Where Do You Get Those Crazy Ideas?

- by Laura Resnick

lightbulbIf we gave a first-prize for the question that people ask writers the MOST, the winner would be, without a doubt, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Every writer hears this question, and we hear it a LOT.

Until recently, I thought people always asked me this simply because they’re trying to show polite interest or make conversation.

It was only recently that a longtime non-writer friend of mine explained to me that, er, no, people ask this because most of them are curious, and the reason they’re curious is that the majority of the population does not walk around with story ideas in their heads.

I had no idea! Honestly.

I thought the reason I’m a writer is that, unlike most people, I bother to write down, rewrite, revise, hone, tweak, and polish my story ideas, and then I bother to spend months and years submitting them to publishers, through rejection after rejection, until someone offers me contracts for them.

And I assumed that other people aren’t writers simply because they don’t do that.

I honestly had no idea until quite recently that there was anything remotely unusual or interesting about getting story ideas. I vaguely assumed that most people got story ideas regularly. I had always sort of supposed it was a normal, standard, typical way to think.

Apparently, I was quite mistaken in my assumption, and many people do not live with story ideas taking up a substantial portion of their brains. (Who knew?) And so they wonder how writers think of all those story ideas… in much the way that I wonder how a musician can play by ear (wow!), or a ballerina can dance on her toes (ouch!), or a mathematician can understand (let alone create) numerical formulas.

This is also, I suppose, why non-writers mistakenly assume that coming up with story ideas is the hard part of writing books. Actually, I have more story ideas than I will live long enough to write (and, statistically, I’m decades away from death), and I get more story ideas almost every single day; and I’m not unusual in this way for a writer. Ideas are the easy part of writing. A surfeit of story ideas is among the thing that gradually led many writers to try writing in the first place.

However, writing down my story ideas, then rewriting, revising, polishing, honing, and tweaking them until I’ve got a novel in which tens of thousands of strangers will be willing to invest their hard-earned money and their hard-won free time… That’s the hard part of writing books.

For a detailed look at where writers get their ideas, check out the “Where Do You Get Those Crazy Ideas?” page of my website at www.LauraResnick.com, where I and various guest-writers talk specifically about where we got the ideas for some of our books and how we developed those ideas into publishable novels.

4 comments

  1. LOL, it’s funny to me that you didn’t know that ‘we’ (non-writers) don’t have all these story ideas floating around our head.

    That’s one of the things I find fascinating about people- we all think that whatever is our ‘norm’ is the norm for everyone. If that is all you know then it must be normal :-)

    Here’s a follow-up question for you- Do your ideas come to you already in a genre? For example, if you are a Romance author, are your ideas Romantic, or could your ideas instead become a Thriller?

    Is it nature or nurture that determines your genre as a writer?

  2. That’s a great question. The answer varies, writer to writer.

    There are writers whose story ideas are so consistently commercial and on-target in a particular genre that this determines without pause what genre they always write in. (I think it also makes it difficult for them to understand or recognize that many writers do NOT get idea that are born already perfectly-tailored to a particular genre or commercial niche.)

    At the other end of the spectrum are writers whose ideas virtually never fit any sort of genre or niche, and their careers typically thrive or die on the basis of whether they can find an editor who believes in their work enough to publish it anyhow, and then manage to build an audience. (Gabaldon’s bestselling OUTLANDER series is an example of where this worked. The publisher and the author have long maintained that the series is not really -any- genre or like anything else, and readers have argued for years about what genre the series is or isn’t.)

    In my case, I mostly get story ideas that don’t inherently belong to a particular genre, and I massage them until they fit (or until -I- imagine they fit) into something definable in market terms. This works much better for me in fantasy, where I have a good sensibility for the genre, than it did in romance, where it did not (and so I left the genre after staggering awkwardly through fourteen romance sales).

  3. Whereas–just as a counter-example–my ideas always* come to me firmly rooted in a particular genre. (Usually fantasy, occasionally sci-fi or horror.) The setting and the elements of the world just appear as part and parcel of the idea as a whole.

    *For values of “always” that equal “often enough so as to make the exceptions insignificant.”

    But then, I learned long ago that I think differently than most people (even most other writers). I don’t think visually. For instance, if most people** were to write a scene describing a forest glade in the middle of the night, with the faint silver of the moonlight reflecting off the rain-damp leaves, as a wolf climbs slowly up the grass-covered heal in the glade’s center, they would get there by first ENVISIONING the scene in their mind, like a picture or a live event, and then describing it.

    **Or so I’m given to understand.

    I don’t work that way. In my mind, the description appears AS a description–in words. If I want to actually see it, I have to force myself to do so, and even then I can’t always do it. I’ve read, and even written, entire novels without a single scene actually appearing to me in any visual sense.

  4. LOL. I had a fun SF idea over breakfast this morning that I may never have time to write. Ideas are the easy part. Turning idea into coherent and entertaining story, that’s harder.