One of the questions writers tend to be asked a lot is “where do you get your ideas?” Of course, two other questions are “can you read something for me?” and “can you pass this on to your publisher/agent?” but let’s stick with the question of ideas.
Ideas are both the most valuable and the least valuable thing a writer can have. They are valuable because an idea is the seed from which a story grows. They are the least valuable because no one is paying you just for having an idea. It’s the execution that brings in the cash. And few ideas are completely original. We build on the culture and work of those who came before us, even when we think we’re not.
Still, it all starts with an idea. So where do they come from? Ideas grow out of all the things you’ve encountered or heard about in your lifetime. And each of us lives a different life, so each of us has ideas that are just ours. But each of us lives as part of a larger community (even when we’re a bit hermit-like) so each of us has ideas that have connections to the community and culture in which we live.
Now, that sounds reasonable, but the process of teasing an idea out of our brain can sometimes be tricky.
The Storyteller in Your Head Can be Shy
Being a fairly introverted person, parties filled with strangers can be tough places for me to be myself. Our inner storyteller can be a bit introverted as well. I’ve found the storyteller in my head can be like a sixth grader at her first school dance if I try to shove her in front of a blank page or screen and tell her: “Create!” That looming blank screen should feel like opportunity, but far too often it smells of looming failure. That’s one of the times we experience the thing we call “writer’s block.” As a professional writer, I’ve learned not to offer myself the completely blank screen. Therein lies suffering. Instead, I get the bulk of my ideas at times when I am not writing.
Recognize Ideas Tugging
When my daughter was a very small child, she rarely saw a television program or movie all the way through. She’d watch for a while and suddenly run out of the room and off to her bedroom. And if I followed her, I’d find her with her stuffies and toys acting out the story she’d been watching on the television, but taking it in a new direction. She liked her story better than their story. She’s not the only one who does this. Fan fiction proves that lots of people find it inspiring to watch a movie or television show. But many of us have learned to turn off that storyteller in our head when it shows up at inopportune times (like in the middle of a movie or at church or when we’re reading.) We treat the storyteller in us the same way we treat a nagging toddler. “Shh, not now.”
Unfortunately, when we drag that same storyteller in front of the blank screen of the computer, and say, “Now.” It often does not want to perform. It had a story before and you wouldn’t listen, so it isn’t going to cough one up on demand. As a result, I’ve learned to listen when the storyteller is speaking.
This means that I carry paper and pencil with me always. And I try never to say, “Not now.” That means I sometimes get out of the shower dripping to write something down. I sometimes get out of the bed when I was just getting sleepy and run back to the computer to type something out while it’s fresh. I do the same thing when I’m reading a book or watching a movie. Often an idea inspired by (but far different from) what I’m watching pops into my head, and I’ll run to make a note about it, because those ideas are the most fleeting. I’ll sometimes pull out a pad and pen when the perfect line runs through my head in the car (or I’ll use the recording function on my phone because, honestly, writing in the car brings on my other buddy: motion sickness. Blech!) When I’m talking about story ideas during a workshop or other teaching situation, sometimes I’ll get something really interesting. I jot those ideas down as soon as possible as well.
The other time the story ideas want to interrupt is when I’m working on a specific piece. I feel a bit like one of those super heroes who can see all the options ahead of them and have to pick a path to go on. Well, I hate to lose all those other options popping up. So I’ll write down the idea as it pops up.
At the time I write this, I have written and had published (or accepted but still in the pipeline) about a hundred books. On the surface, that makes me look like an idea machine. But I think we’re all idea machines. I’ve just learned to listen to the storyteller in my brain even when it’s being an interrupting toddler. I try really hard to never tell it, “Shh, not right now.” Not every idea turns into a story. But when I need a story, I can almost always find an idea. So if you’ve taught your toddler storyteller to hush a bit too often, it’s time to stop and listen and write down those ideas, not matter how odd. The more you do it, the more the storyteller will speak.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.