In The Garden Of My Ideas
All right, I’ve been thinking about doing this post for a while, and I’ve mentioned it in my last couple, so I’m finally sitting down to write it.
The only people unaware that I have a veritable fountain of ideas flowing from my brain are the ones that don’t visit this blog. Okay, that’s a lot of people, but that’s totally beside the point. A number of people who do read this blog have commented on the number of ideas, and it’s generally either an expression of admiration or envy. Being the kind of person who wants everyone to have as much awesomeness in their life as possible, I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts and observations on how and why this phenomenon seems to happen to me. Because I have to tell you, getting ideas for stories has never been a problem for me, though I’m more aware of how it happens than I once was. Learning how to turn those ideas into actual stories that have depth, characters and a world is a newer skill for me, but one that I’ve found necessary to get anywhere with all these ideas. It’s also matured the sort of ideas I get. Now, the things in this post might not work for everyone. It works for me, but not everyone thinks like me (probably a good thing in the long run) and I hate getting preachy here or acting like I have all the answers. I don’t, not for everyone. I only have my answers. That said, I have some hope that the ideas part will help people who want it. Take what you can from this and leave out the rest. As with everything I say about writing process, keep in mind that your mileage may vary.
One of the things I see come up with writers quite often is talk of sitting there, waiting for inspiration to strike, like it’s lightning. I’ve had those moments, where something amazing electrifies your brain. They’re awesome, exciting, and leave you eager and panting for more. The problem is that they’re also unreliable. Same goes for the notion of the fickle muse, that male or female creature (depending on what variety you adopted on “I’m A Writer Day”) who wanders in and out of your life at will, demanding attention when it suits them and ignoring you when it doesn’t. The muse is like that house cat who has a door flap and only comes in when it wants attention/food/furniture to scratch. While these images are romantic, their very unreliability is problematic for writers who have deadlines and fans, all demanding you write by a certain point in time, or hope to have any of those things (they come with success, as I understand, like it or not).
I’m not advocating ignoring these things, believe me. But I’m saying don’t try to rely on them. You’ll just end up with the most fabulous case of writer’s block that feeds itself as your writing muscles atrophy from the paralysis. Not good. Instead, learn to nurture both your imagination and your inspiration. Yes, it really can be done. I have a lot of stuff waiting for me to finish whatever project I’m working on as proof that it can be done, if you want to. I checked and I honestly have enough material waiting for me that I could have several of me working on it and clearing out the backlog would still take years. It’s both comforting and frustrating. I want to share all these stories.
The best metaphor I can give you for how I do ideas is gardening. In real life, I hate gardening. Loathe and despise it with an unholy passion. I think that comes from years of forced labor as my mother’s gardener, whose health issues precluded her doing it herself. While I understood and accepted my place (for the most part, sometimes even with grace) as her legs and arms in the garden, it did not breed love for doing it on my own, especially not after moving the same bloody impatient around for several minutes as she decided where it would be best stuffed in the ground. No, I’m not resentful. I just refuse to garden now that I’m an adult.
But idea gardening I love, and it tends to happen faster than with plants anyway, which is good. Also, it’s an all-weather, all-season activity. You see, when an idea occurs to me, it’s usually a passing thought, a random what if or something I saw “wrong” for a second, out of context. For me, that little nugget is a seed. It’s nothing on its own, and won’t ever be if I don’t do anything. Trust me on that one. I have whole notebooks full of such seeds that aren’t going anywhere at the moment. These days, I take that seed and plant it in
the garden my brain. Generally, that entails opening up a Notes document on my iPad and writing down everything I have at that point. Then I think about the seed. I ask it questions, most of which fall under the following categories: Why, Who, What if, Where, and How. Sometimes Why Not creeps in there too. Yes, those should look familiar. I also exercise a lot of So What and (thanks to Brandon Sanderson), There’s Always Another Secret. From all this “watering” and “sunshine”, I end up with a LOT of notes in that document, because I write it all down there in no specific order unless it’s to add it on as further development of something I already wrote down. I mean, some of these documents are several pages long if I go to print them out. Notes only shows it as a continuous sheet, but I’ve checked. It amazes me every time.
