Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
 
Now, before I venture out onto this limb, let me be very clear: If any of you have ever asked any writer this question, and others I'll touch on, do not feel embarrassed.  They are natural questions.  But writers are asked them so terribly often that we're all a little fatigued.  There are only so many ways one can answer the same question thousands of times.  

Yes.  Thousands.  

This essay was prompted by a young man who PM'd me earlier today to tell me he's always wanted to be a writer, but can't seem to write.  He can write a few scenes, or bits and pieces of scenes, but then gets stuck.  He asked if I could help him.

Well . . . no.  Beyond making a few generic suggestions,  there's not really anything authors can do.  Because they don't have the time to read everyone else's ideas, nor the time (nor desire) to take the hopeful step-by-step through the writing process, which would require hours/days/weeks/months.  That's what how-to books do, and conferences, and seminars, and classes, on-line or in person.  But writers can't just sit down and fire off lengthy replies to such questions when the material is already contained in the aforementioned how-to books.

I gave him some suggestions, which of course, as expected, led to more questions,  and I offered a few more recommendations.  But I also came to a realization:  I wrote my first novel FIFTY YEARS ago.  It's no wonder I can't remember how the process worked for me that first time!  I was 14, had a story to tell, and I told it.  I just--did it.  And received my first rejection slip.

Over the intervening 15 years between writing that first novel and selling my first novel, I read how-to books.  Some were extremely helpful.  I devoured writing magazines.  I learned a great deal, and I have no doubt much of what I read helped me to become published.   But it took me 15 years of reading those books and magazines, of taking classes--journalism, for one--and working as a reporter, an ad copywriter, to get there.  

There is no magic formula.  No author can say "Do it just like this," because no writer does it just like that.  We find our own way.  We figure out that: Hey, you know, 1st-person POV works great for this book, but not for that one.  We learn that we need only to scribble down a few important scenes as an outline; or that we must outline the entire novel chapter-by-chapter.  Some authors write the ending first.  Some move up and down the time-line.  It doesn't matter.

The only hard-and-fast rule in how to get it done is that there is no hard-and-fast rule.  And this is why authors have such a difficult time providing advice, and why sometimes "question fatigue" can even become mildly annoying.

It's a process.  It's organic.  What works for me may not work at all for the would-be author; it may, in fact, actually harm that person's process. 

People often ask if I've ever thought of dictating my work.  I've thought about the process involved in that, and I do not believe it would work for me.  Now, if I had to learn how to do it, I probably could, but so long as I have a choice, no.  My process is brain + hands + keys, and onto the screen.  (It used to be onto the paper.)   That's just the way it works for me.

But had I asked a published author how to get started, and he said "Dictate your work," and it crippled my thought process, I'd have no idea what was wrong.  Because it works for him, and he's published, so maybe I'm just stupid.  In fact, that would have been very bad advice for me.

I know it's frustrating.  We all want, and need, help.  I share great discussions about the writing process with all kinds of authors.  It's incredibly stimulating.  But we've all crawled through the trenches and figured out what works, what doesn't, and why we do what we do.  

I recently went through a major struggle with the urban fantasy.  My natural inclination was to write it 1st-person, male narrator, and then I got worried that he'd sound too much like Tiger.  Because in some ways he'd have to; I'm the creator.  So I elected to write it in 3rd-person, which I have done many times successfully.

And I kept hitting a wall.  It stopped me in my tracks.  Screwed with my head.  I was not happy with the book.  Finally, finally I decided I needed to listen to my gut and switch from 3rd to 1st.

The book came alive for me.  And I am having a grand time rewriting to convert from 3rd to 1st and am looking ahead to finishing it from the correct POV.  The gut just knows.  We must learn to listen to it.

This is why many authors are bad at giving advice, and are uncomfortable doing so.  I don't want to screw up someone else's ideas, or plot, or character.  I don't want to screw up the would-be author's voice.  

I spent 50 years finding my voice.  Yes, I've been published for 35 years this October, but I'm also still finding my voice.  And it fails me sometimes.

I get my ideas from the same place we all do:  imagination.   It's just that some of us are driven to tell tales, while others are driven to game, cosplay, or fly kites, or play sports, etc.  It's all in what the brain wants to do.  What it needs to do.  

My first two novels, written at 14 and 16,  were typical girl-and-her-horse YA books.  (I was a girl-with-a-horse.)  At 18 I wrote a western, because I loved reading them--plus, I had a horse and all the cowboy trappings.  I wrote a romantic suspense.  And a historical romance.   None of which were accepted for publication.

I did not attempt fantasy because I loved the genre so much I didn't want to screw it up.  But I read it voraciously, and then discovered some of the very best fantasy authors:  Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, CJ Cherryh, Katharine Kurtz, and others.  Well, they just weren't writing fast enough for my addiction, so I decided to write my someone els fantasy novel, dammit.

And in 1982, it was accepted by Betsy Wollheim of DAW books.

Ironically, the western, romantic suspense, and historical romance were later published, because editors are far more willing to take on a new author when someone else has given her a chance.

At any rate, authors shy away from pleas for help and support for reasons I've mentioned above, but for another as well: We write for a living.  We are jealous of our time.  If I spend days working on someone else's ideas, outline, and the bits and pieces that supposedly don't fit together, I'm not doing the job my publisher pays me to do.  I'm doing the work for someone else.  I'm also bringing to bear those 50 years of self-education and experience--for free.  When people here at Patreon are paying for my comments, essays, and snippets.

You just gotta get out there and slog your way through.  Read how-to books, magazines; take courses, classes; attend seminars, etc.  Do what every single published author has done.

It sounds harsh.  Unfair.  Unfeeling.  I understand why people think so.  Because the process can be extremely difficult, disappointing, and tedious, and it's natural to ask for help.  But it's the same process most of us go through.  It's what teaches us.

No shortcuts.  I wish there were.