A good friend asked me this morning where I find my ideas, and the first image that popped into my head was an Easter egg hunt. On the heels of this sweet memory appeared a roundhouse punch, something delivered in a grimy tavern. And so I had my answer. Sometimes I find my ideas, and sometimes they find me.
Now then, it’s more complicated than that, and I should also mention that I’d had a little back-and-forth on Twitter last night with a powerhouse in speculative fiction, Jennifer Brozek, on how to respond during those off writing days. Those are the episodes every writer—wannabe or not—has when the ideas don’t seem viable or interesting enough, or when the language that comes out of one’s fingertips doesn’t deliver on the ideas’ promises. Those are tough days.
Between these two conversations are some tactics. Well, between these two conversations is a whole mess of stuff, including hours of sleep, a glass of orange juice, and how story ideas and words interact in my own brain.
To be clear, sometimes an idea is not a “story idea.” Sometimes it’s just a blip on my radar screen, something that would make a character more believable, or a good plot device, loathe though I am against gimmicky writing, or it’s just an idea that helps set the tone. When my employer unironically unfurled a banner inside our unit with our new motto—agreed to only by the upper-level managers—reading, “With Better Quality Than Last Year,” I knew it had to go into a story. It is awful on so many levels: it implies that we haven’t had good enough quality before, it sets a vague goal for this year, it kills morale (mine, anyway), and it’s just bland. It’s a motto direct from consensus. Consensus kills mottos, people.
It appears early in my short story, Aliens on Parade because it’s perfect for satire. It doesn’t do much in the story, but it hovers overhead and helps provide exposition for the protagonist and other characters, and becomes a measure of how much change actually occurs by the end of the story, which readers need to see. It wouldn’t wreck the narrative if it wasn’t there, but it’s a little touch add to the imagery of the bland government office. There’s no reason that couldn’t be the motto of the computer systems group in 2176.
Other ideas come to me from the stories people tell me. One friend said he’d gone to get a palm reading with his then-girlfriend and the psychic had sent him across the street to get her some rice pudding. He had no idea why. He did it, of course. So then my dendrites want to know: does the psychic get a kickback for every sale of pudding? Does she have a crush on the grocer? Is it her way of assessing their relationship so she can know how to “read” them? Does she have some exotic medical condition wherein she has to have her daily allotment of rice pudding or she’ll roll over and die?
Each of these questions, if answered, would provide a different story, story arc, back story, character motivation, and so on. I am privileged enough to be able to play with the possibilities—there’s a pile of empty pudding containers under her clairvoyant’s table. She gets a kick out of putting customers under duress and raising their stakes for her palm reading. She used to actually be psychic but it’s faded away now and the last vision she had came after eating a bowl of rice pudding. And then I had Myrtle, and I put her in a story. Bitter with faded brilliance, and maybe she’s got enough powder in her barrel for one last burst of firepower.
Another way I find ideas, ludicrously enough, is through the lens of my own cynicism. People blather on all the time about the quickfire evolution of technology. Blah, blah, cyborgs, blah blah, biometrics, blah blah, teleportation. Sure, they sound great, but come on, in practice they’re not going to work so well. Or they’ll break a lot. Or there will be a lot of knockoffs and counterfeits when any new product comes to market. So then I wonder, what if you paid to be teleported to the new colony but you just got murdered instead because the “provider” didn’t really have the technology? Or what if they could get most of you except your memories from ages 5-25? What would happen if half the time you stuck your thumb on the credit card pad your data came back for Anton P. Henri, convicted serial arsonist? Every time you went to buy so much as a gallon of milk, you’d worry that you’d have to hold yet another conversation with the police. This was a concept that went into a futuristic thriller story of mine. Clearly, I’m not Gene Roddenberry, and just one of the distinctions between me and him is that I visualize things going wrong way more often than I see harmonies in action. I’m also 20,000 times less successful and talented, but hey, it’s not about me.
As for working these ideas into stories, sometimes I take them back out, unstitching them carefully so as not to disturb the rest of the story. Other times, I yank, hard, to see what happens and in what new direction I can take the characters. I really wasn’t liking a main character in SuperQueers because he started reminding me more and more of an ex-friend of mine and if I don’t like him, my readers won’t, either. And honestly, he was bringing the whole story down. It took me a while, but I figured out who to cast as his replacement, and this new character is a whole lot more interesting, likable, brighter in mood. I would want the world saved by her, all 6’3″ Nordic amazingness of her.
So this was a time when an idea was holding up my writing. Sometimes I can’t find a place for an idea other than on the pages of my notebooks, and that’s okay. If I’ve hit a day when I just don’t feel the writing is working, I can go back to my notebook and flesh out some of the ideas in there, or type up a character sketch, or write a blog post. It may be a Gemini tendency of mine, but I appreciate having multiple projects so that if one set of cylinders isn’t firing, I can switch over to something else. Being a person who writes popular culture commentary, jaded political commentary, humor, memoir, food and travel essays, and speculative fiction, I’ve got a lot of things on my plate. The upside is that all of this often translates into giving me fuel for other things—in part, because all of these commitments keep me in the world, which then brings me new inspiration.
I like being inspired. I’ll admit I’m even a wee bit needy for new ideas and experiences, but as they’re a natural endorphin load, I won’t worry about such requirements. I’m just grateful that I have the time and energy to think this much.
I’d love to hear what other folks have as their feeders for stories, characters, and the like. Burn up the comment thread, people!