by Alton Gansky
WE'VE ALL HEARD the question many times: “Where do you get your ideas?” This has led to quips from authors meant to be funny and to show the silliness of the question asked. Sci-Fi writer Neil Gaiman used to reply, “From the Idea-of-the-Month Club.” I’ve heard a dozen other such responses. Writers tend to hate the question, perhaps because it is so difficult to explain to those who do not routinely traffic in story creation.
There is something mystical about story making, something that defies description. Some novelists are idea machines; others can only manage one or two book-worthy stories. Idea wrangling is part of being a working writer. We search for ideas liked Forty-Niners searched for gold near Sutter’s Mill.
Ideas are not the exclusive domain of the novelists. Inventors need ideas. So do nonfiction writers. We writers must not only have brains buzzing with stories, but we must be able to weed through them to find those that fit us, fit the market, and fit our readers. That ain’t always easy.
Having just reread that last sentence, I am reminded of our tendency to think of the writer “coming up” with an idea. Back to the lead question: Where do you get your ideas? As time continues to drag me downstream in this life it occurs to me that maybe I’ve been thinking about this process all wrong. Maybe we don’t “get” ideas. Maybe ideas “get” us. Think about this quote from Stephen King:
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” (Stephen King, On Writing, Scribner, 2000, p. 37)
In that last sentence, King hits the nail on the head. We don’t find ideas, we recognize them.
As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve been forced to ask if we haven’t been saying things backwards. Do we have ideas, or do ideas have us? Do I have a story or does a story have me? That’s not as mystical as it sounds. I’ve noticed that the stories I’ve done best with have haunted and hunted me. I didn’t sit down and say, “I think I’ll come up with a new idea.” Instead, I tripped over them. They sneak into my brain through my subconscious, crouch for a time, then spring up and say, “Look at me!” Then like a child who sees a toy in the store he wants, starts badgering his mom with unrelenting pleas.
The idea for my first novel, By My Hands, was waiting in the car for me. I found it there right after I left Children’s Hospital in San Diego where I had just made a ministerial visit. My book, A Ship Possessed, surfaced from a newspaper article about a WWII sub that ran aground in South Korea. The premise for Angel came for a verse in Galatians. And so it goes. All of these ideas as well as almost all other ideas have found me—I didn’t find them.
Still I had to do something with them. Fantasy writer Terry Brooks wrote:
“Here’s another news flash for everyone who has ever asked a writer where he gets his ideas. Or she. Getting ideas is the least difficult part of the process. What’s hard, really hard, is making those ideas come together in a well-conceived, compelling story. So many of those ideas that seem wonderful at first blush end up leading nowhere. They won’t sustain the weight of a story. They won’t spin out past a few pages. They won’t lead to something insightful and true.
“Ideas are like chocolates, as Forrest Gump might say. You never know what you are going to get.” (Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works, Ballantine Publishing Group, 2003, p. 66).
It is great to have an idea. It’s better to be had by an idea.
Alton Gansky is the author of 45 books or so and co-host of Firsts in Fiction podcast.