Chapter Three - Ideas24 August 2010
I get asked about ideas all the time—where do my ideas come from? How do you go about getting ideas? How do you recognise a good idea? How do you come up with a truly original idea? This is the question every writer gets asked the most, and the one which no writer can truly answer! Ideas come from everywhere—from movies you see, books and comics you read, games you play, things that happen to you at work or home or on the street. No writer has ever struggled to get ideas—the struggle is to turn an idea into a story, and THAT’S what people are REALLY asking when they ask questions about ideas, even if they don’t realise it!! I’ve written a lot about this subject on my blog, so here are some of my many thoughts on the topic.
Where do a writer’s ideas come from? That’s a question wasted on writers, since it’s part of a much bigger question—where does ANY idea come from? How did mankind learn to think, to reason, to dream, to tell stories, to plot, to plan, to evolve? The genesis of ideas is key to the genesis of mankind itself. Great scientists, philosophers and theologians have addressed the question as far back as history recalls. While I certainly think writers can help prod and poke at that great question (as I did to an extent in Procession of the Dead, and to a greater extent in book 9 of The Demonata), I can’t see any of us providing a nice, neat answer any time soon!!!
But what people are really asking of writers when they ask that question, is how do you get ideas for a STORY—i.e. how do you develop ideas and turn them into stories or novels or plays or whatever. That’s a much easier one to answer—we investigate. Writers are, in essence, story detectives. I think just about everyone dreams, daydreams, has nightmares, imagines themselves in other positions (e.g. wondering what it would be like if you were a footballer or a rock star or a vet). We all have ideas. But a writer isn’t content to let an idea sit idle. When we have an idea, we start asking questions of it. We play around with the idea, bounce it off other ideas, imagine different outcomes if we roll it this way or that way. That’s a how a story grows and develops. My books always begin with a specific scene. Sometimes it’s a long scene. Other times it’s just a brief flash. That scene—that idea—can come from anywhere, at any time. What I then do it stick on my detective cap (metaphorically speaking) and interrogate the scene. For instance, if it’s a scene of someone dying, and somebody else crying, I ask why the person is crying? What happened to the person who died? Where are they? How did they get there? Is anybody else around?
If that sounds a bit too simple to be true—it isn’t!!! It really does work that way! Sometimes the answers come quickly, other times it can take years to figure them out. Pretty much like a murder case really—sometimes the police find the killer within a matter of hours, sometimes it can take months or years. Sometimes a case never gets solved, and you can bet everything you have that every writer has ideas that will never lead anywhere, no matter how long or how hard they work on them!!! You never know starting out where a case/story will lead you—you just have to take what you have, examine it closely, and ask lots and lots of questions.
I Read a fascinating article in National Geographic, all about memory and how the brain functions. I already knew that the brain was a mysterious organ, but it was enlightening to learn just how little we really know about it, how it works, its potential, the way it processes input and records or doesn’t record memories. There was one old man who is incapable of recording new memories—he lives solely in the present, sometimes eating breakfast three times in a morning because he has no recollection of having eaten! Yet on some level his brain functions normally—he can go for a walk in his neighbourhood and find his way back home every time; he doesn’t remember any of his neighbours consciously, but he knows he should feel comfortable around them, as he would with friends. There was another lady who can remember every day of her life since about the age of 10 or 11—if you ask her what she watched on TV on a certain day 30 years ago, she can tell you!!! Those of you who have read Bec will know why that bit intrigued me so much!
Memory, the brain, and experience of time have always captivated me. I get asked all the time “Where do your ideas come from?” But I can never give an interesting answer because the question that needs to be answered first, and which nobody can answer properly, is “Where do IDEAS come from?” Conscious thought - and imagination on any level - is an incredible achievement. Awareness of time, the past, the future, death ... the mind boggles when we try to analyse these capabilities. In some strange ways we know more about the world and the universe than we do about our own minds. We’re like a computer that has been programmed to react to input in certain ways. But computers don’t KNOW that they’ve been programmed. They’re not self-aware. YET. Maybe they will be one day. Maybe they’ll evolve. And maybe that’s how we started out, programmed by a higher force, aliens, the universe ... who knows?!?
