Thursday, 13 August 2009


Continuing my series of little pointy points while I try to improve my time management skills and deal with book festival generated overload, here's one prompted by catdownunder's comment in which she reminded me painfully of that most hackneyed question that all authors get. A lot.

Pointy thought. "Where do you get your ideas from?" is the wrong question:

Listen, ideas are nothing special. Ideas are just thoughts. Everyone has them. All the time. You can't help it. Where do your thoughts come from? They come from your head, or from someone saying something, or you reading something or simply having an unexplained train of thought.

What's interesting and important - no, essential - is what the writer does with those thoughts. Shaping them into a story is the hard bit, the bit you have to learn and practise. And practise some more. And improve all the time. And sweat over.

People sometimes say to me, "Why don't you write a story about ...?" or "You should write a story about that." Well, yes, that's a thought. But it's not an idea until it's grown a lot, and in my head is where it grows. I nurture it with questions like "What if?" and "What would happen then?" and "How would it affect the story if that happened?" and "Who are the characters who will make this story grow into a full and fascinating shape?" and, crucially, "What problems am I storing for myself if I start down that particular ideas road?"

Because thinking of the idea is easy - shaping it into something that works as a piece of fiction is much much harder.

And you can do it in a formulaic way or you can do it in an original way. I can't do formulae - they bore me rigid, as reader and writer - but formulae can be very successful.

So, ask not where I get my ideas: ask how I turn them into stories that work. And for that I only have one answer: damned hard work.


catdownunder said...

Philosophy for cats 101: An idea is a thought which has grown. You have to live inside the idea before you can write it down.
(Not sure about humans but it works for cats.)

Helena Halme said...

A conversation in our house last night: Son, 22, 'Of course the woman who wrote Twilight (the book) stole the idea from her roommate.' Daughter (about to study English at uni and writer of short stories) spins around from the sink where she’s washing dishes (yes, this was a momentous evening). 'But she wrote the book!'

I had to support daughter and explain to the brilliant scientific brain that is my son that it's in the writing where all the work is done.

'I suppose,' son said and fled the kitchen. I was so proud of daughter. At the tender age of 18 she’s realised this utterly significant fact in a writer's life. Ideas are as you say just thoughts. It's making them work that matters.

Another great post, Jane. And yes, do tell, how do you manage your time?

Helena Halme said...

Nicola, I called you Jane! Sincere apologies, it was quite early in the morning for me.

Nicola Morgan said...

catdownunder - for a cat, or even for a human, you are deeply wise.

helena - hooray for your daughter! Many more people need to realise it. It seems so obvious to us as writers and deep readers, but your son's assumption is a common one and needs to be challenged, as it was, most effectively. AND your daughter was washing up - I bow to your mothering skills!

But Helena, much as Jane Smith is almost as clever as I am, I am still Nicola, not Jane ... At least last time I looked. Maybe I'm morphing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Aghh - my comment crossed with yours and you got your apology in first!! Well done!

Time management - I don't know. Panic? Probably I do a lot of work in my head during the night because i certainly don't feel as though i manage my time well during the day but it all seems to get done.

Catherine Hughes said...

I have a feeling that the pointy points are all pointing in one direction - hard graft!

When I first started writing my novels, it was as if working on the first one suddenly opened floodgates of ideas - I don't know if anyone has any notion as to why that should be - and I even found myself parking my second novel to finish a third one first because the idea completely overwhelmed me. My experience is that you are right - ideas are the easy part.

Moulding them into novels has been a labour of love - and hard labour at that! It's not just the creation of a fully fleshed-out story around a guiding idea, but also the need to make sure that loose ends are tied up; that the plot develops in an orderly fashion (anyone else have to catch themselves so as to avoid giving away too much too soon?); that all the grammar and puntuation mistakes have been sorted; that the sentences are constructed in the most wonderful way possible; that show is balanced by a bit of tell...

Perhaps if I had known just how hard it would be to translate an idea into a novel, I might have stuck to my short stories and poetry! As it is, I am now hooked on the process and couldn't stop if I tried.

But then, this wouldn't be the first time that I have found hard work addictive!

Book Maven said...

Hear, hear, Nicola. You are SO right.

But there is another side. The young man who thought that Meyer had "stolen the idea" from her roommate is not as wrong as it at first appears.

