I had a variation of the ‘where do you get your ideas’ question on Twitter last week. Since I’m not famous, it’s not one I have to answer very often, but it’s definitely not the kind of thing I can fit into 140 characters, either. So this is my (admittedly limited) knowledge about ideas.
First of all, if you court ideas, you will end up with more of them than you can ever hope to use in a lifetime. A few years ago when the Spousal Unit and I were vehicle-hunting, a car salesman found out that I’m a writer, and he spent as much time trying to get me to ghost-write a book for him as he did trying to get me to shell out for a car. “It’s a great idea!” he said. “It’s a science fiction novel, and you write science fiction! I’ll split whatever we make on it!” He was very enthused about this plan. I was rather less so, inasmuch as he was offering half the profits to me while asking me to do all of the actual hard work. I told him what I always tell people in that situation: Write it yourself. If the idea makes you feel that way, then you can do better justice to it than I ever could. And anyway, since I usually have a good half-dozen novel ideas besides the one I’m currently writing and the three I need to revise, it could be a while before I get around to you.
This is a good reason why you should write your own damn book.
Connie Willis is known for saying that ideas are like the leeches in The African Queen. “You don’t get ideas,” she says. “Ideas get you.”
This is more true than non-writers realize. I find ideas are especially pestiferous when I’ve reached a slow spot in the current work-in-progress. I’ve made a wrong turn, or need to think more about the characters and their motivations . . . and suddenly there’s a shiny new idea jumping up and down and waving its metaphorical hands in the air. Like the know-it-all in fourth grade, it yells, “Hey! Pick me! Pick me!”
And I can never resist taking a little peek. Here’s the thing about ideas for me: they aren’t like a dry memo from some corner of my brain. I get movie clips and sound bites, but only long enough to intrigue me, and then they’re gone again. So I’ll overhear a couple characters having a heated argument about the heist they’re planning, or I’ll see someone about to step into a dangerous situation. For the story in the Ocean Stories anthology, a young woman who’d suffered a devastating loss was stuck at a social event and trying to stay out of sight when a mysterious stranger showed up—and shifted shape between when my character saw her and when everyone else noticed her. Everything else—the whole world—grew out of that moment.
Last week turned out to be a week for writing poetry. (Poems and stories have completely different energies. Usually if I’m writing one, it’s difficult or even impossible to write the other—but that’s a post for another day.) I wanted to experiment with formal poetry—sonnets, villanelles, and the like—so I got some of my poet friends to make requests and suggest words. So far I’ve written eight new poems, mostly generated from those suggestions.
I realize this is how many of you think of poetry, but I like you anyway.
Sometimes I read something and it strikes a creative nerve. The current project grew out of a true-life account of some very weird circumstances on a ranch in northern Utah that my friend David suggested I read. But it may not be as obvious as that. A whole poem may spring from a phrase in a history book that hits me in just the right way. (I realize I’m using a lot of violent verbs here, but for me there’s an intense, often physical reaction when an idea shows up. The best ones make the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand on end. I’ve learned not to ignore it. It’ll knock—really loudly—but if I don’t answer, that idea will leave again without warning.)
Ideas aren't going to listen to your requests anyway. Get used to it.
This is why I’ve learned to tolerate the distraction of shiny new ideas. While it’s important for writers to finish what they start—ask anyone who’s been reading the Game of Thrones books how we feel about unfinished projects—creativity is an organic process. Nurturing the energy that churns up new ideas can be as vital as enduring the slog where it seems like the story will never come together. And sometimes, the lizard hind-brain knows things my conscious mind hasn’t yet processed. The image that seems like it has nothing to do with the current story somehow fits into the pattern, making the whole stronger than it would have been otherwise.
And I know I’ve been using weasel words in this: ‘somehow’ and ‘sometimes.’ Maybe you want a road map to writing a story, and I’m giving you a couple of sketches and a nice soundtrack instead. But that’s the part where the magic comes in. You can cultivate that moment by showing up, by feeding your brain with interesting pictures and words and experiences. The magic happens in its own time, though.
When I was a kid, I’d visit my grandmother, who lived in a 250-year-old cottage on the coast in Maine. There was no electricity and no running water, so we had to use the hand pump in the yard that brought up rust-colored water that tasted like iron. If you’ve ever done that, you know that when a pump goes unused for a while, it can lose suction or whatever it is pumps need to do their job. You have to prime the pump, pour a little water down into the mechanism, and that’s enough to get fluid moving in the right direction again. Creativity is like that—it needs a little inspiration sometimes, but once that energy starts flowing, it’s hard to put a stop to it.
I totally miss the good old days of going to the outhouse in the middle of the night and hanging my naked ass over a hole filled with angry spiders. No, wait, I don't miss that.
So prime that pump with the most interesting words and pictures and people you can find. Try something new. Be brave, and be hopeful.
And when those ideas are mobbing your doorstep, don’t forget to take a moment and let them introduce themselves, even if you’re already busy. Write them down, so they don’t wander off.