Debbie sent through this rumination on how she maintains focus and tries to answer the infamous question ‘where do you get your ideas?’
I have a slight addiction to reading blogs, articles and books by writers about writing. I suppose it’s true of any hobby or activity that you’re into that you may also have a fascination with stories of how the people at the top made it there and what their experiences have taught them.
The advice famous authors tend to give is simple and down-to-earth. To the best of my knowledge not even Neil Gaiman has revealed the exact incantation required to summon and enslave a muse, and few claim that you need to quit your day job and adopt a drug-taking Bohemian lifestyle to become ‘inspired’.
Generally, the wisdom of most successful authors boils down to one simple question and answer: How do you become a writer? You write.
However, one frequently asked question that most writers are bombarded with in interviews, emails and Q & A at book signings has struck me as interesting recently.
How you do get your ideas?
Author responses to this questions tend to range from the sarcastic to a vague ‘all sorts of places…’ type answer, and that’s fair enough in my opinion. It seems like a horribly barbed question and one that could never be answered with both straightforward simplicity and accuracy.
For me, random ideas occur at all sorts of times and places. Sometimes it’s a crazy dream I had, other times something someone says or does strikes me as interesting. Sometimes it’s something that happens in my life or something I remember from my childhood. Maybe something happens in a book I’m reading, or a newspaper article, or a movie, or I overhear part of a conversation and it triggers another idea. Sometimes a photo or a piece of art I see or music I hear stirs up something in my subconscious and it manifests as an idea for a story. Ideas can spring out from any corner of my experiences at any time. It’s unpredictable and not something I can turn on or turn off.
Of course an idea is no more a story than a sense of being hungry is a perfectly cooked three course meal. Sometimes an idea might give me the beginnings of a character or part of the plot but then I have to tease the story out that fits around it. Sometimes a new idea will happily collide with some others that have been floating around in the idea cesspool in the back of my mind and the story comes together like clicking pieces of a jigsaw in place. Other times I to have to play with the ideas; warping and moulding them to fit together in any kind of useful way. This process can be quick or it can takes days, weeks, even longer.
One time when I had the flu I was lying in bed, dosed up on Lemsip and I was thinking about an idea I had from a dream I’d had the previous night. I figured out the entire novel in my head before drifting off to sleep. When I woke up I hastily typed out the whole plot outline complete with chapter summaries, outlines of all the main sub-plots and documents on every character including descriptions, how they developed over the novel, conflicts and relationship maps. I basically did a Year 9 Novel Assignment for the book in my head before I wrote it. I started writing the first chapter straight away and it all came very easily. It’s not exactly as glamorous as Coleridge having an inspirational vision on opium but my doped up on Lemsip experience is the only time I can pinpoint the exact moment when the whole story came together.
Other times it takes far longer for the story to come together. I remember when I was about 17 or 18 driving back from Palmerston North with my dad and I was telling him about this murder mystery I wanted to write. I think I babbled on about it for the whole drive with Dad patiently listening and asking questions about it when he got the chance. The mystery was set in New Orleans (I was reading a lot of Anne Rice at the time and had become obsessed with New Orleans as a result) and had various elements of voodoo involved. I had the details about the victim, how the murder happened, who did it and why, all the terrible things the victim had done to the wide range of suspects and every twist the mystery would take. I knew what the characters’ houses looked like; I could picture every room in which the events took place vividly. The only thing was that I didn’t have a clear picture of in my mind was the character of the detective. Who would solve this mystery? Or was it a mystery without a detective?
I was adamant that I couldn’t start writing the book until I figured out who my detective was. I could rant enthusiastically about the book for hours but didn’t feel that I was able to write it yet. I think I may have also suggested that I really needed to travel to New Orleans and see it for myself before I could write the book but that hint was deliberately ignored.
Even now many years later, I think I still have the notebook with the plot outline and I still find the story an intriguing one but I don’t feel ready to write it. Something still needs to click into place for me before I can start it.
To me, the far more interesting question to ask writers is not ‘how do you get your ideas?’ but ‘how do you know which ideas to write?’, and ‘how do you know when to write them?’
A couple of times I have told Matt about ideas I’ve had for a short story and he’s said that they’ve sounded like novel ideas rather than short stories. I was surprised by that at the time because to me they were ideas that were only short stories to me, not because I didn’t think that it would be possible to expand them out into novels but because I only wanted to spend a couple of days on them at most. The idea of dedicating all my writing time for months on them actually put me off the story completely. I liked the stories and the characters but I didn’t want to spend months in their head space.
For me to want to write a novel I have to want to obsess about it for an extended period. I know I’m going to be thinking about the characters for a large amount of time every day. It’s not just the hours you spend actually writing the book, it’s the fact that you end up having conversations between characters in your head when you’re in the shower or driving somewhere and find yourself imagining upcoming sequences in the book while you’re halfway unloading the dishwasher or folding laundry. (Day dreaming about what I’m writing is the only way I can cope with domestic chores).
I can’t write a novel unless I like the characters enough to want to hang out with them for a lot of time every day.
Of course the way I think and feel about the stories I imagine may be very different to others. I was curious and asked Matt about how he knew what to do with ideas, when to write them and what length and form his stories should be. His answer indicated a hugely different process from mine. From what I understand (correct me if I’ve got it wrong, Matt) he thinks ‘I’d like to write a novel/story etc about X,’ and then makes up the story and characters to do that, and then sits down and writes it.
This approach terrifies me. I’m pretty certain that if I tried to do it, I’d end up staring at a blank screen in a state of panic. For me to enjoy writing, I have to know where I’m going. I need the security of a plot outline (preferably chapter by chapter breakdowns) and I have to know the ending before I can start otherwise I’d be too worried about what was going to happen next to concentrate on what I was writing.
This doesn’t mean that my writing doesn’t take unexpected turns or characters don’t say and do things that surprise me once I get started. Part of the fun of writing, and reading, is in the discovering the characters and exploring the world. Characters take charge of their own lives and have to make their own decisions but as I writer I want to know that there is a point to everything that’s happening, that the story isn’t just drifting without direction or purpose. I have to know that there is a satisfying resolution in the ending that we’re heading towards.
For me, I look at planning a book as being like watching a trailer for a movie I want to see. If a trailer is done right, it excites you and makes you want to see the movie more. It shows you the look and feel of the film. It gives you glimpses of the characters, and the iconic moments and amazing scenes that you want to see. A good trailer never makes you feel that you’ve seen all the best bits already and know the whole story before you watch the film. It convinces you that it’s worth the ticket price and hours of your life to go and watch the film.
That’s how I have to feel about a novel before I start writing it. I need to have seen the trailer in my head. I need to know what it’s going to be like but also to be passionate and desperate to see out more. As with movies, often my favourite parts aren’t in the trailer. Often one of the small moments between characters talking or an unexpected development or character choice is the part that really affects you. That’s the bit that really nails the character and what the whole story is about for you. Frequently, even the big climactic sequences are even better when you see them played out in full in context and with all the emotional build up.
I’m curious to know what it’s like for other writers. How planned does a story have to be in your head or on paper before you can write it? How do you know whether a story idea is a poem or a short story or a film or a TV show or a novel or something else? Can some ideas become anything you want? How do you know when you’re ready to write a particular story?
Oh and perhaps I should also add, how do you get your ideas? 🙂