“Where do you get your ideas?”
This is one of the questions that authors dread because it comes up so frequently, pretty much every time they take questions at signings or other events. I went to an event with Jane Yolen once where she addressed this issue first thing before opening up the discussion to questions from the audience (though someone who I guess hadn’t been listening still asked anyway).
But when a stranger asked me this recently after hearing me read my writing, I felt extremely proud. This was the first time I’d been asked and it made me feel like I’d achieved some sort of writerly milestone (do I get a badge?).
So where do ideas come from? Here’s Neil Gaiman’s response. Similarly for me (Haha! Look at me comparing myself to Neil Gaiman! Haha nice try!), ideas come from a lot of places. Most of the time, it’s not an active process. I’m not sitting at my desk twiddling my thumbs thinking, “Hey, I’m going to come up with an idea today.” I read books, I live life, I have vivid dreams that stick with me for months. Stories and characters, and often just phrases pop into my head (the first line for my previous book came to me this way) and I write them down. Not all of these ideas end up as stories. The ones that really inspire me or stick with me for years (decades even), the ideas that I remember even though I never wrote them down anywhere are the ones that I concentrate my time on.
But actually for this particular story–unlike pretty much all my other stories–I actually had been brainstorming. My previous novel had been a historical fiction, which really challenged me (in a good way) since history was not my favorite subject in school (see my blog posts on writing historical fiction for more about that one). With this novel however, I wanted to concentrate on what I’d learned in school—science and medicine.
I’d been in the midst of a book called The Scar by China Mieville with a side-character that intrigued me—a person who’d been surgically modified as a punishment to live underwater (sorry if I’m getting this wrong, it’s been a few years now since I’ve read it) and who eventually comes to love swimming in the ocean. I was inspired by Mieville’s descriptions of what it actually felt like to swim with tentacles and thought a lot about this character (usually at night when I was falling asleep—I get some really good ideas at this time of day). I imagined what it must be like to be this character. I realized wanted to know more about this character.
Now, I didn’t literally take this character and setting and plop him into my own book. Originality is important to me, and I didn’t want this to be a fan fiction (not to disparage fan fic, that just wasn’t my goal). No, I used this idea to brainstorm, and come up with my own concept. I envisioned this character as a teenaged girl (because I write YA, and that’s just where my mind goes). Envisioned her living on Earth. Envisioned her having been born with gills. Placed her in a bunch of other scenarios. Initially I thought this might end up being a story about a regular kid who happened to be born with gills, but the more I thought about it, the story changed. I asked myself, what if everyone had gills and not just my character? And why would this happen–why would people have gills (here’s where my science background comes in)? And what if this were true of my character, but what if her gills just didn’t work? And what if my character didn’t love swimming in the ocean, what if she wanted to be on land, in the air? This is the question that really inspired me.
But let’s face it, what I’ve described is sort of a premise for a character, but not really a plotline. So the next thing I did was to sketch out a real scene, which I ended up re-writing it many, many times. I swapped things around, changed things (so it didn’t just turn into The Little Mermaid) asked myself questions until things gelled. The rest of the story just kind of came to me while I was writing.
So for those of you who want to write but haven’t had characters or plotlines just pop into your heads, or vivid dreams that you just have to write down, here is a writing exercise I’ve come up with to generate some ideas:
1) Read a book in the genre you want to write and really think about the characters and the setting.
Ex: Ok—Let’s say I want to write a MG fantasy. One of my favorites characters from this genre is Harry Potter.
2) Think about how this character looks and change him/her in some major way, like her gender, her sexual orientation, or maybe even her species?
Ex: What if Harry Potter wasn’t a wizard? What if he was a she, and a regular, non-magical girl born to famous wizarding parents who are still alive?
3) Place this character in a unique situation.
What if she were a non-magical person born to famous magical parents, who are placed in danger—and even though she can’t do magic, she needs to use magic to save them? What if her best friend is magical, but isn’t a red-haired, funny kid named Ron, but a floppy-eared puppy named Chris? Okay, maybe not. But even bad ideas are allowed when you’re brainstorming! That’s what revisions are for, right?
4) Place the character in a new setting.
Ex: What if she’s not in modern day England, but modern day Ethiopia? Or maybe Ethiopia 1500 years ago? Or 1500 years in the future?
Now write your scene!
5) If you’re still stuck, try brainstorming and answering a few questions about this situation you’ve stuck your character in.
Ex: What does this character look like? What does she like to wear? How does she react when she finds out her parents are missing? Who took them? How will she find them? What do they look like? Does she look like them? Etc.
Writers: Do you actively try to come up with ideas, or do they just come to you? (Or a combination of both?)