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Where do you get your ideas?


"Where do you get your ideas?" is one of the perennial questions authors get asked, and it's utterly unanswerable for me.

Everywhere. Every book I read, every TV show I watch, every news article, every conversation is full of ideas. It's literally impossible to even write down the ideas, much less write the books! How would I write three or four books a week? How would I jot down twenty ideas a day? The world is absolutely full of stories, and writing them all would be like getting to know as a close friend every person you meet. Of course you can't. Of course there are lots of neat people that you stand behind at the grocery store or talk to for a minute and never get to know. Your paths cross and then part. And every single one of them is a fascinating person who might share your life in an interesting way. Every single one of them might be your lover or your new best friend or your worst enemy. Every one might be an amazing connection.

Stories are like that. Meeting stories is like meeting people. Hundreds or thousands cross your path, and sometimes one of them stays. Sometimes one of them moves in and you get to know it intimately. But mostly they pass by, lost because you simply don't have time and energy for all of them. Sometimes you put an idea away incomplete, and then a few years later your paths cross again and this time you explore it. That's what happened with Lifeboat. The idea sat on the back burner for years until the characters fell into place.

But sometimes what people mean when they say, "Where do you get your ideas?" is really "How do you find an idea that will sustain a novel-length plot?" That's more complicated. That's going from "How do I meet people?" to "How do I find a girl to marry?" Of course every book is different, just like every marriage, but in very general terms here are my thoughts on figuring out which idea you want to "marry."

1. It can't be one gag. One nifty idea does not make a novel. It makes a short story. One of the reasons a lot of novels founder is that there's simply not enough to get 90,000 words from. It would make a great short story or novella, but it's just a one-shot idea and that's what it is. This is a one night stand, ladies and gentlemen, not a marriage.

2. It has to actually say something you're interested in saying. Lots of people decide to write whatever is hot and popular at the moment, but there's nothing at the core of it that makes it special or different. Another vampire book may look like it has the potential to sell, but if it doesn't say something new and unique to you, it's not going to work. This is like marrying someone because they're hot and popular. Seriously.

3. Don't worry about what other people think. If you have an idea you love, that's what matters. It doesn't matter if your best friend or anyone else thinks it's cool. All that matters is that you do. Many wonderful books have begun as a quirky idea that nobody thought had potential. Don't worry about whether it will sell. Don't listen to "expert" advice. If you have an idea you adore, embrace it. To extend the metaphor, you're marrying her, not your best friend or your mother or some guy you knew in high school. Ultimately it doesn't matter what they think of her or whether they love her. It just matters that you do. Don't get discouraged from pursuing an idea because it's supposedly not marketable or what people want this year. Tell your story and don't worry about that.

My best advice, JMO.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 19th, 2012 12:30 pm (UTC)
I really like the metaphor of marriage here. Because I've found that if I don't like a character well enough to daydream about them, even if it's not necessarily story-specific stuff, it just doesn't work for me. They haven't taken on life. And if that doesn't happen, if I don't make that deep emotional connection, the resulting story has so far been crap, not matter how solid the plot idea is. If the main character doesn't have chemistry for me I'm wasting my time. I think that's my version of point #2.

Leaving aside interviewers, who seem to use "Where to you get your ideas" as a stock question, I think a lot of the people who ask it are hoping for a formula they can use, not an attempt to describe that peculiar alchemy that happens in a writer's head which turns bits from half a dozen sources into something new and hopefully fascinating.
Apr. 19th, 2012 06:42 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly! You have to fall in love, to extend the metaphor again. If you can't love your main characters, I don't see how it can go anywhere good. And for me that means that the main characters have to actually be likable. If I'm going to spend that much time with them, I have to enjoy being around them.
Apr. 19th, 2012 02:33 pm (UTC)
I guess that is how I should be thinking about my Star Trek novel that I write and that I am currently revising. But Pocket Books makes it really hard for new or young authors to even get a book published if it's Star Trek and since they own the rights to Star Trek for books, they pretty much have a say and can shoot down my wonderful ideas, which is very sad. Their Guidelines for writing a Star Trek novel are absurd and extremely crazy and prevent many ideas.

I was told that I'd actually need a "publishing" agent to get my novel published and also other Star Trek authors to back me up. Easier said than done. Especially when I've noticed that some of Pocket Books' Star Trek Authirs have no regard for canon nor do their editors. They actually seem to go towards the outcry of the fans on some major important areas actually allowing books to change (even slightly change) onscreen canon.

It really is disappointing that they do this, because of all of this, my unique Star Trek novel may never be published (at least by Pocket Books) meaning no fans will get to see my ideas or my novel. It really makes continuing my revisions discouraging and to feel like a waste of time.
Apr. 19th, 2012 06:44 pm (UTC)
Yes, from what I understand you do need an agent to sell a Star Trek book. But that doesn't mean it can't be done! I've known several people who sold Star Trek books. But you have to sell something else first. That's the key. If you truly want to do it, and you're really willing to put several years into doing it, if it really is a life dream, then you can. You have to write and sell something else that will get you the agent, and then you can do it. There is nothing impossible! Only things that aren't worth the sacrifices to get there, and only you can decide if you're willing to put the years of time into it to do it. If so, go for it!
Apr. 19th, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC)
I'll give it a try. I've already been working on my Star Trek novel for years any ways. What is more years going to be?

I guess until then I can write something else. I don't know what though. I have been good at writing what I know and that is usually related to Star Trek. I bet I'd have the same problem if I tried to write a StarGate Atlantis novel.

I guess its time for an original work. :(
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )