When writers talk about questions they get asked too often, “Where do you get your ideas?” is often high on the list.
Which is odd to me, because I’ve rarely been asked that.
“Where did you get the idea for this book?,” sure. Got that one a lot with A Natural History of Dragons and the Memoirs of Lady Trent in general. But as a broad inquiry into my work as a writer, no. Still, it seems that other people do get asked about it frequently, so lately I’ve been pondering it, that I might be prepared when the question comes my way.
And I think my first-order answer is that it isn’t about learning how to get ideas. It’s learning how to recognize when you have one.
Let me use as my example a flash piece among the first I ever published, “For the Fairest.” Because it’s flash, I can quote the whole thing here, so there won’t be any hidden moving parts:
For the fairest, the inscription read. It spread discord aplenty, as intended. The goddesses squabbled and shrieked, and if beauty were judged to be internal as well as external, none of them were terribly pretty in that moment. The gods knew better than to get directly involved. They passed that responsibility to a mortal, and washed their hands of the whole affair.
The three front-runners, meanwhile, offered the best bribes they could think up: wisdom, power, love. Any normal man would have given his left arm for any one of the three.
But the judge was not a normal man, and the squabbling goddesses — as well as the one who had thrown the apple in the first place — failed to take into account the truly phenomenal size of his ego.
For the fairest, the inscription read. The prince of Troy, handsome even in his rustic shepherd’s garb, buffed the apple’s golden surface, nodded in approval at his reflection, and smiled at the goddesses as he walked away.
Here’s how this one came about.
I was watching the movie Troy, where Orlando Bloom plays the role of Paris. Bloom, of course, also played Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films, and years ago Cassandra Claire wrote a parodic LotR fanfic called “The Very Secret Diaries” that bequeathed to us all the catchphrase “still the prettiest,” which is Legolas’ refrain as the Fellowship goes through their journey.
Still the prettiest. For the fairest. Mental image of Paris deciding to keep the apple rather than give it to any of the goddesses.
Not a very large or deep one, to be sure, but enough to support a piece of flash fiction. Writers often talk about stories starting with “what if” — what if Paris kept the apple for himself, what if this character could go back in time and change things so that person never died, what if vampires were so popular you had to apply to become one, what if the reflection of Venice in its canals was a whole other city. But I can’t boil all of my ideas down to that kind of thing — or rather, if I do, I feel like I’m misrepresenting the actual process by which I came up with them. Sometimes it’s a funny line that seems to imply a lot more story: “Dear Mom and Dad, the good news is, nobody’s dead anymore.” Sometimes it’s an existing story with a hole in it: if the knight is new-slain and nobody knows his body lies there, how has his lady already taken another mate? Sometimes it’s a conflict, and I need a story to explore it: what do you do when you’re working for the bad guys, but the people opposing them aren’t good, either?
I think that many of us have these ideas on a regular basis — many more than realize it. So the first step isn’t necessarily figuring out how to make your brain work a certain way; the first step is becoming aware of your own thoughts and noticing when something that wanders through could be used as the basis for a story.
(Could be used. Won’t necessarily be, because some ideas are trivial and not really that interesting, others are shiny but not really your kind of thing, and once you get in the habit of this, you run a high risk of winding up with more ideas than you can use.)
And here’s the thing: we respond to positive feedback. When you start noticing story ideas and paying attention to them, odds are good that your brain will go, “oh, you want this kind of thing? I can do that!” Whereupon it will start generating more ideas, free-associating everything that crosses its path and bouncing those elements off one another to see if something nifty falls out. Nine times out of ten something stupid will fall out, but hey, you can’t strike pay dirt every time. Professional photographers take dozens or hundreds or thousands of photos for every one they end up using.
True story. While I was writing A Star Shall Fall, I got hit by an idea before I even got out of bed one morning. Wake up, yawn, stretch, slowly become aware of surroundings, first coherent thought to form in my head is . . . “vivisection!!!” Which, yes, fit my plot quite well, but really was not how I wanted to start my day. But my sleeping brain had been chewing on the story and was eager to offer up the fruits of its labor.
(I don’t show the vivisection in the novel. It happens offstage.)
Because I’ve been trying to practice mindfulness meditation lately, I can’t help but see a parallel here, because what I’m advocating here is being mindful of your own thought processes. I don’t claim that no actual work goes into generating ideas, or that the stream of quality ones (or any ideas at all) is a constant quantity; we all go through fallow periods or have to actively prod ourselves into being creative sometimes. And since every person’s brain is different, you might have to take a different approach. But I’ve heard enough writers talk about how they think and work to be confident that “notice when you have an idea” is pretty solid advice. And once you start doing that, you might be able to identify conditions that encourage that type of thinking. Foster that for a little while, and your brain will become an idea-producing machine.
And then you’ll wake up one morning thinking “vivisection!” or something equally WTF. But that’s just a job hazard you learn to live with.