11 January 2013 - 6:41 pm

The confluence of ideas

Or, where do you get your ideas from?

Go to any convention or talk with creative people on the panel and someone will ask that question. The panellists will smile or maybe even roll their eyes, because it’s a common and difficult thing to answer.

It seems as if it should be so simple, as if there’s a single, consistent answer. The truth is that inspiration is a vaporous beast, one who lives in the cracks of the world around us. Usually all we get is a wisp; occasionally it emerges, fully-formed and demanding, but those creatures are rare.

The truth is, stories are never created from just one idea (this might be true for short stories, which are focussed on a single idea, but not for longer work): it takes several to make a full, rich tale, whatever genre you’re writing in.

In a recent discussion with a writer-friend, Nick, I described ideas as “like spider-webs, and you have a tiny, tiny flashlight with which to discover them.” We shine light on one piece at a time, and it can be difficult to see the whole picture.

So what are these pieces? What are these wisps of inspiration? They could be anything. It could be an image, or a particular situation or scene that has caught my attention. It could be a turn of phrase that sparks something. It could be a character, or maybe just a particular part of one. It could be something done so badly that I think of a hundred ways to do it right. It could be a single fact spun out to the extent of logic to see where it takes me. It could be someone else’s story. It could be the way that dust motes are caught in a beam of sunlight. It could be the gap in another plot that is begging to be filled in. It could be the sound of a name on someone’s tongue. The patterns the birds make in the sky or the colour of a sunset that just doesn’t seem real.


Once I catch the scent of that wisp, it’s time to try to bottle it. But how do you capture something like that? First, you need something big enough to grab hold of.

That’s when the ‘what if’ games begin. Asking endless questions, rolling possibilities around like a bowl of chicken bones, to see what future or past they might tell. I spin and tease and wheedle to see if I can take a single spark and make a flame out of it.

Sometimes, it works. It can be that straight-forward. From a single wisp of smoke, I can draw out a whole story, complete with cast and characters, just by asking questions. By being curious, I discover everything I need to know.

Starwalker was like that. I had a single, strong idea: a ship’s log as told by the ship. Then I asked myself questions. Who is this ship? Why is she different or interesting enough to write about? I knew I wanted her to be part human, but why is this unusual? How did she come to be? What is her mission? Who are her crew? What kinds of battles can she face? What is the main challenge that she needs to face and overcome? From there, the background, characters, and plot emerged.

Most of the time, it’s not that easy. A single idea isn’t enough to build an entire story around.

A writer at a talk I went to once said it best. Sadly, I can’t remember the who the writer was, but the message remains true: sometimes you’ll get an idea long before it’s time to use it. It’s good but it’s not complete. So you file it away, tuck it into a drawer and let it sit. Later, you’ll get another idea. It could be weeks or months or years, but there it will be. It will click with the first one and fill in the gaps, and suddenly you’ve got a story.

I’ve had this happen. Even with Starwalker; that single idea gobbled up a few facets that had been hanging around in my mental filing system for a while. I knew I wanted to write about a serial monogamist, and that became the captain. Elliott took on elements of Harper from Andromeda (among other sources). Kess is a character that I have been writing for over a decade, in many different forms and iterations; this is the first time she has fit into a much larger story. Scraps of ideas from many sources merged into the whole.

With Tales from the Screw Loose, a story I’m still in the process of teasing out of inspiration and into a plan, it has been much more bottom-up. I had the initial idea some months ago: a robot brothel, told from the perspective of the mechanic responsible for the whores’ maintenance. I have a few choice scenes already mapped out in my head. The mechanic is a character that I’ve been toying with for a few years but haven’t found a place to make hers until now.

But that’s all I had to start with: a main character and the place she works. Ideas from several sources but not enough to make a story. There was still a lot missing.

A few months after that initial idea-gathering, another element fell into place when I got to thinking about tidally-locked planets. (Tidally-locked planets do not rotate: one side is permanently turned towards the sun, so there is a dark side and a light side. Our moon is the same, except that it always has the same side facing Earth, so the light-based implications are not the same.) From this, a whole wealth of ideas sprung. The implications of living on the dark side of the planet, even the impacts of perpetual daylight, are interesting to me. Putting a city on the terminus between night and day and placing the brothel smack in the middle was just too perfect to resist. Symbolism, imagery and metaphor all rolled in with delicious simplicity.

It meant that the story definitely couldn’t be on Earth, and that slid the story into one of the colonies in the Starwalker universe. I now have a solid basis to build from and the freedom to build a new colony planet (the Starwalker story hasn’t visited this particular colony).

It is taking shape but it’s not ready to write yet. I’m still missing a few elements that I don’t want to push forward without: namely, the details of the supporting cast, and the central conflict that my poor protagonist has to battle. I’m missing a driving plot. I may be planning to serialise this story, but I can’t write it without a central purpose or a goal to aim for (others may be able to do this, but it’s not for me).

I could force it. I could sit down and try to map out a plot, but that seldom works for me without that initial conflict in mind. The forced nature of it shows and honestly, it’s much less fun to write. They organic development of ideas makes for better stories and that shouldn’t be rushed. Sometimes the idea is knotty and requires a lot of untangling before I can write – and I’m not afraid of putting the work in – but it’s hard to do that without the idea in the first place.

So I’m still waiting for that wisp of inspiration to show itself for Screw Loose. Waiting for that last piece to snap into place. It could be months before I figure out what that piece is, or I might come across the spark for it tomorrow. When it does, I’ll have a complete entity in my head that is ready to write.

(Complete doesn’t mean fully planned-out – I don’t work that way. It just means I have all the elements I need to start writing.)

And then the words start flowing.

So what does this all mean? It means that searching for ideas is something that never stops. It means that even though you have the best idea in the world, it might not be enough to make the best story on its own. Sometimes you’ll take three mediocre ideas and make something fantastic. Sometimes it will take a dozen different elements. Sometimes it will be months or years before that perfect lynchpin for your story appears.

Never throw away an idea. Inspiration is never wasted unless you discard it. Makes notes in your mental filing cabinet, or a notebook, or a scrapbook, or on a pinboard, or on post-it notes stuck around your bed. Keep even the smallest glimmer of an idea, the barest wisp of inspiration, because you never know how you might use it one day.

And then you get to make it awesome.

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  1. Francisco says:

    I had a similar process for a project I’m working on:

    Originally, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do if I could travel in time. I had several scenarios but one that I kept on planning for and, yes, “planning” is the right word. I thought about the problems that such a journey would cause and came up with solutions to them.

    Somebody posted a new thread in a forum that I read. The poster invited people to reply with short stories that parodied the romance genre. I took my favourite time travel scenario, gave it a couple of twists, and replied.

    However, something about that story nagged at me and I realised that the story could actually work. I would have to change the nature of the characters but the idea was something I can work with. I’ve been working on that story ever since.

    January 12th, 2013 at 5:18 am

  2. Miranda Was Here · Yoink! Mine says:

    […] number of my writer friends – on Unserious-Fiction, The Genre Salmon, and Adventures in Text – have written on the subject of inspiration, and attempt to answer the big question often […]

    January 12th, 2013 at 11:20 am

  3. Mel says:

    I love how they do that, Francisco. The way the smallest thing can move in and take over, and before you know it, it has spawned into something entirely different and exciting. 🙂 Good luck with your story!

    January 12th, 2013 at 12:03 pm

  4. Francisco says:

    Thank you very much.

    January 12th, 2013 at 4:12 pm