Monday 10 May 2010


The most common question people ask writers is, "Where do you get your ideas?" For a long time I struggled with finding a helpful and polite answer to this question. (Before you say it: I know, I struggle to be polite at the best of times.) My instinct, depending on how crabbit I was feeling at the time, would either have been, "From my head, duh!" or, "Oh, I don't know, really - they just sort of come to me, ya know?"

It's not a stupid question, but it's a mystifying one for a writer. After all, an idea is just a thought and for writers and non-writers equally our thoughts come from all sorts of places but happen in our heads. So, for a writer as much as for a non-writer, a thought can be triggered by something you hear or read, or something that happens, or something that you found yourself thinking about for some reason. Sometimes you know what triggered it and sometimes you don't.

But I do now have an answer to the question and it goes to the heart of this blog post.

It's something that Brahms apparently said. Now, I heard this many years ago, so I'm not sure why I didn't think of using it to answer the "Where do you get your ideas" question. I even imagine that Brahms was actually answering that very question when he gave this answer, but what he said was (and I paraphrase because my German is nein-existent),
"The idea comes to me from outside of me - and is like a gift. I then take the idea and make it my own - that is where the skill lies."
And it very much is like that for writers. Having ideas is easy - everyone has ideas. And so often, and infuriatingly, non-writers say to writers, "Oh, you could write a book about that." No, not unless the idea can be turned into an appropriate story, because a story is not just "something interesting that happens". An idea is not a story any more than a seed is a tree.

So, where do I get my ideas from? Ideas come because I open my mind to them; I am greedy for them. Ideas are like seeds blown on the wind: they can land almost anywhere. And when a seed lands, which seems at first as though it might grow into a story, I have to process it, like watering it and nurturing it. It needs time and all the right conditions. If I fail to give it the right conditions, or if it turns out to have been a weak seed in the first place, then I will need to discard it and move onto to a more fruitful idea.

Because, importantly, not every idea is a book. And this is a very big mistake that some beginner writers make. They (and non-writers) might think, "Ooh, imagine a woman having surgery without anaesthetic in the early nineteenth century, and her young son hearing her screams and watching her die of blood-poisoning five days later. What would that do to his life?"

That's an idea. (In fact it's the idea that begins my second novel, Fleshmarket.) But it's not a story. A story needs fleshed out characters that you care about and can make your reader care about, each character with his or her own backstory and motivation; it needs a setting and a rich environment; it needs strands and a sub-plot or two; it needs direction and form and pace and a voice. It needs to have a point and a reason why a reader would spend money and time reading it.

When you have your idea, your seed of a possible story, you need to do two things with it:
  1. Be totally inspired by it - because you're going to have to live, breathe and dream it for months.
  2. Think it through, logically and skilfully, working out shape and direction and looking ahead to possible problems. Many writers will write the plan out, but not everyone does this. I don't, but I do spend many, many hours thinking things through, analysing what will work and what won't. I spend that time living the idea in my head, even if I haven't worked the plot out. If the idea is strong enough and the characters real and whole enough, then I know I can grow it into a full story - but part of that knowledge comes from experience. If you are a beginner gardener, you may find it harder to identify the healthy seed at the start. Beginner writers may find themselves spending too long nurturing a dud idea.
I'm going to say that again because it's perhaps the main point of this post: Beginner writers may find themselves spending too long nurturing a dud idea.
This blog post was triggered by an excellent piece over at Kidlit. Please go and read it. Now you might think, "Why do I need to read about writing for kids? I'm a fully-grown adult author." If you think that, I'm sorry to say that you betray an extreme ignorance of the writing process and its demands. Only in the details of age-pitching are there any differences between writing for any age group. We all work to the same standards - in fact, I'd argue that in many ways the standards you have to adhere to in children's writing are tougher. Anyway, in terms of ideas becoming fully-grown stories, what Mary at Kidlit has to say is utterly applicable.

So, my answer to the ideas question is now: "Getting ideas is easy: everyone does it. It's growing an idea into a story that takes time and skill and determination."

People also say that getting published is a combination of talent, luck and hard work. I'd go so far as to say that the only really lucky bit is the moment the idea comes - as Brahms says, like a gift - and everything else is the talent and hard work.