Then comes pruning. This part may or may not work for the Pantsers of the world, but it should work for those of us who plan and plot before writing. I sift through all these notes and dig out an ending and general storyline, often in that order. I find that a good story should always be building to something, but for me to do that properly, I need to know where I’m building toward, otherwise I get lost and the story dies. This is why I’m not a Pantser. At this point, I’ve probably started an Outliner document. I’ve mentioned doing that before, and what I mean by it in a few replies to comments, but I’ll spell it out here. I do all of my story outlining and detailed notes in a program called OmniOutliner. I have it for both my macs and my iPad. In fact, it’s the reason I own an iPad. I find it a fabulous program for this purpose because it allows me to impose a structure without being overly restrictive. I haven’t tried most of the writer-tailored software out there, though I keep meaning to give Scrivener a shot. The problem for me is that the process I have works quite well for me and so I’m VERY hesitant about screwing around with it without a good reason. Besides, I find OO seems to work well with the way my brain works. It allows me to do nested entries. So, for example, I can have a whole category I call Character Notes, then sub-entries for each character. Then I have sub entries under each character, often with plot points or background stuff that won’t come up in the book but I need to know because it affects how that character will act and react. And so on and so forth. Being electronic, I can move stuff around, and collapse all of these sub-entries as much or as little as I want. But that’s what works for me. Other things work for other people. Use what works for you
In any case, once I’ve started pruning all those notes into my OO document, things start really blooming. One thought leads to another as I start going through those random notes and organizing them. Placing note A next to note B sparks a thought or makes me look at it differently and I go off on a tear. At this point, I start thinking about scenes, movements, try-fail cycles, the evolution of relationships and skills, things like that. Also,I usually know by this point if it’s going to be a single book or more than one. So far, it keeps being more than one, but at least they’re just trilogies and duets to this point. Key words, so far. We’ll see what the future holds.
After that, we get to outlining, which is beyond my plan for this post. But that’s basically how I go about developing an idea from a seed into fully bloomed idea. The thing is, I’m doing this constantly. I get those little fragments that aren’t anything on their own and I write them down and keep turning it over in my mind. Sometimes I turn it upside-down, sometimes inside out. I keep asking it where it fits, what it’s going to be. If it’s a tired concept, I’ll reverse it. I’ll combine it with something unlikely, often another fragment I’ve been trying to find a use for, which happened recently with about three different fragments coming together. Usually I have at least 5 or 6 ideas simmering away in the back of my brain though, just to give you an idea of how much of this goes on for me at any given time. This does not include stuff that’s been temporarily shelved for the time being but could come roaring back to life at any time.
My point in all this, I guess, is that you shouldn’t wait for inspiration or the muse. If you nurture ideas every day like you would a garden, they’ll be there when you need them. I’ve heard people say that they’re afraid they’ll never have another idea again. Not just one person, but many over the course of my life. I’m not afraid of that because I never stop looking for new ideas, even when I have so many that they’ve overflowed my brain (daily occurrence, trust me).
The other thing is not to judge the ideas you get. You can always turn them into something greater by flipping something around, by finding a way to customize it as your own. It doesn’t sound grand enough? Don’t worry, if you water it and give it care and attention, it can be. You’d be amazed what a big thing can grow out of. Devan, from Where The Ether Flows, grew out of a personal challenge to write a story where the MC was a Necromancer who wasn’t a villain, wasn’t evil and wasn’t an anti-hero. I wanted him to be a genuinely good guy. The story that has grown out of that is amazing, one I can’t wait to share. But it all grew out of that small seed. Give every idea a chance to grow big, always look for them, and you’ll probably find you have a garden in perpetual bloom.