The first thing you need in order to write a story is an idea. People often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” as if they rise from some wishing well whose secret location we jealously guard, but the real secret is this: ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.
Ideas are the easy part.
I did a tally yesterday of the books that are lined up in my head right now jostling for position, hoping to get themselves written. Not including the one I am actively writing -- Silksinger -- there are nine, and those are only the full-blown, outlined, ready-to-go ideas. I’m not even counting the casual, undeveloped ideas, which are many. Some have been standing in line for years, waiting for me to get my act together and learn how to write a book.
How did they get there?
Like I said before, getting ideas is the easy part. They just come. But more can be said: they come from stray thoughts and tidbits gleaned from headlines or from dusty old folklore books, they come from dreams and memories, or maybe from one perfect, shining sentence that emerges from the middle of a wild, jumbled freewrite. Sometimes they come when two flying thoughts collide in mid-air and merge into a new, mutant idea.
And, they come when you make them come.
“Chance favors a prepared mind.” I agree with that. There are many variations of that quote. Thomas Jefferson said, “I’m a big believer in luck. I find that the harder I work, the more of it I have.” The harder you work, the more situations you put yourself in to be “lucky,” and so it is with getting ideas. The more you cast your mind out into thoughts and dreams, the more you observe and read and think, the more ideas you will “happen upon.” A writer is on safari for ideas every single moment of his or her life, waking and sleeping. And when an idea pops up from behind a baobab tree, you capture it. Write it down. It’s yours now. I hope you’ll do something with it!
Ideas have developmental stages. For me, they usually begin as a “seed,” a tiny little seed, and in that first glimpse I get of it, it’s usually just enough to write down as a line in a notebook. It might be something like, “Avery Dry, who put her soul in the collection plate,” or it might be a single evocative word, like “wishbone.”
The seed of my graphic novel, The Drowned was an image from a dream in which a village sat at the edge of the sea. It was hidden beneath the water at high tide, and exposed to the air at low tide. It was barnacled and desolate, and music was drifting from it. I know where this image most likely arose from -- when I traveled in Europe after high school, one of the places I went was Cornwall, where at low tide the roots of islands are exposed so you can walk all the way around them. It was magical to me. Mystical. And so it kicked around in my mind until one night I had a dream that placed a village there on a sweep of lonesome shore. It still didn’t really qualify as an “idea.” It was only a seed. The next step was asking: who might live in such a village, and why? You figure that out, you might just have a story.
That’s where brainstorming comes in. In this case, since Jim and I were creating The Drowned together, we brainstormed together, and it was Jim who hit on the idea that women who’d been drowned as witches might live in a kind of purgatory there, only getting to breathe air when the tide was at its lowest. Cool! Then I had to develop a plot and characters to revolve around that central idea. More brainstorming.
I am a brainstormaholic. I love this part of the process. It amazes me anew each and every time a simple word or image grows into a big complex IDEA -- and, a STORY. To me it’s as mind-blowing as the fact that the biggest living things on the planet -- Sequoia trees -- grow from a seed barely bigger than a speck of dust. (If a Sequoia can do it, so can your idea!) I love dreaming stuff up. I love growing a tiny seed into a big, lush flowering thing. I love the feeling of possibility. I love asking “What if?” and then building, and building, and building. You can build a whole world that way.
Dreamdark is the product of extreme brainstorming -- and when I say extreme, I mean extreme. I have notebooks filled with ideas about the world of the story and the characters and legends and natural history and architecture. . . and thousands of other things. Research on leeches, on superstitions, on tropical trees, on ancient languages, on the old Silk Road, alchemy, cool Hindi words, witch doctors. These notebooks are so precious to me -- high on my list of things I’d rescue if my house were on fire! Much that is in them will not appear in the books, but who knows? Ideas lead to other ideas. I bet some of these jottings will be popping up in things I write twenty years from now!
