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Steinbeck was wrong

John Steinbeck

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Steinbeck said that, but I think he’s wrong. You’ll have way more than a dozen.

Sometimes people ask me where I get ideas for my novels. I’m not always sure where they’re going with the question. Are they looking for a recipe for getting ideas of their own? Or just curious about my “muse"?

Happily, there’s no real magic to it.

I think a lot of people who have never written a novel, or who have tried but haven’t succeeded to their satisfaction, have this misapprehension about the process of coming up with ideas. Like we writers sit around in our offices, or take long thoughtful walks, or sit in Starbucks swilling chai lattes, waiting for lightning to strike. Like ideas for great stories are some sort of gift that you have to wait and hope and pray for, that they come from some mysterious external source.

The source of these ideas is often external. I’ll grant you that. But it’s nothing mysterious. It just a matter of paying attention to what’s going on around you. It’s a matter of learning to see the world through a storyteller’s eyes. It’s a matter of looking at people and events, and asking yourself if there’s a great premise lurking somewhere in there.

I didn’t always get that. I used to believe there was a recipe for it. That writers sat down and worked through some sort of secret process that generated story ideas.

I thought that until the first time I tried to create a story idea that way. It was going to be a spy story, because I have a soft spot Tom Clancy style espionage thrillers. I worked at it for a couple of weeks, until I realized that I absolutely hated the storyline I’d come up with.

The first successful novel writing experience I had was in 2005, during NaNoWriMo. I decided very late in October to try it. With no time to work out anything new, and out of desperation, I wrote a fantasy novel based on a piece of backstory I’d created for a role playing game some years prior. Roll your eyes if you will, but hey, at least it was something I already knew, and had a certain geeky enthusiasm for.

One year, an idea came to me while I was at the bookstore. I saw a book sitting out on one of the half-off tables. It was a history of the Pony Express. It just sort of jumped off the table into my hands. By then I had a storyteller’s eye, and it said to me “Dude, that’s a great setting!” I wondered to myself why I couldn’t think of a single book or movie that takes place there. I walked out of the store with that book, instead of the one I’d come for. I read it, it was absolutely fascinating, and when I was done I had in my head a young adult coming-of-age story set there in the wilds of what is now Wyoming.

One year, a story came to me in a dream. No, I’m not kidding. Well, it was more of a nightmare. I woke from the dream with just fragments of it in my mind, but vivid ones. Rather than just shaking it off and trying to go back to sleep, my storyteller’s eye said “Wow, cool sci-fi premise.”

My current work in progress came from a blog post I wrote a while back about backstory. In the part where I was talking about characters with interesting quirks, I wrote something about maybe having a character who collects Soviet-era comic books. I had no intention of that turning into anything, it was simply the quirkiest thing I could think of on the spur of the moment. But my storyteller’s eye said “Hey, remember that spy story you tried to write? The one that sucked so much? Well, what if spies hid secret messages inside the comic books?”

There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers. Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up. — Stephen King, On Writing

Together, Steinbeck and King have it about right. That first idea may be tricky for you. It might have to come in a flash of inspiration, or desperation. But once you’ve developed that storyteller’s eye, you’ll see them coming at you all the time. One time, you may get a premise. Another time, a setting or a detail about a character. Whatever it is, it hints at the rest. That’s where stories come from.

Ideas are everywhere. See them. Grab hold of the good ones. Don’t let them go.

November 25, 2009 22:01 UTC

Tags: writing, ideas, premise, setting, stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck

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