Ahad, Februari 29, 2004

The tale started, as many tales have started,

'There was once a young man who wished to gain
his Heart's Desire.

And while that is, as beginnings go, not entirely
novel (for every tale about every young man there
ever was or will be could start in a similar
manner) there was much about this young man and
what happened to him that was unusual, although
even he never knew the whole of it.'

--- 'Stardust'

...Every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors,
for example, are always being asked for free
medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal
information, morticians are told how interesting
a profession that must be and then people change
the subject fast. And writers are asked where we
get our ideas from.

In the beginning, I used to tell people the not
very funny answers.Then I got tired of the not
very funny answers, and these days I tell people
the truth:

'I make them up,' I tell them. 'Out of my head.'

People don't like this answer. I don't know why
not. They look unhappy, as if I'm trying to slip
a fast one past them. As if there's a huge
secret, and, for reasons of my own, I'm not
telling them how it's done.

And of course I'm not. Firstly, I don't know
myself where the ideas really come from, what
makes them come, or whether one day they'll stop.
Secondly, I doubt anyone who asks really wants a
three hour lecture on the creative process. And
thirdly, the ideas aren't that important. Really
they aren't. Everyone's got an idea for a book, a
movie, a story, a TV series.

Every published writer has had it - the people
who come up to you and tell you that they've Got
An Idea. And boy, is it a Doozy. It's such a
Doozy that they want to Cut You In On It. The
proposal is always the same - they'll tell you
the Idea (the hard bit), you write it down and
turn it into a scribe (the easy bit), the two of
you can split the money fifty-fifty.

I'm reasonably gracious with these people. I tell
them, truly, that I have far too many ideas for
things as it is, and far too little time. And I
wish them the best of luck.

The Ideas aren't the hard bit. They're a small
component of the whole. Creating believable
people who do more or less what you tell them to
is much harder. And hardest by far is the process
of simply sitting down and putting one word after
another to construct whatever it is you're trying
to build: making it interesting, making it new.

But still, it's the question people want to know.
In my case, they also want to know if I get them
from my dreams. (Answer: no. Dream logic isn't
story logic. Transcribe a dream, and you'll see.
Or better yet, tell someone an important dream -
And I don't give straight answers.)

My sister, who is 20 years of age, persuaded me
to come in to give a talk to her class. Her
lecturer was really enthusiastic ('Her coursemates
have all been making their own writes recently,
so perhaps you could come along and tell them
about being a professional writer. And lots of
little stories. They like the stories.') and in I

They sat on the floor, I had a chair, fifty (or
so)odd pair of eyes gazed up at me. 'When I was
your age, people told me not to make things up,'
I told them. 'These days, they give me money for
it.' For twenty minutes I talked, then they asked

And eventually one of them asked it.

'Where do you get your ideas?'

And I realized I owed them an answer. They
weren't 'old' enough to know any better. And it's
a perfectly reasonable question, if you aren't
asked it weekly.

This is what I told them:

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.

You get ideas when you ask yourself simple
questions. The most important of the questions is
just, What if...?

(What if you woke up with wings? What if your
sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found
out that your lecturers was planning to eat one
of you at the end of term - but you didn't know

Another important question is, If only...

(If only real life was like it is in Hollywood
films. If only I could shrink myself small as a
button. If only a ghost would do my homework.)

And then there are the others: I wonder... ('I
wonder what she does when she's alone...') and If
This Goes On... ('If this goes on telephones are
going to start talking to each other, and cut out
the middleman...') and Wouldn't it be interesting
if... ('Wouldn't it be interesting if the world
used to be ruled by cats?')...

Those questions, and others like them, and the
questions they, in their turn, pose ('Well, if
cats used to rule the world, why don't they any
more? And how do they feel about that?') are one
of the places ideas come from.

An idea doesn't have to be a plot notion, just a
place to begin creating. Plots often generate
themselves when one begins to ask oneself
questions about whatever the starting point is.

Sometimes an idea is a person ('There's a boy who
wants to know about magic'). Sometimes it's a
place ('There's a castle at the end of time,
which is the only place there is...'). Sometimes
it's an image ('A woman, sifting in a dark room
filled with empty faces.')

Often ideas come from two things coming together
that haven't come together before. ('If a person
bitten by a werewolf turns into a wolf what would
happen if a goldfish was bitten by a werewolf?
What would happen if a chair was bitten by a

All fiction is a process of imagining: whatever
you write, in whatever genre or medium, your task
is to make things up convincingly and
interestingly and new.

And when you've an idea - which is, after all,
merely something to hold on to as you begin -
what then?

Well, then you write. You put one word after
another until it's finished - whatever it is.

Sometimes it won't work, or not in the way you
first imagined. Sometimes it doesn't work at all.
Sometimes you throw it out and start again.

I remember, some years ago, coming up with a
perfect idea for a story. It was about a succubus
who gave writers and artists and songwriters
ideas in exchange for some of their lives. I
called it 'Neverwhere'.

It seemed a straightforward story, and it was
only when I came to write it I discovered it was
like trying to hold fine sand: every time I
thought I'd got hold of it, it would trickle
through my fingers and vanish.

I wrote at the time:

I've started this story twice, now, and got about
half-way through it each time, only to watch it
die on my computer screen

'Neverwhere' is, eventually, a movie story. But
nothing I've written for it has ever gotten under
my skin like this story I'm now going to have to
wind up abandoning (with the deadline already a
thing of the past). Probably because it cuts so
close to home. It's the ideas - and the ability
to put them down on paper, and turn them into
stories - that make me a writer. That mean I
don't have to get up early in the morning and sit
on a train with people I don't know, going to a
job I despise.

My idea of hell is a blank sheet of paper. Or a
blank screen. And me, staring at it, unable to
think of a single thing worth saying, a single
character that people could believe in, a single
story that hasn't been told before.

Staring at a blank sheet of paper.


I wrote my way out of it, though. I got desperate
(that's another flip and true answer I give to
the where-do-you-get-your-ideas
question. 'Desperation.' It's up there
with 'Boredom' and 'Deadlines'. All these answers
are true to a point.) and took my own terror, and
the core idea, and crafted. You can read this if
you like. And, somewhere in the writing of this
story, I stopped being scared of the ideas going

Where do I get my ideas from?

I make them up.

Out of my head.

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