There is a question all writers are asked all the time. In fact, if you’ve ever published anything – or even if you haven’t – I can more-or-less guarantee you’ve been asked this at minimum six times this year. I would even go so far as to argue this question is a primary reason somebody might decline to identify themselves as an author at a party with mixed company. The question is this:
Where do you get your ideas?
This question is totally understandable. All writers see where the questioner is coming from when they get this – obviously somebody who doesn’t spend their spare time coming up with weird little stories to entertain people might wonder how on Earth this process occurs. The problem is, though, that the answer to this question is too vastly complicated and esoteric to clearly relate. For instance, when I am asked this, I often feel like asking a series of follow-up questions:
Do you mean general ideas or specific ideas?
Do you want to know where the ideas originate spatially, mentally, or temporally in relation to one another?
Are you asking what my artistic influences are, or how I come up with ideas I term as original?
Also, what constitutes an “idea?” Like, what if the story originated with an idea I didn’t end up using? Do you want to hear about that?
Are you asking out of curiosity, or do you, yourself, wish to generate your own ideas and want tips as to how?
And I could go on. A lot of times, when asked this question, I shrug and say “a weird childhood,” even though that is not really true in many ways. Mostly I do this to see how seriously they want to know because, like, if you actually want to know, I can talk to you for hours and hours. And hours.
Like, you should probably get a beverage and comfortable chair.
For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’m going to skip past the original, general concept “idea” – the bolt of lighting, if you will, that strikes you and gets the wheels turning. Let’s just assume that happens by whatever eldritch psychic alchemy blesses all creative people and move on to what, for me, is the more interesting stage: Idea development.
What Do I Do With This Stuff?
It occurred to me recently that I really think goblins are cool and that I don’t read enough stories about their petty, vicious, mean-spirited little lives, brief though they are. This has begun to simmer on a back burner in my head. Let’s talk about next steps.
What kind of story will this be?
This is the first question I ask myself. What is the tone I want to evoke? Is my goblin story going to be funny, sad, mysterious, scary, angry – what? What, basically, will be the most fun for me.
How can my story create this mood or tone?
I begin to think about what my goblins will be like, in broad strokes – not so much individual characters, but things like culture and environment that would have shaped their behavior. If I’m trying to write a scary story, how can I combine the elements I want (scary and goblin protagonists) in a way that seems plausible, believable, and entertaining. This is where I stare to come to grips with the world itself. I start to map out big ideas – who has the power? Who doesn’t? Why is the world this way? How do the goblins fit into this world? Is this world evoking the proper mood or tone to fit the kind of story I want to tell? If not, how can I change it to do so?
Whose story is this?
This question and the next question sometimes swap positions with me, but a lot of times I get to character next. So, I’ve got this funny/scary/angry goblin world – who is my main character? How do they fit inside this world? What is the conflict they are seeking to resolve (i.e. what do they want?). If I have a boring main character, I don’t have a story, do I? My characters morph and change a lot before they actually appear on the page. It’s like forging something or maybe sculpting/whittling – I’ve got a raw hunk of material that needs to be honed and shaped into something useful and beautiful.
What happens in this story?
Next is plot (or sometimes plot is first). Just because I have a person living in this world doesn’t mean there’s a story yet. This is often a place where my ideas stall – okay, so I have a goblin character living in a goblins world doing their goblin thing but that’s not a story. Slice of life tales I find pretty boring, frankly. I want action. Honestly, silly as it is, I often find myself coming back to this meme:
Fake Leo Tolstory is kinda right, guys. I mess around with those three basic ideas and see if I can come up with something new and interesting.
Who is telling the story?
The last step I go through when developing an idea is this one: who is telling the story? Whose voice will best evoke the tone and mood I want? Is this going to be Third Person or First Person (please note that I cannot stand second person and won’t do it)? Will I have multiple POVs or just one? I can’t write anything until I know what the story is going to sound like in my head. My style is a bit fluid; I alter it to suit the tale. Perhaps this is a bad idea, but it’s one that makes writing fun and challenging and interesting for me.
