Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 6: How Do You Get Ideas?

Here we are in the last week of the Tiny Writers’ Conference, and we’re ending on a question that I’ve heard often, and it’s one that I think deserves more attention than speakers at conferences are necessarily willing to give it: how do you get ideas?

This question used to really perplex me. I mean, who doesn’t get ideas? Ideas are like air—they’re freely floating in the atmosphere, just waiting for you to grab them. Open up a newspaper and there you’ll find ideas ready for the taking. In fact, that’s what I used to tell people: go get a newspaper. Open it. Pick an idea, and you’re done. 

But after thinking further, I realized that there’s really a bigger issue lurking in the ideas question. I don’t think it’s truly the problem that people don’t have ideas. I think the problem is taking what seems like a cool notion and developing it into a fully realized poem, plot, or essay; perhaps a better way to phrase the question is “how do you take the ideas that occur to you and make them into something useful?”

One of the best things I ever did was getting rid of the dedicated ideas notepad I kept in my purse. When I made use of that notebook, I had the impression that if I kept my ideas in one place, I’d be able to refer to them later and put some shine on them. The problem was that my subconscious mind looked at the act of writing those ideas down as permission to ignore them–to go about the day’s business and never give the seedlings of writing projects another thought. I’d get to them all later, after all. Now that I don’t write my ideas down, I feel I have to pursue them, ruminate on them while I walk around the aisles of the grocery store or while I wash my hair, follow them to their conclusions as I go about my day. Instead of jotting down an idea and thinking that I’ll deal with it later, I let it occupy me, even obsess me, throughout the day.

“But my memory!” you say. “I’ll forget the good stuff if I don’t write it down!” I understand. Really, I do. My ability to remember tidbits is about as good as my eyesight—bad already and getting worse each year. Steven King says in On Writing that the good ideas will stick with you, and that only the crummy ideas will fall away. I’ve never bought that; quality of the idea has nothing to do with it. But the attention paid to the idea does.

When I was developing the concept that would become the novel I’m working on now, I didn’t write down anything until I was ready to outline. But because I’d dedicated so much time to thinking through the plot and its nuances, the process of outlining happened in about a one-hour rush. Of course, the outline needed some refining, but it’s still mostly as it was when I sat down with the big roll of butcher paper and scribbled the plotline down for the first time. Had I filed away the kernel of the book in a notepad somewhere, I might never have returned to it. Even if I had, it certainly wouldn’t be the same book it is now.

Incidentally, on a long flight earlier this week, I listened to the first episode of this season’s Writing Excuses podcast. (If you’re not familiar with Writing Excuses, I encourage you to check the podcast out; while the focus is typically on genre fiction, I, a non-genre person, always learn something interesting and applicable to my own work from listening to the discussion.) The Writing Excuses crew happened to be taking on the “where do you get ideas” question in their episode this week, and gave some great insights into developing your ideas, differentiating them from others’ similar ideas, and finding conflict—the stuff of story—in your ideas.

2 Replies to “Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 6: How Do You Get Ideas?”

  1. Great stuff, as always, Kelly. I would add that the ideas that stick in my mind are the ones to which I can connect a character, a person who can give life to the conflict or question the idea brings to mind. Personally, I get tons of ideas, but they don’t always bring to mind a character who can illustrate them—those are the ideas I let fade.

  2. Now that is fascinating to me–characters don’t occur to me until much later! Perhaps it’s the poetry training. Dramatic situation is everything…

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