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.
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.