They say you should never ask a writer, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Neil Gaiman has the most hilarious response to this question.

The thing is, ideas are funny little bastards. They sneak in at strange times. Sometimes you’ll be reading the news and think, They’ll never get to the bottom of this, but it makes me think…

Or sometimes you’ll be writing a story–which is exactly what happened to me while writing Switchers–and you’ll say, Wait, wait, wait. This plot is f***ing ridiculous, but these characters have something to say.

Other times you might find yourself sitting around, not doing much of anything, and POOF, an idea just pops into your head.

Friends might say, Hey, you write. I have this idea but don’t know what to do with it. I actually had a friend pitch me, more or less, the plot of Neal Stephenson’s The Fall about 4 months before it was published. Thank God I told him that I wasn’t interested because I was in the middle of another project.

Here’s the thing: Asking “Where do your ideas come from?” is a stupid question. Ok, alright. I’ll be nice. It’s not a stupid question if you’re not a practiced fiction writer. It’s a legit question. But it’s not on point. Ideas don’t just come. I mean, sometimes they do. But that’s a rare blessing. More often than not you have to work to find one. My past students used to ask the forbidden question regularly. But I’d have to teach them a better way to frame the question.

Don’t ask where ideas come from. Instead ask: How do you GENERATE ideas?

Here’s what writers have to do sometimes. It’s called freewriting. I’ll give you an example:

I don’t know what to write about. So I’m just going to start writing. Eventually an idea will come to me. Maybe I’ll write about an alien spaceship hovering ominously over earth, just sitting there. No communication. No other actions. Or maybe I’ll write about animals all turning on humans at the same time. Kind of like the movie Birds, but it’ll be all the animals. Perhaps I could write a story about a serial killer who is a fantastic swimmer and only kills fishermen who go out late at night on the river.

Or, and I’ve done this many times when trying to narrow down which story to start next, you can make a list.

  • Alien invasion
  • Political uprising starts a new revolutionary war
  • When a girl turns 16, she finds out she was adopted, and her real parents are mutants who are trying to take over the world
  • etc, etc…

Give these a try next time you feel blocked. And, for the love everything holy–don’t ask a writer, “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Happy writing, homies

-CT

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