Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

ideas2One of the most common questions I’m asked when people hear I write fiction is: Where do you get your ideas?  The answer is simple: ideas are never the problem. I have too many ideas.

While smack in the midst of  the draft of my second novel, I got an idea of another book. I was really excited about the idea, but I forced myself to put it on hold.

Where do I get my ideas?  In snippets of conversation overheard in a coffee shop. Newspapers stories. Obituaries. Historical events. Dreams. Childhood experiences. Traveling. Imagination. Art. Issues I care about.

When my writing workshop students get stuck, here are some ways I help them generate  ideas.

l.  Ask What if?  What if you find out your best friend was living a double life? What if you discovered you suddenly could speak a language you were never taught? 

2. Collect interesting images of people whom you do not know. Decide to bring one to life. What is her name?  What does she want most in the world? What is her story? 

3.  Collect images of awesome, weird, and intriguing places. Use the image as a jumping off point for a setting. What is magical about this place? What happened there?

4.  Think of a funny incident that happened to you. Now retell the story with a different character and ending.

5.  A character receives a map in the mail. Describe the map. Who sent it? Why?

6.  Look for story starters.  Here is one I gave my students for a flash fiction lesson. She gave me the black box for my birthday.  This opening generated many creative short pieces!

7.  People watch. (My students are always surprised when I admit to eavesdropping in public places.) Imagine a secret someone may be keeping? 

Most likely, you’ll have more story ideas than you’ll ever have time to write. (I certainly do.)

I think most writers would agree that ideas are all around us if we take the time to look. The real challenge is not in finding the idea but in shaping it into a compelling story.

Beginning writers put too much emphasis on finding the idea. The story idea is only the first step of your journey. The real story unfolds during the long trek to The End. One of the fun things about writing fiction is the process of discovery. You may think you know where your character is going until she grabs the reins and changes direction.

When I was working on my novel One Is Not A Lonely Number, I knew the character Gabrielle has a secret. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I kept on writing the story, thinking about Gabrielle, listening to her, until one day I just knew. It felt magical.

Stephen King writes about this process of discovery in his memoir On Writing :“…my basic belief about making stories is that they pretty much make themselves.” He starts with the situation first and then develops the characters. And he never knows the ending ahead of time.

So don’t sit and stare at the blank page. Start writing something. Anything. Don’t over think the process. Just keep writing. Ask yourself questions along the way. Let your idea morph into other ideas. See where your characters lead you.

Enjoy the journey!

 

Young Writers

The NY Times featured an article today about children and teen writers whose parents have helped them self-publish their writing. One boy sold 700 copies of his book so far. These are ambitious kids who love to write and are taking advantage of today’s easy publishing technology like Iuniverse and Lulu. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting too bent out of shape about this kind of creative endeavor. Still, the adult naysayers couldn’t keep quiet.

“What’s next?” asked the novelist Tom Robbins. “Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional.”

“There are no prodigies in literature,” Mr. Robbins said. “Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.”

Perhaps it is true that there are “no prodigies in literature”, as Mr. Robbins asserts, but does that mean young writers have nothing meaningful to say or imagine? Is it not possible for a teen to craft an engaging fantasy novel?

Yes, young writers should study craft, revise, and work with an editor before presenting their work to the world, but need we put an age limit on publishing opportunities?   With educators today lamenting that kids can’t write and don’t read, shouldn’t we celebrate those who can and do by encouraging them to reach for their dreams?

Last week, I addressed a room full of award-winning authors–all under the age of eighteen.  These kids were top winners in the Young Authors of Maryland Annual Writing Contest.  The award reception was held during the State of Maryland International Reading Conference.  I told the students that when I was a seventh-grader I won my first short story contest in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Competition.

“That little taste of recognition sparked the fire of possibility in a shy and insecure adolescent. I had a story to tell, and someone thought it was good!”

Kudos to those young Maryland authors, their proud parents and teachers. You don’t need to be a literary prodigy to publish your writing. Keep reading, writing, revising, living, loving, and learning. The words will follow.