Thursday, January 3, 2008

Where do YOUR babies come from?

“It may come as a surprise to those who don’t care for my work that I’d hardly ever doubted the significance of any idea I’d had, and I’d had very few ideas. I’d written twelve finished works. I’d had fourteen ideas.” Jane Smiley

“I have an idea once every 19 years…” Overheard on NPR

ROBERTA: A couple of months ago, I spent the weekend with my writer friend SW Hubbard to brainstorm our works in progress. We worked on the details of her thriller and then it was my turn.

“So the character is a woman psychologist,” I said, “and she’s written a self-help book that’s starting to gain momentum. She’s a guest on a radio talk show, and someone from her past calls in. She recognizes the voice.” Then I stopped and waited.

“Yeah, then what happens?”

“That’s it,” I said. “That’s all I’ve got.”

“Who’s the voice from the past?”

“I don’t know, that’s all I’ve got,” I repeated.

She tried to help me out with a number of leading questions but I’d hit a wall. Why is it, I wondered, that other writers seem to toss off an idea a minute? Take my friend, Lori Avocato. Spend a couple hours with her and she’ll have 3 or 4 ideas for books just in that short time span.

I do keep a file folder full of headlines and articles from newspapers and magazines. But I can leaf through all of them and end up with nothing. Zippo. Nada. Zero.

So that’s my question for the day—I want your secrets! Where do you get your ideas and what tricks do you use to keep them coming?

JAN: This is my trick. When all I should be doing is focusing on the end of whatever book I'm writing, all I can think about is the GREAT IDEAS I have for the next book.

But honestly, most of my ideas come from the newspaper or a real event. Or some social ill that's been bothering me for a long time. Like gambling and the lottery. Kids on the Internet. Or the potential for a scam or heist.
The murders are harder. I really hate to think about people taking a life.

HANK: Oh please. Don't bring this up now. Or maybe, do. At this very instant, I'm pleading with my brain for an idea. You have to picture me, sitting at my computer. Arms limp, slumped, head on the back of the chair. Eyes to the ceiling. Imploring the universe to present me with something. I can think of a million million ideas, but they aren't good enough. Boring. Derivative. Silly. No payoff.

I like to remember Thomas Edison--you know, who was encouraged and inspired when his first 2000 (or whatever) ideas for what to use in a light bulb didn't work. He said--now I know 2000 things that don't work. And that's so revealing about how things get invented. Like books.

But (and I hope this stays true) sometimes I just think and think and think. Deeply deeply think. Try Hallie's "what if" exercises. And then, I let go. Do something else. And soon after, something bubbles to the surface.

HALLIE: Hank is right about that bubbling when you're not trying thing. Always it's in the shower, or in the car, or when and I'm up to my wrists in bread dough. Or or or... the solution sometimes is to shake things up, to get out of my comfort zone and go somewhere or do something that isn't part of my usual day to day. Like...go to a Star Trek convention. Or a Tupperware party. Or a rocket launching. Once I HAVE a good idea, then definitely brainstorming with friends (what iffing it to death) is a huge help.

JAN: It's so true. I always say I get my best ideas on Route I-95. I think just like athletes play better when they are "loose," writers think more creatively when they are relaxed. Maybe the analytical part of the brain has to be silenced to let the creative side of the brain be free.

RO: I'm definitely a "ripped from the headlines" kind of gal - no, let me rephrase that. Not the headlines. My fave place to prospect for ideas is in the back of the paper. The tiny story that most people never read. The local misdemeanor that (at least in my "what if" scenario) is the cover-up for the bigger, deadlier crime.
Another thing I enjoy doing is ripped from a movie -The Usual Suspects - one of my faves. In it the Kevin Spacey character, the infamous Kayser Sosa, deceives the police by weaving an entire story out of the items in the cop's own office. Brilliant. I've yet to name a character after the manufacturer of my coffee mug, but it's a fun exercise and always gets me thinking.

ROBERTA: ok, now time for the rest of you to step up and tell us where YOUR babies come from!


  1. First of all, you threw me off with that "where babies come from!" I mean, I'm a nurse and mother of two so it should be a no-brainer but I was wondering why talented, intelligent women such as yourselves would be asking this question. Then, I read on and found out you were talking about writing. Writing and where ideas come from.

