The View From Here

Where Do Your Ideas Get You?

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Brasilia, Brazil, October 29, 1996.

Ideas are easy. That is the deep dark secret most science fiction writers keep tucked away. People think, for whatever reason, that ideas are the hard part. Get the idea, they think, and the rest is easy. The point of fact, the truth is quite the opposite.

There is not a science-fiction writer working who has not gotten cornered at one time or another by someone asking some version of that age-old question -- "Where do you get your ideas?" My guess is that the question is not only directed at science-fiction and fantasy writers. I have a hunch that mystery writers, romance writers, and general fiction writers hear it pretty often as well. (Non-fiction writers don't hear it, though they should -- but the subject of non-fiction being wrongly thought of as non-creative is a topic for another column.)

The question "where do you get your ideas?" is asked of sf&f writers frequently enough that there is now a standard, silly answer: Schenectady. There is a post-office box in Schenetady, New York. Mail a dollar to that post-office box, and the proprietor will mail you back an idea. I believe Barry Longyear came up with this notion. He did an story collection entitled It Came From Schenetady. I wonder if anyone ever thought to ask him where he got the idea to say ideas came from Schenetady.

Jokes to one side, more or less, for most science fiction writers, an honest and serious answer to this question would consist of a moment of baffled and inarticulate confusion. We don't know where idea come from. I once realized that I got a lot of my ideas while doing the dishes. Therefore, my answer to the big question was "from over the sink." There was a time when I had the distinct impression that all my ideas were coming out of the bit of brain just above my left ear. (Just thinking that thought has made that area of my scalp itch as I imagine that bit of brain doing its thing.) Bash me on the head right there, I thought, and while the rest of my life would go on, that would be it for ideas. (Not an entirely wrong notion, incidentally. That spot of brain is not far from the speech centers. Destroy those speech centers, and most or all of my language ability is gone.)

The real and honest answer is that all of us, not just writers, get ideas all the time. We just don't know how, exactly. The way we talk about ideas illustrates our uncertainty about their origins. The phrase "the idea came to me" is not uncommon, and it tells a lot about how we think about ideas. The other common way to describe the act of thinking of something is to say "I had an idea," the way we might say "I had a baby" or "I had a headache." According to this phrasing, to have any of these -- idea, baby, or headache -- is to have something partially external and partially of us invade us, take us over, impose itself on us, whether we like it or not.

Think of the other ways we phrase the concept of thinking up a new thing: "I've got an idea" says that I own it -- not that I made it. "He had an inspiration" says that a spirit went into him and implanted the idea in him. "She was possessed by the implications of her thought" again suggests that an exterior being -- a demon or an angel -- has taken over her mind. That, indeed, is the whole idea of muses (and the museums we build to hold what the muses bid us to make) -- that an exterior being comes to us and causes us to create.

Sometimes, we do just say "I've thought of an idea," but, to my ear at least, that phrasing is clumsy and a trifle artificial. "I've got an idea" is much more natural. We don't make ideas, we don't produce them. We get them -- or they get us. It is easier to think of demons or angels or muses inserting the ideas into us, than it is to think of how we ourselves create the ideas. (There then of course comes the question of how the angel or demon or muse came up with whatever bright notion is under discussion. Who puts the ideas in their heads?)

There is another way the English language reveals bafflement over the creative process. In short, we don't have a word for it. We say that someone paints a picture or writes a poem or composes a symphony or carves a statue, but there is no special verb to describe the process of creating an idea. We don't, for example, say that someone encerebrated an idea, if I might invent a ghastly neologism for this one occasion.

We don't really know how we produce them, but we all have -- or get -- or think of -- or dream up -- ideas. It is no more surprising for a writer to get ideas than for anyone else. Even if no one knows how ideas happen, they happen to all of us. Writers just happen to have a profession that serves as a conduit, a way to direct the ideas we get.

For writers and non-writers alike, most of the ideas we have are so mundane that we don't even think of them as such. We might call them "thoughts" or "notions" or "daydreams" or whatever, but ideas they are, all the same. I can't come up with any clear, distinct, qualitative or quantitative difference that distinguishes the process I go through to come up with a story idea from the process I go through to decide what to cook for dinner, or the way I dream up a way to rearrange the furniture, or develop a business idea, or fantasize about being elected president.

For myself, I would say there are two ways I produce ideas, but the process has no relation to the nature of the thing about which I have the idea. Whether detail of daily life, story problem in the current novel, or something else entirely, the two processes remain the same. Call them solution-driven and random inspiration. One makes sense, the other doesn't.

The first, solution-driven technique for getting idea comes into play when there is something specific I need to do. There is a distinct problem to be solved (we need something to eat for dinner, that conflict is chapter six isn't working), and I approach it in a problem solving way, by examining, discarding, and selecting from among the available possibilities. (We've got chicken, but it's frozen solid. There's some leftover pasta, but just how edible is it, and do we have any sauce left? Wait. I can zap the chicken in the microwave and serve it over the pasta with oil and garlic and I won't need tomato sauce) (I can strengthen the conflict by killing off that character, but that will I need him later on? What if the bad guys came in after the house caught fire? Would that make the pacing better? No, I'd better go with killing the guy -- that works as a climax, and releases the tension that's been building in the scene.)

