Monday, April 5, 2010

Ideas Are Like Rabbits

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I once read a quote by John Steinbeck: "Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple, learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen."

Thank you, Mr. Steinbeck (for whom I have great respect). This is very encouraging. If only it elaborated on the initial problem: get a couple.

One of the most-asked questions for writers is, "Where do you get your ideas?" I have great admiration for those writers who seem to burst at the seams with ideas, because they have obviously learned the second part of his equation: learn how to handle them. These are writers who have a dozen or more ideas bouncing around in their brains at any given time.

Me - not so much. While these lucky few seem to pluck their ideas from the very air they breathe, I must stalk, tackle and wrestle mine to the ground. Here are some places I look.

. Before newspapers were online, I spent too much time reading, cutting and filing ideas away, accumulating a mountain of newsprint if I fell behind. Now, I can cruise online for current news stories or for my favorite, weird news. Here are a few I found recently:
  • Two thieves called ahead to a bank stating they were going to rob it and wanted the teller to have a 'to go' bag of money ready. They were met by police in the parking lot.
  • A pit bull mauled the fender of a police car and was sentenced to obedience training.
  • A fugitive was found in a bar still wearing his hospital gown and with the intravenous needle stuck in his arm.
  • and my favorite... A man was arrested for public drunkenness after trying to resuscitate a long-dead possum.
I once heard an editor at a conference say 'some things can happen in real life, but they can't happen in fiction.' I think these fit that advice, but they can stir creativity.

Magazines. Scientific and nature journals can provide the surprising tidbit that serves as a story metaphor (a white whale?) or a fact that can ignite a story, such as the discovery of the DNA of prehistoric insects preserved in amber.

If science or nature doesn't float your boat, how about entertainment magazines? In addition to celebrity gossip, they often print human interest stories. Sometimes characters step from the pages, tap you on the shoulder and whisper "I have something to say." This happened to me when I read a story about two babies switched at birth. I wondered what would happen if there was only one child old enough to have an opinion about it, and the wrong parent had to endure the illness and death of the other child? This led me to write Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon.

Remake an old idea. Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story. Pretty Woman is a new take on Cinderella and My Fair Lady. Some of my favorites start with a traditional story line and add a twist. Giselle in Enchanted steps out of her fairytale into New York, learns to own her feelings and not wait for Prince Charming to rescue her. In The Tenth Kingdom, Virginia steps from New York into a world of fairytale which enables her to deal with the childhood memories of abandonment by her mother. (Okay, I know some of these are movies, but they are screenplays, too!)

These are just a few places to get the ball rolling. Where do you get your ideas?


Anonymous said...

(I hope this following comment doesn't sound hard-hearted...)

One source I can't afford to use is the suggestions of others outside the publishing industry. One of the blessings/curses of being a published author is that almost everyone has an idea they want you to "write up." It may be the plot of a novel, or a suggestion for a scenario within it, or a biography (usually of the suggest-er) or worst of all, a co-authored work with the suggest-er.

Working with other people's stories is extraordinarily challenging. (Believe me, I know. I have co-written three published books and two not yet published.)

With very few exceptions, I have found that once people make a story idea suggestion (for a book topic, for instance) I am not able to live up to their expectations. They have something in their minds and when I write it, it doesn't match with what they intended.

So with people who say, "You ought to write ____", I don't explore the idea very far (I don't want to be accused of stealing an idea, which is something that non-writers and beginning writers fear) but instead try to direct them to workshops, critique groups, or other training to help them write it themselves.

It's my conclusion that the ideas we discover on our own (especially through the sources you mention, Debbie--great job!) are the most authentic. Any other authors feel this way?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I agree, Latayne. When people approach me about their story ideas, I suggest workshops, books or writers groups. They would be disappointed with my treatment of it. If their story idea is about a family member or a personal experience, I usually steer them toward story collections or denominational magazines, which seem best suited for that.

Laura S. said...

I'm one of those people who gets ideas everywhere, but they're not always good ideas! My ideas come from newspapers, photographs, conversations, quotes, eavesdropping. Sometimes I'll just be staring off into space thinking nothing in particular and an idea falls into my head. I thank my subconscious when that happens!

Not all those ideas are workable. It's just trial and error for me: I write and usually pretty quickly I'll know if my idea has staying power or not. Sometimes my excitement for the idea is short lived, and other times I see the ending and get there. It's good to have a lot of ideas to choose from!

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Graffiti. Newspapers. Street signs. Myth. Legend. And Life Magazine. I've had novel ideas spring from each of those sources. Not to mention the general workings of my subconscious.

I suffer from an over-active idea gland and have been forced to employ the "red dress" test to all my ideas. The theory is that when you throw a cocktail party, most women show up wearing black but it's the girl with the red dress who gets all the attention. So I let my ideas simmer long enough to see which is wearing the red dress - which idea keeps interrupting my life and demanding attention. That's the one I write.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Laura & Ariel, I agree that not every idea works and I love the 'red dress' test. It can be hard to let go of those ideas that aren't bad, just ill-fitting. The red dress must show off the idea's best attributes while leaving a bit of room to move around in comfortably. I love it!

Jan Cline said...

I needed a jump start. I was just telling myself to get a few short stories under my belt to have on hand. Now I know where to look for ideas.

Bonnie Grove said...

A few helpful books that clump many interesting stories and ideas in one helpful place are The Book of Lists (search garage sales and second hand books for the originals, but you can get reprinted editions online) and Uncle John's Bathroom readers.

Terri Tiffany said...

I came here to submit to the contest only then I browsed who the authors are on this blog and was pleased to find you. Your book Rain sits here next to me on my couch as I started it a few days ago. I was excited to see it looks like a good women's fiction--the kind I can really get into and those are hard to find!