So Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I’m about to do something very foolish. Before I tackle the question of where ideas come from, I’m going to provide a funny, insightful, seemingly-off-the-cuff video of the master Neil Gaiman saying that the question has no answer.

Then afterwards, I’m going to try to answer anyway. I’ll give you three ways to generate ideas, and one special tip.

Method 1: What If?

At 2:40, Gaiman describes the moment of inspiration as “it’s that moment where you’re sitting, thinking, what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?”

We can actually break down what he’s just said, along with the moment before it. He started with something that’s well established, and then took it in a new direction. “What if?” 

You can start from lore and clichés as knowledge, or something about our world. This question is most often used in science fiction, but it can work for any genre.

We’ve heard about fountains of immortality. What if there was one on your property, and a family came back to use it again? (Tuck Everlasting.) We know about faerie godmother gifts. What if a faerie godmother’s gift was obedience? (Ella Enchanted.) Siblings are often difficult. What if a boy’s parents adopted a chimp and tried to teach it sign language? (Half-Brother.) Cemeteries are cool and filled with ghosts. What if a boy was raised by those ghosts in the cemetery? (The Graveyard Book.)

It’s that wonderful moment of looking at something from a new angle. Then, to build a story, the obvious question: “What would happen next?”

Method 2: Images

Gaiman soon realizes his werewolf chair story has to be winter, so that you can see chair tracks in the snow. This leap is caused by visualization, an image.

In my post on simplexity, I gave another example of building stories from images: Aimee Bender’s short story “The Healer”. From the image of a girl with a hand made of fire, and another with a hand made of ice, the whole story springs. The leading question is not “What happens next?” but rather, “Who are these people? What do they care about? Why is this happening?”

After you’ve got those handled, you can get into “What happens next?” Chances are you’ll have to walk your way through all of these questions before you’re ready to start actually writing the story.

Many writers get these images in dreams, but there are many possibilities. It could be something that haunts you, or another case of “What if?” that leads to it. Or something you’ve seen in art that you would like to take in a different direction.

A few kids’ books that could have started from images: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd.

Method 3: Theme

The last way I’m going to talk about isn’t mentioned in the video, but it’s exemplified in Gaiman’s newest kids’ book: Fortunately, The Milk.

In Gaiman’s earlier book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, (Definitely a “What if?” book) he came to feel that he was teaching the world thatfathers were oblivious, newspaper-reading occasionally carrot-eating lumps of distraction.” Fortunately, The Milk is his way to make up for that, by giving us a novel that has a father on a wild adventure.

Which means, the idea for the book came from a theme he wanted to portray.

As kids’ writers, we’re often told not to do this. “Don’t build your book around a lesson,” they say, even though it worked out great for books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

When kids’ books are built around a strong theme well, they often wind up as classics: Feed by M. T. Anderson; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, etc.

Apparently The Wizard of Oz is about using the gold standard vs. the silver.

Special Tip: Don’t Stop

This is the most important trick. It takes time to find an idea worth writing a whole novel about. There are writers who believe first thought equals best thought (ex. Stephen King) but not many. Most agree you’re likely to find your best ideas if you write a list of thirty things, then go back to find your favourite.

There’s a Vonnegut quote (I thought it was in A Man Without A Country, but I can’t find it tonight) where a friend tells him that he has an idea for a novel. Vonnegut responds that’s too bad, because his friend is funny. One idea is enough for a serious novel, but a funny novel takes hundreds of ideas.

I’m not sure if that comparison is accurate. What I do know is that every novel I’ve tried to write has taken hundreds of ideas. (Eep! Maybe that means I’m funny!)

That’s actually why I find answering the “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” question difficult. It’s not because I don’t know how to get ideas. It’s that the ideas in my novel aren’t just one idea. They are a bunch of different ideas that got jammed together and then had the sides filed off because they weren’t fitting together well.

If it ends up looking like one idea, then yay. I did my job.

The trickier part of this question is really about recognizing a good idea, and knowing how to turn a so-so idea into a good one. Sounds like an idea for next week!

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Five Great Kids’ Lit Villains

Villains can make or break a book. I’ve heard it said they’re especially important for sequels, when we want to see the heroes tested by something harder and from a new angle.

The ones I find most interesting are the ones who get inside protagonists, playing off an insecurity. It might be that they trigger an especially strong fear or hatred. It might be that they trigger tenderness at the same time, making the hero and reader unsure how to react.

5. Gwendolen Chant

(Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones)

from deviantart user kecky

It’s hard to list all the reasons why Gwendolen is so memorable without giving away major twists from Charmed Life. Suffice to say that she’s able to make Cat squirm in very interesting ways. She is a powerful foe, but it’s the way that she uses her power that create images and conflicts.

The picture above is kind of a spoiler already. Those who’ve read the novel will get the significance of the match. Those who haven’t read the novel, should.

4. The Other Mother

(Coraline by Neil Gaiman)

from Tabitha Raincloud on iRez

Gaiman has talked about how parents are often more creeped out by Coraline than children are. There’s just something incredibly disturbing about having the villain be a loving mother with buttons for eyes.

The Other Mother is perfectly designed to fit into what Coraline thinks she wants. She’s tempting because we all understand the want for love, and terrifying because we see there’s something off about what she’s offering.

She’s also difficult to vanquish, and even when it seems like Coraline is safe from her, she isn’t. The Other Mother breaks the usual rules of Magic Door Stories, by refusing to stay only in her world.

3. Goth

(Silverwing Trilogy by Kenneth Oppel)

image from Wikimedia Commons

Goth is a gigantic, fervently-zealous, cannibal monster who escaped from a zoo. Are you scared yet? Because that’s terrifying!

