In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #17 ‘Calliope’, Morpheus punishes a writer by overwhelming him with ideas for stories. ‘They’re coming so fast,’ gasps the writer, ‘swamping me, overwhelming me…’
Like most writers, I occasionally wonder what I’ve done to offend Morpheus.
Margaret Atwood seems to have the same problem. She recently responded to the question, ‘How do you generate ideas for stories?’ with the pithy comment ‘I have too many ideas – no need to generate them!’ (http://www.waterstones.com/blog/2014/08/ask-atwood-the-answers/)
It’s the classic clichéd reader-to-writer question: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ As if ideas are rare and precious things – diamonds – we must scratch and search and dig for, and hoard once we find them. Keith Johnstone, granddaddy of performance improvisation, points out that ideas are all around us, inside and out, flowing through us every minute of every day – we exist in a gushing torrent of ideas, like newts in a fountain. Being ‘stuck for an idea’, Keith says, means we’re blocking our own creativity: judging and rejecting perfectly good ideas before we’ve even let them into consciousness.
The real question is not ‘Where do you get ideas?’ but ‘What happens to turn ideas into stories?’ Well, a lot of things.
John Gregory Dunne said the thing most necessary to being a writer is always having the means at hand to record an idea when it strikes you. Joan Diderot, in her 1996 essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, said her notebooks were full of ‘bits of the mind’s string too short to use’ – moments, impressions, that later might get woven into something substantial. I use the voice recorder function on my phone; I have friends who use Google Docs. Find tools that work for you, and catch those passing ideas.
I don’t know about you, but my time and energy are limited. Sometimes a story idea seizes my brain and won’t let go: it saves me the trouble of prioritising by insisting, ‘I go first!’ Unfortunately, the initial flush of energy rarely lasts long enough to finish the story before a new idea starts pushing and shoving, demanding attention. I do as much as I can with one idea – making sure it’s all written down or recorded – before I get distracted. That way at least I’ve got something to come back to when time and brainspace allow.
Sometimes, a particular competition or publication opportunity looms. That makes prioritisation easier: if you know one idea is more suitable than others for the length of story required, the theme, or the judges, you can focus on it.
You have an idea you really like. Now, what form will best serve the communication of this idea? Is it a poem? A prose poem or a sestina? Is it a song lyric? A rap or an anthem? A rap anthem? Maybe it’s a huge idea with lots of ramifications to unpack. A novel, then? Or is it a delicate, intricate, tiny but powerful idea, perfect for a piece of flash fiction? You might not be sure until you begin to write, but often the idea itself suggests certain forms and gives the thumbs-down to others.
One idea does not a story make. I have a colleague who won’t begin a story until he has three unrelated ‘elements’, or ideas, to combine. He writes about these elements with the aim of drawing them together, and the process of doing this generates new ideas.
This is where it’s useful to have lots of ideas sitting around in various stages of development. Maybe Idea X isn’t strong enough to drive a whole story on its own – but combined with Y and Z, it’s a winner.
Expanding and exploring
An idea just popped into your head – in the shower, at the theatre, over dinner with your in-laws. What is it about this idea that’s triggered your writerly instincts? Different writers explore ideas in different ways. I like to brainstorm a fresh idea, with pen and paper or onto the voice recorder, before trying to write about it. My writing buddy will mull the idea over while walking the dog, then sit down and begin slowly and thoughtfully writing the story. Whatever your process, what you’re doing at this point is exploring and expanding the idea – ‘extending’, in impro theatre terms. See where it goes. Investigate what other ideas it brings in its train. Decide where you want to put the limits around it, for the purposes of this particular tale. The process will continue as you write, rewrite and edit the story, but it’s nice to devote some serious time to ‘exploring the idea’ right at the start.
Yup, the bit where the rubber meets the road. One of my uni lecturers memorably told the class, ‘Ideas are beautiful. They live in a beautiful place called Ideas-Land. As soon as you start trying to wrestle them through to the plane we live on, they inevitably get mangled. Your skill as a writer lies in your ability to unmangle them, and return them to a semblance of their original beauty.’ I was profoundly relieved to discover I was not the only idea-mangler.
You get a choice of exercises this week. Select freely, according to your current need.
- Review how you capture ideas. Do you have a system? Could it work better, perhaps by using different tools?
- Practise prioritising. Are you dithering around among too many projects, too many ideas? Pick one and make some real progress on it. Capture intrusive competing ideas and set them aside until you get a tangible outcome from Idea Number One.
- Go through your Random Ideas file and note down at least 3-4 different forms in which you could imagine this idea at home (e.g. flash fiction piece with a satirical tone, murder mystery, sit-com episode, sonnet, etc.) Cast your net wide. Which of these are you interested in writing? Note down one form you think definitely wouldn’t suit this idea. Why not? You might be surprised what you learn about the idea itself through doing this exercise.
- If you’re feeling playful, pick three ideas that seem completely unrelated. Give yourself a time limit (5 or 10 minutes). Write the first draft of a piece that brings those seemingly disparate ideas together.
- Take one idea and explore it in a way you normally wouldn’t. Go for a walk (or a bike-ride, drive, kayak etc.) and dedicate your brain to exploring that idea until you get back. Flip through magazines looking for images that illustrate the idea in some way, and create a collage. Use butcher’s paper and coloured pens to make a concept map. Assemble a soundtrack that explores various facets of the idea. Improvise an expressive dance. The point is to try something you haven’t tried before, and in doing so equip yourself with new techniques for creating the idea-to-story bridge. Feel free to Comment and share your own techniques. Happy writing!
Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at http://fictionsoutheast.com