Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Read, Watch, Listen: Where Ideas are Born

Right now I’m getting close to that gulf in between manuscripts: I’m just about done with edits on my most recent manuscript, and I’m getting close to thinking about my next one. It’s exciting, because I love starting new projects (the research! the outlining! bestill my book-nerd heart…), and at the same time a little terrifying.

Writers often say the number one question they get is “Where do you get your ideas?” (for me it’s “How do you not just watch TV all day?”), and right now my answer is “Yeah, where do I get my ideas?”

I was lucky on my latest manuscript. I can distinctly remember making dinner (I’m fairly certain it was brinner*), and this idea popped into my head.

“Wow, that’s cool,” I thought, but I put it aside because I’d already started researching what I thought would be my next book.

The next morning in my daily email to the then-fiance, I wrote out a faux-query for it and said something like “It’s fun, but I don’t think I’ll do anything with it.”

Then it got into my brain, and I started to imagine characters, scenarios, plot twists. And that was it, the idea had me.

But I realize that flash of inspiration doesn’t always happen so organically, and sometimes you have to go idea-hunting.

My best advice (or at least the advice I’m following…) is READ, WATCH, LISTEN.

This means READ great books, not so great books, books in the genre in which you write, books in completely different genres, bus ads, backs of cereal boxes, receipts, recipes. Surround yourself with words, build up stories in your brain. Ask yourself what if and what next.

WATCH movies, TV shows, plays, dance, your neighbors across the street, your local dog park. I’m a great believer in television, that good writing is good writing no matter what the medium. And even bad writing can be good to watch. Be an observer. Study faces and touches and how much can come from one subtle movement.

And LISTEN: to interviews, speeches, radio plays, conversations, music. There’s a different sort of intimacy when you’re hearing something pipe right into your eardrums, like you’re the only attendee at a private concert or you’re at the table with Terri Gross.** Close your eyes and live in your imagination.

Somewhere in that jumble of creativity, patterns will form, thoughts will jump out. You’ll hear or read or see something that will make you think of something else. You’ll be making brinner with your mind completely blank and then this fully-formed idea will just jump into your brain.

You can’t create in a vacuum, no one can. So when you find yourself starved for ideas, remember: READ, WATCH, LISTEN.

Where are some places you go to get your ideas?

**whut whut NPR


  1. Great advice! I also do a lot of reading, watching and listening. It gets your mind going in different directions. Usually my ideas are just random. A scene will just pop in my head and then I write. The complete story comes out over time but the initial idea is like a spark.

  2. I agree. It can be tough though when that spark just ain't coming. I usually trust the "spark" ideas more than the "sitting in front of a notebook pounding my head trying to come up with something" ideas, but I'm learning to appreciate both.