Ask the Editors | Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Where do you get your ideas? How do you know it’s an idea worth writing about?


Last week, I had the pleasure and honor of working with a fantastic group of young writers at the The University of Iowa’s IWP Between the Lines program, as well as my fabulously talented group at Hopkins, and the question came up in both workshops, about ideas and finding ideas to write and how to know if the idea you’ve come up with is worth spending days, weeks, months, or years writing?

This is really more of a writer question than an editor question, and so I thought to pick another question this week, but then, I thought better of it. One of the beautiful facets of indie presses is they are generally run and edited by writers, writerly people, artists at heart, as opposed to commercially-minded editors, and so the question as to writing is not only appropriate but interesting, I think. Everyone has a “Where do you get your ideas?” line and answer. Right? Might as well have at it.

So how do you know if an idea is worth spending so much time on? Well, the truth is, you don’t. At least I don’t. I’m never sure of anything. I am constantly fighting with myself and am certain I’m never writing anything worth a damn. I search for the necessity of the story and hope it reveals itself along the way, if I’m lucky. We’re all there, really, right? I often go back to Flannery O’Connor and her organics of structure and the concept of story revealing itself to the writer. But sometimes, it is true, you fall in love with an idea early on and it happens to work. It could be a gorgeous idea or an ugly idea or something that will lurk beneath your bed idea for years as you write it, but it’s such a part of you and your craft, once conceived, that to abandon it would be heresy.

I tend to write heresy. It’s true. Where some people may have cute little cherub children inside, I have a goth girl with shotgun  and whip and a copy of Blood Meridian and probably a whoopee cushion, too. I don’t mind spending time with concepts some people wouldn’t care to digest for days, weeks, months, years, but if you know that about me, and/or about yourself, then we can go forward. If you prefer a lighter aesthetic, then take the following in relativity.

When I’m looking for ideas I go to words from whom I’ve been fortunate to study. I had some amazing instructors and mentors in program. Alice McDermott, more than once, gave this advice. “Follow the fun” then she sent me to a bookstore for Alice Munro collections, and I came back with every collection the store had, which was about six, I think. I’ve been following fun and Alice Munro ever since. I should qualify. For me the fun might be quite a bit darker than for someone else. For me the fun is in the analyses of the dark and the darkly comedic, which isn’t always “fun” in a proverbial sense, though, it is certainly fun in an intellectual sense.

Another instructor, Richard Peabody, encouraged me to write full out. Don’t hold back. Nothing out of bounds. Then he gave me a stack of books that taught me just how mild-mannered I was and how much I had to learn about full out bad ass writing, and I’ve never been the same since. Now, with these impossible standards, Alice Munro, bad ass writers like Eurydice and Ackers, I simply try to fail as best I can. I’ve already lost. It’s not a competition and so the fun is in the process of it, not the product. With that said, writing months of trashcan material is as necessary and helpful to me as the five pages of published. I write the ideas that don’t do much and I write the ones that seem to do more. I file them away.

So specifics: I generally take a kernel of what I know, a bad moment, an experience. Something that really makes me cringe at life. Then I take something that makes me cringe at myself. Something I’m not proud of. Something that would, as Hemingway said, open a vein and bleed me out on the page. I try to let the bad and the cringe marinate a bit, weave into each other. If they amalgamate, sometimes they don’t, but if they do, I start considering the different facets. Often the easier facets of the dark, cringe moments are serious and analytical, right? So I strive to see the situation or scene from another perspective. If I can see the dark, cringe moment from some humorous place, then I can probably be assured the marination has two things…

1. Some dramatic depth and possibility.

2. Some level of objectification.

Until I can separate myself from these moments of experience, either observed or personal, enough to see them from an objective perspective, an opposites aesthetic — horrific vs. humorous, debilitating vs. encouraging, — I’m probably not far enough from the subject to write it from a craft perspective versus a personal perspective, and so it’s not a story yet, it’s simply an experience observed or personal. I’m too close to it still. But once that objectivity takes over, the fiction and details and story unfold faster than I can record it, and it’s no longer my story, it’s the characters’ story. And the ideas I had have no relation to the story at all. And I’m no longer in control of the story, I’m simply writing it. This is the gotcha moment for me. And essentially, I didn’t conceive of it at all. It grew organically from several entities all marinating together. So, I guess the answer to where do I get my ideas is I don’t get them. They grow and I hope I’m in the right place and frame of mind to accept them when they present themselves.

Or maybe I’m just full of it. Maybe I pick them off a tree.

