So Minicon was last weekend, and in among seeing lots of friends (and managing to miss seeing far too many others) there was the usual crop of questions – what are you going to write next, where do you get your ideas, etc. Including one poor fellow who was convinced that he’d run out of ideas…at twenty-three, with six stories written.
The truth is that you’re not out of ideas until you’re dead, or maybe insane. Not really. What people mean when they say they’re “out of ideas” is one of three things: 1) For one reason or another, they don’t recognize what they’re getting as ideas, 2) The ideas they’re getting aren’t acceptable to them, or 3) They don’t know how to poke at their backbrain constructively.
#1 usually happens when people are used to getting whole stories, or at least large chunks of them, all at once. They don’t know how to take a character or a situation or a wispy hint of plot and develop it into a story, so they don’t recognize those things as ideas. They’re like someone who’s only ever gardened from mid-July to the first of September, when everything is in bloom; they’ve learned to pull weeds and make lovely flower arrangements, but not how to sprout seeds or thin seedlings, or how to tell the weeds that come up in May from the vegetables and flowers that are coming back at the same time. Usually, these folks figure things out pretty fast once they realize that there’s frequently more to the process than just taking dictation from one’s backbrain (much as we all love it when it works out that way).
#2 covers everything from “I can’t think of anything original!” to “But I don’t want to write a romance about space monkeys!” to “My mother will kill me if I write about X!” There are two basic approaches to these kinds of objections: go ahead and write it anyway, as a practice piece that will never be shown to anyone (suitable for the non-original and/or homicidal parent problems…and one can always change one’s mind about the “practice” part later), or poke at the unsatisfactory idea until it become satisfactory.
Which brings me to #3.
There are lots of ways to poke at your backbrain, whether the object is to develop an existing, inadequate idea or generate something totally new. The most obvious is brainstorming. You pick a topic - a random word from a dictionary, or something logical like “possible main characters,” or whatever you want. Then you set a timer for about ten minutes, and write down whatever comes to mind. The rules are: everything that comes up gets written down, no matter how stupid, crazy, or weird; and you have to keep writing all-out, full-steam-ahead until the timer goes off. Then you take each idea, one at a time, (all of them, or the “best” three, or whatever) and use them as topics, until something shows up that you don’t want to move on from when the timer goes off.
You can also use the three-random-things game, where you come up with three or four completely disparate things or actions or characters or events and try to come up with a plot connection among them: “tortellini with pesto sauce; an exceedingly ordinary middle-class American couple; an antique car; a terrorist threat to the Sydney Olympics” “a classical violinist; an avalanche; children playing ‘ring-around-the-rosie.”
If you’ve got a bunch of friends to help play, you give everybody an index card and ask them to write descriptions of two people/characters (one per card); an event (on another card); a plot-problem (on another card); an object (on another card) and so on. Then you collect the cards and shuffle them and lay them out. You can form them up in a sentence, if you want: “Hero is a (character card) whose problem with Villain (character card) is (plot-problem card). They clash at (event or location card); the problem is solved by (object card).” (Example: Hero is a classical violinist whose problem with the Villain, an eight-year-old computer genius, is stopping the Villain from taking over the Republic. They clash at a football game; the problem is solved by a banana.”) They usually do come out just about that silly, if you do them randomly…but it can be fun.
You can combine really unlikely characters and/or plots from two completely different stories, authors, or genres. Sherlock Holmes instead of Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet”; Aral Vorkosigan and Elizabeth Bennet in Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series; Dirty Harry in “The Lord of the Rings” (“I’ve lost track of how many spells I have left in this wand, Saruman. So, do you feel lucky today, punk? Do you?”) Or you can come up with a “cast” of characters from your favorites from other stories or movies. The idea is not so much to come up with a useable alternative as to get your mind unfrozen…but sometimes you do come up with a combination you like.
If you are visually inclined, browse the web for pictures that tickle your backbrain. (Caroline Stevermer does this on her Pinterest pages.) Decide who the people are or could be; think of something that could happen in a place; imagine what’s going on in a painting and make up how the people got into that situation (or what’s going to happen next).
Take one of the bits-and-pieces that’s floating around in your head – some proto-idea that hasn’t hit critical mass yet. Maybe it’s a phrase like “silver on the wine-dark sea;” maybe it’s a scene or a character; maybe it’s even a general subject like “I want to write a book about families.” Then start plot-noodling it. Look at pictures in search of people that look like they’d “go with” the proto-idea. Brainstorm it. Spin off a list of ten things from a related category: “Races: horse race, race to find cure for plague, space race, boat race, race to get Death Star plans back to the Rebellion, race against time, marathon, gold rush, Indy 500″.
What you’re trying to do here is stir things up. If you focus too hard on “getting an idea,” you probably won’t come up with anything – like those times when somebody says “Where shall we go for dinner?” and you suddenly cannot for the life of you think of the name of a single restaurant, not even McDonalds.