Writing Reflections: There’s a Magical Fountain of Ideas in the Sky
Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!
On Coming Up With Ideas
With SoCNoC looming on the horizon, I’ve been thinking a bit lately about where my creative ideas come from. Actually, I’ve been getting the feeling that I’m starting to harp on the same old theme over and over again, which has caused me to worry that I might one day run out of ideas — a thought which fills me with a flailing panic of a sort usually reserved for serious, life-threatening, trapped-in-a-burning-building kind of danger.
It seems to me there is a common misconception that novels (or the ideas for them, anyway) spring into the world fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. As if there exists kind of magical fountain in the sky, if you will, or a happy land from whence flow sparkling gems of literary wit just waiting for the right person to pluck them and turn them into best-seller gold. I know that’s how I always used to picture it, before I started getting into writing “for serious.” Where do ideas come from? What a silly question. Ideas just happen…don’t they?
Well, yes and no. If there is in fact such a source, I’m afraid I have yet to find it. I have never stumbled across some glittering story, sitting alone and fully formed by the roadside, begging me to take it home. Brilliance (sadly) does not occasionally see fit to rain down on me of its own accord. Of course, I do get moments of insight. Sometimes, I get the shape of a plot before the characters; sometimes the characters come first, and tell me their story. Sometimes I find different concepts that fit together in a kind of monstrous hybrid with strange subplots sprouting everywhere, but which nevertheless works for me. Whichever way it happens, I usually have to be willing to work, to wait, and to deal with the fact that ideas seldom create a perfect plot the first time round. Like most good things, good (by which I mean workable, and hopefully readable) ideas don’t always come easy. Sometimes they don’t come at all: sometimes, you have to go looking for them.
- What If?
The biggest source of ideas for me is the “What if…?” game. Ever since I started reading (which is before I can remember) I’ve been learning things about the world; about how people’s minds work, about how they interact with each other, in situations and places beyond my own experience. This is the first basic step of speculation that leads to generation. Playing inside other peoples’ heads takes you outside of your own narrow experience. You start to think about things a little differently. You start looking at the way things are – in my case, bored only child in a completely ordinary world – and start asking yourself, What if this was different? What if that didn’t happen? What if this did? What if…?
As necessity is the mother of invention, “What if…?” is the mother of inspiration. This is how stories start.
Most writers like to stress that you have to read to be a writer, and I agree. As far as ideas go, reading helps you to understand which ideas have been overused, which have not yet been fully exploited, and which appeal to you personally as concepts you would like to play with. Reading also does something else: it provides you with an almost endless source of what-ifs.
It is true that any novel you read is most likely the product of someone else’s what-if-ing about the state of reality. Sometimes this can be a source of envy when you read a book you love to pieces and wish like hell you’d come up with it first. This can be good, in a way — it usually inspires you to attempt something similar, but unless you’re very clever you usually end up (I’ve found) with nothing but an inferior knock-off of the original. But what about when the opposite happens? I recently had the experience of reading a YA novel that I both loved and hated: loved, because the idea was genius; hated, because the execution left me feeling like that genius had been wasted. And there’s another kind of what-if. What if this had been done differently? What if I took the same premise and built different kind of story (hopefully a better one)?
Obviously you have to be careful with this sort of speculation (here thar be plagiarists!), and the impulse to change the ending of a story or to alter small details to better suit your idea of the material or characters is the basic driving force behind most fanfiction. That said, with a hefty dose of originality, dissatisfaction with your current read can lead to some pretty amazing ideas of your own.
Naturally, this doesn’t work for everyone. Not everyone has vivid dreams, and not everyone remembers them. Speaking for myself, however, around 60% of the ideas I have written down in my “Potentials” folder have originally come from playing the what-if game with my dreams.
The great part about the subconscious brain is it doesn’t deal with things directly: it uses symbols and images to convey ideas. This seems to me to be an ideal breeding-ground for story themes and fascinating new approaches to subjects you might not otherwise consider. I’ve been keeping a dream diary for going on three years now, and while I can’t always understand my notes afterwards, sometimes just remembering how they felt can provide the raw material to generate a new plot or character. Of course, dreams about candy falling from a giant Easter egg flown by your Aunt Bertha may need to be edited so that they make sense, though…
And, finally, perhaps the best source of inspiration is life. I have a number of news clippings and things saved that have sparked my imagination – unusual, once in a lifetime things like people waking up from 23-year comas to reveal they actually heard everything all along and more mundane, everyday things like valuable old planes being stolen, or whatever. Too, I don’t think people realise how much of a writer’s self goes into their work: their perception, their hopes, their regrets…their own personal what-ifs. Writing for catharsis is probably the reason poetry was born — although, of course, it works best when this is at a distance, and in moderation!
Life is always changing and if you’re paying attention you can find a grain of inspiration in just about anything. Perhaps that spring of everlasting inspiration exists after all…