    I'd like to say mine come from the fantastically, amazing life that I've had. But, I'm Catholic and we all know Catholics are not allowed to lie or the nuns from their past will "appear" and slap our little knuckles with rulers. So, I'm going to say, that it's my mind. The other day someone told me I'm right and left brained. Hm. I'm guessing my ideas come from the clash of the brains in my head. Perhaps I have some rare condition that makes me come up with idea after idea. Not sure and I'm not going to seek treatment for it.

    What it boils down to IMHO, is that all of us writers soak up ideas from life whether it be an amazingly fantastic life, or the everyday life that we can "twist" as the eiditors so enjoy us to do. We're all attuned to the world and snatch ideas from everywhere, however, trying to remmeber them is another blog.

    That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

    Lori Avocato

  2. I tend to get a lot of "germs" of ideas (a lot like your radio caller idea) that languish in my journals for months and years. But I seem to work best with the accumulation method of creativity. I get a bunch of half ideas and eventually some of them conglomerate into a whole. The good ideas never go away, at least not from my crowded brain. They keep bubbling up offering themselves for consideration. Sometimes, when I've had more experience or insight, I take one of those ideas and run with it.

    Like some of your other correspondents, I tend to get really compelling ideas when I'm in the middle of working on another idea. I should stay focused, but I want to drift. Maybe that's how it's supposed to work.

  3. Oh, I find ideas everywhere--blowing across the Wal-Mart parking lot, wedged under the sofa cushions, festering in the back of the fridge. My problem is that the ideas I’ve got floating in my head for new projects always seem ever so much more appealing than the idea I’m committed to for the book or story I’m actually writing. When they’re up in my head they’re clever, full of potential, endlessly fascinating. Once I start writing I discover those same ideas belch and fart and leave the toilet seat up and generally refuse to behave brilliantly without an awful lot of nagging.

    Like Hallie and Jan, I work out a lot of plotting issues while doing something mindless (although, unlike Jan, I consider driving on I-95 to require the same concentration as skiing the double black diamonds at Vail). My mindless activity of choice is mowing the lawn, and I’ve earned the enmity of all the neighborhood women because of it. Neighbor husband to neighbor wife: “Susan Hubbard’s out there cutting her grass again. How come you never cut our grass?” Right now I’m stuck like Roberta at the “then what happens?” stage on an idea for a short story. Tragically, the lawn is frozen solid and it’ll be a good four months before I can mow.
    S.W. Hubbard

  4. Susan, See it all depends what section of Route 95. The best ideas come between Pawtucket and Foxboro, (heading north) after that you're right, you really do have to pay attention!

    Paul: I agree; drifting is very important work. Critical even. As Lori says, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

    And Lori, don't you think that all that Catholic repression forces creativity on us early?

  5. I just tell people I'm a writer and then they give me these great ideas they have for stories or books that they'd like to write if they had time and then I write them and we split the money 50-50. Isn't that how it works for everyone?

    Actually, I also find a lot of half-ideas will start clustering together once I've got something more solid for them to stick to. My "Nuisance Call" story started when our local police chief's talk on community policing geled with ideas about a rookie left out of the big crime team stumbling on a big crime and with randowm thoughts on the sounds you hear at night when everyone else is asleep.

    My other favorite thing, when I'm stuck in "what next?" mode, is to go on a writing riff and take the idea to extremes. EX: What if Rebecca Butterman's caller is her long-dead mother or the kid whose paper she copied off of in fourth grade or her 12-year-old self? I don't usually get the answer in what I've written, but it helps shake me out of my rut.

    Ro, when I was in St. Louis last week, the newspaper ran an item about a family clearing out their 80+ mother's home and finding an infant's body in a chest under her bed. Immediately thought of you.

    Like Jan, I find it easier to get ideas from general topics than specific, personal tragedies, at least until time has passed. It was easier in the "golden age" when victims were often unsympathetic with plenty of suspects to wish them dead.

    Susan, love your description of Good Ideas Behaving Badly!


  6. Roberta, I love to brainstorm and I think I'm pretty darn good at it - for other people's work, not mine!

    Lori, I want your condition. When you mentioned it was "the clash of the brains in my head," all I could think of was the "Big Bang Theory."

    I'm from the camp where an idea will start bubbling up when I'm preoccupied with other things, and I hope I remember it.

