Thursday, April 15, 2010

Getting ideas is a skill

I had a great idea last night. It was a premise idea, so I'm not going to tell you what it was, but I was really excited about it. I called Janice Hardy this morning to tell her about it, and I told her the idea (which she loved) and said I was psyched because I felt like I was getting ideas more often these days. She agreed. Here's how she put it:

Getting ideas is a skill.

This statement speaks to me - I think she's right. Back before I started writing I thought I had only one idea: it was the core concept behind the first novel I ever wrote, and the one which inspired me to create the world of Varin.

Only after I created Varin in great detail did I realize how many stories a single alternate world could hide inside it. I started writing those stories. Then I wondered if I had any other worlds in me and I created the Realm of Words, which appears in my novel Through This Gate (with my agent now). Of course, that world appeared to have lots of stories in it too.

So at that point it was clear to me that worlds could contain multiple story ideas of different strengths, and I started figuring out which ones would make more successful stand-alone stories than others.

Then I wrote Let the Word Take Me, my first linguistics story. That was one that wasn't really connected to a particular world - but it made me realize I could look for ideas in linguistics and anthropology, a very different kind of source. So I ran with that. I have tried to keep my alien-related stories in a consistent universe, mostly because I don't want to have to reinvent the wheel a lot of times (I reinvent it enough just creating my alien societies).

You might wonder at this point if I think this is the only way to get ideas. I don't. I've used story seeds before, and I always try to pull ideas out of everything around me. I've even posted about how one should look for stories everywhere. But I find there's a difference between picking up story elements from everywhere around me, and having a fully fledged idea leap into my head. One that I know from the start, with that certainty in my gut, will be a good story that's worth writing.

It's that that is happening for me more and more often. I'm having Japanese fantasy and Japanese urban fantasy ideas. Last night's idea was a concept best placed in the current day or very near future.

Janice calls this "exercising the idea muscle."

If I were to make any recommendations for other authors or aspiring authors, it would be not just to exercise the idea muscle by coming up with lots of ideas, but to make sure you follow through and pursue these ideas to a full story draft. Only once you've gotten through the process of drafting, revision and critique will you get a sense of how the initial story idea relates to the final product. And that's what will give you the best sense of which story ideas are really, resonantly successful and which are only just fine.

So that means I have to go off now and think about how to draft this new idea.


  1. I was just talking to my boyfriend tonight about how much better I'm getting at sensing and developing ideas. My drafting muscles aren't fast enough to keep up! But I have enough solid ideas to last me a career, if I were to pace them right, and that's amazing to me. (Granted, I'd rather create even more, better ideas and have a RIDICULOUS career, hahaha, but I'll worry about that later.)

    Yay for good ideas!

  2. Great post! I love branching out with minor characters, and giving them a story of their own.

  3. Great post! I realized that too after I started writing. I can "find" ideas better and flesh them out whereas before I wrote it never even materialized in my brain.

  4. Thanks, Lydia! I'm glad it spoke to you and you felt like commenting.

  5. It's been my experience that after a newer writer works their way through their first original idea, the development of their idea muscle begins to immeasurably outpace the development of their writing muscle.

    I think I might do a blog post on the development of the idea muscle, since it's not only an interesting topic for me, but it's one of the most common questions about writing, and I think I've found a fairly general set of stages for it.

    (And I suppose now I'll have to remember to add "from a blog" as one of the idea sources I use. ;) )