Wednesday, December 21, 2005


I keep thinking about the question that so many readers ask when I meet them.  “Where do you get your ideas?”  I’ve always answered glibbly,  “Sometimes they come from a radio talk show, a newspaper article, something someone says, a line in a book I’m reading, etc.” 

So why can’t I use those things to get an idea now?  I’ve never gotten an idea for a book when I was actively looking for one.  Usually they’ve come to me when I was writing a novel and it made me anxious to finish said book and get to the new one.  I think it’s somewhat like looking for a partner when you’re alone.  I never found one while actively searching.

I’m trying not to think about it, but as you can see by this post, I’m not doing too well.  Some people count the days until Christmas, or Christmas shopping is over.  I now count the days until January 2nd, my self-imposed start date for beginning a new novel.  Eleven days.  Not even a full two weeks. 

Yes, it makes me anxious.   Aside from the finacial worries this gives me, writing is what I do.  I’m not at all happy when I’m not writing, even if while I write I complain and can’t wait until the novel is finished.

I have to remember that I didn’t have a contract when I started my latest series.  But, of course, I had an idea.  My agent has been able to sell my books on a 100 pages for quite awhile.  So that’s all I’ll have to write.

But I can’t write 100 pages if I don’t have an idea.  As I’ve said here before I don’t write outlines so she can’t sell it on a four page synopsis.  Even if could write those four pages, I can’t do that either without an idea.

As always the idea has to come first.  That sounds simplistic and it is,  but it doesn’t feel that way.  Let’s face it, I’m in idea hell.

How do you get your ideas?


Dr. Lisa said...

I have faith you will get an idea.

Here's one. An academic (me) wins the lottery (yay!) and is then free to solve mysteries. Ok, that one is stupid and hackneyed. How about a tea tester who loses his sense of smell? Or ....let's say two talking llamas and a ferret solve mysteries and then give credit to their owner? How about an author who decides to kill off an annoying blog reader who keeps suggesting stupid ideas?

I write non-fiction scholarly stuff, but I generally find my ideas when I am walking around. I don't drive, so I do rather a lot of walking around. And then suddenly, I'll get an idea. I tell myself to write it down, and then I don't. But if it's a good idea, I'll keep working it until it's ready to be written. Those I don't forget.

I think you should have some nice glasses of wine. A massage would lovely. That would get your neck and shoulders primed for writing when you are ready. An idea will come when you quit looking for it, just like lost keys.

Good luck.

Dean said...

I have a big file in which I put everything that strikes my fancy. Sometimes it's nothing more than a single line that I like, a thought that came into my head. Sometimes it's a basic plot, or an interesting character... whatever.

Every so often (probably every three months or so) I go through it and add to those that interest me. I refine them, or I write the story.

It's working so far. Of course, almost nobody's paid for any of it, but I've never run out of ideas.

Fran said...

I wish I had a formula for coming up with solid story ideas, especially strong-enough-for-a-novel ideas. But almost all the plot-ideas for my stories originated in my nighttime dreams, so if I haven't been dreaming coherently, I probably ain't writing any fiction. And that really sucks: I've gotta wait for the elusive writing muse to whisper to me during my unconscious and/or semi-conscious states, and then hope I remember all of that whispering.

At this point in my life, I really hate that I ever started writing. Writing feels like a hell to me in general, so I can guess what you're probably feeling right now.

You've written a lot of books, so you've already come up with a number of ideas that you eventually executed; you've proven your ability there. Maybe you just need a rest, maybe you shouldn't force yourself to stick to that seeming January schedule; maybe the schedule-thingie won't work for you anymore, like you've moved away from that for a reason. The schedule could be strangling you creatively now--could you possibly try another, less predetermined way of working?

Gena said...

This feels so weird--telling someone as talented as you how I, someone who has yet to complete a novel, come up with ideas, but what the hell? Here goes.

I'm sure this is no big secret, but a lot of people--probably even you included--get their ideas from real life. That's where I seem to be getting mine as of late. I look at experiences that have scarred me, changed me, or stayed with me in some way. I don't believe in strictly autobiographical writing--it is still "fiction" after all--but these real life experiences are great starting points. Sit down with a pad and pen and write down every meaningful thing that's happened to you over the course of your life. Cross out the stuff you've already used for other books. Now, see what you've got left. A lot of material, huh?

You can also look at other people's lives, too.

The next step is I ask myself what if? What if this were to happen, or that were to happen? Eventually, a plot forms.

If worse comes to worse, just force yourself to write something, anything for days at a time, or read other books to get inspiration. (No, I am not advocating plagarism.)

Good luck. I'm sure you'll get out of this writer's block soon and I look forward to reading the results when you do.

Olen Steinhauer said...

Sandra, this is an interesting post. Ideas are weird, I think. It seems like each idea comes from a different place. One book I wrote focused on a single scene I had in mind, of the main character having a kind of breakdown, then walking naked down the main street of his home village. That image kept me writing, and about 100pp in I realized I wouldn't use it--however much I liked the scene, it just didn't work. But it got me far enough in so that I found the rest of the story in the 100pp I'd just written.

As with your experience, I've got too many ideas right now for the time I have, but I know this is a kind of gold rush, and that at some point it won't be so easy. When I have slower periods, or no ideas that are getting me really excited, I actually watch a lot of movies (they're quick & easy). Inevitably I find things I don't like, which make me wonder how I'd tell the story differently. This sometimes leads to something fresh.

Bill Peschel said...

Where do I get my ideas? Where do I NOT get them. I've written four (unpublished) novels, so let me talk about three of them and see what happens:

"Eden Point" a murder mystery that takes place on a farm. The farm is drawn from life: a doctor and his spendthrift SO move to an old place. The caretakers were an impoverished couple who agreed to run the farm's boarding kennel in return for housing. I threw in two more residents renting rooms in the house, and borrowed the horrific killing by sword from a true-crime novel I had read years before. Combine, then write.

Biltmortal: An English country-house mystery set at the Biltmore Estate in Ashville (which I got to visit several times and read up on). Dreamt up a wealthy family who paid big bucks to rent the mansion for a dinner party. Blizzard snows them in, forcing them to spend the night. Add murder.

Ride of My Life: I'm a space nut, so I wrote this more to entertain myself. What if I had won 1st prize, a ride on the shuttle or a million bucks, and chose the ride? I was several chapters in when news surfaced that the Russians were considering a contest of this time, which goes to show you can't be too far gone.

So there you go: a healthy does of experience mixed with a "what if"? The one consistency among them seems to be that a family is involved, whether tied by blood or by relationships. Stresses are put on them, and we see the results.

But I have a drawer full of concepts, and now, having written a few books, I understand more why the idea is not really the main thing, it's the execution.

One more thought: Stress Point. A few of my ideas start with that. An actor who, researching a serial killer, decides that the murderer didn't do the murder he was convicted of. The woman who thinks her lover killed his wife. The husband making a decision his wife resents. Instant stress points, because they recognize something that affects them that causes them to act differently. Find one you like, ask "what happens next?" and you're on your way.