It’s the most common slash dreaded question for all writers: “where do you get your ideas?” And it might seem simple, but there are layers to it. It’s not just “where do you get your ideas?” but “where do you get ideas that are good enough to be published?” Really, how do you find an idea that someone else is going to look at … and then agree to put in the time needed to work with you on it?
I’m with Stephen King on this one, or at least on half of his advice for fiction writers: you have to read a lot. In grad school they tell you to look for the gap – the thing that nobody’s talking about – but it’s a bit trickier than that. You have to make sure it’s a real gap and not just that you haven’t personally read about it yet. So you can’t identify a gap, stop reading, and immediately start investigating it.
What I’ll do is write the idea down immediately. I’ve got plenty of notebooks – this one is actually a cover for four different notebooks (and my husband added the engraving on the front for me), which can help me keep my ideas separate – and when a lightbulb goes on, I’ll write it down. And then keep reading. Both of those are equally important, since I don’t want to forget my brilliant insight … but I also want to make sure it is indeed brilliant before telling the world. (Or at least before writing up a proposal.)
The next step is usually some serious time with Google. I remember going to propose an early Stephen King paper for the Pop Culture Conference and thinking “There’s no way nobody else noticed this!” This is the connection between Rose Madder and Mr. Mercedes that ended up as a chapter in The Modern Stephen King Canon, and even up until the Q&A session at the end of my presentation, I was sure someone was going to stand up and tell me of course they all knew it. They just weren’t talking about it because it was so darn obvious.
The thing is, even if I can’t find someone who’s made the same connection I have, I’m still never convinced that my idea is actually original. If little me could think of it, then someone else more brilliant has to have already come up with it … right? So I keep looking, and even when I send out a proposal, I’m waiting to hear back that actually, of the 20 people who responded, 15 of them had exactly the same point, sorry, thanks for your time.
This is my other notebook. It’s a Leuchtturm 1917, and a gift from my husband. He said he picked it because he’d seen Neil Gaiman call it his favorite. (The leather cover is completely custom – my husband printed it all over with a map of Whitechapel.) It’s my more recent notebook, and you can see from these pages that it’s set up to almost force you to do what I’m already doing: keeping a lot of notes on a lot of different things, but trying to stay organized.
All the pages are numbered so you can fill out your index as you go or as new ideas occur to you. This helps me take it a step further beyond “having an idea” and “being pretty sure the idea is original” to “brainstorming more about the idea.” By putting the main thought at the top of the page, this leaves a whole lot of open space to be filled. Then I can shift to having more thoughts about the idea, supporting it and making more connections as I continue to fill in the gap.
Again, we’re back to that difficult step: you won’t actually know for sure if your idea is interesting enough to other people until you actually show it to other people. But you can take your time in developing it to make sure that the gap you think you see actually exists, and isn’t simply a gap in your reading.
If you ever come across someone asking “Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” the answer is usually “Because you’re not reading the right people.” Once the idea strikes – as you write it down before it can get away – your job is to make sure you’re not missing out on that conversation. You Google, and you comb through bibliographies, and you talk to people, and you satisfy yourself as well as you can that you’re not just missing it. Then you develop that idea – use your lightbulb to look into all the corners of the room, maybe – and take a deep breath and put it out there.
But mostly … you read a lot. And then a lot more.