Where Did My New New-Shiny Come From? Beats Me

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“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?

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26 comments to Where Did My New New-Shiny Come From? Beats Me

  • My ideas? I get them from everywhere. Most of them start with one loose, vague notion. Often it is a What if? Like for example my Historical fantasy. That is actually three different what ifs : What if Circe’s spelled animals become weres when the spell was lifted? What if there is a monster-hunting society in Ancient Greece? What if the Mages views weres as abnominations?
    I am the first to admit that all three of them are cool enough on their own, but the synergy of them gives me goosebumps.

  • Mine will come from anything, anywhere, anytime. Usually, I’ll be thinking about one thing and it will meld with something I hear or see or read which in turn melds with something else, etc, etc, until I have a seed of a story. Then as I develop that story, usually, the whole thing falls apart but in turn suggests a new story with the same or similar characters. That story often ends up being the one that gets written. Lately, this has been happening while I’m reading to my son at night which makes it very hard — I don’t want to stop the flow of my reading but then I want to stop and think for a few minutes to put things together in my head. I’ve yet to put my son on serious hold, but a few times I have asked him to give me a few seconds quiet before I continue. He’s usually good about it.

  • Yeah, Mikaela, I’m a What-ifer, too. It’s amazing to me sometimes how far those two little words can take me. And yes, that is a very cool set of what-ifs you’re working with. Best of luck with it!

    Stuart, I know exactly what you mean. Often my ideas need to go through several iterations before they actually become something usable. But that, for me at least, is a fun process: sifting through the ideas, figuring out which work and which don’t, finding that shining nugget that will become something precious and brilliant. Or at least marketable…..

  • David, you are so right when you say it isn’t a conscious process. And to say *it just happens* isn’t right either. It *is* a process. I could teach someone the format of a writing device, but the process of creativity…? I’ve never been able to put words half as well as you just did.

    I had tea with a writer pal today, and we were talking about just the lots-of-ideas-but-not-ready-to-write part of writing. The pre-pre-pre-writing part of the process. I want to think over what we discussed and maybe on Wednesday I’ll build on your thoughts.

  • I’ll look forward to your Wednesday post, Faith. It is a very difficult process to put into words. I was discussing it with a friend this morning (after he’d read this post) and something he said prompted me to comment, without really thinking, that it’s the most purely creative part of the writing process. Once we’re to the point of actually writing the book, we usually have an idea of where we’re going; the boundaries of the project, at least, are clear to us. But in these early days it is all spark and possibility and revelation. Don’t know if others will agree with me on that, but having thought about it more since that conversation, I remain convinced.

  • Sarah

    I vaguely remember that psychology uses the term “deep structures” to describe the processes that make up a lot of why we do what we do without being aware. I’m convinced that’s one of the reasons my creative ideas seem to come from no where. Really they are just slowly swimming to the surface, like bubbles in tar. Sometimes an outside event will pop a bubble, sometimes one just finally makes it to the surface. My first story sale was a flash fiction that I wrote in about 20 minutes, which seems brutally unfair when I put it that way. The truth is, I’ve been working on that story for over ten years. I read the Mabinogian, a Welsh myth cycle, in college and one character, Branwen, impressed me in ways I couldn’t articulate. All I knew was that she bothered me -there was too much left untold in her story. Most of the time I didn’t think about her at all, but every once in a while, the old story would swim through my mind. About a year ago, I finally found a portion of that story, wrote it down and ta da! it looked like I’d come up with an idea for a story out of thin air. I wish I knew how to systematize or speed up this process, but I don’t think I can. I couldn’t have written Branwen’s story ten years ago. I wasn’t the person I needed to be back then. So maybe the metaphor shouldn’t be bubbles coming out of the dark, subconscious, but seeds germinating in deep soil. Except I don’t know which seeds I’ve planted, when they will grow, or what kind of crop they will produce.

  • I like both images, Sarah. And of course you’re right — this stuff is inside of us, just waiting for its time to emerge. I guess the germinating seeds metaphor works better. But it is remarkable to me the way characters and stories and worlds reveal themselves, sometimes without warning. Thanks for the comment.

  • 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

    Yes! yes, that’s just it!

