Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Liz: Getting an Idea for a Novel

“Where do you get the ideas for your books?” Everybody who writes a book hears this question. I’ve published two middle-grades novels and two books of poetry, so I’ve heard it quite a few times. I always give an honest answer, but every time I feel like a liar.

I explain that I start with a kernel of real experience, mine or someone else’s. It may change a lot in the process of writing—it may be so fictionalized that it has very little to do with the original experience—but with any luck it will retain what attracted me in the first place—a certain feeling of depth or potential that comes from the ambiguity that I and my character feel about the situation, or the dilemma that entraps both me and my character.

I feel like a liar saying this, because giving any kind of answer implies that I know what I’m doing. That I have a store of ideas to draw on. That I know where ideas lurk and how to turn them into entire novels.

The truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing at all. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another idea or produce another novel. And sometimes I feel like simply blank, like generating a grocery list is about the peak of my creative powers.

My friend Holly—a multi-talented writer-artist-actor and a woman of awe-inspiring energy and intensity—once told me she never sits around saying, “What should I write about?” For her, the norm is to have so many ideas, so many projects, so many stories in her mind demanding to be told, that the problem is finding time to do justice to even half of them. She is besieged with ideas. (I’ll bet even her grocery lists are creative, somehow.)

The last time I saw her, she promised to send a few of those excess “story gremlins” my way.

If only she could.

An idea is a very personal thing. Before it can become a real, whole, completed, beautiful entity—novel, poem, whatever—it has to be nurtured, often for a very long time. And that takes love. Not the easy kind you feel for an adorable puppy, but the much tougher kind that goes with a long marriage. The kind with rapids and deep pools and muddy shallows, with peaks and plateaus and even a sinkhole or two.

I’ll be on the lookout for Holly’s story gremlins. But even if she’s capable of sending them by mental telepathy—I wouldn’t put it past her—they may not be the right gremlins for me. For better or worse, I apparently have to spend a lot of time racking my brains and living my life and staring at nothing before I can find my idea.

I’m going to take my cue from Flannery O’Connor, who didn’t put much stock in the notion of heaven-sent inspiration. She once said (and please forgive the inaccuracies—I’ve searched but can’t find the source), “If there’s a brilliant idea out there somewhere, it knows where to find me—at my desk every morning between nine and twelve.”


  1. Most of my ideas come to me in the most random moments, despite my sitting myself down to write every day for a set amount of time. What ends up happening is that my brain never really shuts off. I've had great ideas come to me in the shower, while I brush my teeth, while I wait for an airplane. Many of them just come from a question, a "what if?" Others, like you mentioned, have come from bits of my life that I then fictionalized.

    But it's never a steady stream for me either. I often worry I'll dry up one day, because we don't ever know when the next one's coming. I usually use that time to work on my current project, and just hope that that will fuel me enough to bring one more along...

  2. What a good post! I'm not sure where my novel ideas come from - except this last one I wrote, Audra. That one stemmed off of a real life experience I had, only I embellished it a lot. A simple run down a hill in the dark of night turned into a young lady fleeing from the raiders who have only just finished burning her town to the ground. :) But that's the way it is with authors, isn't it?

    I don't worry about where my next idea will come from, though. For the past year I haven't been able to write any new novels, despite the numerous ideas I've had. They just haven't taken off. So I've stuck to Audra, and now that it's ready for editing, I need only wait for NaNoWriMo to get me writing again. I write best when I don't think about what I'm writing, and NaNoWriMo is the only thing that can get me to do that.

    You said that you have published two middle grade novels, what are they like? I searched for them up on Amazon, but couldn't find them...

    ~ Katherine Anne

  3. Blowing my hair dry, and I have a lot of it. My best ideas come when I'm doing something mindless. I have lots of ideas...I suppose that doesn't speak too highly of me, does it? :)

  4. I wish there was an idea store where we could walk in, see a choice of ideas and pick one and take it home. I struggle to come up with good ideas. I think a hook these days is so important, so it has to be something I want to write about PLUS something you can grab someone's attention with in one awesome sentence.