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  1. #1
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    Where do you get your ideas from?

    One of the most annoying questions that authors get asked is : where do you get your ideas from?

    So - why does this annoy us? Well, partly because it crops up so often, but I think it is more than this. I think it illustrates a basic difference between writers of fiction (especially sff fiction which has lots of wayout ideas) and people who have no desire to make up stories. They canít imagine ever thinking such weird stuff; we think it all the time.

    Most writers donít have a problem finding ideas. Our problem is finding time to use them all. And we have a hard time trying explain this to people whose minds just work a different way. Our ideas come from just about anywhere. Give me the yellow pages of a phone book, and I bet I could get an idea for a fantasy novel, and Iím not kidding.

    Just to give you an example: I was talking about maps with a family member, and how inadequate they often are. And we talked of the proposal (this was some years ago) to make a kind of computer street maps for installation in cars. And that simple conversation made me think: well, the best kind of map would be one that showed you what was happening on the ground at the time. If a car computer map could show you the traffic jam aheadÖandÖwhat if a map could show the invading army crossing the borders of my fantasy land? And there it was: the idea for Havenstar. (J.K.Rowlings later used the same idea in the Harry Potter stories.)

    Of course, one idea can make a short story, but it is not enough for a novel. You have to have lots of them. But I believe, nonetheless, that for most writers, the idea is the easy part. And so it is that we are somewhat perplexed when we get asked the question. We donít know how to answer. We canít see why the people asking canít see all those fabulous ideas just lying about waiting to be usedÖ

    And BTW, I notice that there is a very reasonably priced copy of Havenstar up on Amazon.co.uk . Much better than some of the other way-over-the-top-in-price copies that have been on sale over the past couple of years (60 pounds for a mass market paperback??? And it sold too! Alas, no one pays me a percentage on secondhand copies...)
    Last edited by glendalarke; April 27th, 2005 at 04:24 AM.

  2. #2
    Books of Pellinor alison's Avatar
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    60 pounds!!!! Gosh, Glenda, that's staggering. I'd be mighty flattered!

    Yes, it's a very difficult question to answer. I guess it's the great "what if...?" (They do call it speculative fiction, after all). But another thing is the ideas that just turn up on the page when you're writing; sometimes (not all the time, sadly) they seem to come from nowhere, fully formed. I'm a great believer in the old subconscious, I certainly make mine work very hard. Something underneath there is busy all the time, beavering away, and every now and then it just surprises you!

  3. #3
    Kiss my axe! kahnovitch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by glendalarke
    One of the most annoying questions that authors get asked is : where do you get your ideas from?
    I would say that those who ask, have very little imagination.
    In this day and age we have distractions all around us. If we think about how people's lives are filled with the mundane chores and responsibilites that come with modern living, it's hard to find time to just imagine and use our minds to create.
    With writers in particular this is a tough call, as writing is a very time and sometimes soul consuming habit.
    I say "habit" rather than pass-time, as it can become a craving and addiction to us.

    I think the next most annoying question is "So what's your book/story/WIP about?"

    You then try to summarise your story down to a synopsis that does it no justice whatsoever, as it's impossible to explain the plot lines, character conflicts, twists, and delicate intricacies of the story you have lovingly woven for the last year.

  4. #4
    Edited for submission Holbrook's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kahnovitch
    I would say that those who ask, have very little imagination.
    In this day and age we have distractions all around us. If we think about how people's lives are filled with the mundane chores and responsibilites that come with modern living, it's hard to find time to just imagine and use our minds to create.
    With writers in particular this is a tough call, as writing is a very time and sometimes soul consuming habit.
    I say "habit" rather than pass-time, as it can become a craving and addiction to us.

    I think the next most annoying question is "So what's your book/story/WIP about?"