  • Emily

    I read this and wanted to say “feh! I know where my ideas come from,” but I don’t. I know that some are what-ifs. Some are “dear lord it is late and we’re being silly” notions. One (my one published piece) came from an actual experience watching college students text message during a band concert. A lot are moments, instances, lines of dialogue that come to mind immediately and that then I see if I can build an interesting story around them. One was a contest that gave a short article and asked writers to generate flash stories based on it. That was kind of fun.

  • One of my favorite ideas popped up when I was hiking in the Olympic Rain Forest outside of Tacoma many summers ago. The trees were so big and the foliage was so green, and suddenly Todd started telling me about a news story he’d read concerning trees that had sunk to the bottom of Lake Superior and POOF! There it was! Most of the time my ideas are a little less well-formed, but that one popped out of my head like Athena being born. 😀

  • Sounds like my ideas come much like yours, David – a sort of sudden iten that requires development. My first book grew out of the idea of the main character. I thought of the MC and his abilities and drives, then had to build a novel around him! The second book was easier – I had something of an epiphany while writing the first and knew exactly how the second would play out. I’m working on a third book now, unrelated to the first two, and I’m really struggling. I have a great opener and premise, but can’t seem to think of how it will wrap up and finish. I’ve started writing it anyway – I find that stories with good enough opening ideas often tell themselves in the end!

  • That first line should read “a sort of sudden idea that requires development.” That’s one of the strangest typos I’ve made in a while!

  • Yeah, Catie. The question misses the point.

    Emily, you make a good point — ideas can and do come from anywhere. They come at me at least from every direction, so that I can’t anticipate them or make them appear. It’s like watching for shooting stars — as soon as you start concentrating on one part of the sky the person you’re with sees one in another part. You just have to accept them when they come, and be grateful.

    Misty, travel is great for me in that way. Wales made me want to write about castles — Winds of the Forelands. At times in Australia I felt like a stranger in a strange land — Blood of the Southlands. I was in NYC recently for the first time since I was a kid. My new new shiny will be set in NYC.

    Alan wrote “I find that stories with good enough opening ideas often tell themselves in the end.” Yes, they often do. It can be a bit harrowing waiting for parts of the story to materialize, but they do tend to work out given time.

  • Yes, yes, yes. Exactly.

    I couldn’t have presented this topic better, because I create in the same way. Ideas usually come in flashes that intrigue me and haunt my imagination for quite some time. They lurk and purcolate, mutating and shaping and if they continue to intensify then they are written down into a notebook waiting their turn for development. The rest is scratched away and perhaps revisited in my daydreaming sessions.

    It’s randomness in design, which certainly allows an author to be more profilic although that depends more on how the person is wired rather than the ability to conjure ideas consciously as you have stated. It’s perhaps the one thing I would disagree upon. If the writer enjoys a wide plethora of genres and books and feels often uplifted from reading experiences in different genre ranges, then by all means the random shaping of ideas would play with elements from all the genres. I view it as subconscious mental wiring, but I could be wrong.

  • Thanks, Harry. Glad you liked the post. As for the point about being prolific, I was merely saying that for me, if I could conjure ideas whenever I wanted or needed them, I would probably have gotten more written over the years, particularly in short fiction. And if those ideas came to me fully formed instead of in bits and pieces, I’d probably get even more done! But that’s just me. Many thanks for your comment.

  • I write a bunch of words on little pieces of paper and put them in a big top hat and pick out a bunch, then put them all together and write about that. It has to be a top hat though…a ritual top hat.

    Not really.

    Yeah, as everyone pretty much has said, ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. At times something I see will spark the beginnings of an idea or something someone says or sometimes I’ll just suddenly see a scene in my head and then I need to flesh the story out. Ofttimes I don’t have the time to flesh it out so I have to just write the thing down and trust I’ll get back to it later. I have a bunch of junk just laying around that’s mostly half formed thoughts, scenes, chapters, etc. Sometimes the scene or the story just cannot be ignored and I have to flesh it out, which pretty much halts other things I’m working on. When I can’t work on something it actually kind of makes me irritated.

  • >>I have a bunch of junk just laying around that’s mostly half formed thoughts, scenes, chapters, etc.<<

    I have these, too, Daniel. Writers are pack rats. We never throw anything away. Story fragments, profiles of unused characters, descriptive passages, etc. I have lots of all of them, just waiting to be used for something somewhere. And yes, I get grouchy when I can't work on something I want to work on, too.

  • What are the consequences of the things in your imaginary world? Answering that question will give you ideas.

