’t know.  I find that the more I read, the more ideas I have:  History books, magazine and newspaper articles (online or paper), non-fiction of any sort, really.  Science and history shows on television can also lead me to new ideas.  I almost always come up with book ideas when I travel (either within the U.S. or abroad) but not everyone can afford to travel a lot, so this is not really a pragmatic suggestion.  The larger point though, is that anything that expands my awareness, that forces me to think in new ways, is likely to get me thinking about new story ideas.  But I realize that’s not all that helpful.  Either this has occurred to you already, or it’s something so idiosyncratic that it has little value.  When it comes down to it, the initial sparks that I find so exciting are elusive, unpredictable.  Pinning down the process by which they come to me is as difficult as capturing a butterfly in mid-flight.

And yet, I do believe that I can force myself to think creatively.  Yes, I’m parsing a bit here, but bear with me.  The initial spark of a book idea is, for me, a mysterious and wondrous thing.  I’ve mentioned previously that the idea for the Thieftaker series originated with a footnote that I read in a history book.  Prior to the moment I read that footnote, it had never occurred to me to write about thieftakers.   But for some time, I had been thinking about a setting for a new series — urban, somewhat seedy and perilous, more modern than the quasi-medieval worlds I had used for my previous books.  I created such a setting, and then later realized that I could find a similar ambiance in real-world Boston of the 1760s.  But even before then, I saw that combining the thieftaker idea with the setting I had dreamed up gave me everything I needed to begin work on the series.  I didn’t force the original spark — I don’t think I could have.  But I forced the book idea by combining seemingly disparate threads of thought that had been winding through my mind for months, even years.

Thinking about it, I realize that I had similar experiences with the Forelands and Southlands series.  The first inkling I had with the Forelands books came in 1997, when my wife and I traveled to Wales.  We visited Caernarfon, Beaumaris, and Conwy Castles, and while climbing one of the towers at Caernarfon, I realized that I wanted to write a book about castles.  This was very early in my career.  Children of Amarid had just come out a few months earlier, and the LonTobyn series still had two volumes left to go.  But I tucked that notion away in the back of my mind.  Two years later, a spark of a different sort came to me and I pictured a scene that later found its way into Rules of Ascension, the first Forelands novel.  This spark had nothing to do with castles, but that didn’t matter.  My desire to write books about castle intrigue was still bouncing around in my brain.  When I put the two notions together, I had my series.

With the Southlands books, I knew that I wanted to continue the story of two key characters from the Forelands series.  And I knew as well that there was a narrative thread — the legend of the Mettai — that I had mentioned in Rules of Ascension but never really picked up on in the later volumes.  When I put those characters together with the legend, I suddenly knew exactly what my new series would be about.

In the first post of this series, in a different context, I quoted Robert Frost:  “An idea is a feat of association.”  I can’t give you a proven technique for making the sparks come.  You’re on your own with that.  But I would imagine that every one of you already has plenty of what we might call, for lack of a better term, “idea scraps” floating around in your head.  Some of your ideas might already have grown into book concepts; others might still be looking for a creative home.  Maybe what you need to do is take two (or more) ideas that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, and put them together.  Sometimes an idea really is greater than the sum of its parts.  Each idea on its own might show little potential; but combine them and BOOM!

In other words, maybe the Quest doesn’t have anything to do with roaming the world (as fun as that can be) or with reading a book or watching something on the History Channel.  Maybe the Quest begins and ends within our own imaginations.  Maybe all it takes is a feat of association to turn a couple of random thoughts into storytelling treasure.

What about you?  Do you currently have a couple of old ideas in mind that you can blend into something exciting and new?

David B. Coe

25 comments to On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part V — The Quest

  • I found myself speculating on setting bits and what ifs watching The Science Channel last night. I tend to do that a lot on there. Usually, I’ll get a thought that will spark another and another until I’m suddenly banging out my idea premise into a Word doc and saving it till I can get a chance to come back to it. I love those leaps. It’s like the sparks of mad genius in movies where the insane scientist gets that epiphany that sends him running to the lab to bring his creation to life at last.

  • I agree that great ideas often come unbidden and unlooked for, but I also think that ideas can emerge from work and–by extension–from words. For me the connecting the dots process is often a talky one; I walk around chatting to myself, brainstorming ways to connect the dots I already have in ways that sometimes creates altogether new dots (sometimes brighter and shinier than the ones I started out with). This is one of the things that contracts and deadlines tend to emphasize for the pro writer rather than the hobbyist I used to be: knowing I HAVE to produce the ideas usually ensures that they come, when I might once have let it all slide while I waited for the perfect moment of inspiration.

