Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Newbie Question #4*

4. How do you get ideas for stories?

A lot writers have weighed in on this question, but I love Neil Gaiman's response, and I respectfully suggest you read what he has to say.

The joke answer "from an idea factory in Schenectady [New York]" has been attributed to a number of science fiction writers from Ray Bradbury to Harlan Ellison.

My own answer builds on what Gaiman says in his essay, which is, essentially, ask questions and let those questions lead you to more questions. My addition is: cultivate a sense of wonder.

I will admit that I'm not one of those writers that complain of having not enough time for all the ideas brimming over in their mind. I often actually have to sit down and coax ideas out of my head. (Characters... now THOSE I often have to spare -- all waiting impatiently in my head for their story to come to me.) When I'm starting a proposal, I'll pull out pen and paper and start scribbling out thoughts. If I have a character in mind, I might just start by asking myself the simple question: "What's the worst thing that could happen to this person?" and start there. Because in order to answer that question I have to know what's important to the character, the "what's at stake?" question which leads nicely to conflict which is the heart of drama.

But when I'm not on a deadline for a story idea, I cultivate a sense of wonder by reading everything I can get my hands on. I read fiction. I read non-fiction on any subject that attracts me (I have a whole book, for instance, on the history of grave robbing that, believe it or not, has worked into my vampire stories.) As a former science fiction writer, I also read popular science -- well, literally, as I'm a long time subscriber to the magazine Popular Science.

I also think that story generation is easier if you're the kind of person who looks at the world and automatically thinks: "Huh, I wonder why things are this way?" or "Why is that person who s/he is?"

So the short answer is... be open, ask questions... and, if you have the luxury, wait. My friend and mentor Maureen McHugh once said that ideas are like pearls. They start as a grit of something that gets into your mind and slowly other thing attach themselves to that initial bit, becoming nacre. Sometimes you just end up with a dirty oyster, but sometimes you get pearls.

*x-posted from Tate Hallaway's blog, where you can read the answer to newbie question #3 as well.

1 comment:

J. K. Hoffman said...

Frank Herbert told me he got them "in a plain, brown envelope from Schenectady, New York". Actually, I've heard that joke so many times that I sort of think there might be a comedy story in there somewhere, you know?