|I suspect my brain has more sharks and ghosts
than butterflies and rainbows, but whatevs.
“Where do you get your ideas from?”
Inevitably, at every appearance of every Big Name Author, this question will be asked. A muffled groan will go up from the crowd. Eyes will roll. The rest of the audience–the true fans–understand that this is a ridiculous question with no satisfying answer. How can people keep asking that same stupid question? they’ll remark to one another, feeling superior.
And, more often than not, the Big Name Author will confirm their superiority by rolling his eyes and saying something smug, like “the idea store”.
As if something as brilliant and rare as a great idea cannot come from a moment of inspiration–it must spring, fully formed, from the bowels of one’s muse.
Well, I for one say bullshit.
Okay, I’m not a Big Name Author, but I’m a writer. And I know damn well where every single one of my ideas came from. If I were to get a Big Name Publishing Deal tomorrow, that wouldn’t change–I’d still know where they came from, which leads me to believe a lot of other authors know as well.
To admit that we receive stimuli and draw our own conclusions from it, just like everyone else, will take away some of the magic of writing fiction. Will make it seem easy. Well, it’s not easy…most of the time. What is easy, as long as you can keep your mind, ears, heart, and eyes open, is coming up with a good idea.
I actually like talking about where I get ideas from. It’s fun to remember, as the initial spark often bears no resemblance to the final product.
The book that landed me a New York agent was a great example of this.
Once upon a time, Oprah had the Ku Klux Klan on her talk show. There they were, ranting and raving and wearing their sheets, and some of the crap spewing from their mouths had me so furious I couldn’t listen to it anymore. The thought occurred to me–what if someone assassinated the KKK? I liked this idea of a vigilante killer running wild. It would make a good story.
But I didn’t want to write about the KKK. So the villainous group in my story became a satanic cult. Satanists were considered to be a pretty big problem at the time. (Whether they actually were or not is debatable.)
What if a satanic cult infiltrated a Midwestern town? What if they started kidnapping kids to use for human sacrifice? What if the police chief discovered that the cult members were just teenagers–wealthy, over-privileged teenagers that had been brainwashed by the charisma-laden cult leader? What if he decided the only way these wealthy juveniles would see justice was if he took matters into his own hands?
It sounds like a bad movie of the week, doesn’t it? By the time I was finished, I had over five hundred single-spaced pages filled with satanic murder, renegade cops, lots of red herrings and secret identities and people running around in disguises. Seriously.
My beta reader took one look at it and asked a simple question.
“Where’s the FBI?”
Why would one need the FBI in a story about a dozen or so cases of missing children? Whoops! Back to the drawing board.
My life became rewriting that novel. The immense amount of work required hung over my head like an anvil in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. At one point, my floppy discs (remember those?) were stolen, and I had to search out a hard copy of five hundred single-spaced pages and start all over again.
I tried my best, but I cracked. There was just too much wrong with that book. Satanic cults were no longer scaring the nation, and a cop running around in a cape calling himself The Avenging Angel was just plain bad.
But there were some small pieces that worked. Some pieces I liked.
For me, ideas aren’t the big thing. You can find ideas anywhere. The more important part is knowing which ideas fit with your voice and your passion. And that has more to do with finding your voice and your passion and that is not an easy thing, but it’s worth it.
I wonder if this authorial reluctance owes its existence in part to the association, whether real or perceived, of creativity with originality. The popularity of sequels notwithstanding, do you think there’s pressure on storytellers to come up with Something New?
Of course every idea is derivative, and The Idea Store stocks a very limited product selection. But I wonder if some authors don’t want to acknowledge influences and inspirations out of a sense of self-preservation? As Holmes so frequently lamented to Watson, the final product is always more impressive when you don’t see where it came from.
Thanks for your comments, guys!
@ Eric – Welcome back! I agree, good ideas are a dime a dozen. And on top of finding ideas that suit your voice/passion, you then have to plant your butt in a chair and write the darn thing. That’s the tough part.
@ Chris – Thanks for your comment. Insightful as always, but in my own opinion, it’s just plain ol’ snobbery. But there’s a method to the madness–writers are (much like any artists, but I’d argue it’s particularly prevalent with writers) continually devalued because nearly everyone thinks they can write. So perhaps “real” writers need to do everything they can to set themselves apart from the masses, including pretending that ideas come from some magical mystical muse that is available only to us.
I find it interesting that the same writer who makes the idea store comment will discuss in his books where his ideas for each story came from at great length. Maybe he just prefers short answers to questions when he’s put on the spot. 🙂
Thank you both for commenting! This was a long, tough post to write and I’m glad someone read it. 😉
good post Holli – thought provoking as usual. My ideas come from my everyday life and also from dreams. I have some weird ones. Looking forward with impatience to Oct. 18!
Thanks for commenting, Sherry. I REALLY appreciate it, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Dreams are a great source of inspiration. I try to write mine down, but they’re usually so weird I can’t do anything with them.
Less than a week to go!