Ever since this topic came up at our meeting, I’ve been struggling to decide what my answer is to the ubiquitous question of “where do your ideas come from?” I’m afraid that I’m one of those writers who periodically worries whether or not she’ll have enough ideas to continue writing for the rest of her life. Unlike Kelly, I don’t have surplus ideas banging on the confines of my head demanding to be written. I don’t write short stories very often for this very reason. In fact, I’m feeling a little freaked right now because I’ve just about emptied my “trunk” of short stories. I’ve got one more finished one out to market, and if it sells, I’m out.
Strangely, I’m sort of dreading that moment.
That being said, I often have to make a conscious process out of short story (and even novel) writing. That is to say, I sometimes have to tell myself, “Okay, I’m going to write a story today. What should it be about?” Then, I get out a piece of paper, and I start jotting things down. [I tend to brainstorm with actual pen and paper. Ideas come slowly enough that I have plenty of time to write them down. When I’m actually writing, however, the images in my brain are often coming much faster than I can type.]
That being said, I can remember story ideas coming to me after conversations with other writers – Naomi and I talked through the idea for what became my short story “Twelve Traditions” over lunch at the Egg & I on University Avenue. Others have come to me while reading nonfiction articles in magazines like National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, and the like. I never get story ideas from dreams, because my dreams are usually either boring, muddled, bizarre, sexual, or all of the above. I tend to do what Neil Gaiman talks about in his somewhat famous blog on the subject.
Many of my ideas, however, never materialize into stories because, for me, the idea itself is rarely enough.
I was trying to explain this to my partner the other day, in fact. She was throwing out all sorts of ideas for the short story I was trying to write for The Anthology. I was driving her absolutely bonkers as I kept rejecting every clever thing she said with the question, “Yeah, that’s cool, but where’s the story?” Therein lies my problem. Sure, my brain cooks up all sorts of weird things like “cyborgs and talking chairs,” but I don’t consider those REAL story ideas because most of the time, even if the image or the concept is cool, I have nothing to hang on it. Most of those “ideas” don’t get more than maybe a first sentence or two, if that. A lot of them I leave in my brain to bounce around, hoping that some day they’ll crash into something else and together the combination will actually germinate into something I can use.
If I find I really can’t shake the vague concept that popped into my head, I start brainstorming. If I can answer the questions, “why does this matter?”. “who does it matter to?" and, “are they changed by this?” Then, MAYBE I’ll start.
This is probably why I only have a dozen or so short stories to my name.