Once that is in place – once I know whose story it is and what is going to happen and who is telling it and where it is set and what kind of mood I wish to evoke – the only thing that’s left is writing the damned thing.
The hard part, in other words.
A bit late in the week for a new post, but I’ve had a hell of a week and my writing is off-pace so screw it, I’m only writing 2000 words today and am going to finish up with a blog post instead.
I’m wrapping up a blog tour today (check out my post on The Dark Phantom Review!) and I’ve done a few interviews (most of which, for some reason, didn’t surface on the internet – go figure). Anytime I do an interview, one question usually crops up:
Where do you get your ideas?
It has it’s variants, too: “What inspires you?” or “where do you look for inspiration?” and stuff like that. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, too – lots of people would like to know where an author gets his or her ideas. Seems pertinent, interesting, and so on.
Except it’s totally unanswerable. I mean, sure, there are rare occasions where I can trace an idea back to a particular moment in time, but the vast, vast majority of my “inspiration” is ineffable. It is the particulate matter filtered from the substrate of my life and experiences. Asking somebody (anybody!) where they get their ideas is kinda like asking “why do you like grapes?” Jesus – hell if I know! Why do you like grapes? Did you take a grape aptitude test? Is enthusiasm for grapes a genetic trait shared with your extended family? Did you, on March 17th 1985, eat a grape and then, from that moment on, grapes and you were best buddies? Or was it just, you know, that article in The New Yorker you read last year that talked about how good grapes taste?
Now, I usually try not to answer that question that way because it’s a bit rude and the interviewer is nice enough to do me this favor of interviewing me and I don’t want to be a jerk. But the answers I furnish (I read history; I’ve worked a lot of odd jobs; I loved book X which inspired me to riff off the concept of Y) are half-truths and abstractions. Inspiration is not a mechanical process or a simply understood one. Our ideas are synthesized from the full range of our experiences and combine in odd and unpredictable ways and I can’t tell you how it works because it isn’t a thing that I can explain. It’s a frustrating question, therefore, no matter how reasonable it is.
Seeing as my standard reaction to frustration is sarcasm, and seeing how I’m feeling frustated today, here is the definitive list of things I wish I could say as an answer to “where do you get your ideas,” but never will because they are mean and I’m not Tyvian Reldamar:
Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
- From a box buried in my yard. There are lots of ideas in there scribbled on paper. I don’t know how it got there.
- God. Duh.
- All of my ideas come exclusively from the crawl at the bottom of MSNBC.
- I play Bananagrams long enough that, by random chance, whole plots are formed in the random scatter of letters.
- Your mom.
- I steal my ideas at gunpoint from local “creatives.” Then I make them sign a non-compete.
- I have no ideas. Ideas are an illusion. We are all an illusion. Nothing really matters.
- MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF PEYOTE!
- At night, I throw off my human husk and feed off the dreams of neighborhood children with my single, jawless mouth.
- All ideas come from the American Idea Book, Tenth Edition, available at exclusive bookstores nationwide. There are no ideas anywhere else. This is the secret that all the writers have been keeping from y… (silenced gunshot) (dull thump) (silence)
- I trapped a leprechaun once and made a wish.
- If you stare at Twitter long enough, ideas are formed in your brain like tumors. Then you have to remove them through your nose with a long, pointed hook before they become malignant and turn into pop songs or commercial jingles. This is, incidentally, why pop songs and jingles get stuck in your head – you had an idea, but didn’t remove it in time to save it.
- I keep my eyes open when I yawn, and then I see the ideas the gods tried to hide from me.
- This guy named Leon. No, not that Leon – you don’t know him. If you did, you’d have the same ideas I do, and then we’d have to have a duel to the death like in that show Highlander. No, not the movie, the show.
- I gained access to my permanent record from elementary school, wherein I discovered that all my creative ideas were siphoned out by my teachers during recess and stored for a later date.
- You need to get an Idea License. There’s a course you take down at the city annex and a twenty question true/false exam. Costs like $40 or something.