On the Go Teen Writers Facebook page, when we were talking about writing fears, someone said, "I worry that I'll never have another good idea."
This is something that's crossed my mind from time to time. I think the best way to combat this fear is to break down the mystique of ideas and where they come from.
At every school visit I've ever done, I always get asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" And even though I've answered it dozens of times, I always fumble my way through.
Because the real answer is that I don't know. They just happen as I go about my day, and I'm guessing that may be the same for you as well.
I'll be doing dishes and hear an unfamiliar sound outside. What's that? I'll think. Probably nothing. But what if it were someone running from the police? What if they were innocent? What if...
Or I'll be enjoying some time with my kids when I'll think something awful like, What if I never had kids? What if nobody had kids?
When I'm describing this phenomenon to nonwriters, I refer to this as "the spark." It's not really a story idea yet, but it's where I begin.
And then I spend time thinking about it, or "composting" as my darling friend Erica Vetsch refers to it. I may compost an idea for as long as a couple months. I'm working on making the idea bigger, deeper, and richer. I'm teasing out the idea the way we used to tease our bangs in the early 90s.
|From Saved by the Bell. Oh, the bangs and the high waist pants...|
When I'm composting, these are the kinds of questions I'm thinking:
- Who is my main character and what is her situation? (Often this is the spark, since I tend to come up with character first rather than plot.)
- What's her family like?
- What lie does she believe?
- What makes her the right person for the journey I'm going to put her on, and what makes her the wrong person?
- Where's the best place to start this story?
- How do I think it will end?
- What are some turning points that will happen?
- What's my theme?
- Who opposes my character?
- What if so-and-so died? What if such-and-such bad thing happened?
Now, typically I'm not directly asking myself these questions. It's not like I'm sitting down with a checklist. (Though that wouldn't be a bad idea...) Usually it's more organic. Like I'm running around the house in search of my keys thinking What is wrong with me? Why don't I just put them back where they belong? That would avoid this whole mess! It's like in that story I've been thinking about, where my main character knows she should be doing such-and-such, but still she doesn't.
Great story ideas - ones that are big enough to sustain a novel - take work. In my early days, I thought good ideas just kinda happened. I thought the spark was enough. As I've moved along in my writing journey, I've recognized the benefits of brainstorming. Especially with others.
Recently I went to my agent with a story idea. As I typed up the email, I was so excited about it, I could barely sit in my seat. I knew it was the best book idea I'd ever had. Her (wise) response was: "I think you can go bigger with the stakes. What if..." and then she proceeded to brainstorm with me and we made the idea even better.
Going through that helped squelch my fear of never again having a good idea. Because what I had actually been afraid of during those times was that I would never have another spark. That's the part of the process that's mysterious, but it's also something that happens to me - and most writers, I would guess - naturally.
As vital as the spark is, the composting and the brainstorming is where the idea is really made. And that just takes hard work and patience.
Okay, so now that I"ve made that partial list up there, I'm intrigued by the idea of creating a "to think about while composting" list. What questions do you think about while you're brainstorming that could/should be on there?
Don't forget your prompts are due tonight! Haven't started yours yet? Don't worry - it's just 100 words. Details here.
Also, for the five of you out there who like seeing cute pictures of my kids, Angela Bell had me on her blog over the weekend. Click here to read about my experience of getting engaged at 17 and how so far it's been a pretty sweet deal.