Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Idea Store

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.



Lisa Bork said...

Ah, Alan, you forgot all those free ideas friends and relatives give you when they find out you're a writer. Warehouses could be built for those, too.

Let's see--I say go with the idea that has the characters who talk to you the most in the shower and while you're driving the car.

Or you could get a Magic 8 Ball and ask it questions like the kids do.

G.M. Malliet said...

Lisa has nailed this. The free ideas you get from people who know you're a writer are best. Doesn't matter that I write traditionals - I have an inventory of ideas for spy thrillers if you'd like to borrow some.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Like Gin, I keep an inventory of ideas, both for my two series in progress and for stand alones or new series. And I'm with Lisa, if characters and plots are pestering me, they end up next in the chute for when I finish the current book I'm working on.

I usually ignore any ideas given me by well-meaning friends, fans and family (sorry folks, but those are YOUR stories, not mine). Only exception was the idea for using a corn maze (Corpse on the Cob, Feb. 2010), which my niece recommended.

Time is our biggest enemy. I could write 3-4 books a year if I didn't have the time problem. Sigh...

Terri Thayer said...

You forgot this one, Alan. Throw it on the wall and see what sticks.

Alan Orloff said...

Wow, those are some great ideas. I can tell you've been at this longer than I have.

Lisa- Love the Magic 8 Ball! Why shouldn't I make story idea decisions the same way I make life decisions?

G.M. - I think you'd be good writing spy thrillers. There must be some spy thriller awards you haven't won yet :)

Sue Ann - My kids pester me. Does that mean I should write about them? (BTW, what's your niece's number? I can always use good maze ideas.)

Terri - I would, but my wall's kinda messy from all the other crap I chuck at it to see what sticks!

And is there really a warehouse big enough for all those ideas people pass along to us? I mean, on this planet?

Jane said...

I like to do the pros and cons thing. It at least makes me write out a few major details about each idea... and by the time I'm done, I know which one grabs me most, even if it's not necessarily the one with the most pros.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Loved your post!

If I knew where my ideas came from, I certainly wouldn't tell anybody. Wouldn't that be like the Colonel giving away his Kentucky Fried Chicken secret recipe?

Mystery Writing is Murder

Cricket McRae said...


Actually, I agree with Lisa, especially the part about the characters talking to you in the shower. Why is the shower such a great place to think? Positive ions or something?

Deborah Sharp said...

Now you've given me an idea. I'm writing something about a wizard who's also a vampire .... Cute post!