…or how to turn your mind into an idea garden.
Aspiring writers and readers alike are curious about how published writers come up with such great ideas for novels, and it is a common cliché that writers are often asked where their ideas come from. The writer then proceeds to give a clever retort designed to get a laugh or a thoughtful reply that has little meaning to any but the writer. The reader takes the answer at face value and infers that the writer knows what he or she is doing and that this method of generating ideas is merely a reflection of that eccentric trait that all writers somehow possess. But do writers really have some secret password to unlock the encrypted file of unlimited brilliant ideas? And if such a password exists, how does an aspiring writer obtain it? Who is the gatekeeper of this hidden knowledge and what does it cost? Because once possessed, shouldn’t this treasure of information provide a fast track to publication nirvana?
What if there was no such secret password or file or universe of unclaimed ideas? What if ideas came from somewhere else? Where would you look? Let’s start with what happens rarely.
You awake from a particularly vivid dream that remains fresh in your mind’s eye. You have the wits to turn on a bedside lamp and jot down those memories as they fade away like mist before the sunlight. You have an image or a scene or a character or a setting scribbled in sleepy handwriting on a notepad. You go back to sleep and the dream is forgotten. In the morning, your scribbles resemble a doctor’s prescription and you sigh because you can’t read it. Now this method of idea generation does happen, Stephenie Meyer describes this very process when she got the idea for the first book in her mega-bestselling Twilight series.
I had the same experience with a short story I wrote and published in a small literary magazine nearly twenty years ago. It does happen. But dreams are unreliable and unpredictable and as fleeting as evaporating exhalations on a crisp winter’s day.
It is my perspective that most ideas are not happened upon, stolen, bought, or lucked into. Ideas are not some arcane bubble of creativity that exists to be tapped into by those with the proper command phrase or key. www.dictionary.com in its first definition defines idea as: “any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity.” Let me rewrite the definition for our purposes as follows: “any great novel idea exists in the mind of the writer as a result of mental activity.”
In this definition, I focus on these key words: mental and activity. If you compare an idea to a seed you find that they are tiny, dry, hard, nearly weightless, and don’t do much sitting in your hand. In fact, a seed, like an idea, will do nothing if it is just left to sit untended. You could toss this idea seed in a jar with the rest of your unused ideas and it will never do anything but take up a bit of space.
But if you plant this idea deep in the fertile soil of your mind and then water and nourish it you the idea seed will develop roots that will seek out the moisture of your memories and knowledge and will then begin to grow. What is the fertile soil of the mind? The nutrients you possess in the soil of your mind are the sum total of your life experience, learning, observations, impressions, and especially reading. Like I’ve said previously, if you don’t read you can’t write. All this data in your mind adds different but essential ingredients to your subconscious reserves of creativity and provide food for the idea seed to not only germinate, but to sprout.
After a short time, this process will provide you with an idea seedling. This seedling is fragile and delicate and could wither and die without further sustenance. That sustenance comes from passive light and food. Compare the light to your active and inactive thinking and pondering about the idea, providing illumination by giving the idea seedling regular if not daily attention. At this point, you begin to add food or fertilizer to enrich the soil with the specific needs of this idea seedling to help it grow into the desired fruit bearing tree. Different ideas have different needs just as do actual seeds. The fertilizer or additional nutrients comes from new and focused research related to your idea seedling. Visit the library, browse the bookstore, borrow from friends, or surf the web looking for more information to expand your idea and help your seedling grow larger and stronger with the goal of achieving full bloom.
Once the idea grows sufficiently, you will notice that it begins to become self-sustaining and needs less and less external water and nutrients. The roots of the idea have sunk deep in the soil of your mind and are absorbing what is needed to grow and develop. At this point, there is risk of neglect as idea tree begins to bear fruit.
Now is time to harvest. If this is not done, many ripened fruit will fall and rot on the ground, lost for use. Call these ideas for dialog, or a plot twist, or a unique description, or a way to express theme. This is where a writer should be working daily to reap the harvest of the fully formed idea tree. Harvesting the fruit of new ideas keeps the whole idea tree healthy and promotes additional growth. This should be sustained for the life of the project. Unlike a real tree, the growing and harvesting season can be extended until the idea tree has been converted into a finished novel.
Okay, so I took the metaphor a long way and some may think this is just a pile of stinky compost (sorry, couldn’t help it. I’m an occasional vegetable gardener and the metaphor takes a life of its own). However, this is the exact process I used with my current fantasy novel project. I’ll give you the short version of how it happened.
One of my new favorite fantasy authors wrote a trilogy with a particularly unique magic system. My mind was like a parched, hardpan desert floor and the water was life-giving for new ideas of my own. I developed a “seed” idea for a different, equally unique magic system and let that idea percolate.
At this point, it was just an idea for a magic system. Well, I combined it with an idea I had been co-developing for a short film script until it formed itself into characters, setting, magic, plot, and the hint of a theme. I then began formal research that lasted approximate five months. This was my “growing” season. By that time, the idea tree had grown into a fully developed world, characters, history, culture, geography, maps, economy, magic system, political structure and much more. It became time to harvest, once I noticed how burdened with fruit the limbs had become. I began writing the first draft in December 2009 and my growing season is still producing harvestable fruit with the maintenance activities I perform with constant focused thought and occasional new research to fine tune my understanding of the world I’ve created.
So, what does this concept of idea farming have to do with where ideas come from? Ideas don’t really need to come from anywhere because ideas are everywhere like seeds are everywhere. There is no limit to ideas. But these ideas will do nothing unless the writer invests time and energy to see if it will grow and ultimately bear the fruit of a story or novel. The better the writer gets at this process, the bigger and healthier the idea tree and the more appealing the fruit becomes, in whatever format it is delivered, to an audience. And over time, the writer will find it easier to plant, nurture and harvest from ideas seeds in the future.
So we writers should focus not on where ideas come from but on the most effective way to grow ideas into the story or novel we envision. An idea seed is just the potential for a great novel; it will take significant labor to realize that potential.
Until next week…