Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brian Y: Where do your ideas come from?

Where do your ideas come from?

When asked this question, I sometimes like to appropriate and regionalize a line from Kurt Vonnegut and say I get them in a little store out in West Texas near Marfa.

I wish.

So where do they come from?

Don’t have a clue, but I do know every writer has many, many ideas. They come when you’re in the shower, walking the dog, on the drive to work. They fall out of the sky when you least expect them. Sometimes you see a hint of one disappear around a corner and you have to chase it down. Regardless of whether they come easy or hard, the little buggers are everywhere. So when someone says they have A GREAT IDEA FOR ME, A SURE MILLION SELLER IDEA FOR ME, and all they want for their brilliant idea is 50% of the profits when I write the book, I get a little dismissive. Ideas are the easy part.

Easy. Getting them, that is. Actually making them work? Not so easy. Most ideas aren’t enough to carry a novel. The novelist Patrick Ness says he waits to write a novel until he has an idea that is strong enough to attract other ideas. I like this notion that you start with one idea and others are attracted to it. Another way to think of it is you begin with an idea and other ideas grow out of that one. If they don’t, then the novel will wither and die. Usually this happens around page thirty-three for me.

There are lots of different kinds of ideas. There are the big ideas behind a novel that create theme and there are the more focused ideas that drive scenes and characters. Sometimes the ideas will change as the writer moves through his story. For example, you think you want to write a novel about loss. Your main character’s girlfriend dies and it’s a novel about how he copes with this terrible and difficult situation, but halfway through the novel, he meets another girl and he starts to fall for her (Where did she come from? One day she just appeared on the page, but that’s another post) and his grief begins to fade and he feels amazement and gratitude and guilt, so then the novel becomes about this experience. Maybe the novel then becomes about this whole journey to a new life.

I read this article in a writer’s magazine not long ago about the subject of ideas. One writer said that he started his novel based on a single word. I don’t remember the word but I remember it wasn’t one of the big ones. Not one like freedom or liberty or sex or greed. It could have been kumquat for all I remember. I could never write a novel starting with one word. How could anyone start a novel with the word kumquat?

“One morning Henry woke to find he was a kumquat.”

“One morning a kumquat in a fruit salad began to talk to Henry.”

It’s obvious I can’t write a novel starting with the word kumquat. I’m not responsible enough.

All I can think is that the word, whatever it was, had an association with something important in the author’s life. I imagine that it happened like the evolution of most ideas in a novel. The word made him think of something else, and something else, and something else. Maybe he thought of his father one afternoon when he came home from the store carrying a bag of kumquats and the news that the family had to move and the boy would have to leave all his friends, his high school, his everything. Obviously not going to be a lover of kumquats. Or maybe he is and that’s the story. Why does he love kumquats?

I do think it’s helpful to consider that this gathering or growing of ideas, whether it begins with character or setting or theme or some point of action, is a process that can be worked through. It makes the whole act of starting a new novel a little less daunting to me if I think of it as a process of attracting and growing ideas. Of course once I get going I’m mostly thinking about characters and the moment-to-moment experience of those characters, but the ideas are woven into this if I’ve begun with one that’s strong enough to grow others.

The truth is even if there was an Idea store out in Marfa and even if they had a 70% off sale, I wouldn’t be buying. It’s too much fun coming up with my own.


  1. I hope writing groups don't neglect this aspect of collaboration that an author needs. Sometimes those supporting ideas that are attracted to the first big idea come from other people. The more you talk with someone else -- as difficult as that is when the idea is still hazy -- the more the whole world you're creating gels into its bigger, meatier form.

  2. I certainly related to the one big idea attracting more ideas. For me, those "more ideas" are often the unique bits and pieces that make my story different from others. That's where the kumquats come in.

  3. And some times those bits and pieces become a whole different story.

  4. Thanks for the interesting comments. And I would add I never expected to hear, in a discussion of literary ideas, "That's where the kumquats come in."

  5. Usually something in the real world sparks an idea: something odd, or a "what-if" question. But for me the idea is not enough unless it attracts a character. Until my character comes in and introduces himself or herself, I know there won't be a novel, no matter how cool the idea is.

  6. It's so funny that you mention kumquat as the word that starts ideas. As soon as I read the word, a slew of ideas/memories popped up. I had a friend that ate them with the skin on and now I think he's a drug addict and I'm sad and then I remember he once watched me headbang during a Kittie concert when I was super drunk...wait...I need to go write this down.

    Thanks for the post!

  7. Wow, you got a lot out of that kumquat, kerryallan.

    And Kerrygans--Yeah, I have to have the character, too. Someone who drives the story. But part of discovering character for me is figuring out things like what the character desires in a scene or in the novel and what he fears or just things he likes and dislikes. These are sort of ideas about character. The character comes from wherever characters come from first, but then when I'm trying to figure him or her out and how they fit in the story, I do have ideas about character. At least I think they're ideas.

  8. The word "kumquat" is meaningful to me as well.... When I was little I tried to eat the plastic fruit in the bowl on my uncle's table. All of the adults laughed when I asked them why I couldn't get one of the grapes off the bunch - and they game me (real) kumquats instead. Ha!

  9. Looks like I'm not the only one for whom "kumquat" is meaningful: my Middle Grade novel is titled The Kumquat Code. :)

    I like the notion about ideas being hefty enough to attract other ideas. It's usually a mix of ideas about character or setting or an event that give rise to a story, and not just a single idea.

  10. I had no idea of the power of the kumquat.

  11. I love the notion of an idea attracting other ideas. There's something absolutely right about this. What's interesting to me is that I've had great ideas that had absolutely no idea-magnetism (and consequently went nowhere). And I've had small (kumquat-sized?) ideas that DO have idea-magnetism. Of course, sometimes it's years from when I first have an idea until enough other ideas show up for me to actually write the book.

    Thanks for the great post!

  12. You write really good dear! Keep posting! Cheers!

  13. But for me the idea is not enough unless it attracts a character.

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