By Alton Gansky
Writers are idea merchants, purveyors of content, information, story, and thought. We dig around in the world’s trash bin hoping to find something of value. We visit yard sales of content, examine stuff that has no value until we trip over a prize. Like a spotlight we search the darkness for something of interest; something we can use; something we can make grander than it already is.
And it ain’t easy.
The most often asked question of novelists is, “Where do you get your ideas?” It has made some writers a little testy. Dean Koontz has answered that question by saying, “I get my ideas for a mom and pop shop on the corner.” (Or something like that. I’m working from memory.) I recall Stephen King repling to the question this way: “I have the brain of a child—I keep it in a jar on my desk.” (Again, a paraphrase from my Swiss cheese mind.)
It is difficult to pin down where ideas come from because they don’t come from a single place. They hover in the air, hide in newspapers and magazines, show up in a single line in a movie; they buzz the airfield of our dreams. If you’re a multi-book author, then you can look back over your novels and recall where each gem of an idea came from. Most likely they came from very different places and arrived on your mental doorstep in very different ways.
My first novel, By My Hands, came to me after visiting a child and her family in Children’s Hospital of San Diego. I had always planned to write nonfiction, but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. My novel, A Ship Possessed, was a “throw away” idea. I used to include a page in my proposals with a list of possible books, each with two lines of description. I added that story because my list had too much white space at the bottom of the page. I recalled something I had read in the Los Angeles Times, thought about it for a minute or two and wrote: “The World War II submarine USS Triggerfish has returned home fifty years late, in the wrong ocean, and without its crew—but it did not come back alone.” What did I mean by that? I had no idea. Still, Zondervan loved the pitch and asked for a full proposal, which I didn’t have. In the end I did three books with that protagonist.
Ideas don’t come on a schedule. They never call first. They just show up and refuse to go away. It’s our job to recognize the good ones. How do we do that?
First, a good idea refuses to go away. It’s a ghost that haunts the halls of the writer’s mind. It may stay with you for years before fully revealing itself, but when it does, you’ll know why.
Second, you form an attachment to the idea. The characters become real and populate your mind. Sometimes they sit quietly in the corner; other times they demand to be heard.
It is my belief that most professional novelists have more ideas than they can handle, but they keep gathering more. That’s the third point: A writer never knows when a good idea will become great. My latest fiction is part of a series of novellas written with Bill Meyers, Frank Peretti, and Angie Hunt. The Fog, (number eight in the series) is based on an idea I had years ago but didn’t know what to do with. There was no CBA publisher at the time that would touch it. I didn’t even bother to send out proposals. Then when it came my turn to do the next book in the series, the idea stepped up and said, “My turn.” It worked.
Novelists are merchants of ideas, finding something of value that others will appreciate and benefit from and then making it available. The trick is selecting the right idea at the right time. There is as much craft in molding an idea as there is in penning a story.
Alton Gansky writes novels, novellas, and nonfiction. He’s also been known to chase ideas with a butterfly net. http://www.altongansky.com/