Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Friday, October 26, 2007

Where Ideas Come From

For today's blog, I have to thank Wendy Roberts. She recently attended a writers' conference and did some workshops, after which she decided to post some of the questions she received on her own blog. One in particular struck me as something I needed to talk about - Where do writers get their ideas?

I've heard people ask this question before (although no one has ever asked me personally - I'm not famous yet), and it always boggles my mind. I've always had ideas for books shooting through my head, even when I wasn't writing. Sometimes I've wondered how to turn them off so I can get things done. Thinking about it now, though, I realize since everyone's brain is different, people approach this idea thing differently. For instance, right now I have four pages in Word of ideas for stories, and I've gotten them in a variety of ways.

Many of my ideas come at me when I'm trying to fall asleep. At the end of the day, my brain races through an endless stream of possibilities for any situation. One prime example of this was the night I came up with the idea for Spectacle. I had just finished watching the movie Armageddon for the umpteenth time, and although this is the best of the comet disaster movies, I still wasn't 100% happy with it. I didn't go to bed with the idea of fixing the problem, but within ten minutes of laying down I had to get back up again to scribble the idea down on some scrap paper. Somewhere in the science of the movie, a contradiction jumped out at me, and with that contradiction came the idea of a story. I woke up the next morning and looked over the idea. It was still just as exciting as when I'd written it down. (Which doesn't always happen. Sometimes my sleepytime ideas are junk.) Thus Spectacle (now known as Fear Itself) was born. Tada!

Oddly enough, the very next day - after I started typing Spectacle into my computer, and was trying to sleep again - Caldera was born. Caldera wasn't born from a germ of an idea on how to fix something in a flawed movie, though. About six months before, I visited Yellowstone National Park. When going through one of the many visitor areas, I stumbled on the map showing Yellowstone's previous eruptions. Looking at the huge blob which comprised its last path of destruction, I wondered what would happen if Yellowstone erupted and whether anyone could do anything to stop it. (Do you see a pattern here? I have a save-the-world complex.)

I don't know why the idea for Caldera didn't pop into my head for another six months. Maybe writing Spectacle was the catalyst. Since then, my ideas have been sporadic. Most of the ideas between those and when I finished writing those are still sitting in a file on my computer. I don't do them in order, you see. When I'm ready to start a new book, I just open the file and scroll down to see which idea strikes my fancy. (And yes, I always write them all down. I'm afraid I might lose one that could've been a bestseller.)

My third book, Blink, started out as several similar but different story ideas that ended up merged into one. It wasn't a sleepytime idea. I think it was one of my smoking break ideas. You see, there's another time when I let my mind wander - when I'm sitting outside (or in my new smoking room) feeding my nicotine addiction.

My fourth, ARJ, was hatched from anger and frustration. That's my mystery, and started out as a big HUGE catharthis. I just started picturing people I didn't like and killing them off in my story. This, of course, made the initial attempt at the novel suck big time. Don't get me wrong, it felt great writing it, but it didn't make for good prose. Once I got all the venom out of my system, though, I saw how I could improve the plot and make it an actual story instead of just a splattering of murder scenes. (I'm in the process of doing this now.)

I actually got the idea last spring for the book I'm working on now. It just jumped almost fully-plotted into my head a couple weeks ago and wouldn't be denied. Rather than lose the momentum, I put a book on hold.

Ideas come from everywhere. For me, it's just a matter of letting my mind wander, of being open to different thoughts, and of not being judgemental if some ideas seem a little too weird for prime time. I write them all down and sort them out later. I never force an idea. I don't sit here at my desk, tapping my forehead with the top of my pen, trying to think of ideas. Ack. I think that would dry them right up. Nope. I just let the ideas flow and fall where they may.

If you're short of ideas, though, I want you to try something. I want you to pick one instance of a problem you've seen or heard about or experienced. Now turn the tables around. If you could do it completely different, what would happen? Play the 'what if' game. What if I had done this instead of that? What if he had turned out to be a prince instead of a jerk (or vice versa)? Take something and follow it out to its logical conclusion.

There's a story in there somewhere. Trust me. All you have to do is look for it.


Tempest Knight said...

Sometimes I have ideas when I read a line in a story. Maybe there's a word or two that would make a good title, and *boom* a story is born. :)

WordVixen said...

Interesting. Your ideas seem to be the story, where you have to work on characters and scenes. Mine come to me as characters or scenes, but I have to figure out the story.

Alex Adams said...

I agree with everything you've all said. My ideas come from a mishmash of all those places. What I've also found is that ideas breed. The more ideas you have and use, the more ideas they create. It's like a big old idea muscle.