Not “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” But “What Happens After?”

I am currently away on an Internet Vacation. I’ll be back online on March 31. I have written one new post for each day of my Vacation so that folks don’t miss me too much while I am gone. But keep in mind, these posts have been scheduled ahead of time. Feel free to comment, as always, but note that since I am not checking email, I will likely not be replying to comments until I am back from my Vacation on March 31. With that said, enjoy!

At some point in every professional writer’s life, they are asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve been asked the questions several times, by friends, family members and others. There are a slew of (possibly apocryphal ) tales about how famous writers have answered this question. Harlan Ellison is often quoted as answering, “Schenectady. There’s an idea factor there. He sends them $15 and they send him 6 ideas a month.” Or something like that.

Ideas were something that I never struggled with, at least consciously, even as beginner. I always seemed to be overflowing with idea. Even today my “idea file” would be overflowing, were it not now a collection of notes in Evernote. My struggle came after the idea. I never had the nerve to ask a writer I admired where he or she got their ideas, but I generally wasn’t interested in that. What I always wanted to do (and was always too timid to do so) was wait for someone else to ask where they got their ideas and follow it up with, “But what happens after?”

It’s one thing to get an idea. I get tons of them. It’s another to recognize an idea as something you–at your present skill level–are capable of working with. To this day, I find that a subset of the ideas in my idea file are beyond my apparent skill set. I know this because when I try to write a story based on the idea, it never works out. I struggle, I flounder, but the story simply isn’t there. Actually, I’ve learned to recognized that the story probably is there, I just don’t yet have the experience to see how to make it work in the best possible way. This is unbelievably frustrating, but in my experience, I have to let these ideas go for a time and come back to them when I am better equipped to handle them.

Also, more often than not, one idea does not a story make, at least for me. The stories that I’ve sold (nine or ten of them now) have almost all of them stemmed from the combination of two or more ideas. For me, storytelling is like some kind of chemistry experiment. I have a shelf full of reagents that, independent of one another, don’t do much of anything. They might look pretty. They might smell interesting. But that’s all on the surface. Take two of those reagents and mix them together, however, and you get reaction that can explode into a workable story. The trick, of course, is figuring which ideas go with which. I learned this by experiment, and while I’ve gotten a better feel for it over time, I still sometimes lapse. Recently, I’ve been working on a story that was based on what I thought was a fantastic idea. It moved slowly however and I knew something was missing. One day, flipping through my idea file, I hit upon something that would fit with the story perfectly. Ever since the story has been going gangbusters.

I don’t know if this is a teachable skill. You can suggest rough procedures: take two idea and bring them together to form a story. But picking the right two ideas, that’s gut instinct, I think. For me, it’s probably heavily influenced and informed by the reading I do and the stories I like to read, but so much of it is unconscious that I can’t be more specific than that.

In any event, if you are ever tempted to ask your favorite author where he or she gets their ideas, I humbly suggest you hang back, and let someone else ask the question. The author will answer with a kind of weary tone and memorized speech that indicates just how many time the question has been asked. Then, when they are done answering, wallop them with your question, which should be, “Yeah, but what happens after?”


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