As a writer, I like to talk about my writing. There are times where I don’t feel that I am a very interesting person otherwise, which is probably patently untrue. Other people seem to find me fascinating. I do like to ramble about my writing ideas, because they excite me and I want others to share that excitement. And there are a lot of times after I finish practicing my thirty second pitch that I get asked, “How do you come up with these ideas?” And this often comes from people who aren’t writers or artists and fortunately most the time they are equally enthusiastic about the idea itself. I needed those types of people in my life. They are doing important things with their lives and they were willing to listen and be supportive of the good thing in my life. And when I am published, these are the people who will have books dedicated to them and get free (signed) copies.
But the question, “How do you come up with these ideas?” Is very hard to answer in thirty seconds. I often try to pass it off as just being bored and overly creative. Trying to explain how I come up with an idea is like trying to catch a soap bubble without popping it.
It is a lot easier to explain to other people how I can come up with an idea for a fan fiction than to explain how I came up with an idea for an original work. A fan fiction is more self-indulgent writing. There’s a construct already given in the form of book, comic, movie or whatever I base the writing in. An idea for a fan fiction story can come from everything to “I want to see these two characters together,” or “I have a theory,” or “Wouldn’t it be fun/funny if,” fill in the blank here. There are even ones of “I don’t like the way the canon went after this spot, so I’m going to change it.” Fan Fiction is all about seeing something lacking in the original work and wanting it badly enough to write it yourself.
In a way, coming up with ideas in fan fiction writing is a good grounding point for coming up with ideas for original writing. Writing fan fiction ideas really helped me clarify what type of things that I found important to a story. What ideas in my fan fiction stories popped up over and over again? What was my style of writing versus the styles of everyone else out there? And how did these themes change over time? It was quite interesting for me to see for instance, that as my ideas of romance changed through the years, not only did my favorite pairings change, but I would change entire fandoms so I could use different characters to explore my new thoughts on romance.
Here we are four paragraphs in and I haven’t even explained what an idea is, so that we can all be on the same page. The dictionary definition of idea explains an idea is a notion, a concept, a thought or an impression, which really to me feels like synonyms. Ideas are a seed of an overall work. They are the very beginning thought that inspires the motivation to create something. They are the building blocks on which everything else is based. They can be extremely simple. “I want to see this!” or “I want a story with this type of character!” or “I like this setting.” Or they can be more complex. “What happens when I take these three things and mash them together?” (Usually hilarity ensues.)
But where do these ideas come from?
Nobody lives in a vacuum and there is nothing new under the sun. In fact, there are so many literary devices that some enterprising souls have spent countless of hours gathering them into one encyclopedia of time sucking webpages called TV Tropes. (You’ve been warned.) These ideas have settled into our subconscious minds and formed something called the universal consciousness of all mankind. It’s how the writer of the Hunger Games can write a book about children forced to fight for their lives in an arena for the entertainment of the masses without supposedly knowing about Battle Royale.
Ideas are all around us. They are in the media we consume. They are in our life experiences. They are in our likes and dislikes. They exist in overactive imaginations to see beyond the mundane world. The twisting of the subconscious in the realm of our sleeping dreams. They are there in our interaction with others (nothing is sacred to an artist.) Ideas are there in our sense of the absurd and what we view as humor. They are present in our culture or in other people’s culture. (Thus the terms culture appropriation.) And because of all these factors, you can give the same idea to three different people and they will return with three totally different things. There is a certain beauty and wonder to that.
Everyone could write a book if only they knew how to take the ideas and put them onto pages. But first they have to recognize that there is an idea to be written about their life in the first place. They have to be able to see and decide there is a story to tell. And for that to happen, they have to first think that way.
Coming up with ideas is an ability. It isn’t something that is automatic. I had to train myself to think that way and I am a naturally creative person! In whatever area a person has talent in, to come up with ideas to take advantage of that talent is a skill. The brain is like every other organ. It can be trained. It takes time to develop a pattern of thought to see the possibilities for stories, pictures, engineering, music or whatever your talent is, all around you. There are some writers who can spit out idea after idea month after month one right after the other. And then on the other hand, there are writers who only come up with one or two clear coherent ideas in their lifetime.
Ideas don’t come out of our heads fully formed, like Athena springing out the head of Zeus. It is more like a gestation process, first there is a nascent thought, a single idea and it splits off and forms another and those grow and form into a process and the next thing you know, holy shit, it’s a baby! Ideas are a process. They can be a plan of action. They have to be developed and worked on. In many cases, they need to be researched to make sure they are actually workable ideas. I find note taking to be essential when creating ideas. (And talking with Becca, lots and lots of chatting with Becca, then I take our conversations and copy and paste them into word documents to make notes with later.)
Now, this can take anywhere from several years to a few hours. Everyone works at their own pace. Some people doodle maps, others make lists of characters, some writers world build incessantly. And in the end, they all started from the same place with a tiny idea that grew out of control. Like weeds in a garden, ideas have to be pruned, hacked at and sometimes ruthlessly dug up or exchanged with new flowers so that the idea has focus and clarity.