Aside from the notebooks, much of my brainstorming happens in big, sprawling, rambling documents on my computer. They’re mostly called “working docs” and I have literally hundreds of pages like this devoted to Dreamdark. Hundreds of pages of rambling “what ifs” as I work out character, plot, story arc, and details of the world. There are outlines and freewriting mixed in, and lots and lots of places where I tell myself the synopsis, trying to get it just right. This might seem excessive -- but this is the creation of a world for a whole fantasy series, and I like my plots complex, so I have a lot of stuff to figure out! For a short story I may end of having only a few pages (or twenty, or fifty) of brainstorming before I get to a place where I’m ready to start “writing.”
So you want to write a novel. You have a seed. Perhaps you have a character name, an idea of the setting, and a vague sense of what it’s “about.” A good place to start “brainstorming” is just by freewriting everything you know about your idea so far. Don’t worry at all about the “writing” at this phase, about your prose or sentence structure or having the perfect name for your character. Doesn’t matter. This is just about getting ideas out. Every possible idea, even ones that flitter through your head and you’re pretty sure you won’t use. Go ahead and write them down and give them an opportunity to explain themselves. If it came to mind, there’s a chance there’s something in it you can use. At this stage, do not discriminate. Think of it like the auditions for American Idol. You have to listen to the terrible singers -- you have to listen to all the singers -- to ferret out the tiny handful of good ones.
As you’re writing down everything you know about the story, you’ll start to see how much you don’t know. So, start asking yourself questions and trying to answer them. Answer them with “maybes.” You might have ten maybes to one question (don’t settle for just one). Often, one of them will light a fire in your mind. You’ll know it’s the right one. You’ll feel “the snick.”
How I love the snick. It’s the sound and feeling of a puzzle piece fitting into place. You know what I mean: you instantly feel the rightness of it, the ease. When you’re forcing a piece, you know it. You feel it. It’s awkward, you have to work too hard to make it fit. Pay attention to those feelings. Never settle for a piece that doesn’t fit, even if it almost does. Keep brainstorming. Demand “the snick” every time, to every question. You know when you’re reading a book and you feel the presence of the author all of a sudden, you feel them trying to make something happen in the story. As soon as you feel that, you know they goofed -- they gave up too easily and tried to force something in plot or character, something that feels wrong, awkward. You can feel their fingers pushing and pushing that puzzle piece. You don’t want that.
So brainstorm. Audition your ideas. Make sure they’re up to the part!
Plus, the great thing about “the snick” is that when it comes, the story has a tendency to spurt forward with exuberant ease, to get unstuck, to get fun. And that’s the best thing a writer can wish for!
It’s not like I do all brainstorming at the beginning of the writing process and then the rest of the writing is smooth sailing. I come back to brainstorming again and again and again throughout the writing process, addressing issues as they arise. My “working docs” and notebooks continue to grow and grow as I write a book. When I get stuck, I come back to brainstorming. When a plot point that seemed like it would work turns out to feel wrong and forced, I resort to brainstorming.
It’s a different mindset, a free place where you can sort of stand back and see and ponder, like a painter stepping away from the canvas and getting some clarity on it, deciding his next brush stroke, or indeed, seeing mistakes that were not visible up close. You might realize your character would never have done “that.” There’s so much that you will discover as you write and brainstorm and write and brainstorm. So much will come up that you never could have anticipated. You need to keep your ability to come up with new ideas every step of the way.
Never feel that you’re “married” to an idea, even if it was the original idea that sparked the story. It might have to go, like a scaffolding that comes down after a mural is painted. Maybe that was its only purpose, to hold you up while you found the real idea. When I’m writing a first draft of a story, I might think I know what it’s “about” but I don’t really know until I’m in the midst of it, maybe even until I’m done with it. Then I try to find the story’s true “axis” -- the center upon which it pivots. You need to be flexible, at every stage of the process. Limber.
Be willing to cut stuff. Look at your knuckles -- you might be hanging on too hard to something that just needs to go. I’m not even talking about pretty sentences here -- that comes later. I’m talking about ideas. Nothing in a book or story is fixed until you say so. You can always change your mind. I do. It’s my prerogative!
