Writing Process #1: Ideas

I finished up the first draft of a book yesterday, and since the next thing I’ll be doing is to start work on my next book—whatever that happens to be—it struck me that this would be a good time to carry through on an idea I had a while back, which is to write a series of posts describing my process.

Shall we begin, gentle reader?



You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” – Neil Gaiman

. . . and that really says it all in a nutshell. We all think up stories, every day or even every hour, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. The thing is that most of the time we dismiss them, or just let them drift away. As Gaiman says, writers try not to do that. We want to remember them, cultivate them, turn them into words on paper. And it really isn’t that hard to do that. It’s just a matter of being conscious, when thinking about an idea, that it might make for an interesting story.

I get ideas from lots of places. Occasionally I’ll see something while I’m driving that gets me thinking. A lot of ideas come from reading, and watching TV and movies (I’m not suggesting you copy a story from a movie; what I mean is, there might be some element of another story that sets your thinking off in an intriguing direction). That generally gets me started on expanding that seed of an idea into the beginnings of a story.

And that’s the moment I’m talking about. That’s the time when the writer in you should jump up and say, I JUST GOT AN IDEA FOR A STORY, and you hook the thing and reel it in, and don’t let it drift away. And the more you do that—the more often you can make yourself conscious of the fact that you have an idea, and grab it with both hands—the easier it gets. After a while it becomes almost second nature, and you might be surprised just how quickly that can happen.

When you get an idea, you need to make sure you remember it. It’s extremely easy to think, that’s a great idea for a story, and make a mental note for later. The trouble is, when you come back to it later it’s all, I had this great idea and now I can’t remember what the hell it was, bugger it bugger it bugger bugger bugger. Daydreams are like night dreams; they evaporate. And it’s frustrating as all hell when you know you had this idea that you thought was just brilliant, and now it’s gone.

The answer is: record it. Write it down. Or use a voice recorder. Even just making a note of a keyword or three as a reminder can be enough to bring it back to you when you need it.

Like I said, after a bit, coming up with ideas becomes something you do so often that you have dozens of ideas. And when you want to write, you don’t know which of all these brilliant story ideas you want to go with. You can’t write all of them. The ideas will come faster than you could possibly turn them all into complete books or even short stories, even if you lived a thousand years, I can promise you that. So how do you choose?

Here’s what I do. First, recognise that many of the ideas—most of the ideas, actually—will be crap. And you’ll know it. Tear those ones up and burn them, so you just have the good ones. Then, look at what you have.

Don’t think about what other people might like to read. Don’t think about what would make friends, or family members, or anyone else, will think about the story. (Or if you can’t stop yourself, put it like this: there are something like seven billion people on the planet as I write this. If only one person in a thousand likes your story, that’s still seven million people. So stop worrying.)

And don’t think about what might sell loads of copies. There’s no way to know, anyway.

Look at the ideas you have to choose from, and pick the one you most want to write. In a lot of cases I know which, of three or four completing ideas, I want to write the most. It’s generally the one I’ve been thinking about more than others, but not always. I know it when I see it, and so will you.

Until next time . . .

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