We explore our minds as best we can, probing for answers in a variety of ways. Science is one way, of course, but I believe literature is another, and perhaps offers far more insights than science ever will. I have a theory that mankind’s growth and evolution can directly be linked to the story-telling process, that our brains have developed through use, by making up stories. Imagine it—primitive man, sitting in a cave late at night, wondering what’s outside in the darkness. If he only ever thought of real answers—bears, tigers, other people—I think we’d still be sitting in caves, not much more advanced than any other species. But by using his imagination ... picturing monsters or demons or giant animals ... putting himself into stories where he had to use more than his common wits to survive ... learning to weave memories and facts into those stories ... passing on his knowledge to his children through stories, and interacting with them that way ...
That’s where I think society as we know it really got going. Stories are what propelled us forward, what still drive us on. They’re at the heart of who we are and how we came this far. If we’re to go further, it will be because our imaginations demand it. If our brains develop even more, it will be because we bombard them with stories and demand more of them. We advance when we rise to meet challenges, but the world can only challenge us to a limited extent. Stories, on the other hand, can keep the challenges coming, generation after generation, each more advanced and demanding than the one before. I don’t fully understand where those stories come from—nobody does—but I’m sure they’re the key to unlocking the mysteries of our minds, and from there the universe. And after that? Well, I’m willing to bet there’s even more to discover. The thing about stories is, they never end. There’s no stop to them. And the next one always has to be bigger and better than the ones before if it’s to entertain and enlightened and intrigue.
Memories and stories. They’re the building blocks of who we are and whatever we might go on to achieve. Don’t ever forget it!!!!
A few years ago, I wrote this about a series which I’m still working on as of writing (August 2010): If you read the April Monthly, you’ll see that I mention a new series that I’m tentatively edging towards making a start on. I can’t say anything about it yet, mostly because I don’t know much about it—hell, I don’t even know if it will come together, if I’ll even start on it at all!!! But I think it has the potential to be a multi-book series, something on the scale of The Saga or The Demonata. I’ve been playing around with ideas for it for a few years, teasing away at the few scenes and ideas which have been knocking around my mind. It’s been slow, hard going, but I think it’s coming together—in recent months I’ve been thinking about it more and more, piecing together different parts, running various plots and ideas through the mill of my imagination. I have the sense that I’m ready to push it further, to sit down and start putting ideas on paper.
This is the part of the job that’s hardest to explain, and the part that I think is of most interest to other people. It’s the creative maelstrom that comes before the actual beginning of a book. Right now I have scraps of ideas and story-lines which might one day form the core of a long series. But they’re nowhere near complete. There aren’t just gaps in the structure—there are black holes!!!! I’m going to try to pull enough of those ideas together to get me started, to set me on the path of what will hopefully work out. But I can’t fully explain how I’m going to do that, because I don’t really understand the process myself. All I know is that I have to work on those ideas, bounce them off each other, ask questions of them, sniff around them. What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that? Will I throw in a bit of sci-fi to see what happens? Where do I want to set it?
So many questions. So many ideas. So many possibilities. If I sat down and thought about the scale of embarking on such a project, I’d be terrified and I wouldn’t have the courage to begin!! Something I often say to young writers is “Don’t think too much!” Writing can be a scary prospect if you brood about it. You just have to get stuck in. Of course you can’t actually do that until you have SOME idea of where you want to go. But a sliver of an idea is usually enough. Inever have all the answers to a book before I start it. Getting a few key facts straight is normally enough to get me going—after that I just have to trust that the story will suck me in and reveal more of itself to me there further along I stumble with it. I said before on this blog that the trigger which made me sit down and write my four-book series was a scene set on a ship—I saw the scene unfold in the cinema of my mind, and knew I had to start writing ASAP. In this case the trigger seems to be a personal trait about the main character. I had an insight last week, nothing major, but as soon as it flashed through my thoughts, I knew it was RIGHT, and it made me want to start writing. I think a lot of writing is like that. You ask questions, consider all sorts of answers, and wait for one to strike you as RIGHT ... as TRUE ... as MOTIVATIONAL. The answers are different for each writer, and in each instance, but once you stagger across it, you KNOW. I don’t know HOW you know. You just KNOW. And that’s when you begin to write, or at least begin to seriously prepare to write—because something about a story (maybe a key scene, maybe a trivial detial) compels you to.
