Reminder: I’ll be at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival on May 5th. Details here on the website.
On January 31, 2019, Ainsley wrote, I was wondering about story ideas (most asked question ever) and how you develop them into books.
Two of you responded expansively.
Jenalyn Barton: Observation is key! Carry around a small notebook and write things you notice that interest you. They don’t have to be full-blown ideas yet–that comes later. Here are some examples from my own notebook:
4/13/13 I wrote: “Impression: ‘stately mountains adorned with powdered wigs & rich white furs’”
5/26/13 I wrote: “Yesterday while I was waiting to pick [husband] up from work, I noticed that the power lines overhead had an audible buzz, almost like big bees or something similar.”
6/4/13 I wrote: “Character Trait: [Great Aunt] is convinced that planes are dropping pollutants/chemicals on us, & you can tell by the line of smoke a plane makes in the sky.”
12/28/13 I wrote: “Lies spew out of their mouths like vomit.”
7/4/14 I wrote: “Observation: You can sometimes see footprints in the grass when someone has been there recently”
9/21/14 I wrote: “Image: Clouds wrapped around mountains like luxurious furs.”
Later you can take an observation or two and try to combine them into an idea for a story. My current WIP, “Goldwater,” came from combining three observations together. One came from when I took a plane to Chicago and noticed that the light of the sunset reflecting off the rivers looked like someone had drizzled liquid gold over the land. One came from the song “I set fire to the rain,” and the last one came from a character in an anime with the nickname “Thunder Beast.” I combined the three together to come up with the concept for my story. The concept was that a mythical Lightning Beast, thought to keep the world’s magic in balance, dies and contaminates all the rivers with its golden blood, causing magical phenomena and natural disasters, though no one knows yet what is causing it. But my story still needed the main character, so I came up with the idea of a young mother who is devastated when her toddler son dies in a magical natural disaster and travels to find the Lightning Beast to demand that it bring her son back. The story then began to take on a life of its own.
Of course, not all stories start this way. It’s different not only for each writer but also for each individual story a writer is working on. But learning to pay attention to your surroundings is the best way to start. Orson Scott Card said, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.” Learn to pay attention, write down observations, and ask questions, and you’re on the right track.
Melissa Mead: If it helps, here are some things that came together to become “Malak’s Book.” (And that show how long this book was stewing in my head!)
The first place to publish my stories was a magazine called The First Line, where all the stories in an issue start with the same line. Once the line was “Mamma has always had a love for other people’s possessions.”
TFL likes creative interpretations of the line, so I wrote a story where the “possessions” were the demonic kind, and the narrator was “Mamma’s” half-demon son. It was a fun idea, but the story got rejected. It needed something more.
A while later, I was watching The Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin was holding up a big black snake with a bulge in its middle and saying “This is a happy snake. He’s warm, he’s got a full belly…”
Right after that was Iron Chef America. Somebody had made lamb sashimi. I looked at that pink blob of raw meat quivering on a hunk of rock salt and thought “Who’d want to eat that?”
“I’ll bet that snake would like it.”
Things started clicking together, and that generic half-demon became Malak, half serpent-demon, who just wants to gorge himself with raw meat, then find someplace cozy to sleep it off, only the demon-hunters are out there…
(Bonus TV moment: If anybody’s a Doctor Who fan and saw the episode The Girl in the Fireplace, at the moment when little Reinette asks “What do monsters have nightmares about?” and David Tennant’s Doctor turns from fighting them off and says “Me!” I literally shouted “That’s Malak!” That fierce chivalry and absolute determination to keep anyone from harming that little girl- That’s my Demonboy. Plus DT looks PERFECT for the character, if he were to wear an alligator costume on the bottom.)
So, ideas come in all sorts of ways, and both Jenalyn Barton and Melissa Mead find that serendipity is a big factor. If Jenalyn Barton’s flight had been at a different time, if she didn’t know that particular song, if she hadn’t seen the anime, her story idea wouldn’t have taken shape the way it did. And for Melissa Mead, no First-Line prompt, no Crocodile Hunter, no Iron Chef America–no book about Malak.
But–and this is important–both of them would have produced something else. Because they were receptive, open for ideas.
I’d call that the number one element in idea development: receptivity. Writers always have an eye out for ideas.
Notice that neither one of them judged her ideas. Jenalyn Barton didn’t say to herself, You can’t find a story in clouds– they’re just water vapor. Melissa Mead didn’t think, Snakes are cliche.
Nothing kills what might be a fertile idea deader than negativity.
(And nothing else as effectively makes writing a hard, onerous slog.)
So, element two is no judgment.
The fodder for our ideas is various. Jenalyn Barker mentions landscape, a song, anime. Melissa Mead talks about a prompt, like The First Line provides, and TV shows.
In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, an excellent source of prompts is THIS BLOG–as well as my books, Writing Magic and Writer to Writer. And I’ll repeat, because uncertainty about this crops up fairly often: You are free to use my prompts, the ones you find here or in my books. They’re meant to be used. You won’t be infringing on my copyright.
I tend to go to fairy tales, myths, and history for ideas. The inspiration for my novel Ever came from the story of Jephtha and his daughter in the Bible. I turn these sources over and over in my mind and squeeze them and poke and prod–sometimes for years–until something I can use takes shape.
Even then, the whole story never comes to me fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. I get glimmers, on the basis of which I brainstorm, write notes, make lists. Eventually, I discover a character or two and a sense of the end of my story.
More notes and lists and a beginning comes. I start writing.
Naturally, I need many more ideas to get through a first draft, so I write notes and lists again. If a story is giving me trouble, my notes may be longer than the story itself. No matter what point I’ve reached, I still have to be receptive and nonjudgmental.
Notice how we describe getting ideas: we get them; they come to us; we have a eureka moment–as if the air is full of invisible ideas, the size of midges, and they fly in if we leave even a chink open–if we’re receptive.
This is how it feels. Ideas arrive. I don’t think it’s a deliberate process. If we’re receptive, our subconscious sends ideas. That’s why it feels so delightful. One moment we have nothing, and the next, something. We seem to have done nothing.
There are things, though, that we can do to prime the pump. An activity that doesn’t call for words or much thought, like walking or peeling potatoes, can free our minds. It’s a two-step process. We think obsessively about our project or just our desire for an idea. We may feel hopeless because nothing is coming. Then we let it go to take a walk or a shower, and–bingo–an idea shows up. A midge has flown in.
These idea midges are only for us. My midge won’t do much for you. In its DNA is our complete biography. An idea appeals to us because it’s made for us. It works because we went to the circus when we were seven, because we like salmon-and-peanut-butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread, because humid air doesn’t bother us. And so on. We’re the only one who will know what to do with the idea when it shows up.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Melissa Mead has written about a half-demon. Try writing about a half-fairy-half-gnome. Brainstorm about what such a creature would be like, what it might want more than anything else, what would be challenging for him or her. Write a scene or the whole story.
∙ Write or type “Once upon a time” at the top of a sheet of paper or screen. Write ten things that might follow. Take a walk. Write ten more.
∙ Think about the most complicated person you know. Put your feelings about this person to the side and think of circumstances that would be difficult for her. Imagine a time period that she could fit into. Write a scene for her in those circumstances and time period.
Have fun, and save what you write!