Where I get my ideas
One of the most frequent questions I get asked, whether it be from readers on social media, emails from aspiring writers, or people I come across in my daily life, is:
Where do you get your ideas?
I have to smile a little when I get this question, because the question itself is a bit of an inside joke among authors.
All authors get asked this ... a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I'm relatively new to the author-career, published only a few years, and I can say without a doubt that I've been asked this question hundreds of times. I can only imagine how often Stephen King, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, etc have been asked in their lifetime!
** Now, let me put a little disclaimer in here: this blog post is in my For Writers section. It's intended for people with writing aspirations, and it's blunt. I can't stop non-writers from reading it, and I certainly don't mind if they do! But in the same way you likely discuss your work a little differently with a coworker than you would someone who doesn't work with you, I speak to my fellow writers a bit more candidly than I do a casual observer. If you've ever asked the questions, "where do you get your ideas?" to a writer you admire simply because you like their books or are curious--that is 100% fine, we don't mind in the least, and I certainly don't intend scare you off. This post is for people who ask the question because they themselves are writers, wanting to know more about the process. For that, I get blunt--not because I don't love my fellow writers, but because I do -- and so I answer with a bit of insight I wish someone would have given me early on in my writing career.
Whenever I've been asked where my ideas come from, I spout out something different every time, not because the answer actually changes, but because I haven't had a good answer. So then I panic, and say something I think people want to hear, because I have to say something, right? I usually babble something like: "oh, ideas are everywhere, you just have to pay attention," or "I people watch!" or, "I read a lot?"
Those are probably true, and those elements probably contribute to my ideas, but with this blog post I decided to answer the "Where do you get your ideas?" question as truthfully as I know how:
I don't have a friggin clue where I get my ideas.
It's a terrible answer, but it's the honest to God truth.
Every now and then I can pinpoint an idea for a book (Walk of Shame, I think is the only one?) but mostly ... I have no idea where my ideas come from, and trust me, after getting asked 8,201 times, I've thought about the answer a lot.
Ideas are always just there.
They're there literally, in that I have a notebook full of them.
They're there figuratively in that I don't have an idea in my notebook that excites me at the moment, I'll be like, "hey brain, whatcha got?" and my brain spits out a dozen possibilities. Then I pick one I like best, send it to my agent. The whole process takes maybe half an hour.
Now, lest you think I'm bragging right now like some super-special gifted creative genius with endless story ideas, that's so not the case.
I think everyone probably has the same amount of ideas in their brain, but some people have a harder time accessing them because they put too much pressure on The Idea. They think it's this big, magical crucial thing that will make or break their writing career.
I'm going to cause a scandal here, and we're about to get real tough-love in the rest of this post, but ...
I don't think the idea is the crucial part of writing.
Boy wizard? It's a good idea, sure, but was done before Harry Potter, it'll probably be done after (if it hasn't already?), and yet there's only one Harry Potter. Same goes for Fifty Shades of Grey; kinky guy with good-girl? It'd been done before, it'll be done again. Even "twisty" ideas like Gone Girl and The Sixth Sense are variations on ideas that had been done before. And I don't say that to discredit the authors, I actually mean that as a credit to them. It's the highest compliment.
Harry Potter, Fifty Shades, Gone Girl ... they're exceptional, not because of the idea, but because what those ideas became in the hands of those writers.
The storytelling was the important part -- not the idea.
Anyone can have an idea. And most people have at least one bouncing around. Some people have lots.
The secret to being a writer isn't the idea.
Why? Because the idea isn't the hard part. The idea isn't what separates aspiring "maybe some day" writers from professional, full-time authors.
It's why I have zero idea on how to respond when someone tells me their story idea with the implication that I should write it (I get this constantly). I think most often I sit and stare, and try not to be insulted, as though my job is as easy as waiting for a good idea to come my way.
I know that sounds harsh, but if writing a book were as simple as having a decent idea, everyone would do it. Or at least a hell of a lot of people. Because having an idea is easy. Yep, I said that.
The hard part about writing a book is writing the actual book, not coming up with its premise.
The hard part, the most crucial part, of being a writer, is putting an idea--any idea--on paper, and seeing it through all the way to the end. You think Hemingway was a great writer because of his ideas? To this day, I have no idea what The Sun Also Rises is even about--I mean, what is that idea?-- and yet it's a great book. Because Hemingway is a great writer. And he was a great writer because he wrote a lot.
You know why most authors don't have a good answer to the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" It's because we don't really care where they come from.
We're too busy turning ideas into books.
I'm not saying don't ask us---we don't mind when you ask! I used to ask when I was starting out!
Just know that if you're asking with the hope that the idea is the trick to "making it" as a writer ... nope. Putting the butt in the chair and the pen to the paper is.
There are no shortcuts to writing a book -- not even a really great idea.