Saturday, November 16, 2013

How to catch an idea...

"How/where do you get your ideas?" is one of the most common questions I get asked. Ideas are everywhere and yet are more elusive than strange quarks/fairies/dark matter/Nessie/insert mythical creature here. How do you catch an idea? (This post applies more to picture books and poetry - I'll explore short story and novel ideas in the future)

I am always thinking about possible story ideas. I liken this, especially for potential picture book ideas, to trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Usually this requires a lot of time and effort and if you are lucky you might generate one or two little sparks and if you are very, very lucky a spark might fall on the driest part of your kindling or a patch of scrunched up newspaper with sufficient oxygen around it to start a fire. Fire = story. I try an awful lot of story ideas out in my head that never spark in to anything. They are too familiar, cliched, obvious, try-hard, preachy, superficial, empty or just downright dumb and are summarily discarded. Or the idea is intriguing and solid but I just don't know what to do with it. That kind I fill out as much as possible and keep for when I am ready to write them (this is how my next book The Song of Kauri was written and from first idea to final version was maybe around ten years with not much going on inbetween - I had to grow, as a writer, in to the idea ). But the best ideas are matches with a handy strike plate. Not a spark but an instant generous flame (watch out though - cup your hands around that flame, as unexpected and/or strong gusts of wind will blow it out). So where are the matches kept and how do we get them?

In a recent post I mentioned being inspired by the speech of a stuttering schoolboy and the result was my poem Eagle. The driving fragment of thought was 'I own the air' associated with the idea of 'birds' which came into my head after hearing the words (in separate sentences) own, birds and air. And while the resulting poem might not shake up the poetry world or win any prizes, the way it came about does say something about ideas. As I listened to the boy's speech the first time, while I appreciated the magic of what was happening to him I didn't hear what he actually said, I heard 'I own the air'. And this phrase was like a key that unlocked a larger idea about the relationship between birds and the medium they fly in.

I am watching, reading, thinking, observing (different to watching) and listening all the time. I read and watch widely from rubbish to academic material. This seems to make matches turn up more often. And by constantly trying on new ideas, and trying to get idea fires started I recognize when it's a match and not a twig or a knife or a pencil or a carrot. I know Neil Gaiman goes to the Idea Shop in Bognor Regis for his ideas. I'm not sure exactly how my brain goes from A (air, bird, own) to B (I own the air) - it's not a big leap but it came with useful baggage - but I think its important to feed your mind regularly and practice turning ideas into stories until you find one that works. Like a muscle, the more you exercise this process, the fitter it gets. This doesn't mean I get more ideas than the next person, it just means I know what they are when they show up. And then the hard work of turning the ideas into stories begins. How/where do you get your ideas?

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