If you listen to interviews of authors, one of the questions you’ll hear most often is: “Where do you get your ideas?”
I hear a plaintive note in this question. It is asked so often. Sometimes with reference to a specific work or series (like with George R. R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire); other times with reference to the grand sweep of a particularly extensive catalogue (like with Stephen King and his dozens of bestsellers across some forty years). Things actually come rather amusingly to a head in one sitting, when George R. R. Martin asks a similar question of Stephen King. But I digress.
Perhaps I’m projecting but I hear a note of jealousy in this question. Hidden in it, there always seems to me another question: what’s the difference between you and me? Why do you have a bestselling series? How can I get to where you are?
Anyone reading this already knows that I do not have my own bestselling fantasy series. Nor do I have even one dozen bestsellers. But allow me anyway to suggest that this is the wrong question.
The whole focus on ideas misses the point of what makes a good story.
A Good Story doesn’t come from Good Ideas; Good Ideas come from a Good Story
One of the bestselling novels of the twentieth century is about a man who goes out in a boat, catches a fish, and then returns to port. No, but, like, it’s a really big fish. One of the best short stories I’ve ever read is a little number called “Brokeback Mountain,” about two cowboys who are in love but are scared to tell anyone. So instead, they live sad parallel lives. The point is that billions of people go fishing. And billions of people live cultures that wouldn’t accept them if they came out as queer. So neither of these is an especially exciting idea. Why then does each form the seed of such an exciting story?
Granted, these stories are both “realistic” fiction, while Martin and King are both fantasy authors. But (and you’ll have to take my word for this) the only real difference between a fantasy author on the one hand and a realist like Hemingway or Proulx on the other is that the fantasy author couches their observations of the world around them in metaphor. That’s it. That’s the difference.
So we’re still left wondering: what’s the better question to ask? What’s a better way to sort out why some writers are more successful than others? Here’s one that comes to mind: How long between when you started writing and when you wrote this piece of writing? Because ultimately, writing is a skill. And skills take practice. And practice takes love.
“Where do you Get your Ideas?” From Practice.
I can actually tell you from personal experience that if you do not love something, it is likely that you will not practice it. Leastwise, you will not practice more than you have to. Part of the reason I am no longer an active member of the academic community is because there were aspects of academia that I was unable or unwilling to practice. It was hard to admit as much. Because I wanted so much to be an academic; to be a professor. Or maybe just to be seen as one. I wanted leather patches on my tweed blazers, but I didn’t want to do the things that are required to keep up with the field. But I didn’t want to stay abreast of the professional literature. I didn’t want to spend an hour a day writing scholarly essays.
It was really hard admitting all of that to myself. But I’m glad I did. And I don’t consider my time spent as an academic to be wasted. Well. Not all of it. Still. I am so grateful to myself that I got off that road when I did. I could have kept lying to myself.
Once I stopped my academic writing, the next question was: what can I write? I knew I wanted to write. But what? Well, it just so happens that I am an expert in myself. Hence essays like this one. And it just so happens I like telling stories. Hence I have been doing that, as well.
No Simple Answers
So where did Martin get the idea for A Song of Ice and Fire? As nice as it would be to have a simple answer, I don’t think you can ask “where do you get your ideas” without answering the question: “How long have you been writing.” Ideas are nothing without the experience to develop them. Martin, by his own account, wrote his first stories when he was quite young. Before he was ten years old, he was writing stories and circulating them among the neighborhood children in exchange for nickels. His first official byline came in 1971, while in his twenties. And so he had been writing in one form or another for about forty years when, in the mid 90s, he finally sold A Game of Thrones to the Bantam Spectra imprint at Random House.
So when someone asks Martin a question like “where do you get your ideas,” let’s say there’s some jealousy behind the question; some envy. It’s only natural. But go easy on yourself. You’re not comparing like with like. You’re comparing the work of someone who’s been a professional writer since early childhood with the writing of someone who, in all probability, has not.
Not: “Where do you Get your Ideas?” But Rather: “How do you Want to Spend your Time?”
There’s a saying that’s at least twenty years old that goes: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is right now. But implicit in that saying is a whole life. You didn’t plant that tree twenty years ago. You had your reasons. Not everyone has the leisure to develop a project, a hobby, a garden, at any given stage of their lives. At the age when George Martin was selling his first stories to the neighborhood children, a lot of us were still learning how our minds work. A lot of us were actively surviving childhood trauma.
So yes. If you have thirty or more consecutive years of practice, maybe you too could write Game of Thrones. But if not, we come to the next question. Not a question for a famous author this time; a question for any author. And that question is: do you want to carve out some hours in your day or week to write, starting now?
Forget whether you’re going to write a bestselling fantasy series. Forget whether you are going to write for other people. If you are going to get good, you have to practice. And if you are going to practice, you have to enjoy the process of practicing. So the real question isn’t: what do you want to be good at? The real question is: what do you like to practice?
The Practice is the Point
At any rate, I can already hear the frustration of the reader: You mean I have to devote myself to this writing stuff every day for years and years and never have anything to show for it? That’s not what I mean, though. If the idea of writing for years and years doesn’t appeal to you then don’t do it. It’s not for everyone. Just as academic writing didn’t appeal to me; but essays and fiction very much appeal to me. And just as I was blinded by the elbow-patches, maybe you like the idea of calling yourself a writer. Or maybe you love writing something that has an undeservedly low reputation–fan-fiction, perhaps, or romance, or erotica. You’re afraid to take the plunge and do what you really love because you’re worried about what others will think.
When I looked inside of myself and asked: What is it you love doing? I had the answer near to hand. I love playing piano, and I love writing. But not everyone knows what they enjoy doing. Not everyone had the privileged education I had that allowed them to sample different interests; different hobbies and pursuits. So take time, if you have time, to try things. Try photography instead; or quilting, or drawing, or film. Video games can also be a good use of your time. As can volunteering. Or chess. Or just spending time with friends and family.
The point is: no pressure. Or rather, any pressure has to come from within. Take a moment to get to know yourself. Ask yourself what you do to create meaning in your life. And if it’s writing, drop me an email, and let me know what I can do to help.
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