    You then try to summarise your story down to a synopsis that does it no justice whatsoever, as it's impossible to explain the plot lines, character conflicts, twists, and delicate intricacies of the story you have lovingly woven for the last year.
    Annoying questions they might be, but if a person has a real interest behind the question and is not making small talk, you owe them an answer.

    Besides, yet to meet an author or would be one that wouldn't talk your head off about their creation

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    The ideas that spring out of nowhere, Alison? Aren't they wonderful! That superb moment when things seem to just flow on to the paper...that kind of flow comes from all the ideas we have been absorbing from our surroundings without even thinking about them. Ideas? They are everywhere! That's why it's so hard to explain to someone who just can't see them.

    And yes, Holbrook, I agree - a sincere question deserves an answer, but I don't think I have yet satisfied the questioner on this one. They end up looking at me as though I am some kind of alien. (Ideas in the supermarket aisles or the evening news or a chance bit of overheard conversation? These writers are daft!)

    And Kahnovitch - or yes, that other question...explaining the storyline of a fantasy. If they didn't think you were daft before, they certainly do after you answer that one! (Almost as bad as having to write a synopsis...)

  6. #6
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    Maybe they should be asking for the inspiration behind your ideas rather than where they come from?

  7. #7
    Books of Pellinor alison's Avatar
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    That question about "inspiration" is just as hard to answer. Maybe harder! (And yes - "what's the book about?") In fact, almost any question about writing is very hard to answer without sounding vague or clueless. The questions I like answering are things like "What do you do all day?" or "Do you have children?" or "Are you having a bad hair day?" (during one rather hilarious school session I did with some rather cheeky Year 7s).

    Another question that gets asked alot is "where do you get your names from?"

    And yes, Glenda, I wish all writing days were like those ones where it just flows! It seems unfair that sometimes there's this glorious ease, and other days, for no particular reason, it's like pulling teeth. Sadly, the latter's more frequent with me...

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    Ahhhh....THE question......where does it come from?

    I HATE that question because it IS such a darn struggle to reply without sounding pretentious.

    I mean, how do you say to someone..."I get a germ of an idea and start writing. More often than not I don't know what I am going to write from one paragraph to the next and I seem to be reading a new novel as I write it." To me, that sounds SO pretentious...usually, I just shrug.

    By the way, when you first started writing and then finished your first book, was it a CHORE to get someone to read it so they could give you a "what-do-you think" critique?

    I envy painters, to enjoy their work all you have to do is give no effort...you look, you like, or you don't like. For a writer, you have to get people to expend effort to see if they enjoy your work or not and people are lazy. My father has had a copy of my first novel for 6 months and I don't think he's even started it yet. sheeshe!

  9. #9
    Registered User tuttle's Avatar
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    As much as we hate the questions...

    In all fairness to those who ask the questions, what should they ask?

    What is the story about? Where do you get your ideas? How do you choose the names of your characters? What made you decide to write fantasy?

    They are asking about your work with interest, and those questions are the first ones to come to mind, which is why they are asked so often. They are trying to gain an understanding of you and your work. As long as you are not rushed for an answer, an interesting conversation can be started with those tiresome questions. Of course, one would think that we already have pat answers to those questions as they are asked so often.

  10. #10
    Edited for submission Holbrook's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by glendalarke
    And yes, Holbrook, I agree - a sincere question deserves an answer, but I don't think I have yet satisfied the questioner on this one. They end up looking at me as though I am some kind of alien. (Ideas in the supermarket aisles or the evening news or a chance bit of overheard conversation? These writers are daft!)
    Well I was looking at some old 17th century fashion prints once and found myself wondering who would wear a hat with a feather that big on it. Wrote 90,000 words about him. Perhaps writers or those who seek to be have a brain that works sideways on things others dismiss as nothing or unimportant.

    To be honest I have never tried to answer the question where the ideas come from. Most of my personal friends know I write, both for pleasure and maybe one day published. Some are interested, most look on it as a "hobby" like knitting. I have talked about it mostly to fellow want-to-bes or published writers, they seem to understand the madness.

