The Ideas Factory

But when you got a story idea, no one gave you a bill of sale. There was no provenance to be traced.  Why would there be?  Nobody gave you a bill of sale when you got something for free. You charged whoever wanted to buy that thing from you – oh yes, all the traffic would bear, and a little more than that, if you could, to make up for all the time the bastards shorted you – magazines, newspapers, book publishers, movie companies. But the item came to you free, clear, and unencumbered.

Stephen King, Secret Window, Secret Garden

I never believed that babies were delivered by a stork when I was a little girl. I don’t think my parents ever tried that kind of nonsense on me, and I like to believe I’d have seen through it if they had(though given that I fell hook, line and sinker for Father Christmas, that’s probably unlikely).  Well before the time my mum told a five-year-old me that I was going to have a brother or sister, I had arrived at my own theory, which seemed to me to be self-evidently true and to require no further explanation: a woman became pregnant in the same way she caught a cold or had heart problems or whatever – it was just something that sometimes happened to her body. Apparently, I was always something of a fatalist.

Hans Andersen's Dreams, by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Hans Andersen’s Dreams, by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Now that I’ve been asked a couple of times where I got the idea for my book, I find I have much the same kind of explanation: it just “came to me”. But that’s not very satisfying really, is it? And for someone who’d dearly love to be able to make a living from writing, it feels like a very sandy foundation on which to attempt to build a career.  I mean, if ideas just pop out of the ether, what’s to say that one day they won’t stop coming just as inexplicably?

At the Faber Academy course I attended three months ago, I heard that a commercial author should expect to write a novel a year. That’s not too bad really, I thought. I mean, setting aside the small matter of the work involved in actually coming up with a novel length manuscript, that’s essentially one core idea a year. Surely that should be manageable?

But what if the ideas aren’t fit for purpose?

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by noted short story writer Zoe Fairbairns, organised by the London Writers’ Café. Someone asked her why she had focussed in her career on writing short stories rather than novels, particularly since the market in short stories in the UK is nowhere near as developed as that for novels; in other words, and without wishing to sound too craven, even a successful short story writer isn’t going to make very much money. The main reason for her chosen medium, she said, was that she found she had plenty of ideas that would make good short stories, but she’d simply run out of ones that would stretch to novel length.

I found that a slightly alarming thought.  It’s not that I don’t like short stories, but given the choice I’d much rather curl up with a novel. I want to be immersed for hours, developing my opinions about the characters, trying to work out that’s going on inside their heads, watching as some kind of mystery unfolds and is then resolved.  And because that’s the kind of experience I most enjoy about reading, it’s why I’ve always wanted to write novels.

So where do novelists get their ideas? How do they keep them coming, without finding that they’re unconsciously giving different ideas to the same characters, changing the place names but creating parallel sets of circumstances? How does someone like Stephen King keep coming up with things that are fresh, whilst at the same time having the same sense of King-ness that means his readers know the kind of thing they’re going to get, and that they’re going to enjoy the ride?

I can see that there are techniques for stimulating the creative process: the daily writing prompts that appear all over WordPress, the pictures and the snippets of prose that invite you to imagine what is happening and develop a story around them. Zoe Fairbairns suggested building a short story around an object, preferably a small one (her most famous short story centred around a bus ticket).  I can see how that would work to stimulate some writing, any writing – and there are times, of course, when that’s just what you need – but is it really possible to keep extrapolating until you hit 100,000 words? I think I’m with Ms Fairbairns here – there are surely some ideas that just aren’t big enough for the job.

At the moment, I’m in the preparation stages for the next book. The idea is there, just waiting to be brought to life.  And I have a great title for another one – at some point I’m hoping that’s going to be enough to get the creative juices flowing.  But – then what? I’ve never been one of those people who feels they have so many ideas bubbling around that they don’t know which one to start with.  It’s a scary thought that the time might come when my meagre store just runs out.

So I’m going to ask that question.  You know, the really annoying one that makes you feel as if you’ve failed somehow if you don’t have a proper answer.

Where do you get your ideas?


12 thoughts on “The Ideas Factory

  1. Miranda Stone

    I find Ms. Fairbairns’s explanation for the reason she writes short stories refreshing, as I feel the same way. Do I believe I’ll ever make a living at it? No. But I’ve written novels in the past and was miserable during the entire process. I admire novel writers and their commitment to a task that may take years to complete, and of course I love reading novels as well. But after all these years, I know that my true calling as a writer is to create short stories. As for where I get my ideas? A character generally starts chattering in my head until I can’t stand the noise anymore, and I create a scene for that character, and that scene leads to another and another, until I have a first draft written. Sometimes I’m blessed with a complete story idea all at once, but that’s rare.

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Really interesting that your ideas start with your characters. So far – and I’m not exactly experienced at this game – mine have been situation-based, although as the characters start to take shape, they drive the way the story unfolds. I’m fairly formulaic about the way I plan – perhaps I’ll try starting with a character instead and see where that takes me. Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts!

  2. navigator1965

    Sheer genius, of course. Did you even have to ask? };-)>

    (La gf would beg to differ, of course.)

    I have my current Book One and its planned sequel. I have a third non-fiction book in mind after that, and then a novel idea for a novel.

    I hope I only ever have to write for the love of expressing ideas, and never because I “have” to come up with something. I would be happy to only ever write two or three or four books, so long as they were meaningful additions to understanding ourselves and our world, or to the canon of literary works.

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Of course – I take the sheer genius as read! Impressed by your pipeline of material.

      I take your point about not writing for the sake of it – but I hope there’s a middle ground that doesn’t mean having to believe I’ve come up with something that’s going to radically expand the sum of human knowledge before venturing to put ink on paper; or, indeed, to pin my hopes on a lottery win in order to spend my days doing something creative yet financially unrewarding. Think I may just have to develop my own genius!

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Hi Shari – thank you so much! I feel very honoured. I’ll be on my way back to my dad’s for the Christmas break tomorrow, so will be out of WordPress action for a week or so – but very much looking forward to taking a look at your post in the New Year. Thanks again – and hope you have a great Christmas!

      1. Sharon Bonin-Pratt

        Me too – going to visit new grandson and family in Boulder, CO, and will not be keeping up with the blogs.
        Take your time and choose how you want to respond to the award. Just know how much I enjoy your blog.
        Merry Christmas.

  3. sandradan1

    My ideas often start as situation-based too, I find I may have a variety of ideas bubbling along and then one day some may connect together. And then I think of a character and put them into the situation. SD

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Hi Sandra – happy New Year to you! I’ve just finished Stephen King’s “On Writing” and he says much he same thing, so feel like we’re in good company. Mind you, he also says that plotting is a waste of time and you should simply “excavate” the idea that’s lies buried, complete and perfect. Not sure my creativity is up to that challenge…

      1. sandradan1

        I have to plot, I need some sort of structure, a line to follow that I can deviate from. I have a writing friend who is completely the opposite, and her approach always frightens me! Each to his own, I guess. SD

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