The editor in me says, I don’t care where you get your ideas. I only care that they mean everything to you as you write them. I want to read stories written into wee hours of the morning because they were so necessary and ripe and screaming for attention.

Now, quid pro quo: How do you come up with your ideas?


The Editors

11 Replies to “Ask the Editors | Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

  1. I pay someone. I think he’s based in India, and he says that he’s generated ideas for James Patterson, as well as many others. I found him on craigslist, so it’s completely legit, and on the up and up.

    1. Yes. That’s the way to do it. I’m following your lead, Brian, but I’m afraid my story-daddy or mama would have to come from a far cheaper source, but I’m holding out hope. There’s a few guys and gals who hang out on the corner. Bet they’d do it for a five-spot.

      1. I hear folks on the corner do way more fun things for a five-spot than generate story ideas.

  2. My ideas come from everywhere, but I’m still working on what you call writing full out. At the risk of looking like a total kiss-ass, your book THE INDEFINITE STATE OF IMAGINARY MORALS gave me permission to begin writing honestly about stuff that might be considered weird or impolite or a bit naughty. Not writing for shock value, but writing something because is real and true and not being afraid to write it because of expectations placed on me because of gender.

    1. Shelby, I don’t know if there is a more beautiful compliment you can give an author than what you just did. If ISIM provided a sense of writing full out for you, I feel I’ve done something good and worthy. Thank you for this. You have given me a gift, by letting me know this, and I can’t tell you how much it means to me. And, yes, keep writing full out and bad ass! Weird, impolite, naughty… I go to literature to have the intellectual discussions and discourse I can’t have in polite company. Yes!

  3. Mine come from dreams and snatches of conversations that I overhear. They also come when I’m reading a story and I think “What if my character were in a similar situation, but she made a different choice? An unpleasant choice?”

    I’m going to write “follow the fun” on an index card, and tape it to my writing desk!

    1. Yes. Tape it to your desk. Tape it everywhere. So easy to forget that piece of it sometimes.

  4. Looking for story ideas? Rae Bryant goes into specifics about her creative process and what works for her, and when combined with Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, her creative process can be used by an aspiring writer to turn an idea into a story.

    “So specifics: I generally take a kernel of what I know, a bad moment, an experience. Something that really makes me cringe at life. Then I take something that makes me cringe at myself. Something I’m not proud of. Something that would, as Hemingway said, open a vein and bleed me out on the page.” – Rae Bryant

    An idea is essentially a theme waiting to be turned into a story or premise. And a premise, according to The Art of Dramatic Writing, is composed of three parts: character, conflict, and a goal. With that in mind, I think Rae’s process is an inventive and reliable method for creating ideas. You can take any bad moment, experience, kernel of knowledge, something cringe-worthy that makes you look inward, and explore on the page how the idea plays out by taking Egri’s thesis that every successful premise is a story about a character facing a conflict that keeps him from his goal and superimpose that onto an initial spark of creativity. Let’s say you have uncontrollable rage feelings about a specific emotion or injustice, such as gossip. Okay, take a character from your mind that intrigues you and who feels this way, give him a goal based on his sociological, psychological, physiological, and environmental factors, such as competing obligations and responsibilities, and put an obstacle, such as a gossiper out to destroy him, in his way. Watch the conflict play out, and your story will tell itself to you. This is one way, and I’m sure there are others, but one way that can turn a creative spark into a story.

  5. Does anyone else fall in and out of love with their stories? I find I am always passionately in love with my story or essay when I first write it and then I think it is awful (usually right before I read it in front of others). I tend to like it again eventually, but only after some positive feedback. Maybe it is because I am a young writer. Does anyone fall back in love with their stories after a time?

  6. Real life stories insistently top any offerings of the imagination. I’m thinking of a nice Jewish girl, remarried and 60ish who I first encountered in Abu Dis in the West Bank ages ago. She tells me she and her husband make pilgrimages from the Bronx to North Platte, Nebraska to visit old-timers who put together an amazing canteen during WWII that fed thousands of GIs passing through the railhead there on route to the war in Europe. Or how about an aging hydrogeologist waiting on a kidney transplant and frantically assembling all his notes from a distinguished career so the next generation will understand the resource of high elevation dyke-impounded water. Or a lovely man who–get ready for this, folks!–engineered a ringspot-resistant GMO papaya because he truly cared about Filipinos losing livelihoods in a tropical fruit industry where they excelled. Who has the gumption to tell that tale? It’s easy to give up on the little heroic stories in favor of trendy angst and edginess. Perhaps no good deed ever gets published.

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