By Russel D McLean
One of the most common questions writers are asked when they attend events is “where do you get your ideas from?” Oh, sure, some people try and dress the question up, but more often than not it’s the same question with fancier words.
And most writers I know hate answering it.
It’s one of those questions that you wind up not thinking about when you’re in the process of writing or of searching for the next novel. It’s like asking how someone knows when to breathe. It’s a combination of circumstances that leads to something else. In retrospect, perhaps, a writer can claim to “have had idea x at moment y” but in truth, that realisation comes too long after the fact for it to matter and they rarely can say why those two moments intersected in the way they did.
When people ask the question, of course, it is not to deliberately flummox writers. It is a genuine inquiry, an attempt to understand the unique alchemy of the creative mind.
The problem is that the creative mind often does not know why it is creative. Which is why there remains a gap between the creative and the critical. In a recent interview with the author Iain McEwan, Mr McEwan pointed out that, for his A-Levels, his son had to study the novel Enduring Love, one of McEwan Sr’s more famous novels. The son, of course, got low marks because his father gave him a few pointers. "I think quite wrongly. His tutor thought the stalker carried the authorial moral centre. Whereas I thought he was a complete madman.” Which plainly shows the gap that occurs between author and reader, between intent and actuality.
Of course, I’m drifting here from my intent, which was to talk about the moment of The Idea, not the gap between author and reader/critic, which is a whole other post for a whole other philosophically inclined day. But be warned that I can’t tell you how to find The Idea, I can only describe the moments in which it happens, the idea that a confluence of events spark something in my brain.
Often its just a moment of conversation; an overheard nugget or a moment that passes in front of my eyes. It sticks in my brain, starts to twist. If you want to write, I think you have to be the kind of who used to play “consequences” and could see the connection between the unconnected things that people would write on that folded piece of paper.
Pedro Paul – one of my favourite of the early short stories, and published in the great anthology EXPLETIVE DELETED – came about because of an overheard conversation; two old women concerned about “aw they pedrophiles on the news”. The phrase wouldn’t leave me alone, and I started to wonder about how they saw these “pedrophiles”, if they really understood what they were and, if they didn’t, then what that might mean. The story that emerged – one of horrific misunderstanding – is one of the darkest of the shorts to be published, and one that I remain hugely proud of to this day.
I’ve talked enough about the ideas for both of the published novels, but its strange how one thing can change the direction a narrative takes. THE LOST SISTER was struggling, trying to find its way as a narrative, and I realised it was because we were missing a truly unnerving protagonist. Then someone said to me, “You should write a character who’s a psychopathic version of Actor X”. Oddly, it was precisely the push I needed. The first push of the character parodied Actor X’s known traits, but on subsequent drafts became more and more of its own thing before finally becoming one of the most unsettling characters I’ve had to write. Again, it was a confluence of circumstance that allowed me to create this character. It was not just “psychopathic verion of Actor X”, but that couple with so many other moments and the needs of the story that resulted in a fresh creation.
You cannot just look at writing and dissect it coldly. A novel or a short story or any piece of writing is the result of a countless number of tiny processes coming together in exactly the right way. In retrospect, perhaps, we can look back and say where idea Y came from, but we cannot coldly and calmly recreate that process time and time again. Which is part of the excitement of writing. If the creative process were merely a formula – and I know so many people wish it was – then everyone would be able to do it and do it well. Which is clearly – and thankfully – not the case. Put simply, every author gets their ideas from different places, all of which are unique to that individual. If you want to get “good ideas”, you need to get to know yourself and the way your mind works. Which is not an answer you want to hear maybe but its as close to the truth as I think I can get.
Or, you know, maybe I should just be like a few other writers I’ve heard, and gently joke that I pick up all my ideas from “Ideas R Us”.
Yes, the results are certainly the sum of countless tiny processes coming together. I think if there's some consistency to the tiny processes it usually makes for a better story.
I think you also showed in your Pedro Paul example that the idea usually starts with a question and writing the story or novel is how you try to find the answer.
But asking the question is the important part and I think it's perfectly fine if the story or the novel or whatever doesn't have the definitive answer.
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