I don’t know how much sense all that makes to you guys—or even how much sense it makes to me! Writing is both very simple and very complicated. When I try to go beyond the most basic advice, I always feel as if I’m skating on hair-thin ice. Anyway, the long and the short of it is, I’ve a germ of an idea for a new series, which may or may not happen, depending on how much mileage I can wring out of the idea over the next few weeks or months. Once I know more, you guys will too. Until then, like myself, you’ll just have to wonder.
A fan called Lee sent me this email: i am 22 and i have always dreamed of being a published writer. I have a million billion ideas swimming about my head its sometimes hard to fix on one. instead of the 7 novels (supposed novels) that I have planned lol. Have you got any tips. I am writing something at the moment which i am really enjoying. And i was also wondering when finished would you ever consider reading it? giving me your thoughts. i no your a busy man and i dont expect a massive email back lol. just a little kick in the right direction.
My biggest tip would be—if you want to be a writer, and you’re emailing another writer to ask for advice, don’t treat it like a phone text—use proper punctuation, man!!!!!! :-) On a more serious point, you should never use excuses with yourself. It’s easy to find excuses not to write—I think every writer has done it at some time or another—but the more excuses you come up with, the more barriers you put between yourself and your work. Having lots of ideas does not mean you can’t focus on turning one of them into a book. It’s good to have lots of ideas, but ideas are only the start of the writing process—you also have to put in lots of time and hard work to learn the craft of telling a story. Bouncing around from one half-baked idea to another is dangerous. Ideas by themselves are worthless—they only have merit if you’re able to put them down on paper and flesh them out. You need to make yourself buckle down and put in the hard graft if you seriously want to turn your ideas into stories. Writers deal in dreams and dream realms, but if we can’t find a a way to merge those dreams with the demands of the real world (i.e. turn our dreams into stories which readers can enjoy), then we just remain dreamers.
A fan called Dave sent me the following email: Do you ever get an idea for a story, and you’re so stoked about it, ideas and the plot is just instantaneously flooding your brain…and then you pick up a new/recent children’s novel and find that the ideas are similar? I know people say “there are no original ideas” and that “everything thing’s been told already” but I still don’t believe that…but still, it can get quite disheartening, right? Do you have any advice on how to tackle that sort of predicament? Should I put the idea aside and try something new? Or should I work on this idea, try and deviate from the other novel as best I can without changing the story itself too much? I’m really confused and let-down by the current turn of events, as I had really high hopes for the story.
Heh heh—this is more common a problem than people might think!! If you break literature down into its component parts, you’ll probably find that it’s a long time since anyone wrote a TRULY original story, i.e. something completely unlike anything anybody else has ever done before. No writer exists in a vacuum. We all read, and experience the world in a similar way, and come at stories from the same sort of starting point. Stories explore what it’s like to be human, and in my experience most of us are far less different than we like to believe. We want the same things, dream the same dreams, cling to the same hopes. Having said that, while similarities are rife between us all, and between most stories, no two people are EXACTLY the same, and neither are any two stories.
I recently read a fantasy book about a young boy who discovers he has magical powers. He comes out the guidance of an elderly, wise, kindly tutor, then goes to a school of magic to train and learn to become a wizard. He makes an enemy of a snobbish trainee at the school, and his best friend comes from a very humble background. As his powers grow, he must face a force of great darkness.
Most of you reading that description are probably thinking, Harry Potter. And it could very easily be one of the HP books… but it isn’t. It was, in fact, A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula K le Guin, which was first published more than a quarter of a century before the first J K Rowling book. Now, I don’t know if J K Rowling ready any of the Earthsea books before she sat down to create her own story about a young wizard, but if she did, she didn’t let that stop her riffing on the same type of tale, and nor should any other writer. My books play on ideas primarily developed by Bram Stoker, who wrote the original Dracula book, but I’ve also drawn influence (sometimes subconsciously) from lots of other works. That’s what writers do—we absorb and experience, then try and relay our experiences back to the world in a fresh, exciting way.
