Where Can You Get Your Ideas From?
As I was stalling for time (in bed) this morning, wondering what to share with you about my indie author journey, I read a post from author Ross McKenzie confessing that the question he's most afraid of is where do you get your ideas from? Well that gave me the idea I was looking for and the beginnings of an answer to Ross's most feared, and probably most often asked, question.
The dreaded question always makes me think of shopping, 'oh I got mine from M&S.' I have a vague memory of an Apprentice candidate selling ideas, scribbling them down in a notebook ripping them out and exchanging them for hard cash – now there's an idea. But we all have them, we just have to recognise that fact. You've probably had several already today - what if I poached my egg for breakfast instead of frying it? What if I caught up with that old friend who suddenly popped up on Facebook this morning? What if I cut the sleeves off that old shirt? So if ideas don't come from M&S, where do they come from?
Ideas come by reading. Reading is the most effective way of sparking and feeding your imagination. For The Wonder Girls I read a Facebook post. Then I read my favourite books from the 1930s The Family From One End Street. I read fiction and non fiction, online and on paper. The idea for this post came from reading another post about how reading a book inspired a story.
Being someone who has found reading difficult, as a child I struggled to learn, I used to be put off by the thought of ploughing through thousands of words to find anything interesting. But I've since learned that dipping into to book is allowed (indexes and tables of contents are wonderful things) as is putting aside one that I'm not enjoying. These two realisations meant that I've read a ton more than I would have done otherwise and most importantly enjoyed doing it.
I've heard some writers say, they don't read while they're writing because they don't want to be influenced or inadvertently copy another person's work, even. But reading goes with writing like jam in a sandwich. It informs it, enhances it and directs it. Does jam do all those things? Yes, I think so, raspberry especially.
Ideas come when we ask questions, when we ask ourselves questions and they most often start with a what if or one of its variations. The first question I asked myself for The Wonder Girls was what if I did rise to the challenge of 'somebody should write a story about that'. Lots more questions followed what, why, who, where and how, my notebooks are chocobloc with them. If like me, you've ever thought you didn't have an imagination for stories, try it now. Look up from your screen and ask yourself what if the object or person you can see turned into, an animal, another person – anyone, a portal to another world (though all books are portals to other worlds) or, I don't know, an out of control ride-on lawnmower? What would happen? How would everyone in the room react?
Ideas come when come when you take a break from looking for them. They come at when you're doing something else, they butt in, or they sneak up from behind tap you on the shoulder mischievously to distract you. School may have taught you to ignore these interruptions - it's much better to focus and 'stay on task'. Perhaps it is, sometimes, but it's also a jolly good idea to capture these ideas before they disappear, no matter how off the wall they are. Keep some way of recording on you at all times. I often use the voice memos on my phone but oh for a waterproof one – what is it about standing under a shower? Voice memos work well especially when I'm walking the dog, but notebooks are much easier to scan for the ideas with legs. I'd really like a waterproof notebook too.
Ideas come when you act. Writing things down was how I discovered that I did have an imagination. For a long time, I believed I didn't because I couldn't tell a story, i.e. spontaneously relate some shaggy dog tale to entertain the children. But imagination isn't just for stories. Imagination solves problems. Everyone has ideas, what's important is what you do with them and what you want to do with them. I wanted to write stories but you might want to paint a picture, cook dinner (always a big problem for me), start your own business... It's one thing having the idea, the key thing is acting on it, trying. Ideas breed ideas, which can be overwhelming but write them down anyway.
Ideas come when you have confidence. To act on an idea you need confidence and finding some confidence to do that can be hard. But growing in confidence is possible when you understand that for 99% of the time, failing doesn't matter. (Interestingly for characters in a story the perceived necessity of not failing is what makes the story more gripping. It's called high stakes.) But for most of us, and for much of our lives, we are not in high stakes, life or death, situations. What does it matter if my story is rubbish - I don't have to show it to anybody. What if my poached egg is a watery mess in the pan it's probably still edible or there's another egg in the box. Often, great ideas come through failure. Do you know about post-it notes? I especially love that they came about because the glue didn't work.
Ideas come through practice. Every month I meet with my writer friends Cris and Jo on The Isle of Wight. We always start our sessions with a short story, just for fun, based on a prompt agreed on the month before. For a long time, I failed at this miserably. My lofty excuse was that `I needed at least fifty thousand words to make a story'. But a few New Years ago I resolved to try, to act, write something down, have go and it didn't matter if it was rubbish.
Because I'm a last minute sort of person, more often than not, these attempts were a written on the ferry. A lot were rubbish but as I persisted they got better and I grew in confidence to the extent that I'm now cocky enough to put them together into a volume calling it A Little Book of Ferry Tales, which I'm trying to sell to Red Funnel. I was particularly pleased with last month's effort, which I wrote from start (no idea at all, only the title) to finish (a beginning, middle and end) in the hour from Southampton to Cowes.
I was really inspired by Ross's post, inspired to dip into the book that inspired him, to read his book and to write this post. Unike Ross, it turns out I'm not afraid of the question. I really like it because, by turning it around, (a great way to answer a question is with another question, answers can be so full stoppy), I hope you'll be inspired too. Are you?
If you'd like to read the story I wrote on my last ferry journey it's here. It's for adult readers but I hope family