The other day, I ran into this conversation in which two well-known authors were discussing their ideas on Twitter:
1. All authors dread the question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” This is because there is NO ANSWER. #TenTweetsAboutGettingIdeas
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) February 4, 2016
True. I once answered: ‘The same place you get yours!’ to a small boy. ‘I never have ideas,’ was the glum response. https://t.co/fyEU1iU79h
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) February 4, 2016
When I was a bookseller, I heard a whole lot of people ask a whole lot of authors the same question. It came up no matter who they were talking to, whether they were talking about a children’s book or a literary novel.
Where do you get your ideas?
The author–who knows the difference between an idea and a novel–usually responds in one of two ways. He might say something like what Rowling said. I get my ideas from the same place you get yours. Nowhere special. Ideas are all around us.
Or they might list the various places they’ve found the seeds that turned into their book. Working with preschoolers. Reading the newspaper. Talking with friends.
And the questioners almost always walk away unsatisfied, because that answer–the honest, true, simple answer–isn’t what they wanted to know.
What they really want to know is:
Why do my ideas look so pale compared to Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or Little House on the Prairie? How do you get from that quivering nighttime fear to the Shining? What makes a moment of awe turn into Star Wars?
What do you do differently? What do you know that I don’t?
What I know that you don’t is this:
A novel isn’t one idea. It’s a collection of them. An assembly of them. Asking where I get my ideas is like asking where I get my Legos. I DO get them the same place you get yours. But then, I put them together.
I build big ideas out of little ideas. That’s the whole, entire answer to your question.
You start at the beginning, with something very, very small:
I want to write about aliens.
And then, you keep working, and asking questions.
What kind of aliens? Blue aliens. Just blue aliens? No. Blue alien refugees. And if you keep putting little ideas together long enough, you wind up with a novel.
It’s hard to look at a novel, and see the individual bricks, especially if you’ve never seen one of the bricks sitting all alone on a table.
But that’s how I build my stories. The same way you build the Taj Mahal out of Legos. One insignificant, unimpressive brick at a time.