It doesn’t matter if somebody else has used the idea that you want to use. As long as you come at a story from your own angle, and approach it with belief and a determination to tell your own type of tale, you can put enough of a spin on it to make the story your own. There are probably thousands of vampire books out there, but none are exactly like Cirque Du Freak. I took an old idea and made it new, by telling MY stories. That’s what every other writer does, to a greater or lesser extent. You should never shy away from an idea just because others have explored it before you. As long as you can come at it in a way which feels personal to YOU, you can find a way to create something new out of anything old, no matter how many feet have trod the path before.
I received the following email from Jyesha: I have a problem—I cannot finish a story. I am 18 years old, and I have many, many great ideas. They are, in a word, immense. They are so huge and complex that when I sit down to write, I get discouraged and intimidated because I know that I cannot write them as well as professional writers can. I write and I try to get through them, but the story (or wannabe novel, I guess I can say) isn’t how I want it to sound, and so I get frustrated and I stop. I’ve tried writing short stories but as I said my ideas get so big that when I try to start small, but they grow and grow and grow and I never finish. Lol, this is something I have never heard anyone touch on, and I was wondering what your advice or opinion on this is.
I had a chuckle at Jyesha’s description of her (or is it his?!? I’m not sure if Jyesha is a male or female name!!) ideas—she/he obviously doesn’t lack confidence in her/his imagination!!! And that’s a GOOD thing—at 18 you should think that you’re the hottest thing since sliced bread!! If you can’t be enthusiastic about your potential when you’re young and eager, with your whole life before you, when can you be?!? The answer to the dilemma is quite simple—you have to be tough!!! A great idea means absolutely nothing unless you teach yourself to flesh it out, bring it to life and do it justice. That means being tough on yourself, making yourself rein in your ideas when necessary, finishing what you start, not letting yourself be side-tracked. If you want to be a professional high jumper, you need to start low, work at the lower jumps one at a time, master them, then move on. It’s not enough just to WANT to jump high, to KNOW that you can—you have to put in years or hard work to LEARN and to PROVE that you can!!! Jyesha is currently doing what lots of young writers do, and which I did myself when I was starting out (so if it’s a criticism at all, it’s a self-criticism)—finding an excuse not to put in the hard graft that being a writer requires. It’s easy to say, “I have a great idea but it’s beyond my skill level, so I’ll just quit.” But you can’t do that if you want to get ahead in this game. You have to challenge yourself, try the impossible, throw yourself into the work, keep practising and experimenting until you find yourself able to do your ideas justice. If a story’s not going the way you’d like—tough!! Force yourself to finish it!!! If you’re feeling upset because you’re not producing the sort of work you want to—tough!! Keep slogging on until you are!!! Writing isn’t easy, and shouldn’t be easy. Anything in life really worth having is worth struggling for—indeed, the worth is usually defined by the struggle. Ideas are the start of a writer’s career, and it’s vital that you have them—but there’s a whole lot of writing you have to do to learn to make the most of those ideas. Write. Fail. Learn from your failures. Improve. Move on. That’s all you need to succeed.
I received the following email from Wendy in Hong Kong: I’m 16 years old, and I’ve only recently begun to take up writing stories again after a pause of around 3 years. I used to write a lot of short stories and/or novels when I was younger, but I stopped at 13 because I felt that my stories were written very childishly and awkwardly, and that people would say that I was plagarizing other writers’ stories. Now ever since I’ve started to write again, I still have the same worries, and I was wondering if you have any advice on how to deal with it. I mean, I write whatever I think, but whenever I look back on what I write, I notice that most of my ideas are similar or the same as some of my favorite writers’. How can I avoid that?
In short—you can’t!!! And, to be honest, you shouldn’t worry about it. I think just about every writer starts out by mimicking others. It’s like anything else that we do in life—you start by copying what you see others doing, and then you figure out your own way of doing it. Writing almost always follows the same route in an individual—you read stories and get excited by them; you write your own stories, which are usually mish-mashes of those you’ve read; and over time you learn to create your own style. You’ll often hear writers talking about “finding their voice”. It’s something that normally takes time and a lot of hard work. I started out copying my favourite writers—I even started a sequel to Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager!!! It’s good that you’re aware of your influences, but don’t obsess about them. If I’d stopped writing a story every time I realised I was inadvertently copying Stephen King or Clive Barker or Tolkien or Jonathan Carroll or Ray Bradbury or… well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have gotten very far in my career!!!! In truth, you never really leave your influences behind—I’m sure I still subconsciously weave in elements that I picked up from all the writers listed above, along with many more. No writer exists in a vacuum—every story that we read feeds into the great cauldron of our brain and gets regurgitated one way or another. The important thing is to put your own spin on a certain type of story, to learn to use the works of others as a springboard to ideas of your own. But that will come in time, as you develop and start to find your own individual voice. In the meantime, copy all you want and don’t give a damn!
