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Some Thoughts About Ideas

by Floyd Largent

I have a confession to make: Sometimes I’m a little jealous of my clients, the writers who entrust their literary children to me.

Sometimes I’m a lot jealous. While I’m no slouch in the intelligence department, some of the ideas my clients come up with just blow me away—they’re things I never would have thought of myself. I feel the same way about one of my favorite writers, Brandon Sanderson. His magical systems are always unique and amazingly complex. Even the worlds in his Cosmere, the shared universe of many of his books, all have different, meticulously-worked-out magical systems, some more than one, despite the fact that the magic all flows from a single source (apparently). All have their specific limits within which they operate, and he always sticks to the rules.

digital visualization of booksI’ve had the honor of working with writers from all walks of life, including doctors, lawyers, and college professors. Not surprisingly, their writing is often colored by their experience. You should, after all, write what you know—advice that sometimes breaks down in the speculative genres, as I doubt many of us have experienced alien invasions, explored “strange, new worlds,” or survived a zombie apocalypse. That said, doctors and lawyers who apply biology or legal issues to their fiction to craft something unique often come up with wonderful concepts undreamt of in my philosophy.

As a historian, anthropologist, and archaeologist by training, I apply my knowledge of those fields to my own work, so I understand the concept. But some of these guys are just so good it’s hard not to envy them.

That Post Office Box

Every popular writer gets asked the same question ad nauseum: “Where do you get your ideas?” There’s an in-joke in the science fiction writing community, apparently started by Harlan Ellison, that they get their ideas from a post office box in Schenectady, New York. You send them $2.00 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and they send you a story idea in a plain brown wrapper. Barry Longyear even published a collection of stories titled It Came from Schenectady, wherein he recounts the tale.

As a writer, you know that your ideas come from everywhere—and nowhere. Sometimes the best ones seem to strike out of the blue. This happens when your subconscious—which never stops working—puts a few fragments and facts together and realizes they fit, whereupon it hands the idea over to you. That’s the “nowhere” part. The everywhere part comes from anywhere: dreams, anecdotes, interesting facts, quotes, a title idea, a mental image, even a casual aside in another writer’s story. The stories of ideas sparked by brief snatches of overheard conversation are too numerous to mention.

Usually, it’s the ideas your subconscious produces that drive you to the keyboard and push you to get them out ASAP. Again, such stories are legion. The scraps you normally pick up, though, are rarely ready-made for a story; they need work to develop. You can’t just try to remember the idea, or it may slip away; we’ve all had that happen. But you also can’t let the shiny thing distract you and usurp your mental energy while you’re working on something else, either. This is where the Idea File comes in.

Ideas are like slippery fish. The best way to pin them down is with a pen or pencil; as one of my business clients says, “If you think it, ink it.” Alternately, you can keep one of those little digital recorders in your pocket, use the notes app of your cell phone, or send yourself a voicemail; whatever works for you. Later, be sure to transfer your ideas to your written Idea File.

Back in the pre-PC dark ages, my Idea File was literally a manila folder, which I delved into when inspiration failed to strike. Nowadays I collect ideas in a computer file that’s among those always transferred when I move from one machine to the next. I recommend you do the same, and review the file regularly to see what might fit with something else to form a synergetic whole. I’ve had idea scraps that occurred to me years apart come together this way, and I’m sure any veteran writer can say the same.

Be aware, though, that other people can stumble across the same ideas as you, so don’t wait forever to write the resulting story. For years, I toyed with the idea of a “zombie” who recovered from his illness, and then had to face the memories of what he’d been and done during his period of infection. I wondered how he’d react, and what he’d do about it. But I never found a good angle or sufficient drive to write the story; and since then, I’ve seen a few that came close, including the book/movie Warm Bodies. So now I have to wait a while before I try to find a better angle, or give up on the idea altogether.

Meanwhile, if you can write a viable story based on the idea, go for it! I may not be able to write it myself, but I can be your post office box in Schenectady. Maybe you can be someone else’s.

Keep Writing!


Book Editor Floyd Largent‘s first love in fiction is science fiction/fantasy.

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