Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Dreaded Question Answered

"Where do your ideas come from?"

This is one of the most common questions writers seem to get asked. It's sometimes a laughline when it comes at a writer Q&A. However, just because it's popular, frequent, and harder than hell to give a real answer to doesn't mean it's a bad question. The person who asked is likely another writer, or a fan trying to reverse engineer what it is you do, so the question should be flattering. The guy at the lectern gets to play mentor for two minutes as he reels out an answer.

Here's mine: There are two places where anyone can get ideas. One is obvious, one less so.

The obvious, not-so-good answer is, "just copy what you see in another book or a film." It’s a phenomenon that happens all the time on TV. One crime show will have a plot revolving around a corrupt judge with a taste for cocaine and it won’t be long before other shows have judges with hankerings for different vices causing all sorts of trouble. One good idea spawns a hundred children, some better than the original, some not.

Unsatisfied? Me, too. If you’re interested in bringing a little originality to the party, this may not be the most gratifying answer.

The less obvious answer is to pay attention to what you see in other creative disciplines, or in the world at large, and then apply your twist to it. If you’re going to take the time to write a book, it should feel like your book.

For example, if I’m paying attention, I can see the premise for a good story several times a day. They’re all over the place. Visit a grocery store and imagine what the other shoppers are doing. Read a book and imagine how you might update the story or, when a character is a critical choice, take the other path. Maybe you see a plot of derelict land and make up a story about how it got that way. These would all have your stamp on them, but they're things anyone passing by could have seen.

Clarity Hunters, the book I’ve just released, originated from a news piece I listened to on NPR a decade ago. I was living in LA then and had the radio on whenever I was on the road, which was often. I remember listening to a story about authors like Tom Clancy working for the Department of Defense to envision, or predict, scenarios as dangerous as 9/11. (After all, Tom Clancy wrote about a 747 flying into the Capitol building in his 1994 novel Debt of Honor. By 2002, he was regarded as prescient by some.)

I enjoyed the radio story, filed it away in my mind, and thought I was done with it. Not so. More than a decade later, that radio story pulled itself of my mental archive when I sat down to write a story about a man who goes to work for a special kind of think tank. His first tasks were to grapple with “impossible-to-conceive” scenarios, much like the Defense Department had Tom Clancy consulting on.

Yes, a decade. The story grew, unknown my my conscious mind, for a decade. Maybe that sounds hard. Maybe you don’t have a decade to let a story ferment. So, how do you do this?

Let’s go back to when I mentioned originality and a twist. Sounds good, but what does it mean?

Creativity is "unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas," according to Pete Docter of Pixar fame. (I’m guessing other people have said this, too, but I haven’t found all their names yet.)

The prolific Isaac Asimov, who once worked on a defense contract that attempted to provide scientists ideas for being more creative when developing ballistic missiles (see truth is stranger than fiction, and my Clarity Hunters plot isn't so far fetched), stated this a little bit differently. Creativity, or cross-connection as Asimov calls it, “develops not as a ‘new idea,’ but as a mere ‘corollary of an old idea.’”

The suggestion here is that a new idea isn’t wholly new. All new ideas start as two or more old ideas that someone is able to bring together in a unique way. Yes, according to Asimov, recycling in a clever way is originality. That’s your twist.

It’s not easy. Asimov cautions, “It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable.” The process of getting Idea A and Idea B wedded can be messy, uncertain work. But this mental work is where the originality comes from.

As an example, analog phones plus advances in computer technology equal phones you dial yourself (that wasn't always true), clearer sound quality, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), iPhones, and a whole bunch more. The ideas just keep rippling.

That's technology, though. Sure it happens in technology. How would this happen in a writing environment?

Let's try some more examples. Imagine you like the plots of lone-wolf mysteries – and you’re also passionate about astronomy. Equip your hard-boiled amateur with a telescope and let’s just see what kind of trouble he can get into.

You like Poirot-style stories along with the world of fine cuisine? Maybe you need to write about a neurotic chef who stumbles into crimes and their solutions.

You’re a bit bored by the serial killer thriller, but you also have a deep love for Roman history. Maybe you set a serial killer story in ancient Rome – or you make your modern-day killer reenact some particularly vile events from the reign of Caligula.

Look for your twist. I’m sure it’s there. I’m guessing you have dozens or hundreds of ways you could twist a story to make it yours. See? Now you have lots of ideas, better get writing.

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