Thursday, 3 February 2011

Ideas: where do they come from?

I’ve been forced to tidy my desk as an engineer is coming this afternoon to set up my new iMac computer … thought I’d better do a quick blog in case it takes me a little while to get to grips with an entirely new system!

Second seminar in my Slush Pile to the Shelves course last night, and everybody turned up again, which must be a good sign.  This week we looked at the question which is much pooh-poohed by some writers, but which I think is an interesting one: Where do you get your ideas from? 

The great thing about writing is that whatever you do, you can legitimately call it research.  Lying on the sofa watching telly, eavesdropping on the bus, catching up on the news, talking to friends, going to see a film, walking by the river, dreaming … there’s no telling when that light bulb will suddenly start flashing.

A couple of days ago I was telling a friend about a reference to stage players looking for somewhere to perform in 17th century York that I’d come across while wearing quite a different hat, and he said ‘you could use that for your next timeslip’.  Technically this makes it his idea, I know, but if you can get your friends to have your ideas for you, all the better.  I’d been quietly fretting about what I would do for my second book (as opposed to noisily panicking about finishing the first one) but suddenly I was bouncing up and down on the sofa, squeaking ‘ooh … ooh … I know!’ 

You don’t have to wait for the inspiration to strike.  I often start very prosaically by deciding on my hooks, and then thinking of how I could use them.  However that first idea flashes, you’re probably going to ask yourself: ‘What if ….?’

What if your ex was getting married and you needed to save face at his wedding? (Fiancé Wanted Fast!)

What if you went on a blind date and ended up meeting your boss? (Blind-Date Proposal)

What if you fell in love with your best friend?  (A Whirlwind Engagement)

(Oh, and it just so happens all three books are now available now in one volume, Convenient Engagements – yes, it’s a plug)!

A germ of an idea is all very well, but it’s a long way from a story.  You’re going to have to develop that idea, give it some structure and then write it.

For me, playing around with an idea is the fun part of writing.  I find it helpful to bounce ideas around with friends, but that doesn’t suit everyone.  Have you tried making a collage?   If you haven’t already, read the wonderful Jenny Crusie on collage as pre-writing.  I was totally inspired when I read this and even had a go myself, but I was hopeless at it.  Maybe I’m not visual enough, or maybe too repressed, and I was so disappointed when it just didn’t work for me.  (Thinks: could it be because glass of wine not involved?)

There are lots of techniques out there, all designed to let your subconscious bubble away at that first idea, so find the one that suits you.  Whatever it is, somewhere along the line you’re going to have to sit down and write.  Write even if your idea doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Write through a lack of plot, write through a dearth of inspiration, write through block (aaarrgghh).  It doesn’t matter what the words are at this stage, just get them on the page and somehow your idea will start to take some kind of shape.  I think this is what Stephen King means when he talks about ‘excavating’ a story with the help of what he calls ‘the guy in the basement’.  You’ve got to put in the hard work before inspiration does its bit.,
“This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.  Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon or seven ‘til three.  If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start         showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.”   (Stephen King, On Writing, (London, 2000), p.180)

Oops, this was supposed to be a craft post, but I seem to be going on a bit long (when, when, when am I going to get the hang of a brief blog?)  We talked a lot more last night, about back cover blurbs, character, situation and, most importantly, making sure your story has a problem, but I think that’s enough for now - and that computer guy is due any minute.  If I'm not back for a while, it's because I can't work my new system!


  1. Hi Jessica,
    That's great advise you gave. So much of the time our mood rules and we give in to it. In your last blog and this one too you've underlined the importance of being committed to the work and I feel it's important with writing as much as with any other task but here we usually ignore that factor.
    And thanks for your ideas...they make for a great read.Enjoying 'Fiance Wanted Fast!' thoroughly.

  2. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for the great post. Looking forward to your writing related posts!

  3. We will get to the actual business of writing eventually, Nas!

    And v glad you're enjoying Phoebe and Gib, Ruchita. I had fun with that whole trilogy, although it must be getting a bit dated now.