This, I suspect, is the more common and more understandable of the two ways of having ideas. There is some sort of external pressure to work out the problem, and thus a need to solve it. The thinker is confronted with an existing situation with a more or less limited range of possibilities that might or might not lend themselves to being rearranged or combined or reworked in some way. The search for a solution is focused, directed, and clear. Both problem and solution are limited, and delimited, by the context of the situation.

The second way of having ideas could be called the daydream mode, I suppose. And these are the ones no one has been able to figure out. They come out of nowhere, or someplace tenuous enough that it might as well be nowhere. I am at present working on a novel called THE DEPTHS OF TIME, that concerns itself with terraforming and time travel. The initial inspiration for it came while riding in a small open boat off the coast of Maine, and seeing a seal poke its head out of the water. Go ahead. Try and connect those two dots. I could go into three or four pages of explaining how that sight led to a time travel story, but it comes down to this: I was working on another book project that touched on terraforming, which brought that subject to mind. I had been on an island full to bursting with life, especially new life, in the form of new-hatched birds. I found myself marveling at the beauty and the hidden complexity behind the sight of a seal in the water. I thought of how many forces -- time, evolution, physics, geology -- had had to come into play in order to produce what I saw. A seal is very complicated creature, after all. It took Earth four billion years to produce both the environment that could support the seal, and the seal itself. Suppose, I wondered, if humans discovered that it would take that long to terraform a planet. What would they do about it? That's where time travel came in.

There is, I think, an extremely good case to be made that I would not now be writing the book I am writing now if that seal had not decided to stick her head out of the water when she did. I have to wonder what I'd be writing instead. Suffice to say that I have dreamed up plenty of ideas since then that I didn't make into books. Probably I'd be working on one of them -- or on some other book idea I never had, because I was thinking about THE DEPTHS OF TIME.

That moment in the harbor gave me an idea. It would not give you the same idea it gave me. Show that scene, of that seal in that harbor as seen from that boat, to a hundred, a thousand people, tell each of those people to come up with a story idea, using whatever notions came into their heads via free-association, their life-histories, and every other factor, down to what they had for lunch, and I think I can just about promise you would get a hundred, a thousand, different ideas. Some thoughts might be more obvious than others -- about a seal in the circus, or seal hunters, perhaps. Others might migrate from the initial image to something concerned with the Privy Seal, or the Great Seal of the United States. Others might pay no attention to the seal, and focus on the water, and come up with a story about fishing. Others might notice the boat's engine wasn't running too well, and out would come a story about being shipwrecked. Other might notice the giant squid I missed, that rose up out of the water behind me while I was looking at the seal. Each person, I suspect, would come up with a story that was, in some way, of interest to that person. A person with no interest in islands wouldn't come up with the shipwreck idea, while someone who had just read ROBINSON CRUSOE might.

This, I believe, is the way most ideas happen -- we observe, or experience, or learn about something that keys off whatever is already in our minds. The interesting part is what happens next. My initial story idea has evolved endlessly since that first notion. It no longer has any clear resemblance to my initial burst of inspiration, and I have just in the last few weeks reworked a great deal of it again. I have gone back and used the first, problem-solving method of idea-production a hundred, a thousand times since that day in the boat. It is a great deal more difficult than the first, initial, inspiration, but it is still mere idea-making -- and ideas are not the hard part.

Writing the story is where the real work comes in. THE DEPTHS OF TIME will be my sixteenth or seventeenth book. (Seventeenth, I think.) Sixteen books means, in theory at least, that I only had to come up with sixteen basic ideas for books. (I can drive that number even lower -- for at least seven of those books, I was working in someone else's universe and had to come up with far less of the original premise myself.)

But no matter how little initial idea work I did, the books still had to be book-length. On average, my book come in n at something over one hundred thousand words each, but call it one hundred thousand even. That's something over one million six hundred thousand words, all of which I was expected to put into coherent sentences, logical paragraphs, plausible dialogue, believable characters, realistic settings, and satisfying plots. (Whether or not I did can be left to the judgment of the reader.)

Ideas are easy. Writing them down is the hard part -- taking the raw ideas and shaping them, forming them, discarding and rebuilding them, expanding them into stories and books. I am convinced that most people possess the ability to turn ideas into books -- provided they have the determination, the patience, the perseverance to take the idea born in a moment, and spend months or years grinding out the hundred thousand words (or hundred words, or million words) required to explain and explore that idea to the degree that it deserves.

But let us turn back to the original question, in all the myriad forms we science fiction writers have heard it. How did you dream that up? Did you take a lot of drugs to think of that stuff? Where did you come up with that crazy notion? How do you think up your plots?

To these, and all the other variants, I can safely say I have but once answer:

I haven't got the slightest idea.

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