Monday, May 11, 2015

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Where do you get your ideas?

I'm a writer. People ask me that. And when they ask, I want to do this...

Yeah Ke$ha, I don't know either.

Because tearing my hair out is easier than trying to explain how I come up with my ideas. Take my current project...

Jack rides his bike from Portland to Seattle in January because his maybe-ex-boyfriend's mom is in the hospital and he doesn't want to accept the gift of an airplane ticket. Will his stubborn streak end things for good, or can he and Gregory find a way to rekindle their love?

As hard as it is to summarize a 200 page story in fifty words, it's even harder to explain how I came up with it in the first place. Most people who aren't writers (or artists, or musicians, or participants in any other kind of creative endeavor) think we must carry around some magical fountain from which all good things flow.

Instead, I feel more like a pug doing bicep curls. The initial concept - whether it's a photograph or a song lyric or a mental image - comes from...somewhere...and then it's all heavy lifting while I figure out the story's shape. 

Because really, when it comes right down to it, there are only seven types of stories in the world. According to a guy named Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, you can tell a story that's
  • man against man
  • man against nature
  • man against himself
  • man against God
  • man against society
  • man caught in the middle
  • man and woman
Of course, if those are a little abstract, here's another way of looking at the same list...(also from the post by Len Wilson

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedies
  • Tragedies
  • Rebirth
So really, all you have to do is pick something from one of these lists, come up with a couple characters, and you're golden.

Hold on, Adam. Wait till I get to my point.

The thing is, especially when you're writing genre fiction, the tropes - some would say clichés - do govern a lot of your choices. How many fantasy novels can you think of that involve a quest? How many romances start with a friends-to-lovers premise? The trick is taking a standard story structure and giving it a fresh spin. 

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder even titled a chapter Give Me the Same Thing...Only Different. So, you know, take something you've heard before and put it in a different century or a different country or a different planet. (I swear someday I'm going to rewrite Wuthering Heights with Heathcliffe as an L.A. biker. Don't steal that. It's my idea. Mine.)

As Mr. Snyder puts it...
“You can be near the cliché, you can dance around it, you can run right up to it, and almost embrace it. But at the last second you must turn away.”

While it may be exceedingly unlikely that you'll come up with a truly unique idea, the game is to take something that's been done a thousand times before and make it your own. And when you do that, well...

Happy Dance!

The place where the magic happens is when you make YOUR friends-to-lovers story absolutely unique. Where you take an old Harlequin Romance blurb & rework it as  a m/m romance (& I totally just stole that idea from Josh Lanyon's fantastic book, Man, Oh Man: Writing Quality M/M Fiction). Where you "borrow" from Shakespeare or People Magazine or a story your college roommate told you.

Ideas are EVERYWHERE, people, and my own ideas don't come from anyplace special. I keep my eyes, ears, and heart open, and when it all comes together...


So where do you get your ideas from? I'd love to hear from you...

Gratuitous Prince. Because, Prince.


  1. Great post, Liv!
    Funny, I JUST sent off my Heathcliff as a LA biker tale. Huh. Funny we both came up with the same idea...;0)



  2. Times like these make me want to quote Empire Records: "Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear!"

    1. And I know you have a bunny farm, Amanda. Your ideas be hopping up from everywhere...

  3. They are islands floating in the void. I just have to find the puzzle pieces and stick them together. Sounds so easy, right?

    1. Such a practical tip! We can all learn from you, sweetie!


  4. OMG too funny! I was just writing about this same topic for my next blog post, especially the '7 plots' point. I'll wait a few months and do it differently later. Great post, Liv!

    1. Oh noes!! I'm sorry sweetie! We might have to start a list somewhere to keep track of who's doing what.

  5. I once answered that question with "Drugs". I think I scared her off LOL I was kidding people...kidding!

    1. Drugs help, you know, sometimes...


      Okay, kidding. ;)

  6. Yes exactly! And someone needs to tell Sir Arthur that women have stories too!

    1. Point to Mary. Though I'm not sure we could convince Sir Arthur of that, even if we tried...

  7. That pug doing bicep curls gives me an idea for a story...


  8. So the advice is take another story and just change it up a little?

    1. Nope, the advice is to do your homework, to read Blake Snyder's Save the Cat and get familiar with the conventions and tropes associated with the genre you're choosing to write in. The advice is to keep your eyes and ears and heart open to all the amazing stuff around you, so that when an idea comes you'll be ready. The advice is to acknowledge that there's nothing new under the sun, except for the unique perspective that is only YOURS.
      Thanks for checking out my post. Cheers!