    Ro, The Usual Suspects is one of my favorites too. Kevin Spacey was terrific.
    The mug I'm drinking from right now is plain white. Interestingly, it used to have a Marlborough Savings Bank logo on it, but after several runs through the dishwasher, the words have vanished. Wonder what Keyser Soze would say? Hmm...

  7. My "babies" come mostly from the dozens of cybercrime notices I receive daily (and the "day" job).

    Jan got a "behind the scenes" look at that crazy, nasty world. We had such fun, right Jan? What a trooper.

    My criteria for deciding whether or not to incorporate them into THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY is that they must:

    1) Be technically accurate
    2) Be able to fit well into a plot to make it interesting
    3) Be readily explained without getting "geeky"
    4) Be a bit shocking when people realize it's true.

    Believe me, I'm not running out of ideas anytime soon...

  8. Sensory impressions get me started. This can be immediate or years afterward. Sometime between seeing or smelling or hearing whatever sensory artifact I've experienced, I'll begin to 'hear' relevant narrative in my head. Often while driving or in the shower -- this seems to be a writerly condition among those here! -- and usually I hear the closing lines first. Once I hear them, I know the rest of that material is coming across the next day or so. I hear it as clearly in my head as if I had a radio on.

    I'm working on a section of the book now that's drawn from the find of a single intact vertebra during a federal disaster recovery. I remember crouching before that knobby little wheel-hub, shaped like the face of an alien, and thinking how it was difficult to connect a single vertebra to the human whose weight it supported and whose last impulses it protected from brain to heart to hands. I put my thumbs together above it and curled my fingers the way you'd cup a wounded bird, framing, imagining missing human ribs. Respectful this was, too, but risky. In trying to conjure back a whole, uninjured person, I made myself a tar baby. I was there with that vertebra awhile in the sleet, waiting for agency representatives to document and remove the find, and I felt my throat tighten. Whether illness, cold, or trauma -- it was ten days before I could speak again.

    That experience leads to a discussion about engagement in the search process on either side of the line: how we take in and maintain our whole selves in the field; what happens when empathy too nearly claims us -- and conversely how our usefulness can diminish if we detach to the point that we no longer connect. I have seen searchers so "removed" that they no longer recognize as human a body found in the brush, just as I've seen searchers disabled by what they've found.

    This eight-page section was provoked by the memory of a single bit of bone in February 2003. And the image came out of nowhere last week when I was scrubbing a bathroom sink. Weird. I'd love to know how those synapses managed to fire sequentially. =:x

    While I can outline a logical structure for chapter or essay or book from a different part of my brain, it's surely these sensory impressions that connect the dots with any greater meaning.

    At least I hope they do.


  9. Wow, Susannah, you're so right. Without real, human emotion driving it, any plot idea, no matter how clever or original, has no "legs." And emotion can't really be imagined--it has to be tapped from something in the writer's experience.

  10. Hmmm, I seem to be a loner. I do pick up ideas from news articles or e-mails (found a great one recently from a genealogy loop), but I don't usually talk them over with anyone, at least not until I've worked out some of the details. I'm more likely to write a draft and ask a friend, does this make sense to you? Is this consistent with my character's personality? Why would this person do this (often an issue if you have to work a dead body in!)?

    BTW, the concept for the next Glassblower book I'm starting came from a New Yorker article that seemed totally unrelated--until I got to one line and the lightbulb went on.


  11. Hi Lori!How great to see you here! And yes, I hear via Roberta that you are an amazing source of ideas. Wanna come for dinner?

    Susannah: you continue to astonish me with your writing and insight. I am so eager to read your book.. Please keep us posted on the publication schedule.

    Paul: So interesting. Some people always write down their ideas, but someone said (of course I forget who. Anyone remember?) that an idea that's not good enough to remember, you didn't need anyway.

    I do keep a notebook, but it's funny. I bet maybe one of ten snippets actually get used. MAybe two. Which is enough for me to continue keeping a notebook.

    And yes, Susan. I've had some late night ideas. Which seem perfect. And in the morning, they, um, don't respect me anymore.

  12. Mine come from some sort of vacuum. If I can manage to make my mind perfectly blank (which I can do rarely enough), I have these short circuits of ideas.

    My fav time is while going to bed....I like rehashing whatever I have thought and done that day, or when on a long drive.... the amount of scenery passing by puts me in a blank state. Or at the gym or at the shower afterwards.

    But I think half the trick is holding on to an idea once you have got it, and I just did a post all about that!