Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How I Come Up With Ideas

Recently, a Twitter-buddy asked me where I got my ideas. In this case, the choices guessed were, “Dreams, other books, good imagination?”

I answered a bit over Twitter, but it felt like the kind of thing I could, or perhaps should, expand on. Plus, I think this is the first time anyone ever asked where I get my ideas, a question more famous authors seem to get all the time.

I should start by stating, first of all, that unlike a lot of more famous authors, I don’t have all that many story ideas in any given year. Ray Bradbury once said that to become a better writer, you should write one short story per week for an entire year.

Obviously, if you add that up, you’re talking about creating 52 short stories in 365 days.

Which is why that plan would never, ever work for me. I don’t have 52 ideas a year. I have two. Maybe three.

And my ideas tend to fall in the good to very good range, rather than the “great” range.

In the movie business, a great idea is one that basically sells itself. These are called High Concept. “Jurassic Park,” in which a guy creates a theme park with living dinosaurs, which then go on a rampage? That’s high concept.

This lack of ability to create ideas is why I don’t write more short stories. I only have three ideas. I can’t afford to blow one on a short story.

This is also why I was never a particularly rich and famous freelance writer. If you’re looking for work, the first thing you have to do is come up with an idea. Then you have to find places to send the idea to, in hopes that a magazine or newspaper will want to pay you to write it.

I once decided I was going to take a whole week (I was unemployed) and try to come up with a concept I could sell to a magazine. In other words, my goal for the 40 hours I would have been working was to come up with a single idea I could sell.

I came up with one. I started mentally assembling how I could write it, what it might look like. My concept was, I was going to write about what it was like to be a spouse of a person who is bipolar. I figured somewhere out there was a mental health magazine that would buy that. Maybe even make it into a regular feature.

Then I started researching who might buy that. Very first magazine I checked? “No columns.” I tried to locate other magazines that might be interested.

Pretty much a no go.

Then I tried to come up with another idea. I genuinely couldn’t do it. Because I was so excited to have come up with one idea, and an idea that I hadn’t seen before, one I thought could really be interesting, and it appeared no one wanted it.

Could I have pushed for it anyway? Maybe. But over the years, I’ve spent my fair share of time knocking on closed doors in hopes that someone would make an exception for me, and found it to be a huge time-waster.

It’s possible I just don’t know the right way to ask.

Now that we’ve covered my weaknesses (idea generation) let’s talk about what I’m good at.

There are probably technical terms for it, but I’ll label them thusly:

I am good at running with the ball handed to me.

I am good at taking one idea and generating lots of ideas based in and around that idea.

Allow me to explain.

When you’re a freelancer, one of the things that happens if you’re very lucky (and I have been very lucky) is someone will call you up and ask if you want to write a story about something. The answer is always:

Yes. What does it pay? What exactly do you want from me?

When a friend of mine said he was looking for people to write for his magazine, I said, “I can do it.” I had no idea what it would entail. And it was a men’s magazine, which is the kind of thing I never, ever, read.

So I went to a big meeting, and I tossed off my one good idea and my two not very good ones, and he said we should run with my good one (yay!) and asked me to handle someone else’s idea as well.

And I said okay. And I wrote the articles. And it went great.

That led to me writing more things for the magazine. Which later led to me writing for another magazine, wherein they would provide me with the topic(s) in question and I would put together the article.

That, I was very good at.

Asked to come up with my own ideas? Then I was in trouble.

So let’s go to the other thing I’m good at, which is taking an idea and branching other ideas off of it.

In my Tweets, I talked about The Werewolf Solution, which started with one concept: What if werewolves really existed, and they had come out of the closet roughly five years ago?

(Amusingly, Charlaine Harris came up with the exact same idea, only with vampires, maybe a few months before I came up with the concept. We might have even come up with it at the same time. Now, Ms. Harris is rich. And I am not. *sigh*)

The thing is, this concept is, I think, good as opposed to great. It suggests a story world, but doesn’t tell an actual story.

However, you can take the concept, and build ideas off of it, and from there you can draw your story out.

I usually do this by asking more questions, based around the second question. How many days is the full moon full (turns out it’s three days)? What makes a werewolf a werewolf (I don’t like the idea of werewolf bites, so let’s say they’re born that way)? How does a werewolf prevent him/herself from hurting anyone during his/her monthly change (they build a safe room or go to a special resort or hotel)?

What if there was a cure for being a werewolf?

Now, that one little idea is the kind of thing that would cause national debate, in the real world. It would be not unlike if you could find a cure for being black. Think about it. Ours is a world frequently and sadly torn apart along racial lines.

So if someone created a pill that could alter everyone, changing them from black (or any other color) to white, in the interest of eliminating racial skirmishes?

Can you imagine?

There would be a faction of white people up in arms that “they” would look no different from “us.”

There would be a faction of black people screaming that this was racism in its purest form.

There would be another faction of black people begging to get the pill released as soon as possible, so that they could finally put an end to all the racism, overt and not overt, that they had experienced their entire lives.

There would be white people singing the praises of the drug, saying that it would finally prove what they said all along, we’re all the same on the inside, and that this would promote harmony throughout the land.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the drug forced the United States into another civil war.

Now, flip all those ideas to werewolves…

But I imagine you get the concept now. Once I have a reasonably solid central idea, I like to dissect the implications of that idea. And that allows me to build my story.

After that, implication builds on implication. If person A creates a formula to cure werewolves, it follows that person B will try to prevent the formula from being discovered by the world at large. Then you take a set of characters and let them bounce off of each other.

Ultimately, however, it’s all about “What if?” For me, anyway. What if you were on a plane when zombies became reality instead of fiction? What happens if werewolves came out of the closet? What happens if vampires view their purpose as helping people to die?

Right now, I’m about 30,000 words into Frank, the Lonely Unicorn. The book that asks the question: What if you were the last man (unicorn) alive, and the last woman (unicorn) on Earth hated your guts?

Again, I think it’s a good idea, but you don’t immediately see the movie in your head. And from there I have to make decisions based on other questions (comedy or tragedy?) (does anything magical besides unicorns exist?) (what powers do unicorns have?) which, in turn, become the story I’m trying to tell.

And that’s where my ideas come from, and how I assemble them into actual novels and screenplays and such.


  1. Thank you David. I have come up with an idea and have already started writing my novel. It's a fiction/fantasy type story and I'm on page 4 of my Word doc on my laptop. I'll let you know how it turns out. Btw, how long does it take to write a novel if you don't have a part you are stuck on? How many computer pages would make up a book or do you keep writing until you think it's right and get a friend to review it?