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The most oft-asked question a writer gets is, arguably, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Someday I'll come up with a witty reply. Like, "Safeway. Freezer Section. Right next to the frozen pretzels. There's a whole bunch of ideas, just sitting there. Don't grab those ones in front, though, they're kind of freezer-burned."

The thing is, every time someone asks me this question, I want to channel Lucas from Empire Records:

I mean, come on. It's not like I have some kind of top secret method. I don't drink three shots of vodka and then spin around in an office chair.

No, my method is much more straight forward.

At a conference a couple years ago, Liesa Abrams ( An editor @ Simon & Schuster's ALADDIN imprint) led a session on how to create high concept: What if you gave your MC their greatest wish or desire?
She was talking about Harry Potter, and how the MC was just a lonely kid with no special qualities. JK Rowling gave HP everything he wanted-- a place to belong, a place he was special.

Last year, I struggled to find the perfect follow up for PRADA & PREJUDICE. It had to be high concept. Light. And funny. And it was really hard to find something good enough that also fit in that box. As a published author, I now had (have) expectations on what I put out into the world. I have a brand to think about.

And nothing was sticking. Dozens of ideas flew back and forth between my editor, agent and me, but that spark hadn't ignited yet.

After weeks of actively brainstorming ideas, I was falling asleep one night, thinking about wishes in a more obvious way. About how teens grow and change and don't always want today what they wished for yesterday. I was falling into slumber as the thought of a real life My Little Pony came to me, and I remember thinking, "OMG I have to write that book. If I wake up in the morning and this idea doesn't sound totally freaking ridiculous by the light of day, I'm going to write it."

For me, coming up with ideas is as simple as proposing that question: WHAT IF? WHAT IF a teen ends up in 1815? (Prada & Prejudice) WHAT IF a girl gets her birthday wishes-- every last one of them? (You Wish) WHAT IF a girl had a secret-- one that kept her from ever having real relationships? (Ripple).
Asking that question is like standing on the top of a hill, packing a snowball tightly in my hands, and then sending it rolling. Some of the snowballs fall apart or get to the bottom and they're no bigger than they were before. But other snowballs grow, gathering steam, until they arrive at the bottom the size of a mountain. And that mountain is my fully formed idea-- the hook, the character, the general story arc.

So, how about you, readers? "Where" do you get your ideas?


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)
Usually I get that spark of an idea from a song. From there, I "What if" my way into a plot. If you ask yourself "What if" enough, I believe you can find a great plotline in anything.

And that bit of advice, "What if you gave your MC their greatest wish or desire?" I am using that for the next book! It fits perfectly, (And will have some perfect ramifications too!)
Jul. 8th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
Ideas from the muse
I enjoyed reading this, and love Empire Records!


I get more of it when I'm already writing something else. Things just jump out at me. It happens when I'm reading a lot, too. I get derivative ideas that can become totally unique, given time and brainstorming.

Or sometimes they come from dreams, but never fully formed (I wish). :-)

Inspiration can even strike from a single odd sight, like the mannequins waving from the car dealership off the freeway or last year's Christmas promotion still clinging to the gas station windows.

That's what is great about story...it lives and breathes everywhere. All we have to do is write it.
Jul. 8th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
Mine usually creep into my mind in the form of first lines. Like my current WIP - "Why is there a fish in the bathtub?" or an old favorite story - "Don't play poker with a demon." or, like you, I ask what if questions.

Often, I'll have a character that just will NOT go away. My favorite is Pert. She doesn't have a story. Not a story that does her justice, anyway. But she's amazing and she's mine and she's wonderful and when I'm good enough, she WILL have a story.

My ideas just come to me. Most of them turn out to be useless, though. :P

Jul. 8th, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
Asking 'what if' is definitely a big help. That's how I would define most stories actually... 'what if this happened?'

I'm finding 'what if' to be helpful in outlining/rewriting right now, too. 'What if my characters were separated? What if it was due to this horrible event? What if it was due to this?' Giving myself freedom to explore the 'what ifs' led to some surprising plot twists.
Jul. 8th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
My ideas
Well for a Cinderella short story I'm writing for an anthology, I got my idea after I read a modern retelling of Cinderella. I thought what if I wrote a Cinderella retelling story with all the fantasy elements of Cinderella, but in modern times. So a Cinderella story a ball, a prince and a fairy godmother. After one chapter I realized there had to be two sides to story so I alternated chapters with the prince.
That’s how I got one of my ideas.
Jul. 8th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC)
Mine usually come when I'm watching TV, movies, or reading books. It's like a concept is awesome and you're like, that would be cool for teens, or that would be cool if it was tweaked like this...

My MG that's on submission came from an LJ friend. She was online dating and posted something about how much work was involved with it - voila! Hannah Hamilton was born. :o)
Jul. 8th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
And... obviously that was me again. Geez.
Jul. 8th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
Where do you get your ideas?
I have the most bizarre dreams of anyone I've ever met--not really even nightmares, just ridiculously bizarre. I started writing them out in a journal I keep by my bed. The ones that bother me tend to cross my mind more than once, and I have a lot of intriguing details because my dreams are vivid. As I process I find concepts and meaning in them and use the bizarre qualities to illustrate the meaning. I write paranormal so I think it works.
Jul. 8th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty random when it comes to ideas. Music is HUGE for me, but I find songs after I get an idea and use them to invoke the feeling I need for that particular book. Sometimes I'll see something on TV/read something in a magazine and know I have to write about it. That's where IMPURE came from.

