Nudging the Muse

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Nudging the Muse

shovelWriters generally hate being asked where they get their ideas. Neil Gaiman tackled the issue on his website (my favorite reply he used to give to the question is “From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis”). In On Writing Stephen King quipped that he got his ideas from “a small, bloodthirsty elf who lives in a hole under my desk.” Of course, if you can’t afford trips to Bognor Regis and you feel the imprisonment of elves, however thirsty for blood they are,  to be inhumane, you’re likely forced to come up with more creative ways to speed the muse.

King (after the elf admission) recommended asking “what if” questions for inspiration. Other authors scour the news for ideas, and look for simple stories they can then adapt and personalize. Some writers look to prompts for inspiration.

I recently plucked Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book off my shelf, a book given as a gift that I’d never opened before. Flipping through the pages, I found that Heffron’s book is filled with over 400 prompts and exercises to get the ideas flowing. The exercises vary from things like, “Put a character in a place where he doesn’t speak the native language” to “Write about a time you did something hurtful but did not feel guilty.”Are these useful? To some, maybe, but my immediate reaction was to say, “Oh, right! THAT’S why I never opened this book before.” But that’s just me. Maybe you’ll write a terrific story about an American girl in Venice who doesn’t speak Italian and keeps pushing people into the canals without feeling bad about it.

So how about you? What gets the ideas flowing when it comes to your writing? Is it “What if” questions? Watching the news? Pulling prompts from a book? A combination, or none of these?

  1. Ideas usually come at me unexpectedly. I just got an idea for a picture book after my son left two of his toys (a gnome and a hedgehog) on the breakfast table. They were just sitting there as if chatting and the conversation came into my head. I’d never ever thought to write a picture book though I own shelves of them.

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  2. I’m new to fiction writing, so I don’t yet have a tried-and-true solution. But lately I’m finding that chasing ideas chases them away. What is working for me lately is silence. Silence and imagery. Apparently I’m a visual person with an overactive subconscious. Who knew?

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  3. My ideas come from everywhere and nowhere, out there and in here. They come from the same place my songs come from – from the place where my soul is manifested in the world. Cryptic, right? But true. I never force the ideas, I let them find me. I wrote a song about this many moons ago:

    VOICES IN THE WIND
    Songs from within the wind
    Rap upon their door
    Currents whisper to lookers who will hear
    Camouflaged dancers all waiting for a show
    Waiting for their show
    To talk and laugh and sing

    Magical murmurs are asking to be caged
    So they may open up and speak their minds on stage
    Absent are heartbeats,
    Still they’re living for a word
    Dying to be heard
    To talk and laugh and sing

    To talk and laugh and sing
    A message each does bring
    To have the chance to say…

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  4. Watching movies and then changing all the characters names, but keeping everything else the same.

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  5. I haven’t used prompts much because I usually feel stuck when confronted with one when the desired outcome is one of an opening of the imagination. Maybe if I do them more often and consider them exercises they can perhaps become useful.

    As for where ideas come from: don’t know. I suspect it’s the same place the feeds my dreams: experiences that have startled us or made us think or simply filed away in the subconscious.

    If we find out definitively where ideas always come from for everyone: I would feel…sad. I like the mystery and the surprising nature of how ideas come to us right now.

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  6. Some of my ideas have evolved from earlier fiction pieces (my own). Others come from conversations: a current one came from an offhand story my grandmother told me, combined with the real house where it took place and which still stands; and recently Dad and I were talking about the Pony Express, and I thought it’d make a cool boy (or girl-in-disguise) story. I like history, so some ideas have come from asking, “What would this event have been like for a normal person of the time (not the major players)?” I don’t have a problem coming up with ideas; it’s more a matter of what makes that 1 idea in 1,000 stick.

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  7. My best ideas come when reading a really great book–it must be that it sparks the right part of my brain.

    And most ideas actually start with a character and a voice, which is really exciting. The story follows easily after that.

