08 Sep

Where do ideas come from?

A frequent question I get from interviewers is: where do your ideas come from? How did you get the idea for a book?

To tie into this, David Barr Kirtley and I were once wondering about those people who come up to you at a book signing. They kind of look nervously around and say something like “I have this idea for a book, and I was thinking, if I gave you the idea, and you wrote it, we could share the profits…”

For many authors, and for me in particular this is an insane proposition. The writing is the hard work, not the ideas. Ideas come. They’re fucking everywhere, man. David pointed out to me that it was because, for many people, they get one idea. They lead uncreative lives, don’t read much, and a single idea comes to them and that’s their one big idea that they hold and treasure and walk around with.

I’ve been a lot gentler to those people since David pointed that out, explaining that I already have more ideas in a file than I will ever have time to write in my life. My problem is choosing which ones I get to write.

How do they come? Here’s an example. I was reading a blog post (that I can’t find now) by Roger Ebert where he quoted the following:

Truman Capote, I said, walked down Fifth Avenue once with Marilyn Monroe, and she said, “Watch this.” And for one block she wasn’t Marilyn Monroe and for the next block she was and he couldn’t see what she was doing but for the first block she was totally ignored and the second block she caused a riot.

And right away I thought, that’s because Marilyn Monroe turned on her fairy glamour for the next block. That’s what she was. And she died because she was a fairy playing a star in the human world, and she was hunted down and killed for it.

And even though that thought popped into my head, it’s only a fragment. It’s not a story, it’s just a fragment. Something I’ll stick in a file so I won’t forget it, but I don’t have time to write or play with any further. I have files and files bursting with just little snippets and URLs with comments attached like this, because the ideas are floating around everywhere.

The hard work is taking the above and making a fun, entertaining story out of it that people will enjoy reading. That’s where the work is, not the initial flash of the idea.

9 thoughts on “Where do ideas come from?

  1. The single most hated question/comment from readers, for me. Absolutely the worst. One of the women at my dentist’s office once hit me up with “I have this absolutely fantastic story idea and if you made it into a book Spielberg would make it into a hit movie, but you’d have to split all the money with me, so maybe I shouldn’t tell you.”

    To which I said, “Maybe you shouldn’t tell me then.”

    1. Hello? Does my dentist use laughing gas? How come he’s never used it on me? And maybe you should try cutting back, ‘kay?

    2. On my computer I have approximately 6 or 7 partials–sometimes just a few pages–of novels that I’d either like to write someday or that I WILL write someday. That’s anywhere from 5 to 10 years of work. And those are just ones I’ve bothered to write anywhere from 6 to 50 pages on to see if the idea really lived. And I’ve got significantly more stached in the back of my mind than I can live long enough to write.

  2. Good Points. Because what makes a great story, ultimately, sounds mundane, or comes from something mundane, most people don’t think of their ideas as story-worthy. What they don’t realize is that it’s not the spark, it’s the engine, all the parts moving together that really gets you where you need to be. People who do not take the time to flesh things out tote around a carburetor and then gaze in wonder at Ferrari’s.

  3. Part of the writing process is developing the skills to translate an idea into a story. In the Monroe example, if you didn’t have the background in fantasy genre, the fairy concept wouldn’t come to you.

  4. Y’all are right, but I still like Neil Gaiman’s answer best, something to the effect of finding ideas at k-Mart’s blue light special.

    @Mark – It’s not just the published folks that are approached. Our waiter listened in when I had dinner with a published friend. When she left the table for a moment, the waiter hit me up with his great idea because he was sure it would help me break into publishing. You just got to take it in stride.

  5. There should totally be a training program for these people:

    1. Every time you read/see something interesting, ask yourself “What if…?”

    2. Repeat until you no longer have to consciously think “What if…?”

  6. Back when I had just started my first book, I was walking across campus with a fellow grad student and mentioned I was writing a novel.

    She said, “I’ve always wanted to write a book. I just don’t know what I would write about.”

    So I said, “Well, what do you think about when you’re walking to and from lab?”

    She said, “I plan my day, mull over my project, think about the homework I have to do….”

    The “where do you get your ideas” question made a lot more sense after I realized that most people didn’t entertain themselves with movies in their heads at every possible moment.

  7. I used the phrase “Where do you get your ideas?” as a joke question at a friend’s panel. Everyone laughed; they knew I was kidding. But Kirtley is absolutely right. People will cherish their One Big Idea; they’ll hug it and squeeze it and call it George.

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