Asking the Wrong Question: Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

Published writers occasionally get asked, often by aspiring writers, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, or some variation upon it.  On the whole, it’s not a question those published writers particularly look forward to, because it’s almost impossible to answer in any serious way that’s going to be useful or informative for the questioner, and the best frivolous answer was long ago delivered by, I believe, the inimitable Harlan Ellison: ‘Poughkeepsie’.

But I’ll answer it anyway, before suggesting an alternative query that might be more interesting and useful for all concerned. (Note: my answer will not be remotely as good as ‘Poughkeepsie’. You have been warned.)

Where do I get my ideas from?  Anywhere and everywhere, like pretty much all writers.

For example:

I got the idea for my first published story, ‘Farm Animal’, which appeared in Interzone many, many moons ago, from a dream.  (The one and only time this has happened, by the way).

I got the idea for my second published story, ‘Gibbons’, from the personal experience of spending three months in the rainforest of Borneo, studying – unsurprisingly – gibbons.

I got the idea for another story, ‘Flint’, which appeared in the anthology Speculative Horizons, from my non-fiction reading, specifically a book about shamanism and a book about prehistoric cultures.  (Speculative Horizons is a good little anthology in a good cause, by the way, and is close to selling out, so perhaps you’d like to take a look over here for info on what it contains and how to get your hands on one of the last few copies.)

I got an idea for a fantasy novel – which remains only a vague idea, with little likelihood of ever going further – from a map that appeared in a fantasy novel by another author.

I got the idea for my next novel, The Free, from a single, specific scene that popped into my head unbidden one day, and which not only does not appear in the novel as it will be published, but no longer has any close connection whatsoever to the plot, setting, theme or characters of The Free.

So there you are.  Anywhere and everywhere.  It’s completely useless as guidance to an aspiring writer, because the getting of ideas is not – not remotely – the hard bit of being a writer.

I’ve got a suggestion for what might be a better question to ask, and I wonder if it’s not closer to what someone’s really asking when they ask about where ideas come from.

‘How do you turn an idea into a publishable story?’

Now there’s a tougher question, and one that gets much closer to nailing the hard bit about being a writer.  There is a superabundance of ideas in the world, and more often than not in the head of anyone with a serious chance of becoming a professional writer.  90+% of those ideas will probably never make it into publication as stories, or story elements.

For the <10% (or whatever the number is) of ideas that make it from idle fancy to published prose, the process by which that transformation takes place is probably slightly mysterious even to those of us who do it, and no doubt happens slightly differently for every writer, but here’s a possible sketch of what it takes for an idea to become a story.

This is off the top of my head kind of stuff, so your mileage may well vary.  Indeed, it may be complete balderdash. Might possibly be a starting point for thinking about the whole thing, though.

An idea might be anything – a piece of dialogue, a visual image, a character hook, a theme, a scene, whatever – but for the sake of argument (and simplicity) let’s think of it as a single nugget of something – anything – that might become part of a story.  Maybe there’re two aspects to what you, as a writer, can do with that idea which we’ll call exploration and construction, since I can’t think of catchier names for them at the moment.  They’re not remotely as separate and distinct as I’m about to suggest, either, but what can you do?  Without generalisation and/or simplification we couldn’t say much about anything ever, really.

Exploration.  You mentally let that nugget roll, and follow where it leads.  You let it take its own path and see what connections, what consequences, what secondary ideas it can spawn as it rolls along through the back of your mind.  A kind of extrapolative free association, I guess, though it’s not entirely free because – as you’re a writer, and you know that what you’re hoping for here is a story – the chain or web of connections that initial nugget generates will hopefully have some kind of loose coherence and sense and ‘storyness’ to it.

This would be the bit of the process that takes the longest time, for me at least.  That idea nugget can be idly meandering around in my semi-conscious for years, trying to extrapolate itself into something more substantive than a nugget.  This would also be the bit where it’s liable to bump up against other ideas that have been performing similarly thankless gyrations in there for years of their own, and now and again maybe some of those bumps will result in a couple – or a clutch – of ideas that decide they belong together.

Most ideas’ll never emerge from this exploration, for whatever reason.  They’ll sadly wither, or go into hibernation, or be entirely forgotten, casualties of a Darwinian struggle for conscious attention fought out between all those aimlessly rolling nuggets.

Construction.  This bit might happen after or in parallel with the Exploration bit, I guess.  It’s the more conscious bit of the process, where you try to bolt the scaffolding of formal story onto and through an unruly, half-formed idea that’s grown into something with potential.  It’s where you try to make sure various tedious sounding but actually quite interesting things like closure, arcs, resonance, plot logic, coherent characters etc. etc. are in place to form a skeleton for your lovely, lovely idea to drape itself over.

Some of those formal considerations will quite likely emerge naturally from the Exploration stuff, given that as I said it’s not an entirely random or unstructured process due to the obsessive nature of writerly thought; even your subconscious starts to think in terms of story structures eventually.  But more often than not, you end up having to impose a certain amount of cold calculation on what you’re doing, if you want to end up with something coherent.

I guess all I’m saying is there is a sub- or semi-conscious bit and a conscious, considered bit to the whole thing, which is neither particularly revelatory or insightful.  Mildly interesting to muse on how this whole thing happens, though.

For what it’s worth (not a lot), my entirely unsustantiated guess at bits of the process that might cause problems for an aspiring writer (and published writers too, he says sheepishly, holding his hand up): not giving the Exploration, semi-conscious bit enough time; not having got into the habit of thinking dispassionately and instinctively enough about the Construction bit.  Once you’ve had a bit of practice and got your head in the right pattern of thought, it becomes much easier to recognise a more or less satisfying character arc, or closure or resonance, but if you don’t instinctively know what it feels like to write or read such things, it can be tricky.

I think.  Maybe.  Oh, I don’t know. How do you turn an idea into a publishable story?  Shrug.  Go ask someone else, please.

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2 comments

  1. C’s avatar

    1.

    Okay, so where didja get the idea for that sweater you’re wearing?

    Well, it was cold, and, um, I like red.

    That’s it.

    I had a need, I had a preference. I acted on it.

    2.

    How do you become a writer?

    You write things down, first — then you submit them. You must submit.

  2. Brian’s avatar

    “You write things down, first — then you submit them. You must submit.”

    Quoted for truth. The submitting bit’s kind of important, indeed.

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