  11. #11
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    That's it exactly, Holbrook. Sideways brains, that's us...weird.

    I was whisked away into another world last night, and I was reminded of the problems of first contact, a la SF alien worlds. My husband and I were invited to a gathering of people from Libya, celebrating their safe return from the Haj. At the lift, my husband was whisked away to one apartment (where all the men were) while I was taken to another (where the women were).
    The trouble with this was that only one of the women really spoke English, and as she was the main cook for the evening, she didn't have much time to talk to me. Worse, my Arabic is confined to stuff like Inshallah and Bismillah and shukran. I was forcibly reminded why TV space operas have things like implanted simultaneous translators...!

    To get back to the topic, there must have been half a dozen things that happened at that gathering which seeded ideas. We ate out of a communal disk (scrumptious coucous) but one of the kids had a bad cold.
    And that gave me an idea:what would happen if a stranger arrived at such a gathering with a communicable disease?

    The women, every time they wanted to dive across the public corridor to a third apartment where the cooking was taking place, had to cover their lovely dresses with shapeless robes and head scarves - even though it was only ten paces. (Idea: oooo, lots. e.g. About societies where dress is both confining and defining and yet where private dress code is quite different...) And so on.

    I am eternally glad I am one of those weirdos that have ideas jumping at me from all directions.

  12. #12
    I AM too a mod! Moderator Rocket Sheep's Avatar
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    ***hands Glenda a jar with a tiny fish in it***
    Psst... put this in your ear.


    I have ideas jumping at me from everywhere too... but if I repeated all them they'd give me a vacation somewhere white with really soft walls. They're already looking at me funny and I've been holding back!

    I think there is a certain amount of judgement in selecting what will appeal and resonate with other people, yes? And a lot of skill in conveying that into a written medium in a voice that others will listen to. A knack for combining several ideas in a manner that makes a story more special than the rest. So it's not just a case of being 'out there' it involves skill and judgment and an appreciation of readers. I don't suppose you could lend me a little of that could you? After all... I loaned you a babblefish.

    As far as first contact stories go... have you ever read Roadside Picnic? That is the best, the ultimate, the most believeable, first contact story. The aliens stop off, treat us like ants on a roadside and carry on, leaving behind their garbage - disease, pollution and discarded technology.

  13. #13
    Aditya Bidikar
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    This is a sublime topic, because the answer is bound to be different for each writer.

    Some of us are irritated at being asked this question, some of us are not. I think that's personally, I like to delve into my own mind to see where I got my ideas (mostly so that I can try to get some more). I'm not a published author, so my comments might not count, but for those authors who are somewhere in between wanting to hit the next person who asks this question and wanting to bore them for hours, I think Stephen King's solution for his short stories was pretty good. In two of his collections, he put an appendix where he put a note on each story. And I think that introducitons and afterword perform the same function for novels.

    If someone asks, you can just point to the book.

    Personally, I get at least 15-20 ideas just from a ride on the bus, but by the time I get home, only about five are left, and four of them seem crap. But muses are fickle creatures, aren't they?

    PS: I agree with the comment that the people who ask aren't really at fault. But maybe that isn't entirely true, because how can we be so sure that they'll remember our answer? We must remember that most of these questions are asked at parties where all parties are half-drunk anyway.

    PPS: I'd also like to point to Stephen King's answer to the question: 'How do you write?'
    He says: 'One word at a time.'
    Last edited by sillysod; February 13th, 2005 at 01:46 PM.

  14. #14
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    Of course your comments count, sillysod! If you write, you are a writer, and you have ideas. And they come from somewhere...

    Perhaps the ideas is what makes us writers in the first place. If the ideas didn't beg to be written down, we wouldn't be so obsessed!

    I'm off to the Lost World of Borneo and no internet connection for 10 days - I'll drop in again the moment I am back.

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