“Where do you get your ideas?”
I’m asked that question all the time. People read my books or merely find out what I do for a living, and immediately they want to know where my ideas come from. And I never have a clue as to what to tell them.
I have a friend — a writer and editor — who keeps a jar with her for just such occasions. The jar is empty and has a label on it that simply says “Ideas.” So when she’s asked that question, she pulls it out and says, “Why, I get them from this jar of ideas!” People never really know what to make of it, but she and her writer friends think it’s hilarious.
The fact is, I’m not really sure I could trace the origins of any of my ideas. I suppose they come from inside my head, but they often demand some kind of external stimulus. Conversations with friends are a great breeding ground for ideas. So are newspapers, or issues of The New Yorker, or NPR broadcasts, or episodes of some show on History Channel or Discovery. Sometimes ideas come to me when I’m lying in bed waiting to fall asleep. Sometimes they come to me when I’m hiking. Sometimes a single idea leads in short order to a five book series; sometimes an idea leads me nowhere at all.
In other words, there is no science to this. None at all. At times I can will myself to come up with a story idea, but that’s pretty rare. Earlier this year, a friend approached me about writing a story for a dragon anthology. I’d never written a dragon story in my life, but in the span of 30 seconds I had an idea and knew exactly how the story would unfold. The result, a story called “The Dragon Muse,” may well be the best short story I’ve ever written. The anthology will be out next spring. That same weekend, I was approached about doing a second story for another anthology, and though I soon had an idea for the story’s opening line, the story itself never really went anywhere. It’s been five months, and I still haven’t written it, and I’m not sure I will.
On the other hand, that second anthology invitation has sparked a much bigger idea — a New New-Shiny-Toy that I’ve started developing just this week. I’m not entirely sure where it’s headed, but I’m excited about it. It’s different and quirky and strange and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I expect it will lead to at least one book, probably several. It’s also the reason I’m writing about ideas for today’s post.
I think what bothers me about the “Where do you get your ideas?” question is that it assumes a conscious process, and that’s not the way ideas work, at least not for me. If I could make myself produce ideas at will, I’d probably be a much more successful writer; I’d certainly be more prolific. I don’t know why the dragon idea struck me as it did — if I did know, I’d bottle that energy and sell it. I don’t know why the second anthology idea didn’t pan out for me in short story form, and I REALLY can’t explain how it suddenly turned into a book or three. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that my fellow MW writers would have as much trouble explaining the source of their ideas as I have explaining mine. And I’m sure that our MW readers have experienced the unexplained, unsolicited epiphany. One minute you’re minding your own business and the next you’ve got a fantasy trilogy knocking around in your head.
But what do you do with those ideas once they come to you? Well, yeah, you write. But for me at least there is an intermediate stage. My ideas rarely come to me fully formed. More often they’re half-baked. And so, since this New New-Shiny has come to me, I’ve been doing something that I’ve recommended to you all before and will keep on recommending: I have been doing stream-of-consciousness brainstorming sessions on my computer developing my idea and turning it into something more cohesive. If the idea begins with a character, I’ll start trying to build a world around him or her. If it begins with an idea for a magic system or something of the sort, I’ll start developing my characters. If it begins with a plot idea, I’ll try to build characters and worlds around that plot. Not all my ideas survive this process. There are some that seem great at the outset, but simply don’t lend themselves to further development. But most ideas benefit from this process; I can count on one hand the ideas that have come to me so well-formed that they don’t need to be worked on in some way.
Not every idea is a good one. Not every idea ought to be turned into a story or a book. I’ve been known to wake up from a dream thinking “Wow! That’s a great story idea!” only to realize after, say, three minutes of thought, that there is no story there at all. On the other hand, truly good story ideas are precious, at least they are to me. I would no sooner waste a story idea than I would throw away an unopened carton of Ben and Jerry’s Super Fudge Chunk. I can’t force myself to come up with ideas, so I have to take good care of my ideas when they show up.
What about you? How do you come up with ideas? And how do you develop them when they occur to you?