Where do you get your ideas? And all that jazz.


Supposedly one of the most exasperating questions a writer can get is “Where do you get your ideas?” Presumably this is because we’re not allowed to answer with: “My grandfather bequeathed to me an ancient and magical book, and within these goblin-encrusted pages new ideas breed like rutting succubae…” or “I stole them off my mate”. I have to admit I can’t recall ever having been asked (although I do occasionally get: “You enjoy that, do you?” and “Why, Jennifer, why?”)

I think it’s a largely impossible question to answer, because most of the time we just don’t know. I was considering this yesterday when I started writing a short story out of the blue. I haven’t written a short for yonks, and when the initial flurry of activity had died down, I did stop and think: “Where on earth did that come from?”

You’d think there would be something. Was I looking at a particular word at the time, or was it the tinny beat of someone’s MP3 player that triggered it? I don’t know. The thing is, short story writing is like hunting an animal, something lithe and speedy with a twitching nose and twisty little horns. Once you get the scent of this shy creature, you’re off, streaking through the forest after it; you follow it wherever it twists and hops and leaps, and you can’t stop until you’ve got the bugger.

And then when you’re sitting down, picking fresh deer meat from your teeth (or idea meat, see what I did there?), you stop and think: where did that come from? And for that matter, where am I? Because now there’s no following the trail back, and even if you did, there would just be more of the same forest, looking back at you blankly.

That’s why writing can sometimes be so frustrating, because there is no faking that out of the blue moment. Not even if you think really, really hard (I’ve tried). What you do end up doing, I suspect, is building up a set of weapons with which to encourage these reluctant ideas from your flighty subconscious. In the past, I have found the following to be helpful: going for a walk, having a shower, reading a really good book, flicking through a copy of Brewers Phrase and Fable (always worth doing anyway), being somewhere quiet, being somewhere noisy, looking at art, and getting a decent night’s sleep.

I think we all develop our own tools, and you instinctively go with what works. Because really, as long as the ideas do keep on coming, I’m not going to think too closely about where they come from. The tricksy little bastards.

2 thoughts on “Where do you get your ideas? And all that jazz.

  1. All the short stories I’ve had published are the result of either prompts or written to fit into a theme of the anthology they are destined for. So you could say with those I had help, of sorts, I at least knew what was needed and an idea of the tone the story should take.With the 3 novella/novel length stories I currently have simmering I’m not sure where the inspiration has come from. I know one – the one currently in pole position – stems from an album cover. Such a simple thing, a picture and title inspired a seed of a story that grew into an alternate history and nearly 8 months of my life (and I’m barely halfway). I read a lot, and from what I read I get inspiration, gems I store away for future use or reference.

  2. It’s the commonest question asked of writers, especially at conferences, book signings, lit festivals and suchlike. Some might say that ‘true’ writers don’t need to ask, that (as you say) ideas come unbidden from the ether.That’s unfair, I think, because we all have deep, rich pools of memories, physical and mental, a lifetime of experience and thought, all festering nicely in the subconscious swamp, ready for us to plunder.The problem is our education, and the process of thinking: the left-brain, rational, logical, linear, controlling half of us loathes the wild, whimsical, dark, colourful side of our minds and for many people the left brain keeps the right brain in an oubliette, caged and forgotten. But if we can only learn how not to think, then the cage opens and the imagination is let loose. I see it time after time in my workshops, and it’s a glorious thing…

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