Every writer, even ones who aren’t as universally beloved and recognized as me (at least, my Mom thinks I’m cool) get the same question over and over again: where do you get your ideas?
This thought occurred to me as I sat here, staring at my computer screen, utterly unable to think of anything to blog about tonight. Instead, I was thinking of a story idea that occurred to me last night. I’m not going to tell you what it is, because it’s a sort of story twist that I think would be brilliant if only I could execute it properly, but I’ll tell you that it came to me while pondering Kris Straub’s Starslip Crisis. Most of my best ideas come to me while I’m thinking about something else. Years ago, my buddy Jason dragged me along with him to see the movie Ready to Rumble. This was a comedy about pro wrestling. It was awful. Terribly written, horribly acted, and proof positive that Andre the Giant should have been the last pro wrestler to attempt a film career. But as I walked out of this horrible movie, I got to thinking about the way pro wrestling works — the way the “good guys” and “bad guys” are crafted, how the fights are choreographed, how everything is staged. A few days later, I picked up a pen and wrote the first lines of what would eventually become my novel, Other People’s Heroes. So even without using the false bravado I popped into the last paragraph, I feel confidant in saying that history will record OPH as being the only positive thing to come out of that movie.
Sometimes an idea needs to percolate for a while. When I was in college, my dorm room was about the size and shape of a shoebox. One corner of this microscopic room was walled off to serve as a broom closet. As I lay in my bunk one day, I glanced over at the closet. Suddenly, I had this horrible image of a strange little man holding an icepick hiding in the closet. The idea freaked me out, and I soon had a concept built up around this little man, who he was, and what he did. The idea became a short story, “A Campfire Tale,” but I didn’t feel like I was done with it. Flash-forward several years. I was driving to rehearsal for a play I was in (Pygmalion — I WAS Col. Pickering) and listening to the soundtrack album for a movie I just saw. It doesn’t matter which movie. No, it doesn’t Stop — oh all right, it was Josie and the Pussycats, are you happy? It’s what we call a “guilty pleasure.” Shut up.
Ahem… anyway, I was driving to rehearsal and I thought about what it would be like if a small-town writer got a chance to make a movie with a big-name actress. It was an interesting idea, but it was just an idea. As one of my favorite podcast writers, Mur Lafferty, points out, ideas are cheap. She actually maintains a blog where she just gives away an idea every day to anyone who wants it. The trick is using the idea. Or, perhaps more accurately, coming up with a plot that fits the idea. Somehow, as I thought about this story-deficient idea, I was reminded of that little man hiding in my dorm room closet. What if he showed up on the set of this movie? Suddenly I had a story. The result wasThe Beginner.
Some ideas stick with me for years without being used, and when they finally spark something, the end result is nothing like the original idea. For years now, I’ve had this image in my head of a superhero “suiting up.” In my mind, the hero steps up to a wall with two holes in it. He reaches into the holes and grips something inside, then pulls his hands free quickly. As he does so, he causes a spark that makes the grips he pulled free ignite, and now he’s holding a pair of flaming swords. I think it’s a neat visual, but I have no story to accompany it, so I’ve never used it. Then one night, I thought about this image long and hard: who was this guy? What was his story? Who created him? By the time I finished, my image of this flaming sword-wielder had transformed into a story about a little boy who escapes into a superhero he created whenever he’s upset: Ryan and Radar, my comic book yarn from Futurius (and whose second appearance is in the works, just between you and me). The amazing thing: the fire-sword dude not only didn’t appear in the story, but he would be completely incompatible with the world Ryan had created. So that’s still an orphaned idea, looking for a home, even though he helped play midwife to one of my favorite little creations.
Sometimes the trick, guys, is to not be afraid to let your mind wander. Let it go where it wants to and see what turns up on the way.
One last thing for you: Summer Love. Where did that idea come from? Well, I can’t tell you without spoiling some pretty cool stuff coming up, but it was a combination of two things. First: I was reading a Stephen King novel (no, I won’t tell you which one) in which I thought the story was heading in a certain direction. Suddenly, ol’ SK threw me a curve ball and went somewhere else entirely. But that direction I thought he was taking stuck in my head. Then, amazingly, that idea began to click with a story I was teaching to my ninth-grade class. The two ideas fit together very well, and I had the skeleton of a story. (This is the point where, if I had fans as rabid as Stephen King, people would be swarming the Department of Louisiana website for the ninth-grade English comprehensive curriculum.) I started writing with just the skeleton, but before I was even finished with the first chapter, I had one of those greatest moments in a writer’s life: when suddenly I had to just grab a pen and write as the entire plot — along with lots of neat tidbits, details, clues and characters — just gushed out of my brain as if fully formed in the mind of Zeus himself. Bam. It was there. Everything I needed. Now I just needed to sit down and write.
That’s a great feeling.
I just hope it’s translating to a great story. You guys will get to be the judges of that.