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Stringing Words Together
by Rachel Kehrli

You Can’t Find Ideas With A Map and a Compass, or, How To Fall Flat on Your Face With Your Nose in a Story

To start this off, I’m going to write about the core of every writer’s worst nightmare. This is the little nagging thought that keeps us awake at night, the little notion that plagues our every waking moment. What if, what if I run out of ideas?

This is also the most common thing that published writers get asked, by other writers and non-writers alike. The implication is, of course, that ideas come from a set place and those lucky few pioneers who spit out idea after idea have been lucky enough to stumble on it and mark it on their map. I wish. Could you imagine the fortune somebody could make selling those maps on Ebay?

Or forged maps. Heh heh heh…

Seriously, though. If you want to be even remotely successful at thinking of ideas to write about you must do one teensy tiny easy little thing. It’s something everybody – yes, everybody – is capable of. This is the biggest secret of the writing industry.

You must be alive.

At some point. Ever.

The stories that everybody remembers fifty, one hundred… a couple thousand… years after the writer has died were based on… life. Originally. Tolkien? His biggest and most popular work was based on medieval English life and the fairy tales that he heard and studied. Homer? The Iliad may or may not have been based on an actual Trojan war, but it was at least based on the culture and beliefs of the Greeks.

Okay, okay, I can hear your sarcasm already. “What am I supposed to do, write about 5th period gym class!?”

Well. Why not? It’s one of those old maxims of writing that nobody really wants to listen to when they first hear it. Write about something you know. Oh yeah, you might say, that really works with dragons and spaceflight. Amazingly, it does. Sure, you don’t know about riding a dragon, but you do know what its like to do something for the first time. Maybe it’d feel kind of like driving a car for the first time? I mean, feeling like you’re in control – and maybe a little nervous about whether or not you really are in control – of something that can take you where you want to go, or kill a lot of people if you screw up.

You should read a lot too. This way, you can get an idea of which ideas have already been trashed and tromped and smashed into the dusty road of Writerdom. Knowing which stories these are will help you know if the idea you just ran into with a pick axe is actually Story Idea Gold, instead of more dirt.

Don’t just read fantasy and science fiction stories, either. Some of my best story ideas were inspired at least a little by the classics. (Well, I’m rather fond of the ideas, anyway.)

Even if you find no ideas or inspiration from the stories you read, they’ll still teach you how to write. The more you read, after all, the better you’ll understand how to put a story together in a way that makes sense and is interesting.

Sometimes, even when all of your idea gathering plans fail, you still get that idea you’ve been waiting for. It’ll come flying out toward where you’re picking daisies in left field… okay, so imagine a baseball here, people. It flies toward you at Super Amazing Speed – with the cover ripped, just like in every baseball movie ever. Just when you least suspect it, when you’ve found a pretty flower to finish off your daisy chain, it smacks you. Right in the head.

Except, since it’s a story idea and not a baseball, it won’t hurt. Unless, of course, you’re in the habit of running around naked and dripping bathwater screaming “Eureka!” and you run in front of a car. Don’t do that. Calmly, if you can, sit down and write out your idea. Maybe even just jot down the basic idea and pocket it if you don’t have time to write it yet, or if you want to let it stew.

Restaurant napkins are a popular place to write these things. Syrup, however, does not make very good ink.

Anyway… ideas don’t come from a place, and while I say you can get them by living and reading and generally carrying on, they don’t come from life itself either. Nope! They come from you. Somewhere deep inside your brain is a little creativity node, and its entire job is just to take what you see and hear and feel, and churn it around into a story idea. In other words, don’t worry. You’ll think of something.

Please don’t use creativity node as an answer on your anatomy test.


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