    John Scalzi is creative consultant for the latest iteration of Stargate. In the thread for this post I ask a few questions about Earth in the Star Gate universe

    So here’s a question for people; given reliable methods of divination how would history be changed?

  • Thanks for the link, Alan. And that’s a very interesting question. The first thing that pops to my mind is that Chamberlain’s capitulation in Munich never would have happened. And that leads to all sorts of things…

  • I really enjoyed this post, David. It’s got a lot of truth in it. I thought I had a good handle on my ideas because I knew the sparks that created them, but after reading this post, I’m forced to admit I can’t always track their development from the spark to the complete idea. And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to explain it to anyone, much less teach them how I do it.

    I’m glad I found this blog. I hope you guys keep the quality coming.

  • David,

    Speaking of Chamberlain standing up to Hitler on the Sudetenland matter, have you read Harry Turtledove’s Hitler’s War It actualy has two points of departure (breaking some kind of rule). In the first Spanish Nationalist leader General Jose Sanjurjo (Francisco Franco took control of the Spanish Nationalists with Sanjurjo’s death) listens to his pilot’s advice, and so his light plane makes it safely off the ground. In the second the leader of the Sudetendeutsche Partei Konrad Henlein is assassinated by a person or persons unknown. Blaming Henlein’s death on the Czechs, Hitler uses it as an excuse to declare war with Czechoslovakia; his decision bolstered by the fact General Sanjurjo would support the move, whereas Franco would not.

    And then the butterfly goes to work. One spoiler, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (allied with France and Britain against Germany) attacks Poland, thinking Germany too busy against France to intervene. So Poland ends up a German ally.

  • Thanks, Atsiko! I’m glad that the post struck a chord with you. Welcome to Magical Words. We hope you’ll come back to visit regularly!

    Alan, I haven’t read that, but it sounds like I’d enjoy it. I’ve met Harry and like him very much. Thanks for the links and the comment.

  • April

    Love this post David. Interesting how one experience will lead us to dredge up others and start the story process. I think we are always linking the familiar or that which we’ve made familiar with a piece of noise – a thing that does not seem to be in place, a thing that does not work, something that is too intense, a thing that stands out for some reason. My example this week is prompted by staying at home with a sick child – the intensity of my feelings about the fragility of children when sick, combined with reading about yellow fever that I undertook years ago. A story about the 1872 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis starts forming, a child, a house, a letter, a servant, a betrayal… So I seem compelled to translate present thoughts and feelings into story structures, and sometimes to wait until feelings come by that can fit into structures of thought that I’ve had in place, sometimes for a long time. My question – once these things come about and you start writing, do you already have the experience to know what point of view etc will best tell your story? Or do you rewrite the same story or scene sometimes from different POV or from different characters? I seem to be writing around my shiny new story with the letters within a story, but the limitations they impose seem to be working around to something.

  • Thanks, April! Love the thread of connections between the sick child (sorry to hear she’s (?) sick) and the Memphis history. For years I’ve found the same thing to be true of my thought process — for me, my thoughts and experiences turn almost immediately into story ideas. I’ve always taken it as a sign that I’m meant to be a writer. :) To answer your question, yeah, I usually have a sense from the beginning of who is going to be my POV character. The new new shiny that prompted me to write this post: I expect it to be a multiple third person POV, and I already have a pretty good idea of which scenes will be narrated by which characters. When I get a story idea, it’s often as if a character is telling me his or her tale, and so I hear it as if that person is speaking to me (weird, I know). I get the tone, the voice, the speech patterns. For me that’s all part of the story as it develops in my head. Does that make sense?

  • Lily

    Ah story ideas… I get them way to often. LOL. No really, I can get inspired way to easily.
    I was sitting around the campfire in my backyard one evening with my family and every 5 minutes I’d get an idea! From looking up in the sky, to staring into the fire. Quotes, scenes, pictures, characters, settings, and histories would start forming in my mind. However I didn’t have my handy-dandy idea pad with me, and I was far to comfortable to get it. So I haven’t gotten them down on paper. Thankfully I have a good memory and I can recall pretty much everything I saw and what I thought of when I saw it. So I’m gonna have to write them down before I lose them!

  • Yes, write them down quickly! For me, there is nothing as frustrating as KNOWING that I had a great idea, but being unable to remember what it was. It’s great, though, that so many ideas are popping into your head. Now go turn them into stories!