‘Where do you get your ideas?’
This question is notoriously annoying for writers and usually elicits a sarcastic or disparaging response. The general consensus is that no one really knows. Until now, my responses to the question have been more to do with action than method: ‘I stare at blank walls.’ ‘I go for long walks.’ Or when I’m impatient: ‘Same place you get yours.’
But I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, mostly because I’ve been having a lot of bad ideas (and worse – no ideas) and I decided to nail down something more solid – something I, and hopefully you, can use. Sure, I stare at walls, but what actually goes on in my mind when I make that jump from disconnected thoughts to a coherent idea? What black magic is this?
So, over the past few months I set up camp in the slimy dungeons of my mind and I watched my thoughts from afar to see what they were doing. Here is my field report.
There are, I discovered, certain things I like. They seem completely random, yet connected in some way I can’t quite identify. Cacti is a recent one I became aware of. Why the hell would I be interested in cacti? Cacti, of all things! I don’t know, but I am – I love cacti. (Now I think of it, maybe it has something to do with tequila…) Here are some other things I like: Hyenas. The Moon. Hell. Silver. Keys and locks. Fire. Blood. Wood and stone. Knives. Monsters of all kinds. Shadows. Time. Magic. The ocean. Jungles. Cities (big and dirty preferred). Everything Noir. Guns. I could probably fill several pages with these things, ranging from objects to abstract concepts. Why they fascinate me, I have no idea – but luckily I don’t have to know.
When I go for one of my long night walks, or stare at a blank wall, or stay up late and stare at nothing, I turn my mind towards these things that I like, and I focus on one or another and see if I can make what I think of as a ‘story element’.
A story element is a character, a setting, a concept, an emotion, a sensation, a monster, fill in the blank; it is an aspect of a story, a single piece of the puzzle. Here’s an example from a walk I took yesterday. Among the things I like are: Motorbikes, Cool, James Dean type characters, and Magic. Thinking on this, I came up with a character, a wizard who has – instead of a magic wand and a broomstick – a magical cigarette lighter and a motorbike that takes him wherever he wants to go and never runs out of fuel. I haven’t decided yet whether or not he’s good or evil, or what story he’s going to fit in, or even what the magical properties of his cigarettes might be, but none of that matters – I have enough to write him into a story if he fits, so he’s become a workable story element.
Once an element is clear enough in my mind, I file it away. Some of these I’ll forget, which is fine because that means they weren’t good enough to be memorable – and it’s for the sake of this sifting process that I never write down my story elements. If I can forget it, I should. The good ones will always sit there and maybe jump to the forefront of my mind again in the future to be fleshed out a little more.
In any case, during the course of a walk or a blank-wall stare I’ll file away a few of these, so I always have a bunch of them boiling in the back of my mind like so many eyeballs in the witch’s pot. The next phase is to take an element here and another there and try to combine them to make the beginnings of a story. Usually this is where I’m asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions.
There’s a story I’m working on right now with the following elements: a surfer in a small seaside town who hears an urban legend about a secret ‘break’ of monster waves. The break is also rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of a surfer who died there, but the story is only known by the town’s oldest resident, a bartender with greasy grey hair and a mysterious past.
This is what I call a ‘seed’, which is basically just a collection of several story elements wound together in a very rudimentary and incomplete story. There’s a lot I don’t know, for example, and in fact some of the things I just outlined will probably never make it into even the first draft. The elements in this case are the character of the old bartender, the setting of the seaside town with a secret break, and the concept of a ghost surfer haunting a beach. These elements in turn were developed from a few of those ‘random things I like’, specifically: The ocean, surfing, giant waves, small towns, ghosts and secrets. I’m pretty sure I can work a silver coin into there, too – but I’m not sure how.
I have a page in my red notebook called ‘Seeds’, and here I’ll finally write down the titles of the most resilient seeds – those that won’t be forgotten. By the time I do this, I usually have the story fleshed out enough that I have an ending in mind. I can already hear some writers throwing up their hands and saying: I could never do that! Once I know the ending it takes all the fun out of it! I hear you, I do – I’m an improviser myself. That’s why the ending I have in mind almost never turns out to be the way the story actually ends. I only use it as something to aim at, with the understanding that it is subject to change.
Once I have the seed written down, the thing is getting written – for better or worse. There was a time when I’d have a dozen seeds at a time recorded, and of them only two or three would end up in draft, but since then I’ve learned to wait, to let the sick children die, so to speak. They say to kill your darlings; I say let the runts starve.
So that’s how I do it, boys and girls: that is the best answer I can give for the age old question – make of it what you will, and I hope it helps, or gives some insight rather than a sarcastic comment about unimaginative journalists.
Adios for now.