  • Hehe! Chatting to yourself. Yeah, I think if people were watching through my front window they’d swear I was insane, pacing back and forth in the dining room talking out loud, sometimes with a look of glee, or irritation on my face. Occasionally speaking in other voices. 😉

  • sagablessed

    Actually current WIP was born from a combonation of three seperate ideas that just merged in my head. Daniel….people at work think I am crazy because I talk to myself going over dialog and so on outloud. 😀

  • Butterflies aren’t actually that fast–they top out at about 12 miles per hour. Catching them mid-flight isn’t difficult. It’s doing it without irreversibly damaging them that is hard . . .

    (And this comment is brought to you by sleep deprivation and total randomness, but feel free to metaphorically apply it to ideas. LOL)

  • Like saga, my current WIP was also born from three separate ideas I had floating around for years. I tend to get ideas from watching other people and imagining backstories for everyone I see and then plotting out what happens next in their lives. Airports are perfect places to get ideas since emotion and drama are usually so close to the surface anyway, but now that I don’t travel for work I’ve had to rely on walking around in malls, the local college campus, downtown, even the grocery story. I have to be careful not to get too carried away and look like a crazy stalker, but so far no one has complained :)

  • Daniel, we have “The Living Planet” series on dvd, and I find watching those episodes to be incredibly thought-provoking. I haven’t come up with a Living-Planet-induced series yet, but I figure it’s just a matter of time . . .

    A.J., I do much the same thing, but I do it in front of my computer and bang out the brainstorming into a document. The reason is that I will never, ever remember anything I’m saying to myself. If I type it out, I don’t have to remember. But yes, with deadlines looming, with my own ambitions pushing me to come up with new series ideas so that I have more than one iron in the fire at any given time, I do find that I make myself brainstorm far more than I used to.

    Daniel and Donald, I do dialogue out loud all the time. My kids think (know?) I’m nuts.

    Kalayna, the image I had in mind was catching the butterfly without crushing the life out of it — take that where you will metaphorically. 😉 I’m actually a butterfly watcher (as well as a birdwatcher) and so spend a good deal of time observing their flight. 12 mph may be their speed from point to point, but they are quick, elusive and, I believe, very much like inspiration in those respects.

    SiSi, that’s a very cool way to gather ideas, despite the crazy-stalker appearance risk. I’ll have to try that. Thanks!

  • […] “Sometimes an idea really is greater than the sum of its parts.  Each idea on its own might show little potential; but combine them and BOOM!” The Summer-(Now-Fall) 2012 THIEFTAKER Blog Tour continues today with a new post at my “home blog” — Magical Words. It is another in my series of essays dealing with creative ideas and how to handle them. The post is called “On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part V — The Quest” and it can be found here. […]

  • […] “Sometimes an idea really is greater than the sum of its parts.  Each idea on its own might show little potential; but combine them and BOOM!” The Summer-(Now-Fall) 2012 THIEFTAKER Blog Tour continues today with a new post at my “home blog” — Magical Words. It is another in my series of essays dealing with creative ideas and how to handle them. The post is called “On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part V — The Quest” and it can be found here. […]

  • My ideas come from strange places. One came from staring at a fireplace. What would happen if you hit someone with a firepoker, and you got ash and dust, not brains and blood?

    My current wip came from a pragmatic idea: I edit erotica, so why not try and write it? I hear there’s money in it. Then the character became more appealing and the story shifted from erotica to something else, and then it shifted (don’t laugh and don’t worry, the erotica element is gone) to YA, mostly ’cause of the attitude and voice of the MC in my head. She is a teenager, which does explain some of her choices. I also wanted to write from the point of view of a “bad” character–someone who seriously needs redemption, so Cassie is what I got. And then I combined it with an action hero trope that I’d been thinking about for a while, and so now I’ve got a YA about a girl and some “friends” (frenemies might be a better word, or maybe just enemies) who have to save the world after everyone who could save the world is dead. It’s sort of a “you know the list of folks you’d call if there was a crisis? Avengers, Justice League, Batman, etc? They not only don’t make the list, they wouldn’t even come to mind.”

  • bonesweetbone

    For my last project, I got excited about an idea I had for an opening scene. I knew exactly how I wanted my main characters to run into each other and that was what spawned the book.

