When would-be writers ask “where do you get your ideas?” they are often asking the wrong question. They’re struggling to get started on a story, but they’re not actually starting from scratch. They have an idea. It’s just not enough to go on with yet.
So what these folks really want and need to know isn’t where to get a new story idea; it’s how to get the idea they have to “enough.”
“Critical mass” is what I call that point, and I have about twenty story ideas backed up that aren’t at the critical mass point yet. They’re ideas; they’re interesting to me; but they don’t have quite enough there for them to really start moving. Once I finish the current book, I will consult with my agent and editor, pick one of those ideas, and start developing it. I expect that with sufficient attention, I could get any one of them going within a couple of weeks, but if I give it my best shot and it still won’t start moving on its own within that time frame, I’ll send it back to the farm team and pick a different one.
In other words, I don’t just sit around waiting for one of those twenty-plus ideas to start growing. I work at it, the way gardners work at their gardening. Water, fertilizer, sunshine, drainage…
What does all that mean in terms of story?
For me, working at an idea starts by looking at what I have, and turning it this way and that to see different possibilities. I’ve had two of them start inching through the development stage in the past week. One glommed on to a passing bit of background – a notion I had that wasn’t even really an idea yet, more of a proto-idea or possibility. I was considering adding it to the idea queue, but it wasn’t even enough for that – no characters, no plot, not even a complete bit of background, just an idea of a room and what people did there. And since I’ve been thinking about my idea queue a lot lately (because that’s what happens when I’m a month or less from finishing up a current project), I found myself thinking “You know, this might work in Max’s story…” And the next thing I knew, I was thinking about exactly how it might work, which characters it might affect directly, how that would play into their behavior, all the new plot-possibilities that it would open up…
The other one had about three pages written, but just…wasn’t moving. (It’s one of the ones I put back in the queue the last time I went through this process.) It didn’t need anything new to get it going; all it needed was a shift in perspective. I was running through my list with my agent (see “consult with,” above), when I realized that the problem was that I’d picked the wrong character to be the main character and central viewpoint. “This would be much more interesting if I picked one of the characters things are actually happening to,” I thought, and bingo, large chunks of plot started rearranging themselves in a much more fascinating order.
Both of those story-developments were moderately serendipitous – I wasn’t so much poking at those specific ideas as I was sort of generally thinking about my to-write list and which things I might want to work on next and whether I could actually get any of them going. But I’ve been doing this for over thirty years now, and my backbrain has gotten into the habit of tossing possibilities up in the air when I’m at this stage. (Habit can be a wonderful thing, when it works in your favor.) From here on, though, I won’t be sitting around waiting for something else to bubble up out of the compost. I’ll be poking around and trying out different possibilities.
The way I do this is usually to shuttle back and forth between plot, backstory, and characters, looking at what I don’t know about them yet and trying out different things to see if they fit. Does this main character have any relatives – an aunt, perhaps, or a brother? Maybe a cousin? Aunt doesn’t feel right, nor does brother; I think she’s an orphan. A distant cousin, though…that might work. Put those down on the list as possiblities – orphan, distant cousin – switch to plot. Is she going to save the world? Revamp her society? No, those don’t feel quite right. Staving off some sort of catastrophe, okay, but not a world-threatening one. City-threatening, maybe, or country-threatening. No idea what it could be yet, so on to the next thing.
Background…she’s an orphan, so when did her parents die? Right away, I’m positive she didn’t know them, so it must have happened early in her life. How? War? No, doesn’t feel right. Plague? That works. So there was a big plague about ten to twelve years back. Maybe that ties into my present-day plot? Maybe some industries are still just starting to come back? Not sure; think about that later. Back to the plot and characters - am I going to have a villain? X could make a good one, but I like him too much already…maybe there’s someone in the shadows behind him? Like the emperor behind Darth Vader. Yes, good, that works. So who’s the new guy in the shadows, and what’s his background? What’s he after? No clue, so move on to the next bit; his part will come clear sooner or later.
Eventually, all these bits and pieces will start coming together and I’ll write my first, tentative (and completely wrong) plot outline. This is more to give me something to ring changes on than it is a serious attempt at figuring out how the story will go. I talk with my friends and we toss possibilities around, and I get annoyed with them for haring off in directions that interest them but don’t appeal to me. I may draw a map, or do a bunch of appendix-like background summaries for my own use. Or I may not. I start making lists: of characters, of places, of things I need to research, of things that need to go in, of things that need to stay out.
The point is, by then it’s moving. It may be anywhere from another week to a couple of months before I sit down and start writing, but what I have is not just an idea any more. It’s gotten through the preliminary development, and it’s a baby story.