Where do ideas come from? Do we find them in our dreams, or tease them out of pure intellectual energy. Do ideas come from our theft of earlier efforts? Probably all that. For me they are an eruptive thing. I recently was sitting out on the back porch watching the dogs and two ideas came upon me nearly back to back. One came from a word only, the other from something odd that was always in front of me. This is fairly random idea generation, and I don’t think it is terribly helpful to impart, suffice to say that you need to always keep your work in the back of your head. Sometimes vignettes or notions that could really work as a story pop up and disappear because the writer isn’t focused on idea collection while they are daydreaming. Beyond this passive form of idea farming there are several approaches that yield plot lines. One thing to remember is that you don’t need an entire story idea, just a snippet, an image or fragment of dialog that you can build around. An idea is not the story. You’re the writer, your job is to build the story around the idea.
1: read- You are going to see a theme emerging here. I’m going to be telling you to read all the time. Not only is it the easiest way to improve one’s writing, it’s a powerful method of finding ideas. I rarely get science fiction or horror ideas from reading science fiction and horror. I find my best ideas come from history, pure science, and recently, my stacks of old National Geographics. Read, read widely and diversely and always keep that little idea thief in your head alert and ready.
2: borrow, beg and steal- People are full of ideas for stories they’d write if they had time (or skill, squid bless them), and they’ll tell you about these ideas if you ask. Many people get positively gushy when you tell them you’re a writer. I’ve gotten at least one fantastic story idea from someone who wanted to bug me over my beer. It was his idea for a novel and I half listened, but the idea thief was doing its dirty job. I asked this guy, “Can I steal that?” He replied, “sure, have at it. I’m not going to use it.” This kills me. I won’t so much as hint at what ideas I’m working on until the story is in the bag, and then only to friends. I consider my story ideas valuable intellectual property. Most people don’t share this notion so they will give you their great ideas.
3: Steal some more- Other people’s lives also have idea value. In the last post I told you about my former music teacher’s experience with the smell of burning human flesh. I can also tell you I have dissected that anecdote a hundred ways in my own work. The lives of people you know are fair game for fiction so long s you take the effort to change the skin (names, places, etc.) and just keep the guts of what the story really is. Now of course if your friend is telling you the story of the true founding of Phoenix Arizona, then places and names are going to be difficult to alter, but have a go at it anyway. Everyone has a profound life. Ask about their stories.
4: All the news that’s fit to reprint- The national papers and the big news websites are fine and dandy to rip ideas from, but remember that there are a bunch of eyes doing that already. It’s rare that a really good story in a paper hasn’t been optioned from four different angles before the ink is dry, so originality will take more cunning at that point. You also deal with the problem of major news outlet writers being professional writers already. They are telling a story for you. Bleh! You want something unique? Cruise the classifieds on craigslist, or in the papers that can still afford to run them. Even better, get a small town paper. These papers are often operated by the same people that do the reporting, editing and office cleaning, so the reporters are run ragged and will often (accidentally I should think) report the more bizarre and local details of life. Here is your idea gold mine. One such tag from a local paper I found years ago: Lizard turns Forty!! Happy birthday Lizard!!!
5: Get out of the house! (the phone call is coming from inside the house!)
No it’s not, really. Travel is your friend. Maybe if you’re Emily Dickinson you can lock yourself in the attic and write a couple of thousand poems, and if you are then why are reading this? For the rest of us travel is the second easiest way to generate ideas (reading, do more of it). You don’t have to travel far, or even someplace new, just keep your idea thief alert. It’s really more of a scout than a thief at this point. Things you see beside the road, odd people you meet, even just the act of moving through space might generate a workable idea. Travel is such an effective idea generator that it has several of its own genres. The first modern English language novel was a collection of travel tales. There is gold in them there hills, now get on your bike and find it.
6: Be silent, be still- Yoda was right on this one. You will not force the force. The reason I say that you must have an idea thief on alert in the back of your brain is that you will never muscle an idea into existence. Coming up with ideas is a passive exercise, though I have given you a group of actions to pursue it with. You must have a level of relaxed readiness when looking for ideas. You need to know, not think, know that when an idea appears to you, you will take it. This sound rather metaphysical, but it will also help you stave off the feedback loop of self-doubt and frustration that is writer’s block. Writer’s block is not a condition so much as it’s an attempt to use force on a process where force will not be effective. In the novel 1984, the Party is actively trying to remove the ability of people to have ideas at all. They do this not by going out and putting a gun to everyones heads, but by systematically robbing them of any sense of peace or security or calm. Protagonist Winston Smith has one tiny corner of his apartment where he knows he can not be spied upon by the Party. In this relatively safe, secure place he has his idea and scrawls, “I hat big brother.” across a notebook. You need to find your nook. Be Yoda.
That is La science de la fiction.
Next time. Part 3- Beyond ideas. Story time.