    For another, I was listening to a writing podcast about creating holidays for your book and wound up accidentally creating a story around it that I plan to polish in the future.

    It’s when I don’t know where the spark has come from that concerns me, haha!

  • David, I used to have help in the brainstorming department from the writers of my old writing group. I’d sit with Kim or Misty in Starbucks and we’d talk ideas, dissatisfactions with current projects, family problems, and we’d (I’d) come home with all sorts of new book project ideas. Now with Kim moved and Misty working a schedule that is opposite to mine, I’ve lost that. And I miss it. It was invigorating and challenging and even if nothing we came up with was immediatly usable, my creative hindbrain (Yes I know the hindbrain isn’t really the creative center of the brain but that’s what I call the creative part of me) could always find a nugget to create new ideas later. Without that creative stimulation, I am back to reading and meditation. I also use the prine and wait method. I tell my brain what I want and I go to sleep. I usually wake up with something new.

    Sigh… These methods are working. It just isn’t as much fun.

  • As I’ve mentioned before, I keep little nuggets of ideas in a little notebook of ideas. If I’m ever at a loss for story ideas (which is rare) I’ll flip through my notebook and look for unused ideas. I’ll often try and mash multiple nuggets together to create new ideas.

    Just earlier this week, after recording an idea for some stories that had recently been nagging me (I record stuff to make the nagging stop, because I’m usually busy with some other project), I flipped through and found an idea that was spawned from a dream. I read most of the entry I’d written and said to myself: “I must write this book.” But… not right now. Because I have another book I’m working on instead.

  • Emily, thanks for explaining the evolution of your idea. That’s something I haven’t really touched on — at least not yet: The way an idea can wind up so far from its starting point that its barely recognizable. Happens to all of us sometimes, and I always think it’s kind of cool to see where the creative process takes us. Again, thanks.

    Bone, right. It’s reassuring at times to be able to trace that evolution I mention above, because later on we might want to replicate the process for another project.

    Faith, I don’t think I could do that — share my initial creative process with others. It’s too chaotic, too incoherent, and too private in a way. But if that’s how you like to work, I can only imagine how disconcerting it would be to have that interaction and then lose it. As you say though, what you have does seem to be working well. And then some.

    Stephen, the notebook idea is similar in a way to my stream of consciousness ramblings on my computer. And yes, I have an idea I read back through not so long ago, only to find that I LOVED it and wanted to work on it. But like you, I have other projects ahead of it in the queue, and there’s not much I can do with it right now.

  • Two ways my quests have happened: from the feedback/responses of others, and from changing as I’ve changed.

    The idea for my finished-WIP (as in, out with beta-readers for hopefully the last freaking time) evolved a lot as I did. It started out as me wanting to write a story that could be used for Witchcamp. Then a lot of things changed: for one, I stopped being a witch. My personal spiritual beliefs changed. For another, I had so much trouble pitching the story because anytime I said it was about a witch, people either said, “Oh, does she go to school like Harry Potter?” or “Is she a white witch or a black one?” and that was *not* the kind of character or story I was writing. So that’s how I came up with “Landmaiden”. Realizing that I’d stopped writing it for other people let me change details I was so adamant at keeping. It also helped me figure out exactly what kind of person my MC was.

    It also changed because I started writing it in first-person, present-tense. I was so attached to writing it that way because that’s how the MC’s voice first came to me, but eventually it got to the point where everyone was telling me that the tense wasn’t working for them. Finally one beta-reader put it into terms I could understand, and I changed it. And oh boy, am I glad I did.

    As for my current WIP, it has a unique quest story. It started off as a one-off short story for fun, except the character stuck in my head. And would not go away. And even though the original story exists on the Internet as a cute tale, I realized that I wanted to give her a full UF novel. As I thought more about it, I realized I wanted her to be from Vancouver, not Arizona. Since I go to the States quite often, I get the chance to compare Canadian vs. American experiences, and she’ll be incorporating some of those things in her visit to Boca Raton, Florida. I also now know two people who can tell me all about Florida, one of them about Boca Raton, specifically. I also had to make a lot of other changes to the original, now that I have a greater sense of story structure. All while staying true to the original characters. So this is another case of changing as I’ve changed, and I’m glad I waited this long to write it, because I finally feel ready to do so.

