I’m dating another writer, which is a new experience. It means they get it, they understand the weird compulsion to write, they know how much a rejection hurts, they understand the way we have to steal from real-life, and that we sometimes put our craziest, least-attractive selves on the page.
It also means you get to see the way another writer works up close, it means you can try and find out what makes them tick… It also means you can share in (and be jealous of) each others’ successes. My partner is having an absolutely killer year, but she still gets jealous of my unpublished arse because of the way I generate story ideas constantly. A couple of times, late at night, I’ve woken her with the bright light of my phone screen, tapping a story idea into an email to myself for later.
So, I thought I’d try and write down a few thoughts, things that I actively do that might help others maintain their own constant flow of ideas.
- Steal from everywhere. There’s some famous quote about artists stealing that I can’t be bothered looking up right now, but yes, STEAL. Steal from headlines, steal from overheard conversations, steal from real life, steal from fiction. Obviously, you’re only stealing tiny little bits and pieces and then weaving those into something bigger, but what this is going to help you do is hone your observational skills, and also your deep-reading skills.
What is it about the way that person speaks that catches your attention?
How do people use body language?
How do other writers describe things? For instance, Lauren Beukes’ description of healed burn scars in Zoo City is perfect, and now that I’ve read it I couldn’t think of any other way to describe that kind of scarring.
What is it about a turn of phrase that makes it hook into your head/heart?
You’re not stealing for the sake of stealing, you’re stealing for the sake of learning.
- Related to the above – be wary of what you consume. If you’re going to get ideas, steal ideas, and be inspired by what you consume, then think about what you’re consuming. For example, for me personally, books and comics can get right into my head and start setting fires (in a good way). So can long-form articles and email newsletters. But movies? TV shows? Video games? They might generate some reference points (for instance, using Primer-style time travel in a TT story), but for me they don’t generate ideas.
- Keep ALL your ideas somewhere, even if they seem stupid or pointless, or if it seems like you’ll never be able to do anything about it.
Warren Ellis has always talked about his ‘Loose Ideas folder’, but it wasn’t until I got serious about writing fiction that I actually found the idea useful. Prior to that I’d have an idea and I’d write it, and that was that. Nowadays I have heaps of ideas, and some of them don’t work now, some of them don’t quite get my brain’s attention now, some of them aren’t quite a story on their own, but I put them aside anyway. My doc is called ‘Orphans’ (it seemed to work, and then I realised there was a Tom Waits connection, so that made me happy), and a whole lot of half-formed/malformed things go in there. This year I’ve lost track of how many times one of those ideas has combined with other ideas to form a story, or one of those ideas has been able to neatly slot into something else I was working on – and often in unexpected ways.
And just last week on twitter I saw that Kelly Sue Deconnick calls her loose ideas folder ‘the Morgue’. So make one, give it a cool name, and USE IT. And remember to go over it once a month or so. Delete or cross out ideas you’ve incorporated, and just freshen up on what’s still there.
- This is some ancient wisdom, but I’m going to reiterate it because it, y’know, works. Always keep something in, or right beside, your bed that you can write ideas down in. No, you won’t remember it in the morning. Best case scenario you’ll remember you forgot something, and that’s just irritating.
I find sending myself an email from my phone is the best way – I don’t have to turn on a light, and if I would have otherwise forgotten that I even had the idea, I’ll get reminded in the morning when I check my emails (particularly important for ideas related to projects you’re currently working on, when the sooner you can incorporate that idea into your thinking the better).
That’s it for now. But think of generating ideas as a type of mental exercise – the more you work on it, the better you’re going to get.