Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Idea Store^

^Summer is for reruns, so…

It's a common question for writers:

Where do you get your ideas?

I used to get my ideas from local, independent, mom-and-pop idea stores. Back in the day, it seemed like there was one on every lightbulb corner. You'd wander in, not quite sure what you were looking for, and some nice--and knowledgeable--idea clerk would come over, chat with you for a while, then walk you over to a certain shelf and select the perfect idea.

Why, that's it! How did you know I wanted something in an 80,000-word mystery with a twenty-nine-year-old male protagonist who works in a sandwich shop?

But the indies were overwhelmed by the big-box chain idea stores. Cavernous warehouses full of ideas. You could get lost for days, wandering the aisles looking for that hard-to-locate gem. But try to find someone who really knew ideas to help you? Fuggedaboudit! (Of course, the prices were appealing. Everyday Low Price: Ideas - Twelve for ten cents.)

Then the Internet arrived in a big way. You could go on-line, browse a catalog from the comfort of your own home, and order an idea (hey, order two--save on shipping!) to be delivered to your doorstep. But I never seemed satisfied with the quality of the ideas, and you couldn't hold the idea in your hands and give it a good squeeze to see if it was robust enough. After all, you were going to be with this idea for months, even years. You and that idea better be a good match.

So I was left with only one option. I had to think up my own ideas.

goldstars Once I started, I couldn't stop. Ideas flowed from my head like words from Joe Biden's mouth--nonstop, and some even made sense. I couldn't turn off the idea spigot. And it's still spouting ideas to this day.

The deluge of ideas presents a different challenge--trying to determine which ones are worth pursuing. (I can hear all the writers out there, saying in unison, "Ah, there's the rub.") Many, if not most, of them I talk to have tons (tons!) of ideas. It's time that's in short supply.

So how do you determine which ideas are worthy of your time and energy? Which ideas will make the best books?

Do you:

  • Write out the pros and cons of each idea, then do some kind of cost/benefit analysis?
  • Write a synopsis for each and see which comes easiest? palm
  • Make a visit to your palmist?
  • Go straight to the marketplace and ask your agent or editor what you should work on?
  • Throw the ten most intriguing ideas into a hat and pick one at random?
  • Pick whichever idea lends itself best to having a vampire protagonist? Or a boy wizard?
  • Choose the idea most similar to the last Michael Connelly book?

Any other ideas? I'd settle for a single good one.



Jan Morrison said...

Oh Alan, I love this post! You are too funny.
I was just thinking about ideas because I was over at Friends and Crocidiles, where there was a post on ideas. Ideas are not a problem with me - executing ideas is my problem. The ideas that have translated to actual finished projects (plays, poems, novels) have come to me usually as I overhear a bit of conversation somewhere. My mystery series began as I heard about a weird job an artist I knew had - she was a rockwalker at Peggy's Cove. The cove is a hugely visited site here in Nova Scotia and for awhile the government hired people to walk around and warn silly tourists away from the dangerous edge. Now they just let them go! That started me thinking about someone who does this for a living and what she might find etc... I knew it was a good idea cuz I get all tingly when I hear something. It is like Stephen King's anthropological dig metaphor. I'm just wandering around and I see a tiny piece of King Tut's tomb. Yay!

Anonymous said...

Alan - Oh, this is great! And a good rerun is worth seeing more than once : ). As far as ideas go, I do the brainstorming thing and then talk them out with people who care enough about me to tell me which ideas will work and which really need to put out of everyone's misery. Then I go from there. Oh, and I always make sure my idea has a vampire in there somewhere ; ).

Elspeth Futcher said...

What a wonderful post! I don't know where my ideas come from - somewhere inside the twisted paths inside my brain, I suppose. I know it's workable (perhaps) if I start to be intrigued by the characters. Cut-out characters mean thrown-out ideas.

Dorte H said...

If I had an agent, I´d probably ask her. As it is, I am all on my own: when an idea enters my head, I test it by plunging into plotting (c 2 pages) and afterwards that first chapter. These days I am so fortunate I have some ´virtual´ beta readers (kind people I´ve never met but who are willing to spend time on my crazy ideas and tell me how much they like them).

Unknown said...

Those 1-800 psychic lines would be happy to spend as long as you'd like! going over ideas with you! ;)

I attempt humor, but no one compares to you, Alan.

Alan Orloff said...

Jan - I love the rockwalkers! And when it comes to ideas, tingly is good!

Margot - Vampires are always good. Tingly vampires are even better.

Elspeth - I'm adopting your saying: Cut-out characters mean thrown-out ideas. Don't worry, I'll give you royalties when I use it.

Dorte - I'm sure you don't have crazy ideas. I really liked your idea about the talking otter who can't swim but likes to watch TV and solve crimes.

Crystal - I met my wife on a 1-900 phone line. Oh, not a psychic line...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

At the moment I'm working on the next logical step idea - a sequel to my upcoming book release. Of course, if it doesn't do well, I can scrap that idea!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Ha! Love the Joe Biden simile. :)

I think I need to visit the Idea Store...

Sunny Frazier said...

I'm lucky--I worked with an undercover narcotics team for 11 years and have more than enough plots. Additionally, I do astrology, which helps with creating characters and situations. Feels like cheating. But, they say write what you know. My first book, FOOLS RUSH IN is about a meth dealer we busted; the second, WHERE ANGELS FEAR, is about a sex club we infiltrated. Fun stuff.

pat canterbury said...

I get a lot of ideas from the newspaper but today's television news is full of useful ideas e.g. the M I 6 agent killed and stuffed in a bag in Londaon! That sounds like a Thriller now it's a story I'm going to follow even though I write cozies.
Pat Canterbury

Marja said...

My ideas come from reading and talking to readers. I listen to find out what type of story they like, and what they don't like. For instance, it seems that a lot of people still like a spooky old house, whether it's haunted or not. Then I try to put it all together, and the ideas start coming and they won't let go until I do something with them. Hmmm. I wonder if those little voices I hear in my head are real or story ideas trying to get out.

Alan Orloff said...

Alex - What does logic have to do with this?

Elizabeth - I hear they're running a special this week...

Sunny - I bet you do have some interesting stories. Maybe you should open up a REAL idea store.

Pat - The truth? Nah, who would believe that?

Marja - I always liked the spooky house stories too. And those voices? Just go with the flow.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post and there's not a thing wrong with reruns. I watch them all the time.

I chose the idea that won't leave me alone; that pesters me until I spin around and say "WHAT?!" That's usually when I know I have the best story, because it wants to be told so bad it's about to pee its pants.

Anonymous said...

I really like this post!
I must say that I normally talk out ideas with a friend or just start writing them down and the one where i get that tingle is the one that I go with. Because I know that it is that one that I am going to be able to connect the best with. Sorry I couldn't be of more help!

Liz ^_^

jrlindermuth said...

Not sure where all my ideas come from. They tend to sneak up and give a tiny nudge. If I don't respond at first, they may whack me on the back of the head to get my attention. I do know there are generally more of them than I can deal with. Anyone want to buy some?