Guest Blogger: Dan Wells
Every writer in the business hears the question: “where do you get your ideas?” Every convention I go to, every bookstore I sign in, every Q&A session of my podcast –it’s everywhere. And every writer has their own answer for it, assuming they don’t just throw up their hands in exasperation. I have one friend who gives the questioner a confused look and says, “don’t you subscribe to the idea newsletter?” I have another who says that his dog can talk and gives him all his best stuff. The reason writers hate this question is because it’s a hard, often frustrating question to answer, because it implies that ideas come from somewhere specific. Ideas are everywhere; coming up with them is the easiest part of the process.
At a writing conference last month, perhaps more frustrated than I should have been, I answered the question with a flippant “where do you not get your ideas? What are doing all day that you don’t have 80 million ideas crowding around you and clamoring for attention?” We are surrounded by people and conversations and events and disasters and coincidences and discoveries and decisions every second of our lives—everything we do, see, and experience is an idea for a story, or at least for part of one.
The conference forced me to sit down and really think: why are non-writers, and aspiring writers, so eager to ask a question that writers themselves consider a non-issue. It would be incorrect, I believe to say that writers just think differently than other people; anyone can be a writer. I think instead that it’s a matter of practice, or at least familiarity: by the time someone becomes a writer they’ve learned how to recognize all the ideas swarming around them all day, and more importantly they’ve learned how to take those ideas and turn them into stories. The ideal answer for “where do you get your ideas,” then, is not a helpless shrug or a flippant remark but a crash course in how to recognize and use the ideas you already have. To that end, let me offer some basics.
1) Practice. It’s not the easy way, but at the end of the day it’s the only way to really get good at anything. The more you write, the better you will become at turning thoughts into story ideas, and story ideas into actual stories. You don’t wait until you have the perfect idea any more than an aspiring basketball player waits to have the perfect shot: you take a ton of bad shots, and eventually you get good at it, and you learn the subtleties, and something you didn’t even understand starts to become simple and easy.
2) Read/Watch/Experience Everything You Can. Ideas are everywhere, but it’s a lot easier to recognize the big flashy that are already in story form. I got a really good story idea once from driving home in a snow storm, but most of my published books and stories have come from some kind of direct stimulation from a story I’ve read, a movie I’ve watched, an article I’ve studied, and so on. My John Cleaver trilogy is a direct descendant of all the countless psychology studies I’ve read on the subject of serial killers. My book next year, THE HOLLOW CITY, springs in large part from a presentation I attended about ghost hunting—there’s no ghosts in the book, but that’s beside the point. I learned new things, and they sparked ideas. If you want to be a writer, spend as much of your time as possible learning new things.
3) Think About Conflict. Stories are about conflict—without it it’s not a story, just a description or a situation. Conflict causes pain, prompts change, and forces your characters into action. As you go through your day, surrounded by hundreds of people and events and learning opportunities, think about conflict: what kinds of problems could this idea create? What would cause this character the most trouble? Story ideas will start leaping out at you from places you never expected.
Where do ideas come from? A little old lady in Schenectady that every published author follows on Twitter. Or, more simply, from everywhere and everything all around you. You just have to teach yourself to see them.
Dan Wells is the author of several supernatural thrillers, including I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON’T WANT TO KILL YOU. He is a co-host on the podcast Writing Excuses, for which he has won two Parsec awards; his podcast has been nominated for a Hugo this year, and Dan has been nominated for a Campbell award for best new writer. He plays a lot of games, watches a lot of movies, reads a lot of books, and eats a lot of food, which is pretty much the ideal life he imagined for himself as a child.
Great post! I whole-heartedly agree. Thanks for expressing what seems so obvious to writers but evidently not to others. Ideas are everywhere. None of us could never live long enough to use all of them!
Sage advice, Dan. As to the little old lady in Schenectady, one of my favorite authors is a little old man named Harlan Ellison that answers this very question by informing them of an Idea Service in Schenectady. He sends them $25 a week and they ship out a fresh six pack of ideas… 🙂
Great post! And it inspired me to create a PowerPoint presentation to answer the “Where do you get your ideas?” question. (Anyone who asks that question DESERVES to have it sit through a PowerPoint presentation!)
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