Herding Locusts

- by Emilie Richards

locust-smallerPut ten novelists in a room, add some wine and munchies and introduce the subject of Attention Deficit Disorder.  You’ve got a party.  You’ve also, quite possibly, got ten people who swear they have ADD themselves.  And maybe they do.

But my point is not to diagnose.  Or even to point out that what we as novelists do– follow a million different thought fragments in a million different directions–is made to order for ADD.  If we aren’t capable of spinning multiple ideas and letting them drag us where they will, then we may not be adept at plotting, or at the least, plotting the new and innovative.

When I am asked where I get my ideas–and I am, frequently–I find the question odd.  Ideas are everywhere.  Doesn’t everybody spin stories in their mind, taking whatever’s available and mixing it with whatever was available yesterday or might be available tomorrow?  Didn’t they put themselves to sleep as children with tales of knights and dragons?  How on earth do they survive in dental waiting rooms or during a boring sermon, when they really can’t get up and walk away?

No, the problem is not where the ideas come from, but how to herd them into some semblance of order.  Ideas are like locusts, and if we’re not careful, they leap out of reach, or head south, when they should head north.  Worse, sometimes when they’re gone, they’re immediately forgotten because the next and better idea has just landed within reach.  If we can grasp it in time, that is.

When I began my first novel, the wealth of my own ideas surprised me.  I was elated.  Not all of them were good.  Okay, most of them were not good.  But the sheer volume was a delight, even if I didn’t know what to do with them.  I didn’t know then, what I’ve learned since.  The ideas are a small part of the whole.  The rest, herding them, taming them, cajoling them?  That’s the hardest part.

Over the years I’ve learned ways to discipline my locusts.  I do character sketches, not so much to learn about the characters as to get my ideas about them in one place and lock them up.  I outline, not because I’m a drone who must have order, but to keep the ideas within bounds.  My books are long.  Too long.  Without outlines?  I’d still be writing my first instead of, well, my sixty something.

I set schedules.  I force myself to take breaks.  I do other creative projects like gardening, knitting and quilting.  But still the ideas are always there, bounding overhead, lighting briefly, then landing somewhere across the room.  Is this a clinical diagnosis or simply fabulous luck?  I’ll go with luck and happily keep my locusts.  They have been very good to me.


  1. Oh you are soooo right! I think it’s interesting that most non-writers, or beginning writers, ask where do writers get ideas, but imho, the key question is, “How the hell do you make sense of all the static in your head?”
    Herding locusts–perfect! I think I’ll download a photo of one and tape it on my computer screen. :)

  2. Static in your head’s a great image. It’s tuning in the best channel that’s the hard part, right?

  3. Locust! That would be a tough job. The question about where the ideas come from is amusing. My own mother asks me that. I only wish I could write fast enough to get to all the ideas I have. While I putting one idea to paper a half dozen more are begging to be set free.