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Robert's Rules of Writing #5: Call Out the Thought Police

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's fifth rule focuses on that eternal questions writers always hear: "Where do you get your ideas?" He gives the usual answer most of us do -- the store on the corner of Lexington and Twenty-Third. ("But go early, because the fresh ideas are gone by ten.")

Come to think of it, that store is probably a branch of the main operation, based in Schenectady. And then there's the weekly magazine, The Idea Book, that arrives every Monday, chock full of story ideas. Once you've selected the idea you want to use, you just have to register with them over their webpage so no one else will take it that month. (You used to have to call in.) And then --

No, I'm just kidding of course, as was Masello. His advice is that the best ideas come from your own head, but that you need to pay attention to what's going on in there. Basically, he says that instead of sitting at your computer, pressing hard for ideas to come, you should be more observant of your thoughts as you go through your daily routine. Pay attention to those idle thoughts that pass through your head, as some of your best ideas are sitting right there.

I know whereof he speaks. I got the idea for my first story, "TeleAbsence," at a science fiction convention panel in 1994, when a fellow panelist claimed that by the year 2000 everyone would have an email address, and I wanted to prove him wrong. The idea for my first unpublished novel came from an off-hand question one of my students asked during a Physics class; I stopped teaching, stared into space for a moment, and then wrote down the idea. Other ideas have come from newspaper or magazine articles I was reading, or from discussions with friends, or even from reading other writers' short stories and realizing I could do something different with the ideas presented.

And that's the funny thing. It's never writers who ask where ideas come from. Those of us who write know what Masello and others have made explicit -- that ideas are everywhere, and you just have to keep your mind in an open state, ready to snatch the idea before it dissipates. But readers -- ah, they see what we do as magic, and in a way, it is. We take nothing out of the air, and make it into stories, which can move people to laughter or tears, depending on what we say.

So tell me -- where do you get your ideas?


Well, I've got only two published SF stories, but the first ("The Unfood") came from a college cafeteria discussion in which certain items on the menu were described as "negative food." The idea for my second story ("A Breach of Security") came straight from Stan Schmidt, and I had a much harder time bringing it to a usable form.

In case anyone actually feels compelled to dig into old issues of Analog for those stories, I should mention I wrote them as Gary McDonald.
Hmmm...you know, with a third sale, you could become an Active member of SFWA.
Sometimes if an idea grabs me, even if it's not my forte, I feel compelled to write it anyway.


Informed Serendipity

My three non-fiction books (art historical scholarship), as well as the prospective fourth, have each resulted from my having set out to solve some other problem different from the one I eventually found myself addressing. Once I started the research, the facts I uncovered led me in new directions. You could say that I find my ideas by stumbling over them while looking for something else.


Re: Informed Serendipity

Steve, good to see you posting here!

What's that quote about stumbling over ideas? "Chance favors the prepared mind."
I don't know, sometimes I'm actually really fascinated to see what prompted specific stories or characters. I see it as the directors commentary on a story, in a way, and I love Bujold's tracing Miles Vorkosigan back in part to Lawrence of Arabia (although I still maintain Miles and Mark bear startling resemblence to Sherlock and Mycroft). But the more general "where do you get your ideas" always feels like an audience oohing over a flip on the trapeeze. The flip through the air isn't the impressive part, the CATCH is what they work on day after day. The idea isn't the impressive part, it's the EXECUTION we sweat bullets over (so to speak).
I found that I often enjoyed the introductions or afterwards to stories more than the stories themselves. That was one clue that I ought to write some myself.
I love this question, and have started collecting answers to it. Rather than ramble on at length here, I've posted some in my own LJ.



before starting NaNoWriMo, I was convinced i was just not a fiction writer. Period. I thought I would make a good film director someday, but coming up with my own stuff, it has always been a challenge.

My NaNoWriMo story came about as a way to show some of my own frustrations as a kid in moving every so often. What could be more unsettling than moving across the city? How about helping to colonize a new planet. I then changed the parent from being a single mom (as was in my case since I was 12) to a single father, and have thus far battled my own demons in the novel, imagining what it would have been like to have those discussions with a father, leaving all your friends, and moving to a strange world.

The rest of the novel is just kind of falling into place. It's not any great work or art. I think all SF is based somehow in a non-SF world. It is all about who we are as humans, with different things changed to make them take place on another planet, or with another race.

I hope to pare down the 50,000 words into something Analog might print, it's one of my goals. But if it doesn't happen that's fine too. I have come to know not only a lot about my main characters, but myself as well.

Re: Ideas

Identify yourself, please.
Sometimes, though, a person wants or needs a "story starter." They have the urge to write, but don't know what they want to say. I've seen that happen with many of my students. A desire to write, but a lack of ideas.

The desire to communicate can be powerful.

Of course, I'm more with you on finding ideas everywhere, and then just figuring out which one to work with next.


Ack, sorry Michael

Sorry, Michael - its me. Troy.


Im not a real LJ user, which means i have to post anonymously. Maybe I'll sign up for openID... whatever that is.


Re: Ack, sorry Michael

I stand corrected. heh

Re: Ack, sorry Michael

You have now been identified. :-)
Well, let's see...

The story I just mailed to Analog was inspired by an NPR piece about American children being adopted out to folks in foreign countries.

The story I'm getting ready to write was a "What If?" I knew Stonewall Jackson was opposed to slavery and operated an illegal Sunday school for slaves in Lexington, VA before the war and...and I should probably shut up before I tell the whole story. :)

The story I just finished was inspired by an 80-year-old photograph I bought from a small town antique story.

My first big pro sale was a poem inspired by a fire on top of the campus' mountain.

And on and on and on.

So in other words, I get ideas from anything that I can get ideas from.
>>antique story<<

Er, antique store, that is. I suppose even buying an antique story would count as plagiarism. :)

December 2016

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