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.

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About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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27 Responses to In The Garden Of My Ideas

  1. quix689 says:

    I love this post. I always love seeing how other people plan. And I completely agree with everything you’ve said. I may not be as far with my writing as you are, but I have a ton of ideas floating around in my head and throughout various notebooks. When I was younger, I always struggled to find something to write about. I’d ask my mom to give me an idea, and she would just shake her head and say that that was the hard part. These past few years, though, I’ve found that that’s the easy part. Since I’ve started writing more, I’ve found more and more ideas. I start writing one story, and two more ideas pop up. Sometimes it’s just a scene to include, or a character, or a line, but it’s something. I, too, keep track of those and see where I can use them later.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing! This definitely helped me start thinking more about how I organize my own thoughts. 🙂

    • Julie says:

      Thanks for the compliments, and you’re definitely welcome. I agree that writing seems to cause more ideas. On one hand, that’s awesome. On the other, how the hell are we going to keep up? 🙂 Oh well, there are worse problems, right?

  2. 4amWriter says:

    Great post. As I said elsewhere in Blogosphere, I have plenty of ideas, just not enough time to cultivate them–which is funny in respect to your gardening analogy. If I sat down and threw together some basic outlines for all the story ideas I have, I’d be set for years. Unfortunately, the only method I can use currently is to write 2 hours a day–if I can get 2 hours a day–and trudge onward as best I can.

    I agree with you about the plethora of comments out there where writers bemoan their muses and suffer greatly from writer’s block. I don’t know that I’ve ever suffered in that capacity. For me, I have always been able to think of something. Whether or not it’s the something that will work is the bigger problem. Putting a story together so that it is a page-turner is much more of a challenge for me than coming up with ideas. In this respect I’m a pantser–but really only with the first draft. Once I know I’ve bled through all the options, then I am more willing to sit down and pick out the structure that is the most compelling. But that also takes a lot of time, a lot of drafts.

    I like hearing how you set to work. I think it’s amazing at the range of writing work styles there are and it’s helpful to know what writers whom I respect do it. I hope to pick up a few pointers, and so I think I have through you. Thanks! 🙂

    • Julie says:

      Thank you! I’m blushing to be on the list of writers you respect. 🙂

      You’re right that it’s more than just having the idea, it’s about that process of turning it into something more. For one thing, you have to be open to it turning into something perhaps a little different than you originally envisioned. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that someone tried to tell me that once when I was in my early 20s, but all I heard was the criticism that my ideas weren’t good enough. Part of it, looking back, was the way he worded it, but most of it was me not being mature enough to accept the criticism and hear the value in it, to see that I needed to take my ideas to the next level. In those days, all I did was write the seed down and rush off to the next idea. Ah, the follies of my youth. Oh well.

      Glad to be of help where I can. I know I’ve picked up plenty of pointers form you, so I guess turnabout is fair play. 🙂

  3. jmmcdowell says:

    I’m one who often talks about her muse sitting on a beach drinking mojitos, but it’s usually in the context of “Where are you when the real work of editing and revision is underway?!!?!” Not so much in the “ideas needed” category. 😀

    I’ve said in a few posts, “ideas are easy, writing a good story is hard.” And you’re so right. If we don’t set down those ideas and see how to germinate them, then they languish and fade away. And who doesn’t hate that feeling of “I had a great idea. What was it?”

    Even this pantser at times sits down with a notebook and physically writes out questions for the story and characters, especially when I can’t see what’s coming. I think some newer writers might have a vision that writing means writing—the words should just flow out onto paper or into the computer. But that’s rarely how it works. Maybe it starts that way for many of us (it did for me). But we have to learn how to handle the other times—when we do reach a brick wall or don’t know which of two paths to take in a story.

    Excellent post and insight into your writing mind. I really enjoy posts like this.

    • Julie says:

      Omg, I hate that bereft feeling where all I have left is knowing that the missing idea was awesome. Physically painful, I’m telling you!

      I agree totally with that romantic idea of writing that some new writers have. I’m not sure I ever had that, but oddly, I’m a pragmatist. Who writes Fantasy. WTH? That aside, I think the big thing is to recognize when a method isn’t working for you and try something different, rather than repeatedly bashing your head into the same wall. I tried that. Again with the physically painful. I’m seeing a theme in my life here…

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thanks. I’m out of planned post ideas now, so I’m going to have to think of some more smarty-pants things to say… Hmm, this could take a while.

  4. wordsurfer says:

    Great post! Our brains seem to work in a very similar way – I love to organize stuff in a nested way – categories, subcategories, sub-sub-categories… Sometimes I have to stop myself a little or it would become absurd. My trial version of Scrivener is just running out now and I’m going to buy it, because it works exactly like that: you can re-arrange and move stuff to your heart’s content. I fell in love with it straight away. But I guess a lot of writing softwares are very similar and just don’t get as much publicity.

    About the story ideas as such… My ‘problem’ is that if a spark, or seed, lights up in my brain, I have to write it down asap, yet usually I don’t, because I think: ‘Oh no, this is such a good idea, how could I ever forget that?’ And later I sit at my computer, with a new document, and I know that I had a great idea, and can not for the life of me remember what it was. 🙂

    • Julie says:

      There’s the difference. I learned at a very young age that I possessed minimal gifts in the memory department. Almost nothing, it seems at times. I don’t trust anything to memory that I don’t have to, which is why I always have my blackberry, iPod Touch and a steno pad with me. Often my iPad is there too. I ALWAYS have something to write down an idea with. Maybe that’s the other reason they’re piling up like this. 🙂

      • wordsurfer says:

        Yep, that confirms it. I need to start carrying writing material with me everywhere (I do outside the house, but this morning a spark fluttered up while I was doing laundry and there was nothing to write anywhere! Luckily I was able to remember for once…). Do you know that old movie, Babes in Toyland? And the Widow who lives in the shoe? She always has this huge roll of parchment with her, and it trails on the ground behind her, and she has to write everything down immediately? Sometimes I think I underestimated her smarts as a child – I should seriously look into buying rolls of parchment.

        • Julie says:

          The joy of my small apartment (in addition to less of it to clean) is that my iPad is only a room-crossing dive away. And believe me, the cats have seen that dive on more occasions than I’m willing to count or tell about. Leave it at very very often. 😀

  5. subtlekate says:

    It feels good to have ideas waiting in the wings, ready to spring to life.

  6. Pingback: An update and an award « Peggy Isaacs

  7. Ottabelle says:

    That’s great, and how I think I want to start looking at my ideas. I love the garden, even though I don’t like gardening. I know they can be beautiful or full of yummies if tended right, so I want to think of my ideas that way, too. Thanks for sharing your brain with us.

  8. My garden is blooming but I don’t have time to weed it 🙂

  9. Pingback: Plotting and Discovery « Word Flows

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