To illustrate something of what I've been saying about how ideas come and how writers process them, can I ask you to go over to Jane Smith's blog, where I relate the very lucky moment which sparked the idea for Wasted, my latest novel? Unfortunately, you can't put comments there any more because Jane is moving her blog over to a fab new website, so do come back and comment here. Please! It does illustrate how luckily an idea can come and how the idea sometimes needs a long, long time to grow. If I'd written the book when I first had the idea - before I was ever published - it would have been very different and I very much doubt it would be getting the reviews that Wasted is getting. That idea really did need nurturing and I don't think I could have done it all those years ago.

Luckily, I didn't!


Thomas Taylor said...

A great post as ever. And I'm glad you downplay the role of luck in getting published, since it's wheeled out all too often as a cover-all excuse. Stephanie Meyer wasn't lucky to get published so easily, she was just lucky to have had the right idea at the right time.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thomas - I utterly and hugely agree. There are elements of luck but they are not the elements that people think of. Having the skill in the first place is luck - or at least in the sense that we don't control it (tho our parents had some control, indirectly).

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Great post. Who was it who said 'don't go with your first idea, or your second - wait until the third one comes along'? I think they were talking about 'mini-ideas', ie for solving problems in a story you're already working on, rather than a widesscreen idea for a novel as a whole. But when I get an idea I find it does no harm to take hold of it, give it a good shake, and see what else it's hiding. To turn an idea into a fighting-fit novel takes a lot of work.

Thomas Taylor said...

I've just been over to Jane's blog. A fascinated post! It sounds like you have a glimpse into the workings of the universe and just couldn't let it go. If I lived in an English-speaking country I would go out and buy Wasted today. As it is, I'll have to wait...

Sarah Hilary said...

Excellent post, Nicola. It's interesting what you say about first having the idea for Wasted before you were equipped as a writer to grow it into a story. I am currently working on growing an idea I had three years ago, which I couldn't have written then. I wasn't conscious of it being in my mind all this time but it must have been because I'm finding character arcs and strands that have been in my head all this time, now coming forward to be included in the story.

A good friend of mine (and a great writer) also said something handy about idea. He said, 'There's no such thing as writer's block, only bad ideas.' If you find yourself unable to engage with or commit to an idea, if you'd rather be researching or cleaning the kitchen, maybe it's not a problem with your self-discipline but a sign that the idea is a dud. I'm not saying this is always true but it has been for me, until recently, so I'm throwing it into the debating pot.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I'm getting used to this question "where do you get your ideas from", and my answer is usually something like 'oh, ideas are everywhere, they keep pouring into my head.

And I also try and explain that everything has already been done, so ideas by themselves aren't any good, it's what you do with them.

Emma Darwin said...

Great post. Yes, 'Where do you get your ideas from?' is THE question that everyone asks, and I've never sorted out a coherent answer, so if I may I'll borrow Brahms.

One of the under-sung writerly skills I think you develop - more by intuition and experience than practice, perhaps - is recognising what kind of potential any idea has. Will it power a short story? Is it too big and raw-boned for that and needs a full novel to accommodate it when it's fully-fleshed. What kind of novel? Is it a poem? A photograph? A little piece of life-writing or a blog post? (One of the reasons I blog is to have somewhere to put small things that want to be written.) Non-writers are baffled because writers who work in many forms - Helen Dunmore is my prime example, as she's a poet as well as a miraculous novelist and short fictioneer - can often only say 'I just know'. But that is how it feels, at least some of the time.

And one can be wrong. I got all excited about a perfect short-story-sized idea, spend a day chewing hard on it, took it for a walk in the park and... realised halfway round the pond that it was a novel, it had to be a novel, and I wasn't going to be happy till I'd written it. So that was another on my TBWr pile.

Sally Zigmond said...

Goddammit, Ms Morgan. Why do I always agree with absolutely everything you say? (And then turn green because you express it so much better than I could.)

Theresa Milstein said...

You make an excellent point. A seed is not enough. Nonwriters don't understand how much has to be considered to make it a novel.

My Word Document folder is filled with abandoned beginnings. I wrote a good five or ten pages, but wasn't sure I wanted to commit to the rest of the story, the story hadn't come to me, or something made me stop.

If I get past page ten, I know I have a story to tell and the story takes over my life.

Emma Darwin said...

This point is relevant to plagiarism, too. I think it was Editorial Anonymous who made the point, a propos the latest people to sue J K Rowling, that the lay person has little idea how ten-a-penny ideas are, of themselves. Which is why non-writers assume that if one writer has - say - a wizarding school or a magical railway in their self-published novella, then anyone else who puts such a thing in a book MUST have borrowed the idea from them (however unlikely that is in practical reality).