He’s a good match against Shade who is the runt of his litter, an especially small bat. Compared to humans, Goth might not be so bad, but on the scale of bats he’s a huge. There are several moments when Shade fantasizes about being as strong as the cannibal.

I’ve said before that I don’t like generic evil, and I don’t think Goth qualifies as that. He is an embodiment of fear and death, but he’s also manipulative and plays on Shade’s uncertainties, trying to rip him apart from his friends, and his hope.

2. Dolores Umbridge

(Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling)

from deviantart user *WayForge

We’ve seen this one before

so who took #1?

1. Long John Silver

(Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson)

from deviantart user vitorart

Long John Silver is not only an iconic character–the crutch, the parrot, the grin–he also gets deep inside Jim Hawkins.

Early in the novel, Silver is a father figure to Hawkins. This is a hugely important part of the relationship that isn’t always done well in adaptations. Long John Silver is cutthroat, but he’s also jovial. And Hawkins looks up to him.

A lot of Silver’s power comes from physical prowess, but it’s also from charisma. And it’s not just the other pirates that follow him. Readers do as well, to the point that we share Hawkins’s grim hope and relief that Silver escapes with money.

My personal fondness for the character is cemented by Tim Curry’s portrayal in Muppet Treasure Island. I would love to post his final scene, but that would be a spoiler, and I can’t find it on youtube anyway.

Instead, I’ll leave you with this…

Next week, I’ll tackle one of the most common questions that writers get asked: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Outlining for my Inner Child: Part 1

image from flickr user Sarah (Rosenau) Korf

In a conversation with the Sydney Morning Herald, George R. R. Martin describes two kinds of writers:

“I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.

That being said, I do know where I’m going. I do have the broad outlines of the story worked out in my head, but that’s not to say I know all the small details and every twist and turn in the road that will get me there.”

My brain likes logic. It likes categories and lists. Until I got to calculus, I was actually better at math and physics than language arts. My current writing ability is highly influenced by knowledge of grammar. Therefore, outlines and architecture.

To be honest, I think most of my favourite writers are gardeners though. Not all, but most, especially in fiction for adults. Neil Gaiman compares writing to driving on a foggy road where he can’t see very far ahead. George Saunders says it’s useless to think about writing when he’s not actually sitting with his work, because everything is determined by what the words on the page are, what they imply and require.

I often say my favourite writer is Kurt Vonnegut. Although he talks about outlines in the introduction/first chapter of Slaughterhouse 5, his architecture doesn’t sound very solid.

“… I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper.

I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the vertical lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.”

That sounds beautiful, but not very solid…

As such, it was a great relief when I heard Kenneth Oppel talk at the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable last year. His presentation showed the process he uses to write a novel. After spending time in a “dream phase”, imagining the world and drawing diagrams, the second step he takes is to create a beat sheet of every single thing that will happen in the novel.

Oppel’s diagram of the ship from Airborn

After that, I started to see evidence of architecture more often. Screenwriting requires heavy outlines because the process is so long, and there are so many people involved. Chris Sanders talks about the importance of getting the structure for How to Train Your Dragon right on the first try, because they wouldn’t have time or money to fix it later.

At the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Arthur Slade talked about how important his planning phase was. Then I came across/remembered a few outlines I’d seen online. And from authors I really liked.

This is one of Scott Westerfeld’s meta-documents for Behemoth, called a “Pace Chart”. He has other documents that show the timeline for his events, so he can figure out whether it’s Wednesday or Saturday. The red/blue pins indicate POV characters. Notice the importance that Westerfeld places on building tension before the action sequence. (The program he’s using is Scrivener.)

This is J. K. Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix. The only part I can read are the months along the left side. Personally, I love the smudges. It’s a great visualization of how many different plots she’s kicking along at once. I’ve spent the most time studying the Philosopher’s Stone, and the rhythm of set-ups is relentless.

Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch-22. Another grid chart, like Rowling. Maybe I should try this format.

Brandon Sanderson identifies strengths and weaknesses to each approach. He says gardening leads to realistic characters and smaller more interesting details. I think it also works better for yearning and motivation. Architects are better at plotting–ensuring that you have a dark moment at the end of Act 2, a few big action scenes, and a show-stopper at the climax. If the pages fly by and you’re impressed by the ending, there’s likely been a plan.

When you start to think this way, you can get a feel for how a book was probably written. I don’t have evidence, but I would bet that the Hunger Games and the Grapes of Wrath were both heavily planned. The plots are evenly divided into thirds, and the finales are airtight. The push and pull of emotions, shooting from positive to negative, also points at an outlined plot. Furthermore, Collins has a background in television.

If something is madcap inventive in a certain way, like Half World by Hiromi Goto or the The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, I suspect gardening. I also see it in introspective characters, or when conventional plot pacing stretches to fit the character’s needs (we can’t have that moment yet, she’s not ready for it!) as in Plain Kate by Erin Bow or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

I expected Susin Nielsen to be an architect, based on her experience with TV, but when I heard her describe her process, it sounded more like Martin’s. She said she knew things that were going to happen, but she mostly followed her characters. Which shows. They are highly relatable, and we get to know them instead of speeding off to the next plot point. When her climaxes do come, they’re compressed and intense.

As Martin said, the binary is an oversimplification. In reality, all writers do a bit of both: gardening and architecture. The desire to even divide this way feels like a product of my logic-brain getting loose. If I didn’t actually see patterns I’d stop thinking this way though. For me, it’s a helpful framework. Even if only to know there’s more than one way to write a novel, and that my way is valid.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss another fundamental division I see among people who write for children. There’s a hint in the title of this post. 😉