We are always being encouraged to come up with the famous USP - the unique selling point - for our book. And what is that if not "the idea" as the young man perceived it.

Certainly then comes the hard graft but if that USP is U enough (as Meyer's was then),it doesn't matter so much if the book is far from perfect, because people take the will for the deed.

Hence the success of the Dan Browns of this world."Will for the deed" is a great theory of mine to explain huge sales for bad books.

So, although I agree 100% with your post, I think many readers, those who ask where the ideas come from, probably, are so taken by the "idea" of a book, that that don't question how it has been carried out.

Sarah said...

I love this oh-so-pointy point!

idea questions do bug me. I thought my head would explode once when an anonymous commenter (on another blog) pointed out that query critiques are dangerous. Someone could steal your idea.

Oh. Good. Grief.

Ideas are the easy part.

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - 'fraid so! (About the hard graft.) But you won't regret it.

Bookmaven - I agree with your extra point. I like using the phrase "high concept book" to tackle the idea of a book with a high USP - the high concept idea is what sells the book to publisher and then to bookseller and then to reader, but it's (as you say) the writing of it that's the important bit. And, sadly, if it's high concept enough the writing becomers less important (though people will still notice.)

Sarah - yes, and one reason why lots of writers won't read unpubbed authors' work is that it does sometimes happen that they are accused of stealing the ideas.

If you haven't already, see my post on July 17th on Jane Smith's Anti-Plagiarism Day (can't find link without leaving this page ...)

Catherine Hughes said...

Already not regretting it, I have to say.

And thank you for not pointing out (ha ha) my rather funny not-so-deliberate mistake!

Sarah said...

Great post on the 17th!

I hadn't read it; I was on my way to Bosnia. It's kind of funny. Even though I didn't get on the internet much while I was there, it did occur to me that I was, for once, in the same time zone as you and your blog.

Random, I know...

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - I didn't notice, and in fact I had to go back and read it about 3 times before I found it! I don't think comment boxes are places to worry about typos. I make them al the tme ...

Catherine Hughes said...

Just call me a perfectionist!! It did make me laugh, though, when I spotted it.

Sally Zigmond said...

I've not got the wording right but this the gist of what Katie Price (aka Jordan) replied when asked whether she actually wrote her best-selling books:

I'm so very busy with all my other projects that someone else writes them out for me -- but the ideas are very much my own.

Bless or Grrrr. (Depending on your point of view.)

Julie Day said...

I never thought of it like that. True that ideas are thoughts, which in that case I get a lot of ideas. And yes, it is hard work putting those ideas or thoughts in to a story.

Elen Caldecott said...

And, of course, there is the idea that seems like the best idea anyone had ever. Then, six months of hard work later, it now looks like a tramp's dog's bum of an idea...

David Griffin said...

Hi Nicola, firstly I'd like to say how much I enjoy reading the threads on your - newly discovered – blog. They are most entertaining and instructive.

I won't bore you with my writing experience but enough to say that, after writing two novels (drat, sorry about that!) I've only just realised a fundamental key to creating ideas for writing.

Now that the penny's dropped, it seems so obvious i don't know why I didn't realise it years ago: character motives.

Characters within a novel are the primary source for all ideas: a character is created by the writer, then he/she "asks" what the motivations are.

This answers why they are like they are and why they do (or will do) erm, what they do. Interaction of well-developed characters should then create sparks; ideas seem to come from nowhere when your characters motivations are fully understood/created by the writer. Everything will grow from character interaction with motivation understood: pace, plot, scenes, etc

I don't know if you would agree with me here...

May I suggest a blog entry please? i'd be interested to read your advice/info, etc on the subject of pseudonyms.

Thank you!

Ebony McKenna. said...

I've been thinking about this some more - I think my ideas come from emotions.

I'll be reading about a situation, or be watching the news, and think about the emotions of the people involved. What makes them tick, what makes them choose the path they're on etc, what would it feel like to be in their shoes.

It doesn't always lead to a book, or even a short story, but with me at any rate, it comes back to 'how would I feel if . . .'

The answer is usually 'I feel very tired because this writing is hard work' but then I feel very happy when it all comes together.

BuffySquirrel said...

I'm blanking on Twilight's USP--no sex?