Whereas, of course, we all know that anyone writing fantasy is going to come up with fantasy-equivalents of real-world things. It's not the idea, it's all in how it's done, and the law reflects that.

Nik Perring said...

Brilliant post, Nicola. I love what Brahms said - it's, well, true!

Anne Gallagher said...

Excellent post, thank you for sharing. Nurturing ideas takes talent and skill, and I hope I have them. We'll see.

Carolyn Rosewood said...

This really struck home with me. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I kiss you square on the lips, Nicola. So many queries come to me that appear to be, for a lack of better words, a bad idea. The plot is still a seedling and needs to be nurtured along until it's ready to plant itself into the literary dirt and spread roots.

Excellent post! The beagle salutes you. I just merely lust after your shoes.

Nicola Morgan said...

hello, all - nothing much to say except that since you agree with me, I agree with you, obvs. But saly, silly: you have a way with words that needs no self-effacement.


catdownunder said...

The late Colin Thiele when asked the same question by a child said,
"From you, from everyone else, by watching and, most importantly, by listening. It is a writer's job to see and to hear and then pass it on with feeling."
All I know is that it takes a long time for ideas to get that far!

Ebony McKenna. said...

Speaking of ideas, I'm making more headway with another WIP that I haven't been playing with for a while. Guess what? I've come to a section where the girl feels 'half this, half that and half something else, except that's three halves' and you had something almost the same in Wasted, except your book came out first.

So bugger it, I'm keeping it. But I didn't copy you, we just had the same joke floating about.

I think I might change the girl's name to Morgan, heheheheh.

Nancy Coffelt said...

I love this post. My problem, when someone asks me where I got the idea for a book is that sometimes by the end of a project - writing, then many rewrites, then many editor whipped, er, I mean DRIVEN revisions, my poor brain has no idea how I got into that particular mess.

Am I alone in this?

Elizabeth West said...

Thank you, Nicola. I have a TERRIFIC idea and have been struggling very hard with it. It's the kind of thing I know would be a breakout but I just can't seem to get it going. It doesn't want to come out and feels forced and like I'm not doing it justice.

I'm thinking I might have to let it go for now, and write it later, kind of like Stephen King did with Under the Dome, but I don't really want to wait that long, LOL!

Glynis Peters said...

Interesting post. I have not got a clue where the idea for my book came from. I am a poet and short story scribbler. I had no intentions of writing a novel.
I awoke one morning, jotted down some notes and away I went.

PS: Wasted is on its way to Cyprus! I ordered it via Book Depository, they deliver fast and free. My library of books by blogging friends is growing. :))

Anonymous said...

Your post on Jane's blog gave me shivers. Thanks for that.

Donna Gambale said...

I'm right at the stage where my idea is becoming a book, and it's a little bit terrifying, because it's in a genre I've never done before, and I don't know if I can shape it properly. But it won't let me go! So I'm thinking and thinking and thinking and hope that something takes hold that will get me started. Butt In Chair!

Melinda Szymanik said...

Love this post! As so often happens, your posts are pertinent to my current situation. Just working now on ensuring a strong idea transforms into a workable story before I get started on the writing. Thanks Nicola

diney said...

Having had 12 rejections from agents for my novel I am honest enough to put up my hands and say it wasn't a good enough idea, and nothing to do with luck. Now I need to stop spending so much time blogging as I'm procrastinating and should be getting my butt on the chair to start on my next workable idea.

Julia Johnston said...

Your paragraph starting, 'That's an idea' is brill-malill. I love the way you write - it makes a big lot of sense. Oh poo, I can't memember my poignant comment. Safe to say: you're an inspiration. There aint many of you about and that's for damn sure. Julia x

Nicola Morgan said...

julia - I like your style!! I like the idea of brill-malil!

diney and donna - I hope your butts are still there?

catdownunder - good explanation.

Ebony - I don't normally use the phrase LOL, but LOL!

Nancy - you are not alone. I should probably blog about that, if I can't think of anything helpful to say... If I haven't done it in the next couple of weeks, maybe nudge me?

Elizabeth - I rather suspect that once you stop trying so hard to make your idea find a story, the story might find you. So, I think follow your instincts and think about something else for a while. A brilliant idea deserves the right story, so give it time.

Glynis - thank you!

Lelinda - good luck!

writeidea - thank you!

Hope I haven't missed anyone?

Nishant said...

we all know that anyone writing fantasy is going to come up with fantasy-equivalents of real-world things. It's not the idea, it's all in how it's done, and the law reflects that.
PPC Advertising India