Tuesday, January 31, 2012


One of the most frequent questions authors are asked is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

The answer involves a myriad of layers. I will peel the first three here, like an onion, for those of you who desperately require a dose of inspiration.

First layer: Where did you in particular, author Jane Smith, get the idea for this particular story, "The Story of that Guy and that Girl."

Layer one does have an answer. Of course, it varies from story to story, and author to author. Some of the many places I, personally, author Suzanne Church, have been inspired, are listed below. For fun, I also included the published stories that came into existance due to that inspiration (shown in square brackets). Note that some stories involve more than one inspirational source.

Word prompts ["Destiny Lives in the Tattoo's Needle"]
Photo/image prompts ["Coolies" and "Hell's Deadline"]
Mis-seeing or mis-reading a person, an image, a sign, a phrase, etc. ["Free Range"]
What if questions...what if couches were transporters ["Everyone Needs a Couch"] what if chickens could talk? ["Free Range" and "Yummy Mutants"] how do aliens pee? ["Waste Management"]
An opening sentence ["The Tear Closet" and "Destiny Lives in the Tattoo's Needle"]
An anthology or magazine theme ["Hot Furball on a Cold Morning" and "Free Range"]
World events and/or non-fiction research ["The Needle's Eye"]
Writers group challenges...write your own twist on a fairy tale/folk/myth ["Storm Child"] write a story about a funeral ["Driving the Past Home"]

Second Layer: How did you come up with this new twist on this old trope/story/theme?

Layer two involves work. I remember one of my tutors telling a story about how a visual artist would take a simple item and change it a bunch of ways. For instance, let's say the artist grabbed a simple object, like a Matchbox car. Then she would pull a tire off, or maybe melt the car in an oven. Then she would take the broken/melted car and glue it to a cardboard box. Then she would leave the box out in the rain and sun for say, a week. Then she would take the piece and throw paint at it. Then she would bury it in the yard. When looking for inspiration, she would unearth the artefact, take photos of the "dig" and use those photos as the foundation of a collage piece.

I know, I'm exaggerating a bit here, but I hope you're getting the point. Sometimes you have to take an idea and manipulate it in several different ways before it becomes your own. "Voice" is a big factor here...perhaps I will talk more about finding your "Voice" in a future post, but suffice it to say, that this layer of the creative process is where you as a writer put your own mark on the piece.

Third Layer: How do you stare at a blank page and come up with a hundred thousand words worth of characters and plot that are so amazing?

Layer three is the most work, and is made up of at least two answers.

Part one
"Fill the well" (quote from Bruce Holland Rogers) with events and activities that allow you to "Speak your truth" (quote from Mort Castle). The gist of this statement is you must LIVE. Experience whatever you possibly can. Go to an art gallery and watch the people study the art. Go to a rock concert (bring earplugs) and dance in the mosh pit. Go to a hockey or football or baseball or soccer game (no matter how much it costs) and cheer on your favorite team until you are hoarse. Take notes, or photos, or videos. Keep epic journals about your adventures. Then, when you need inspiration, read the journal entries, or watch the videos, or click through your photos and remember all of it...the smells, the excitement, the dread, whatever! Then put it all in your story, every inch and pound and laugh and tear. Your readers will buy into your story because it is full of the real.

Part two
Do the work. Plain and simple. Sit down in front of your notebook, or laptop, or netbook, or whatever, and write. One sentence. Then two. Then another paragraph. And soon you will have a page, or three, then a chapter. And keep in mind that whatever you get on paper, you can always change it later, add an image here or a metaphor there. But it's awfully hard to edit a blank page, so do the work and get words down on paper. Don't allow yourself to get up from that chair (except for emergencies of course) until you have some words down.

Any words.

It's all about establishing the habit. (Read more about Establishing the Habit in my previous post.)

So that's the first three layers of answers to the most common question asked of authors. And if you've ever asked a writer this question, do you understand now why they rolled their eyes, or smiled and said nothing? Because, it's almost impossible to answer, and when you try, you can talk forever and still not say it all.

Write on.

One hundred words today.

Go on...do it. Now.

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