Fully formed stories--ie all the major plot points and characters--pop into my head like movies at the most random of times. We have dozens of notepads and 80-some-odd pens strategically placed all over the house and in both vehicles because I will promptly forget the whole thing if I don't write it down THAT VERY SECOND.

I like the concept of "What if I gave my character everything they've ever wanted?" Might have to try that!
Jul. 8th, 2010 05:35 pm (UTC)
Mandy, I've always thought you were awesome. I always run to your LJ when I see you've made a new entry because as a non-published writer, you've helped me in so many ways.

But now that you just posted a picture of Lucas and quoted him, your awesomness just shot through the freakin' roof! :P I use that quote ALL THE TIME!

To answer the question you threw out, I get my ideas from everywhere around me. From friends, random strangers saying something to me at work, or ummm pacing around my room with the music blaring. (I've done this since I was a kid.) With my current WIP, WHAT IF is basically the theme of the story so that one is something that is constantly popping into my head when I'm trying to figure out where to take a chapter.

Also for some crazy reason the best ideas seem to pop in my head when I'm in the shower, about to fall asleep, and driving.
Jul. 8th, 2010 05:51 pm (UTC)
Oh, Lucas! I have to say, I agree with him.

Although, my sparks for ideas often seem to be triggered from memories in my own life. By the time I'm actually writing them all out, they no longer resembles my life for the most part, but that's often the initial spark.
Jul. 8th, 2010 05:51 pm (UTC)
random commenter
lol, I learned so many life lessons from Lucas in that movie :0)
Jul. 8th, 2010 07:26 pm (UTC)
My latest novel was from a "Why isn't there" question. "Why isn't there a YA book like this?"

I had read a lot of dark YA at the time, and I had been dying to watch the movie so...instead, I wrote the YA version of the 80's movie, Heathers. Then after I wrote the first draft, I went and watched the movie.
Jul. 8th, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
My Ideas?
Ideas are everywhere. I only wish I had the time to develop all of them, but that would be impractical.

So far, the ones I've chosen to enlarge upon have sprung from historical research I've done for my storytelling performances. To a degree, it's a matter of economy. They've all had a good kick-start through one grant or another or they've been commissioned. I've done much of the initial research. A novel seems like a natural progression to me.

Other sources for ideas include folk songs and old photographs, overheard conversation, time-yellowed letters, journals, and newspaper articles from another era.

Write on!

Sharon Kirk Clifton

Sometimes I think ideas float unseen in the air just waiting for writers to reach up and pluck one.

Jul. 8th, 2010 10:22 pm (UTC)
I get my ideas by tossing back three shots of vodka and spinning around in my desk chair. Now I feel all exposed. :(

Actually, I think "what if" really sums up how most of my ideas start out, as well. Some of my ideas are about worlds, some characters, some plots... but it can all come down to what if, you just change what you're asking the question about.

I used to think that my ideas mostly came from music and movies, but lately I've embarked on a campaign to read Really Good Books, and not just whatever comes across my desk, and I've discovered that most of my ideas come from reading. That's not to say I STEAL them from other books, but reading a book about a post-apocalyptic world gets me thinking about what I like and don't like about their take on it, and then I start thinking about how I'd make those aspects work in MY version of the apocalypse, and so on and so forth.
Jul. 8th, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
The idea for my first book came from a newspaper article.

The idea for my second book came from watching WAY too many of those lottery shows on TLC.

The next idea I'm working on came from a glimpse of a fantasy movie, a moral hot issue for me, and my love of historical costumes.

Ideas are EVERYWHERE, and makes a person like me a perpetual daydreamer with a tenuous grasp on reality.


Jul. 9th, 2010 02:32 am (UTC)
Okay, I have to say this first:
Where do you get your inspiration from?
As Jackson Pearce said... I steal it!
Haha, sorry, it seemed relevant.

As for me, where do I get my ideas from?

From wanting to be somewhere else and be someone else. I think that covers a lot.
Whenever I'm daydreaming or listening to a song, talking to friends or watching movies, I just 'continue'. What if this were to happen? what if that doesn't happen but THIS does?

I think I use my imagination to think up extreme situations that cannot happen in real life and get lost in them. And then, because I don't want to lose those scenes, I write them out. It's an escape but it also stems from reality.

As Markus Zusak said, ideas come from living.
Jul. 9th, 2010 04:18 am (UTC)
I'm also a big fan of the "What if?" school of thought. When I started my urban fantasy series, my initial thought was, "What if a guy found his true love, and she was all that and a bag of chips... but not only did it not solve all his problems, it created a whole slew of nasty new ones?"

Or sometimes it just coalesces from nothing around a central image, something that spontaneously leaps to mind, whether it's a short snippet, a long scene or even (oh, and happy day when this happens), a full-fledged plot.
Jul. 10th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
I get ideas from all kinds of places, then I go running. It's amazing what happens when my feet start pounding the pavement and I let my mind wander.

My soon-to-be new WIP came to me after reading an article in Kids Sports Illustrated and after watching my son's favorite reality show (and it's not what most people would imagine). Somehow, the odd combination lead to an idea for YA romantic suspense novel. At least I know the concept is unique.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
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