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.
"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?"
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.
- Be totally inspired by it - because you're going to have to live, breathe and dream it for months.
- 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.
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.
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!