  • Laura, I think it’s terrific that a) you have Beta readers who you trust, and that you’ve gone ahead and sent your work to them, and b) even more terrific that you actually listen to your Beta readers (way, way too many writers don’t take constructive criticism well). It’s not a matter of giving in to critiques, but rather of being flexible enough to see your work as others do and make those adjustments that are necessary to improve the manuscript. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • quillet

    Wow, I recognise a lot of the idea-making processes other people have mentioned, especially your own, David. I think ideas come from everything and anything we experience, providing we keep an open mind — and especially an active mind, one that’s frequently engaging with the information it processes, pushing and pulling at it and playing that little game of, “Imagine if…” It’s a bit like never having to grow up and stop playing Make Believe. Only a bit, though! It still takes lots of hard work.

  • I’ve definitely always found that the 100% sure to be effective way of NOT getting an idea is to stare at a blank page. The best way to get ideas is to do something else. Sometimes, what’s really exciting, is when you’ve given up on a story because it hadn’t been working out or you hadn’t figured out how to tell it, and suddenly the spark comes back. When I’m looking for something new I like to go back to my old projects and see if after a year or two they’re looking new and shiny and full of potential again. Then, while I’m burbling away at that, I can have a conversation and someone can make a slip of the tongue, and I’ll have a whole new plot and setting and character in my head – which I will jot down quickly, and keep in reserve for the next time I’m looking for something new.

  • Quillet, I am definitely in the never-grow-up camp. It’s one of the main reasons I love what I do. I get to make up stories for a living! What’s NOT to love?! Thanks for the comment.

    Cara, I think that this is one of the most idiosyncratic aspects of what we writers do, because I actually do like to start with a blank page. I find that works for me. But I know it doesn’t work for everyone. But like you, I do like to go back to those old stories and rediscover ideas that had excited me months or even years before.

  • Razziecat

    Geez, what’s wrong with me? I forgot to come here and usually I come here first! This is a great post. My current WIP came from an idea I had while half-dozing on the train one day on the way home from work. Not so much an idea, as an image, of a man stepping through a magical portal, carrying a younger man out of danger. I wanted to know who they were and what the danger was. I find that all kinds of odd ideas come from that sort of half-sleep. Also I love that comment you made about associations. I’m still trying to find the right “world” for another pair of characters: Tantalizing bits of backstory keep coming to me, and I know what I don’t want, but am not sure of what I DO want. We’ll have to see what else turns up in those quiet moments… 😉

  • Vyton

    David: Great post. When really strong ideas hit me **in other words, forceful ideas**, I run out a rough *first chapter* as soon as I can get to the computer. This may be similar to what you describe as *stream of consciousness ramblings on the computer.* But they exist as scraps for now. I have one scrap in particular that I have thought of combining with two separate scraps, but these are in the pile for now. I carry one of several small notebooks with me to help me *remember* stuff. The original part of my WIP came almost whole from a dream. That has happened only the one time.

  • sagablessed

    Vyton, I kept a notebook. Then after a while my room looked like a tornado threw up. So I use the PC. Much less space needed.

  • Thanks, Razz. good to see you here — better late than never, right? That netherworld between sleep and wakefulness can be incredibly fertile for story ideas. Once I’ve actually fallen asleep, forget about it; the ideas I have that come from dreams tend to be terrible. But what you call “half-sleep” is a place where book ideas happen.

    Vyton, thank you. What I jot down in my stream-of-consciousness files is way too rough to be considered any sort of a chapter; it’s much more of a conversation with myself about where the idea might be headed and what I could conceivably do with the story. But that said, we all deal with our early inklings differently, and it sounds like you’re found a very effective way to keep track of yours.

    Donald, love the image.

  • ajp88

    Tip for anyone working in an imagined world. If you’d just like to create a setting and then find a story for it, start with a map: neighborhood, city, state, country, continent, etc. Whatever the scope, map your fictionalized world. As you put in boundary lines, a thousand plot threads come into play. Why is there a boundary here separating the southend from uptown, the nation of Ciar from Dolun, etc.? Cultural? Economical? Natural landmass? The reasons for boundary markers make many interesting story ideas.

    Anyhow, one of my ideas came from really loving fictional sport in a few novels (Quidditch being the greatest example) and wanting to try something. At the time, I also knew I wanted to create a new world (so I combined the reasons for boundaries into the main narrative) and I was really into the sport of parkour and looking to try a more focused story on one main character, not multiple POVs. Wove those things together to create a new future project I’ll get to eventually.

  • AJP, yes that map advice is similar to advice I’ve given here in the past. Making maps has always been a great tool for me as I develop backstory for my world and characters. I like the idea of using sports/games for ideas, and for a glimpse into the worlds you create. Very cool.