The one question most writers seem to hate is also the one question I often want answered by my peers: “Where do you get your ideas?”
I’m interested in the answer not because I want to learn some magic formula for coming up with story ideas, but because I want to marvel at some bit of inspiration that hadn’t occurred to me. In short, I am a devoted fan of inspiration, and I like to hear how it happened.
But here’s the thing. The ideas don’t really matter.
As Neil Gaiman explains:
The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.
Of course, most stories don’t happen until you get the idea for it, until you get the concept. Neil goes on to say:
You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
And that’s the important part, the part that matters. Writers “notice when we’re doing it.”
Writers are driven by our need to produce. This need is visceral. If we’re not putting down the words, then we feel…bereft, lost, useless…which makes our ability to “notice when we’re doing it” a survival skill.
Writers need to notice our daydreams and ideas because we need fodder for our next story. We’re constantly seeking out (or waiting for) the next idea, and so when it appears (usually out of nowhere), it’s crucial that we get it down. That’s why some writers are never without their little notepad and why others carry around a mini voice-recorder.
But even still, what does a concept feel like, look like, sound like? In the cacophony of the writer’s mind, what makes one idea more distinctive than another?
The truthful answer to that question is “nothing,” because it’s absolutely true that the ideas don’t really matter. What matters is sitting down and putting one word after another.
Think about it: how is a writer supposed to judge the inherent worth between “A boy goes to a magic school” and “A girl steps through the looking glass”? You can’t. Without pursuing the story that comes out of those concepts, you can’t judge one concept against another. After all, is there something inherently wrong about “A terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a powerful cyborg with submerged memories that haunt him,” or “A vengeful father escapes from hell to get the men who killed his daughter“? Of course not! Taken in the right direction, those ideas are just as creatively rich as “Two people go about their separate business, crossing paths with a gallery of indelible Dubliners.“
A concept doesn’t make your writing great. The execution does.
As a writer, it’s your job to turn concepts into stories and ideas into characters. Because you’re not “an idea man.” You’re a writer. And writers write.