Monday, November 14, 2011

Making Ideas

Writers get asked about imagination a lot. Where do you get your ideas? I believe that most good fiction comes from the same place, be it humor or Horror, scientifically plausible or downright impossible. You have to experience, read and study enough to get the raw materials that compose a novel story. But the genesis of good fiction is simple: it results from giving something in a different way than the way you got it.

When I look at my childhood, there was always some Fantasy: Smurfs on TV, Land Before Time in movie theatres, Hercules in books and Robin Hood games in the backyard. These deviated from my life in fantastic ways. The fantastic deviation was attractive.

I recognized more kinds of attractive deviation in my teens. In M*A*S*H you had lighthearted banter while stitching up dying tween soldiers. The novels of Douglas Adams were wildly imaginative, on one page disproving God by demonstrating His existence, then disproving the usefulness of logic in the next. These cases went against convention in amusing ways. Their deviations weren’t that different from Stephen King making a wind-up monkey scary, though turning the positive into the negative like he did was overwhelmingly more popular than the reverse (and it still is).

There was this whole other realm of reactions that everyday people simply didn’t exercise, particularly the options of amusement. You could react differently than everyone else if you just stopped giving in to cultural peer pressure. I needed to do that in my everyday life, but I also needed to pursue it in my fiction. This was how I could write different things.

I remember watching The Matrix and thinking that sea of black leather jackets desperately needed somebody to show up in a Hawaiian shirt. And I actually wore one to the midnight premiere of the second movie. But that wasn’t my moment of emergence. Neither was rewriting Macbeth as a short story starring a magic detective.

Those were petty rebellions; I needed to write original stuff that was about what I wanted out of fiction, not what I hated in it. Instead of looking at a story and thinking how I’d change it, I could get the idea for my own story from just one scene or detail of someone else’s. A favorite hobby at college movie screenings was to anticipate how I wanted the plot to go, and if it didn’t go that way, to write an outline based on my guess that night. That imaginary plot was mine.

Soon it wasn’t that difficult to look at life and think that I hadn’t read a story about X lately. And by X, I don’t mean a fight with the driving instructor. I mean the driving instructor purposefully giving you wrong directions and kidnapping you.

Fortunately he never gave me wrong directions, and the plot was mine. It’s yours, too, if you want it. Let me know how it turns out in the Comments section.

Instead of asking about plausibility or good stories, ask yourself what you want to read. What would make the best escapism for you? What’s funniest to you? What would you most want readers to experience? Sometimes you want to share a personal tragedy about racism, but sometimes what you really want is a dragon running for mayor so she can order the knights to stop coming after her. I hope to finish one of those two stories soon.

Some people are inhibited from writing Fantasy and its related genres because these aren’t realistic. Never mind that they don’t watch realistic stuff on TV (C.S.I. and Dexter are about as likely to happen as The Chronicles of Narnia). But the real question is what you want out of your compositions. If you want something way out of your experience, you can write that. Research it if it’s real or think it through if it’s not. J.R.R. Tolkien put decades into Middle Earth, and it was worth it. If you don’t want something so exhaustive, there are simpler, far shorter ideas. Today I wrote a first person monologue defending snake oil salesmen because, in their opinion, snakes need oiling. Taking things too literally, or not literally enough, or connecting things that aren't normally connected gets easier the more you do it and the less you follow the convention of writing everything based on personal experience.

Much like the barriers of realism and keeping your prose cynical or morose, grounding everything in your personal experience can prevent take-off. Everything you write will be the result of your life anyway – your nature, nurture and decisions make up what you want. But what you write doesn’t have to conform to what you’ve seen and done. Ben Hur was written by a guy in Indiana in 1880. Shakespeare wrote about fairies and nobles of previous centuries in countries he never visited. Douglas Adams was never on a spaceship powered by improbability.

Let me close with a recent example to show you exactly where some of my ideas come from.

I sat in a waiting room of Westchester Medical Center waiting for my mother’s cancer screening to end. It took over an hour and eventually I got the urge to write. I looked at the door and asked myself, “What is the creepiest thing that could walk through the door right now?”

There’s your deviation.

I wrote for a few lines about something morbid and disgusting. It didn’t take and the inspiration faded.

So I closed my eyes and reclined. I was on a row of chairs, though the waiting room was almost empty.

Okay. If this seat could be anywhere, not just in a hospital, who would be funny if they sat down next to me?

That one worked, and I wound up with micro-fiction about an Islamic gorgon (she likes the veil) on an Amtrak train. In the course of writing, I was replaced by a dryad boy. I let it shift third person, changed settings and swapped myself out without questioning it, because that’s what I felt like experiencing. All I had to do was cross things out and make notes of what to rewrite later so it would make sense.

You may stop and say, “Okay, you can imagine things anywhere. But how do I get an Islamic gorgon? I don’t imagine that kind of stuff.”

The point isn’t to get an Islamic gorgon in a hospital or Ben Hur in Indiana. The point is to imagine whatever interests you no matter how far removed from your life it is. It doesn’t matter if it seems absurd. If it amuses, entertain the thought. If it goes away in a few sentences? There are other things to write about. If it’s too embarrassing for you to share? You can keep it in your desk and never show it to another soul. But if you’re too intimidated to write about what actually entertains you, or are too scared to admit what you enjoy to other people, perhaps you should reevaluate more than just your fiction.


  1. But if you’re too intimidated to write about what actually entertains you, or are too scared to admit what you enjoy to other people, perhaps you should reevaluate more than just your fiction. Bravo, John. This is a terrific essay on creativity, and the final line is a massive, massive payoff. Well said.

  2. I think you're totally right. My MC right now is a forty year old man. Which is very far from my experience, obviously, but its the story I want to write, and the one I want to read.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  3. I agree with Tony completely. Excellent post John. If you don't challenge yourself and your own creativity, you'll never grow as a writer.

  4. Good post Mr. W - I personally think that the fun of writing is to fantasise. To create worlds and people that are not real, suspend one's belief and enjoy the magic, humour, horror or whatever the particularly genre it is that you choose for that day.

    I think that's why I like swopping genres. Friday was a fantasy day, Monday a romance bloomed in my writing - these are the challenges I set myself in order to grow. I may not be a good writer, but I always hope to improve. ^__^

  5. Great blog post.

    I have a very long piece drafted on writing, dreams, and consciousness that is a not-very-distant cousin of this post, I think. I would love to share it with you. Needs a bit of spit & polish first but soon...

  6. Great summation of the writing life, universe, and everything. I think the other advice columns can call it a day now!

    I've done a lot of different things in the past few years, just because I recognized I needed to do them to stretch & grow as a writer: write shorter pieces, longer pieces, include more dialogue, tell a story from a woman's POV, etc.

    I usually don't have to go looking for story ideas, though — they somehow come to me. Like the morning I was driving to work, and for a half a minute or so the only other vehicles in my immediate vicinity were white pickup trucks. Thirty seconds later, I was writing the flash fiction version in my head & the rest came later. Or one I'm currently working on, based on a snippet of a dream I had yesterday morning. It's important to learn the mechanics of writing, and expose yourself to good stories so you know what makes one — but you also have to allow the new ideas to come.

  7. Oh yeah. This rocks, John. Especially the part about loosing the reins of ordinary life to let imagination fly. The potential for the extraordinary can be found in almost anything, but we must learn to cultivate connections between our waking and dream worlds.


Counter est. March 2, 2008