Wednesday 6 October 2010

How Do I Get My Ideas?

Like any writer, I get a real thrill when someone reads my work. I love the feedback I get from other writers who understand the technical process behind the words, but it's often good for the soul to get comments from non-writers. I've noticed that the first response of a reader who does not themselves write is often "I don't know where you get your ideas!" Sometimes the response is coded in the question "Where do...?" and I thought I should perhaps cover this in a post.

In order to define my ideas, I think I want to clarify the statement to be "How or where do you get your ideas?" The basic summary answer is "I read, I listen, I watch and I think."

Read everything that you can. Fiction, non-fiction - it doesn't matter. The bigger the range, the better, although I do place a lot of value on reading non-fiction in order to a) learn more about the world and b) add an extra dimension of depth to your work. Obviously it helps if you have a vague interest in the subject to start with, but try reading about something new. A throwaway line or footnote in a non-fiction book might just prompt an idea that might work for a flash, or it could be expanded into an entire novel. My historical horrors (e.g. The Resurrection Men, The Hidden) are usually inspired by things I read in non-fiction books, and it's the extra material gleaned around the central concept that provides the "oomph" for the stories to work. Without the knowledge, there is no idea. (I wrote more about this when writing about historical fiction)

Likewise, reading genres different to those in which you normally write can be invaluable for providing ideas. If you usually write sci-fi, try hardboiled thrillers. Maybe you can write hardboiled sci-fi! If you write romance, give steampunk a try. The new ideas you encounter might just spark off some of your own.

A writer is often a covert eavesdropper. Even a fragment of conversation can provide the seed of an idea. The writer can plant that seed and watch a throwaway line bloom into something they can use. If you channel surf at home, listen to the strange, disjointed sentences formed as you go from one channel to the next. Is there a prompt or even a plot in there? When you're listening to music, pay attention to the lyrics - do the songs tell a story, or do they simply inspire a plot in you? (Unforgettable, by Nat King Cole, did that for me).

I firmly believe that if you're willing to find ideas anywhere, then you will. Don't walk around with your head down, ignoring the world around you. Look at advertisements. Watch how people interact (but don't be obvious about it!) If you read the paper while commuting, pay attention to headlines. Read the 'Wanted' ads or personals columns. Even look at the problem pages - what could explain the erratic behaviour of Upset in Bristol's husband, aside from the obvious? I even wrote a post about this way back in January - check out my Creativity game!

Make a list of the top ten cliches that most annoy you, and then think of a way to subvert them. Choose a character from either a work in progress or a finished piece, and then write down your top five most embarrassing moments - how would your character react in those situations? Think about the professions you wanted to do when you were younger and write about one of them now. Choose a favourite movie and think about its structure. What other stories could you tell using the same structure? Think about the plot of a finished piece, and consider how the plot would run if you told the story backwards. Finally, find a source of writing prompts (Eric J Krause runs them on his blog, as do Write Anything and Writer's Digest, while I've started a series of weekly photo prompts, starting with Old Bear) Can you combine two or more prompts to give a new plot?

If you exhaust these possibilities and need more ways to find ideas, Marelisa has some up on her Abundance blog. Take ten minutes to create something...and enjoy yourself!


Anonymous said...

Great post! Yeah I like to say that I get ideas from everywhere and nowhere, lol. You pretty much hit it on the head though.

Anonymous said...

Like most writers, I would have to say...ideas are everywhere. I was sitting in church & the pastor mentioned Cain & I thought "no one has told his side of the story". Then I was in the car and the song "Jealousy" came on. That's when I decided to the series on the 7 Deadly Sins.

Ideas are everywhere, you just have to be open to them - read, listen, watch, think.

Anonymous said...

A great range of ideas to pick from. There is no excuse for not finding an idea. And once you develop the habit of looking for ideas, they seem to generate themselves.
Adam B @revhappiness

Jason Coggins said...

And LIVE! I don't understand the concept of the tortured artist eking out a hermit's existence in a cold bedsit somewhere. Travel, join weird ass interest groups, get political OR learn a trade that allows you to participate with the great unwashed (who generally aren't writers or artist types).

Jason Coggins said...

P,S: I really like the subvert cliches list!

Carrie Clevenger said...

Bravo here doll. I have a very bad habit of stealing ideas from an all night diner. I purposely go at 2am just to catch the drunkards. They are loud enough for me to hear.

Susan said...

Great post!
I have to second what Jason said; LIVE! Experience life and write about it.
I'd also add FEEL to the mix. Don't be afraid to tune in to emotions and EMOTE!
Good tip on channel surfing - will have to give that a go. Ditto for heading out to a diner at 2am, although the tube late on Friday night also works for people watching!

Unknown said...

Bravo. Excellent advice, Dr. Icy. Thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

Great post and good advice for budding writers (or those trying to get back into it)!

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