I’ve been reading with interest about the latest claim being made against J K Rowling, that she copied another author’s work (the claim was ultimately thrown out by the judge). Now, obviously I have no first-hand insight into this, but as a writer I’m vehemently opposed to any legal action of this type. J K Rowling says she never read the self-published book, and I believe that. But, to be honest, even if she had, it would have made no difference whatsoever — in my view, the case should be thrown out of court without a second’s hesitation. It has often been said, and though I didn’t really believe it when I was younger, I have come to think so as I’ve aged, that there are NO new ideas. Writing is a constant state of recycling. Look at my books for instance — my Saga was about vampires, based on all sorts of books I’d read and movies I’d seen over the years. I took a few ideas from one place, a few from another, a few from somewhere else. Some of my choices were conscious (I created Murlough in tribute to Gollum, Vancha and Evanna in tribute to David Eddings), some subconscious (the movie Phantasm was a big influence on me, though I’d for-gotten all about it when I was writing the book, and only realized the influence years later). That’s how writing works — you take ideas from all over the place and mix them up and re-craft them in your own way, adding a new twist and style to the world of literature in the process.
That mixing and re-crafting is where the skill of any given writer lies. With Salem’s Lot, Stephen King re-wrote Dracula for the modern day. You could be critical of that and claim that he was stealing, but he wasn’t — he was borrowing ideas and re-shaping them. It’s what Bram Stoker also did when he was writing the first Dracula story — he took a variety of legends and stories and wove them into a new type of book. The way he re-created vampires was ingenious and original — but there was nothing original about vampires themselves.
We’re all working in the same field, bouncing ideas around and back and forth. Every writer is a smorgsbord of their favourite books and films and TV shows and music. If any writer was ever suc-cessfully sued for using ideas from another book, every single one of us would be liable and no book would ever be published again!! Of course, I’m not saying it’s OK to copy. It would be a different matter completely if someone came along and copied another writer’s work, changing a few names here or there but keeping most of the original intact. That would be theft, plain and simple. But to be inspired by another book… to take some ideas from it and run with them… that’s how every single book is created.
Mind you, in this instance that doesn’t even seem to be the case. As I said above, J K Rowling says she never even heard of the book in question until a case was brought against her. I can totally believe that, because I think every writer has experienced a sense of deja vu at least once in their career, when they come up with a really cool, exciting idea that they think nobody has ever had before… only to find out that yes, actually, someone did and beat them to the punch!! It happened to me last year — as long-time readers of this blog will know, I’ve been working on my new series for a couple of years now. Last year, as I was merrily tapping away at it, I read about a new book coming out which was incredibly close in nature and spirit to mine!! Did I cry out in despair? Did I toss my series aside in disgust? Did I hell!!!! I just had a wry chuckle and got on with things. Because that’s life when you’re a writer. Everyone’s working from the same set of rules and words and ideas. It’s not about being one step ahead of your competition — it’s about marching to your own pace, putting your own spin on an idea, developing your own style.
I always think it’s sad when a case like this is brought against a writer, even when they’re incredibly rich and famous like J K Rowling or Dan Brown. Because I don’t just see it as an attack on the writer — I see it as an attack on all of us, and a sad sign of the litigious times in which we live, in which everyone is looking to make a quick buck. Pop Idol, The X-Factor, Big Brother… they’re all symptons of a get-rich-and-famous-quickly society, in which hard work and talent aren’t deemed to be enough, in which people just want all the trappings of fame without having to put in the hard work to earn it. I never read fan fiction because of court cases like this — I never want to go to the hassle of having to defend my stories, reputation and realm of work in a court. I know that some fans get disappointed when I refuse to read their stories, and I feel bad for having to let them down, but with the type of people who are going after J K Rowling on the loose in this world, you have to watch your back at all times and guard against as many routes of attack as you can. It’s a pity, but that’s the world in which we live, so what else can you do about it???