“Where do you get your ideas?”
I’ve noticed that fiction writers tend to answer this question in a tone I’ll call…cutsey sarcastic. “A unicorn brings them to me every full moon.” Cool, cool. The wisdoms of the masters—always super helpful…
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. It’s a weird question for fiction writers to answer. If you’re writing non-fiction, sure, you can say, “Well, I was volunteering in a war zone and someone said I should write a book about it.” But if someone asks me where I got my story idea, I can’t exactly say, “Well, this one time, when I was a young boy in Louisiana being cursed by witches…”
So the idea unicorn is a nice, cute answer for something that, in reality, would take a very long time to clumsily explain. That’s probably why the Greeks came up with the Muses. But it’s also not really helpful to the writers who are banging their head against their desk, tossing away another scrap that reads, “Terminator 2 but with vampires????”
When I was a kid, I read my way through the entire young adult section at the library (granted, this was the 90s and the heyday of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, so YA books were about 150 pages). Reading that much, something started to happen—I found books that should have been awesome but weren’t. My brain started comparing those to all the great books I’d read and came up with ways I thought the disappointing books would have been better.
That was my mind’s first step into creating story ideas. And of course there were tons of bad ones and half-baked ones and ones that fell apart as soon as I told them to someone else. But there were good bits too. For me, ideas formed from rummaging through a scrap pile of other stories, my own experiences, facts, art, news stories, always asking, “What if? What if?” until something would grab my attention.
So my current novel wasn’t born fully-realized in a cabbage patch or on a train or in a dream. It had been a half-idea sitting in the “Ideas!” document on my computer for several months, about a sickly, sullen outcast finding out his brother is stealing all his strengths to become more popular. I liked the idea, but I didn’t see the spark that would turn it into a meaningful story.
Months later, I’d decided to shelve my first manuscript. My mom had been telling me about a woman back in Hawaii who gave her an honorary Hawaiian name that meant, “brightest star in the heavens.” I was thinking that if the woman turned to me, my Hawaiian name would certainly not be the brightest star in the heavens. I laughed.
Then froze. That idea and my half-idea for a story smacked together and I stumbled from the shower, soap still in my hair, and started scribbling in my notebook as fast as my hand would go. I’d found my theme. I’d found my spark. I’d found my ending.
How do people get ideas? How do they go from that exciting spark of inspiration to creating something meaningful? How do they make it through that point when fun becomes work and inspiration seems out of reach?
I’ll be exploring this question in a number of ways over the next year, in a series of posts I’ll be calling, “Inspiration and Perspiration.” Because it rhymes and I like that.
I’ll be interviewing different types of artists and creatives about these themes and no one will get away with crediting the “idea unicorn” for their hard work. I’ll also bring tales from my own experiences, from how a band’s show gave me an idea for a novel, seeing my writing performed on stage, and the experience of trying to get my first novel published. I even have a secret tale of online writing success I had under a pen name that will delight the nerds among you. And I mean the nerds. (*Fist bumps to the nerds*)
In the meantime, give that ever difficult question a shot. Creatives, innovators—where do your ideas come from? Comment below!
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