That is, writing about writing. It’s my plan to do these semi-regularly. If you’ve got a question about writing and the writing life that you want to ask, please do, and I’ll do my best to answer it here.
Until then, I thought we’d start with the most famous question authors deal with.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?
We’ve been known to come up with all kinds of snarky answers for it. There’s the legendary post-office box in Schenectedy. There’s the bowl of milk left out for the Idea Fairy (I’ve used this one myself). My favorite was always Poul Anderson’s assertion that he got them from an old Danish sailor down at the San Fransisco docks, passed to him wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with string.
Part of the reason for the snark is authors get this question a lot. But part of it is also that for the most part, we’ve got no clue. You could make blues out of it.
“I woke up this morning,
“Idea by my bed,
“I ask ‘where’d you come from?,’
“‘I’z always here,’ it said…”
Much more prosaically, getting ideas is part of an author’s professional training. We need them to survive, so while we work constantly on plot, dialogue, pacing, world building, character creation, we’re also training ourself to create, or find new ideas. And like the training for any profession, it can be very difficult at first. But after a few years it becomes reflexive. And, like any aspect of any profession, there are people who are naturally better at it than others.
It is, however, something I’m convinced can be learned. I remember back in the eighties when horror was hot, I decided I wanted to get in on the action. So, I bought a bunch of horror anthologies and I read as criticallly as I could, and then I went trolling for an idea. Fortunately, it was Halloween, so the world was ready to present me with just about any idea I could reel in.
Ann Arbor has a famous Halloween concert that the orchestra and the audience all dress up for. It’s quite the party, even moreso back then, when it was free and a major local mob scene with everybody hanging out on the steps of Hill Auditorium in costume waiting for the doors to open. I went that year, and, of course, they performed Dance Macabre.
For the performance, they brought in a man named Percy Danforth. Mr. Danforth was one of the world’s best players on the bones. So, there I am, watching this 80 year old man play the bones. Now, I know those are pieces of wood, but my brain starts going. “Bones…bones…you know, that’s really kind of gross, playing music on bones…especially if they really were bones, I suppose they might have been at one point…real music on real bones, bet the ghost wouldn’t like that…bet the ghost wouldn’t like that…what if the ghost came back for their bones? What if you could MAKE the ghost come back…?”
And I had it. And I went home and I wrote, and got my second sale ever off that idea.
The thing that it takes awhile to get used to is although every story starts off with one idea, every story takes hundreds of them. Every sentance is a new idea, and every idea builds on the one before. Once you start getting them the real trick is sorting them out, recognizing the keepers and tossing the other ones back to swim around for awhile. The only way I know how to do this is the slow, frustrating one. Take the fresh-caught idea, go home and start writing. If something grows from it, it’s a good idea. If nothing does, it’s a bad idea. I’ve got whole files of bad ideas sitting in the back of the cabinet. Eventually, with practice, you have to write less and less to tell one from the other.
So…so where DO you get your ideas from?
I woke up this morning…