There are probably a thousand stories about what Neil Gaiman calls, “The question that all authors hate.” But his many be the funniest.
“Writers are awful to people who ask us where we get our ideas from,” Gaiman says. “The reason we do that is because we don’t really know, and we’re terrified that the ideas will go away.”
This quote comes from a Q&A with Neil Gaiman that all writers, beginner and seasoned, should watch. (I’ve included it as this week’s video – just scroll down to the bottom of this post…)
I’ve witnessed this exact question being asked several times. Most writers are patient with it. But others… Neil Gaiman is only slightly exaggerating. The question can lead to mocking, eye-rolling, snorts of derision, and open hostility towards the person asking the question. I don’t really understand why... What I do get though is why budding writers ask that question. Before I knew what rage and discomfort this question caused, it was a question I used to ask.
I should clarify: I already knew where my ideas came from – or at least roughly. Stephen King once said that he could pinpoint where his ideas came from about half the time. This tracks in my experience... But I asked the question because I’ve found it helpful to get insights into other writers’ processes. The problem is, I was asking the wrong question. I shouldn’t have asked where do you get your ideas, but how do you get your ideas.
I’m not sure this subtle re-wording will stem the flow of wrath and rage at the next author Q&A you attend, but it’s an important difference we should explore within ourselves at the very least.
Asking the Right Questions for Yourself
Asking where the ideas come isn’t the right question because as we’ve seen above, often writers have no clue. Think about where your own ideas come from. Can you pinpoint exactly how you got this one or this one or that one? Likely sometimes, but probably not all the time.
It’s no different for any of the authors you read.
But asking how you get your ideas digs into something that we can all relate to and foster: the creative process.
Stephen King also said that our job as writers isn’t to find ideas but to recognize them when they come along. I envision it as sitting by a river and finding a glass of water float by – without the glass. All these ideas tumble out from our daydreaming, from a confluence of ideas, from a sudden realization about a question you’ve been thinking about.
Of course, most of these glassless glasses of water are of no use, and they just float on by. Some have potential, though. Some even grab us and won’t let go. Those are the ideas that can’t be ignored.
But what happens if there are no ideas floating by at all?
Kickstart Your Own Inspiration
Gaiman surmises that a big part of finding ideas comes from daydreaming. I don’t disagree. All of my story ideas have come from some form of a spark – an idea for a storyline or a type of character or a setting – followed by a what-if. We casually explore what-ifs as we’re standing in line at the grocery store or ponder the serendipitous conflations of two seemingly different ideas that collide one day in our lives while stopped at a red light. But here’s the problem: we don’t always get that spark. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a grocery line is just a grocery line. If you’re the type who waits for inspiration to strike, you could be waiting in that grocery line a long time!
It will come as no surprise to you long-time readers that I’m not a big “let’s wait for inspiration” kind of guy.
In other words, you have to make your own inspiration. That sounds difficult, but it really isn’t. You might look at it as “inviting the muses in” as many writers (like me) do. You might look at it as getting into the right creative or writing mindset (also me sometimes). But here’s the thing – if you go hunting for inspiration with a butterfly net, you’ll have way more success than waiting for a butterfly to alight upon you.
We’ve talked about many of those ways to spark your own inspiration already:
Create a writing schedule (What’s Your $10 Million Cheque?)
Create a writing ritual (Mightier Than the Sword)
Don’t think; just write (Writing with a Mighty Yawp)
Revel in the fact that you are just throwing down words (The Lump of Clay)
Write with wild abandon (What Does “To Write with Wild Abandon” Mean?)
The cumulative effect is that you’ll start pouring ideas out onto the page. These won’t be “good” ideas all the time. In fact, most will likely be the glassless glasses of water that float on by. But every once in a while, a really great idea will float by in the river. And then, we just have to scoop it out. So although we don’t know where that glass of water came from specifically, we will recognize it when we see it.
So, to sum up, to get ideas and spark inspiration, we can:
Just start writing with wild abandon to get that river of ideas flowing
Watch for the glasses of water as they float by
Snatch the glass of water from the river and build on that great idea, whether it be a short story, poem, article, novel, or anything else we want to write
Key Takeaway: We should ask how writers get their ideas, not where those ideas come from. The where isn’t useful. But the how can be, if we are stuck ourselves. Find out the tricks of other writers to get the creative river flowing.
Don’t forget to scroll down to see Neil Gaiman’s Q&A video – you’ll get a laugh at the very least.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
Mine often come to me right when I am trying to sleep. I meditate everyday before I sleep to calm the brain and that's usually when characters will start telling me their stories. When I don't want them. I used to jot these idea's down right away but these days I just mentally tell my brain to file them away and I"ll do something wit them in the morning. Works a treat.
Subtle but an important shift on how to frame this question. Right after I read your blog I walked to my Aquafit class, the image of my cat looking forlorn as I exited the house. Throughout the walk to the pool I *wrote* a piece in my head about our relationship. I often get my ideas while walking, snowshoeing, hiking. That's one of the reasons why I never listen to music when engaging in these activities.