Exercises for generating ideas
1. Make a list of favorite things
Think up things that light your mind on fire. Get into a freewriting mentality and start listing them. Let one thing lead to another. Items on the list can be single words or whole paragraphs or anything in between. If ideas start to click and you want to go off on a tangent, DO. Here's an example of some of mine:
Some things that light my mind on fire
elaborate tents hauled around by nomads, made of goat hair and filled with wondrous things
indigo silk that stains your skin blue
tattoo given with a wasp stinger -- still in the wasp?
childhood crushes, reintroductions; sparks; seeing someone with new eyes
being more than you seem
possessing hidden gifts
antlers; antlers on things that ought not have antlers; antler shadows.
a beautiful woman with the feet of a bird, hidden beneath voluminous skirts -- what if Cinderella’s prince tried to put the glass slipper on HER? ha ha
footman who bears some precious thing on a cushion; afraid of dropping it? The footman who carried the glass slipper?
acrobatics; a village child sold to the circus
There’s a lot more, and in many places on this recent list, ideas bumped into each other and began to coalesce into stories. Those Cinderella-related ones -- that could be fun! I might actually write that (don’t steal it!). There’s a shimmer when an idea perches on you. Wings flash in the sun. Your pulse quickens.
Start listing things that are exciting to you and build with them. Keep a notebook of them. Dream up stories that are like candy to you -- the kind of things that would make you get excited and tingly if you read them on someone else’s book jacket. I don’t know about you, but I used to sometimes lose sight of the extreme awesomeness of this fact: that you get to write whatever is the most delicious and fascinating and magical and important and poignant and exciting to YOU. You can write whatever you want. It’s the most basic idea about being a writer, but sometimes it gets lost beneath a whole pile of expectations about what we should be writing, what might “sell,” what we covet in other writers, etc. Strip all that stuff away and just figure out what you love, what sets your mind on fire.
Then brainstorm it into a story that no one else on Earth could tell in just your way!
2. "Attic Notebook"
This is a freewriting exercise I used to do back in college. It doesn't really involve an attic. Here's what it is:
Get a notebook and freewrite in it -- random, undirected freewriting -- for a set time every day until it's full. You might have a list like the one above at hand to glance at for inspiration when you need to get your hand moving. Just write. Poems, scenes, daydreams, character ideas, thoughts about the sky. Try 30 minutes a day.
The key is this: do NOT reread what you have written. Do not look back. Don’t even peek. Once a word is written you must move past it and forward only. And when the book is full, close it and set it aside for a month, still without peeking. Then read it. When I did this, it was like finding a notebook in an attic -- hence the name. I remembered almost nothing I had written. It was pure discovery. I wrote that? I thought up that? Ideas for stories came up and I felt almost like I was pilfering them. . . from myself! It was a really, really fun and rewarding exercise!
3. "Bedtime Story"
This is an exercise I invented for getting unstuck. Take a bare seed of an idea and just write it, with no fanfare. Write it as if you are making up and telling a bedtime story to a beloved child, on the spot. Start with Once Upon a Time, and then don’t worry about “language” at all. When I get into the right mindset with this exercise, sometimes such unexpected stories can unspool! It’s great fun.
4. Writing Prompts
The past year has made me a big believer in writing prompts. I said earlier that ideas come from anywhere. Well, nothing proves this assertion better than writing prompts. When I finished Blackbringer and turned it in to my editor, I had been working on it on and off for more than two years. In that time, I hadn’t really written anything else. I had a big fat craving to write something wholly unrelated to it. To write stories, which I hadn’t done in ages. So my new blog friend Meg and I launched Sunday Scribblings, a blog of writing prompts, open to all comers. And I started writing small fictions. Stories bloomed from the humblest words, in ways I never could have imagined! I wrote lots of them. It was incredibly exciting! They were short, and in some of them I recognized the potential for expansion, so I moved into the brainstorming and revision process on my three favorites, and the result is Goblin Fruit -- a collection of supernatural stories about kissing that will be published by Arthur A. Levine Books. Yippeeeeeee!
Truly, I would never have written those three stories without these three simple prompts: “Monster,” “Music,” and “Real Life.” I would never have written them if I hadn’t begun the practice of writing from prompts. It still astounds me the way a story can pour forth from a word like that. It makes me feel as if anywhere, any time, all around, anything could burst into story -- as if the world is some great advent calendar, with all those little doors waiting to be opened and reveal their mysteries. It’s SO COOL!!