Where do writers get their ideas?


People, upon hearing I’m a writer, tend to have a variety of reactions. Either their eyes glaze over with disinterest, because this sort of thing is just not their thing. Second reaction: mild interest. Wanting to know if they’ve read anything I’ve written. As my beloved novels remain unpublished, I elaborate instead on the smaller successes. Essays, I tell them. Travel, the performing arts, parenting stuff, life stuff. The occasional short story. “Ah,” they say, already bored. “Yes,” I say in return, smiling politely. An awkward pause ensues until I ask about their job and animation returns to the conversation.

A third reaction: their eyes light up. They’re thrilled by the notion. “You know,” they confide, “I’ve dabbled with the thought of writing myself. I’ve got some great ideas for a novel/essay/short story/fantasy trilogy. I’ve got tons of them!” When I ask if they’ve written them down, they shrug, shake their heads. The time factor, you know. But they are fabulous ideas. Seriously.

That’s great. That’s cool. I’ve got ideas as well. Hundreds. Thousands. Life hands them to you everywhere you turn. They crowd your brain, like an overcrowded cocktail party. Each one takes his turn pushing past the others, sticking his face up close to mine and shouting out his idea. A moment later he is pushed back, replaced by another. No matter. He has planted his idea in my brain. It now resides there, along with 70,000 others.

I’ve been asked, “where do writers get their ideas?” Here are my thoughts:

The best ideas come when you are driving. Showering. A general rule of thumb is that, the further you are from a computer or pen/paper, the better the idea will seem. But here’s the caveat: if you don’t stop what you’re doing that instant and write it down, sometimes that Really Good Idea gets lost. Which sucks.


More thoughts:

  • Ideas thought and not acted on are not a dime a dozen. They are a dime for twenty dozen.
  • Ideas that make it to a one-line scratched out note are more the dime a dozen type.
  • Ideas that are more than one line or a catchy title are a dime.
  • Ideas that I return to, spend an hour on, turning this way and that, are a dollar.
  • Ideas that morph from there into a multi-hour, multi-day piece of work, spawning other essays/stories are valuable.
  • Ideas that turn into novels are priceless. Utterly priceless. A gift that gives and gives for the next fifteen months. (Note: I have not had one of those ideas for a while. That is why I am blogging. Once that idea returns, you will not see me blogging. To do the two in tandem strikes me as either impossible or psychotic. Which is why you will see me attempting this down the road, in spite of my impassioned, noble words above. That’s the kind of quixotic, sadistic person I am.)

And there you have it. Writers and their ideas.

By the way. This idea morphed, where else, but in the shower. Full blown and perfect in every way. They always are. What made it to the page (with me, dripping from the shower, wearing a towel, typing away furiously) is a paltry representative of the masterpiece that had been hovering there.

This is why I tell people, when they inform me they have an idea, for them to write it down. Really, I encourage it. Strongly. To get your ideas down on paper is the most wonderful feeling. Creative. Liberating. And, well, humbling. Oh, so humbling. Because those thoughts, those perfect pearls of profundity, made you feel like a god. And getting the thoughts down on paper makes you painfully aware of your mortal status. But the good news is this: it also makes you a writer.

Writer Alice B. Sheldon, AKA James Tiptree Jr.
Writer Alice B. Sheldon, AKA James Tiptree Jr.

PS: I just read the most absolutely wonderful Q&A with bestselling author John Green, that’s solo worth a read. Funny, concise, candid, as he gives his own answers to the above question, and others. Best one, a response to how he deals with writer’s block: I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90% of my first drafts so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90% chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway.”

Love it!!! What a great reminder for me. Check out the rest of the blog here: http://johngreenbooks.com/ideas-questions/



5 thoughts on “Where do writers get their ideas?”

  1. So very true. I remember the days that I thought I was a semi-writer. That is I wrote a few poems (one published) and then embarked on the screenplay. Alas, that one did “get away” though. Now, I live as a writer vicariously through a very wonderful friend! 🙂

  2. You got me on the poetry business, Donna! I simply cannot write poetry. And are you enjoying the vicarious rejections through your wonderful friend? : / (I am STILL on submission, if you can believe it. Not holding out much hope, tho. Ah well. So goes the game.)

  3. Oh, truer words have never been spoken. I woke the morning after Jessica’s wedding wanting to capture the magical night. Forgetting my rule to never write anything important in a yahoo email window, I crafted two pages of wonderful before I hit the ‘send’ button. And then the message “email could not be delivered” simply appeared without fanfare and the text went out to cyberspace, joining other orphan thoughts that no longer can be retrieved.

    I did the best I could to replicate, but the result was lackluster and incomplete. I suspect it’s a large club of people who have suffered the same fate. I’d like to think I won’t do that again, but am afraid it’s inevitable.

    • Oh, Kathleen. Oh, oh, oh. [Winces.]

      Yes, you said it well, it’s a large club who’ve suffered that same fate. (Me and the Palais Garnier blog, in a hotel room, having touched up a “much better” version than my Microsoft Word document, and off it went into the void. Yup. Same recrimination. Same probability it will happen again. One can only chuckle at it all. At least I had the 90% complete version in Word.)


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