Now, I wish I was one of those types of writers who could focus on one idea and stick with it. It just doesn’t work that way. Heinlein had it right when he wrote in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, that writing is like a disease that once you have it you can’t stop and it must be carefully managed. When a writer is in the thrall of a glorious idea it is just better to let them be and shove food under the door. In fact, it is safer for all concerned.
A lot of writers, especially those in fandom circles, talk about their ideas as rabid plot bunnies that hang out under their bed and multiply. I can relate. However, since everyone else has bunnies and I feel I must be different, I want to put them in a different context.
I lived out in San Francisco during my college years and had an interesting roommate. One of our favorite past times was to walk through the financial district to the ferry building, get sausage with spicy mustard on a stick and then go search for the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. These birds liked to come down to the dock area for the same reason that the seagulls flocked to the area. Food. There was a little park near the Trans America building that they’d like to gather in where the trees were small enough that you could actually see them up close and if you were still, they’d come out of the trees and walk around on the grass. They’re mostly a bright lime green with a cap of red feathers over their eyes and sometimes a few dots on their necks. They were well fed so they were chubby little things, most weren’t any bigger than your average pigeon. But what made them stand out from all the other birds in the city was their call. They sounded like squeaky toys, deranged squeaky toys. So much so, that my roommate and I began to call them the Squeaky Toys of Doom. They were cute, funny little birds. They weren’t native to San Francisco. They’d come from somewhere else as pets, escaped and sort of took over.
This is how ideas are to me. I get one. And it’s cute, and it makes funny noises, and it is brightly colored and shiny and active. So, it’s fun to play with it and feed it for a while until it’s a big fully formed idea. And I’m usually very happy with my idea, until my traitorous brain comes up with another. Then another squeaky toy of doom walks into the scene and starts making loud noises so that I can’t ignore it. And the idea doesn’t work with the current squeaky toy I’m playing with and there is no way to reconcile them. They’ll just fight and peck at each other and nothing will get done. So, at the very least, I have to put my first squeaky toy down and make notes of this new squeaky toy or I get so enamored with the new squeaky toy that the first gets neglected until the shine wears off the new one. And if this happened once or twice it’d be no big deal. No, there is a whole telephone wire of squeaky toys of doom squawking their ideas and loudly demanding attention until it is so overwhelming I want to hide under my pillow and scream at them to shut up for a while. (If only my brain worked that way.)
Thus, I take notes and set it aside to open up and admire every once in a while or add a detail or two to make the feathers a little more prominent rather than a shapeless lump that just looks vaguely like a parrot and then I can go back to focusing on the first idea. And when I get tired of the first idea, there is always another idea to take out and play with for a month or two. And while not all of the ideas work out and may be tossed back into the general pool of ideas to be drawn from later, there are more than enough to keep my busy.
Notice, I didn’t say the ideas were bad that I discard, just that they don’t always work. I am firmly of the belief that there are no bad ideas. They are overly done ideas. There are lazy ideas. There are ideas that just don’t make sense. There are ideas that make me want to ask “But what are you bringing new to the table?” There are ideas that I just can’t relate to because they don’t interest me or that hasn’t been my life experience. None of these ideas are bad. The execution of these ideas can be bad, hackneyed or plain lazy. It is one thing to have an idea. It is another to execute it well in a manner that a broad bunch of people would find it interesting.
It would be exactly like going to TV Tropes, choosing half a dozen and writing the story exactly to those tropes. There is the rare writer or artist that can get away with it, but for most writers the story, despite the idea being good, is going to fall flat on its face. And it’s not always the idea that is the most original that becomes the cultural phenomena.
I won’t lie. There is a lot of hard work between the starting thought and the payoff at the end, when the idea is completed and you’ve got an entire project in front of you. To me, I like to know the origins of things. I like to know the thought process of how something got from that point A and ended up at point Z. There is awe and wonder in going “this came from what?” “This started where?” “That gave you the kick to the seat of your pants to start working, really?” What emotion moved someone to write the idea, was it laughter, or tears or just the urgent need to tell that story and only that particular story at that point in time. Most often, we get to see the end result and never know the beginning, even if it was, in the case of Twilight, just a dream.
Ideas are the start of something bigger. They are a catalyst to a larger work. They can come from anywhere and the ability to come up with ideas has to be learned and developed like everything else. You have to train yourself to see the possibilities in the world around you. You can get one idea or two ideas or they can take over one right after another like a huge flock of birds. Not all of these ideas will work and executing them properly will be hard work. But it can be very rewarding in the end when you’ve got something finished in front of you and you can say “I did that. I created that and it all started when…”
Maybe when I get my first book published, I will sit down and (pretentiously) write for those who care how I came up with the idea. When it all started. Why I am fascinated with the particular set of character types that I’m using. What kicked me in the pants and what chain of thoughts left me laughing for a good ten minutes before opening a word document and just start writing down ideas, thoughts, and plans of action.