“Where do you get your ideas?”
I’ve heard a number of exasperated authors describe how often people ask them this. Interviewers ask, fans ask, even family asks. It’s a silly question with no good answer, because really, what are you supposed to say?
(Neil Gaiman’s answer: “I make them up. Out of my head.” He says people are somehow never pleased with this.)
But the part I find interesting is what authors almost invariably say next: that the premise of the question is flawed. That the question implies ideas are precious and hard to come by, when on the contrary, ideas grow like weeds. They explain they have more ideas than they know what to do with, more ideas than they’ll write in a lifetime. That it’s the choosing and refining and developing the ideas—the sitting down and doing the work—that’s hard.
When I say I find this interesting, I mean that I find it terrifying.
I don’t have too many ideas. I have never had too many ideas. My writing life exists in two possible states: either I have an idea and am developing it with single-minded desperation because it is The Idea I Have and I may never have another, or else I have finished working on my idea and now have zero ideas.
Let me state for the record how uncomfortable and scary it is to be a fantasy writer with zero ideas.
It’s possible I’m the only person with this problem. Maybe every other writer is one of the Zillion-Idea People, and I am the only One-or-Zero-Idea Person. But I fundamentally believe that the world is very big, and so I suspect there is at least one more of you out there. Clinging to your idea by your fingernails. Sitting in the wreckage of years of effort, staring at your finished novel, wondering what the fuck you’re going to work on now.
You are not alone.
If you are out there, my fellow One-or-Zero-Idea People, here is what little I have learned about clawing substance out of the void:
Pay attention to what obsesses you. What thoughts do you churn over when you’re not thinking about anything useful? What terrifies you? What do you hope for that makes no sense? What pointless corner of the Internet eats hours of your night? What stories do you love—and not just the well-constructed stories that everybody loves: what shitty, poorly written, disastrously problematic embarrassing drivel do you adore beyond reason?
I’ve come to regard these things as clues.
An idea worth writing is one that reaches into your guts and grabs hard and won’t let go. I’ve learned to believe my next idea is out there, and that it will echo the things I can’t look away from. I believe if I twist and chip and shape and pummel these hints and obsessions, something will rise out of the nothingness. Something I love and fear enough to write a book about.