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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Flashwrite #8: Getting Great Ideas

Better views of the Mary Modern cover and my great-grandparents’ engagement portrait:


(The paperback edition includes an essay on how I came to write the novel.)

Check out my Ideas series from last year, part 1 in particular:

Ideas, part 1: Fill ‘er Up
Ideas, part 2: Keeping Organized
Ideas, part 3: Using Them

And as I wrote in Said and Unsaid, perfect strangers can unwittingly give you priceless bits of dialogue. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times!

Where do great story ideas come from? Now, this is always going to be a mysterious process to a great extent, because your subconscious mind is doing most of the heavy lifting here. But I think we can boil it down to two factors, and it will help if we focus on these two: curiosity and time. As a writer, you must be a master observer of human nature, and of nature in general. So you must develop an insatiable curiosity about the world around you. It’s absolutely essential.

Play the “what if?” game with yourself. That’s a very basic technique that you can use. I actually want to talk to you a little bit about how I used the “what if?” game, and how that worked out for me. I was working on what would become my first published novel, and I looked at this picture–this is the engagement portrait of my great-grandparents–and I played the “what if?” game. I said to myself, “What if Anna and I could sit down and have a cup of tea together, and have a conversation for an hour or so. What would we have to say to each other?” And this book is what came out of it–this is my first novel, it’s called Mary Modern, and it all came out of this picture. So you see the “what if?” game is pretty powerful stuff if you keep following the breadcrumb trail, as it were.

The next thing I have to say about curiosity is that art inspires art. Go to museums. Go out into the world. Find beautiful things–and maybe not-beautiful things!–things that interest you, things that fascinate you, things that make you enthusiastic about life, and write it down. As I said in Flashwrite #1, your journal should be your constant companion. Observe, record, ponder, and let it marinate. Give your subconscious mind lots and lots of good stuff to work with. This is filling up.

And this is where time comes in. You need to give your subconscious mind time to process everything. I’m thinking of an analogy here: if food is your observations, then your mind is the stove. So if you’re going to cook dinner, you just need to get your ingredients and put them in the pot, and let it simmer. It’s going to take time. Please don’t get upset if you haven’t come up with your one brilliant idea that’s going to set the world on fire. You may very well come up with that brilliant idea that’s going to set the world on fire, but you can’t rush the process. You have to go easy on yourself. Be gentle. Don’t feel like you have to rush, and come up with this great idea with your conscious mind, because it’s not going to happen with your conscious mind. This is such a subconscious process. Have fun with it. As I said, fun is everything. We wouldn’t do this if it weren’t fun.

Your suggested exercise: you’ve got your journal, right? Without leaving the room in which you’re watching this video, I want you to find an object somewhere in the room and play the “what if?” game with it. Think about where it came from, think about who made it. If it’s a picture on the wall, imagine a conversation. Think about the possibilities. Spend five or ten minutes writing in your journal. “What if such-and-such happened?” What if I met my great-grandmother for tea? What would we say to each other? It’s really, really fun. So enjoy the process.

* * *

Next week’s episode: telling a story that matters.

(All Flashwrite episodes here.)

3 Comments to Flashwrite #8: Getting Great Ideas

  1. ait.mzm's Gravatar ait.mzm
    November 26, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Yes! Being able to give a piece the time it needs to mellow out is one of the most difficult for writers to appreciate. Especially in this age when everything seems to be available in an instant.
    I love Sarah’s tweet, by the way.

  2. Camille's Gravatar Camille
    November 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    So true, Mieke! I have to wonder if we’re forgetting how to “marinate” in this age of “click to publish” and accessible everything now-now-now.

  3. crazyliberalkate's Gravatar crazyliberalkate
    December 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I love that: art inspires art! The spider sculpture that I was telling you about could definitely inspire a whole load of stories!
    Unfortunately, this hotel room is pretty sterile, so I’ll have to save the “what-if” game 😉

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.