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  8. Putting myself in a place where I can gain fresh perspective (anywhere outside my normal rut), listening unobserved to strangers’ conversations, or reading over hunks of the manuscript usually motivate the muse to be forthcoming with her goodies. If that doesn’t work, I have several pairs of really pointy cowboy boots.

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  9. Darn it! You stole my next book idea. I’ve been in the process of writing that ruthless American pushing innocent Venetians into the canal. It was going to be the next big thing.

    Back to the drawing board.

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  10. Read a lot.
    Write a lot.
    Play with children.
    The ideas come.

    And just like anything else, the more you practice the easier it is–for me at least. Also, I find that it’s important to write ideas down even if I don’t have time to work on a new project for the time being.

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  11. Ideas are not the problem. My laptop is full of ideas. Ideas are easy. It’s the goddamned typing that’s hard.

    Between my wife and me we’ve published something like 5 million words. Figure 5 letters per word that’s 25 million times a finger hits a key. Probably another few million strokes for stuff we didn’t publish or threw out or rewrote.

    Yet people never ask “Dude, how do you sit there and grind that out every day?” It’s always about ideas and inspirations and that’s the least difficult part of the job. Having ideas is fun. Unfortunately the actual day-to-day job involves turning fun ideas into boring typing. I’m a typist with no definite payday, no benefits and no unemployment insurance.

    There would be far fewer aspiring authors if they realized what the job actually amounts to.

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  12. Most of my ideas come from a real-life situation. For instance, I’m watching the Olympics and I keep imagining what was it like to be that athlete when she was 12? With all the training and hard work, the aspirations for something so far in the future? So, for me, it’s an intriguing situation, then I imagine what it would be like to be the person in that situation and go from there.

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  13. character and premise

    Premise is the tough one. I have to just play with little tidbits in my head until a world decides to be born. Then from there on in, it feeds itself.

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  14. Ideas are never the issue. It’s what the writer does with them.

    Time travel? It can be Puck of Pook’s Hill, A Connecticut Yankee in Kind Arthur’s Court, or my Devil’s Arithmetic.

    Child and monsters? Any number of monsters in the closet stories, Where the Wild Things Are, and a whole load of R. L. Stine.

    Jane Yolen

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  15. I get a lot of ideas from watching History International. i saw a show on Dacia and that it’s where present day Transylvania is. That screamed to be put into my current WIP. Surfing and browsing specialty encyclopedias like Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s ones on Demons or Angels gives me ideas outside of what I was initially looking for.

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  16. My ideas come from all over the place. The other day I got an idea while I was walking our dog, then a couple nights ago I got another idea while watching the opening credits of a movie.

    I guess my ideas come from my experiences.

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  17. To all those writers for whom thinking of good ideas is never a problem…mind sending a few my way?

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  18. I agree with Michael– ideas are easy and writing is harder. I get most of my ideas while putting my baby to sleep in a pitch dark room with a white noise machine set on “burbling stream”.

    That, and the lawn gnome behind the easy chair. All of his ideas deal with torturing my husband, though, so I haven’t gotten a book from him yet.

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  19. Stephen King’s ON WRITING is my all-time favorite of the sort. I’ve never felt comfortable saying that out loud before, for all the usual snitty reasons that ought not matter, especially to the severely unpublished among us. I like that both Chris and Michael (I think) have mentioned it. Freeing.

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  20. Ditto to Michael. Ideas are not the problem! The lie in wait and assault me in alleyways all the time. The work is in sitting down every day and actually writing.

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  21. I agree, ideas bubble out of my subconscious without a lot of effort on my part. The effort kicks in when the blank document and the blinking cursor are staring at me.

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  22. SK’s what ifs resonated with me. It made me open up my mind to what’s around me versus just going about my day and not noticing anything. But, as Michael pointed out, the hard part is getting those ideas on paper in a new and exciting way.

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  23. Dreams. Lame but true and no, none involve vampires.

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  24. Who knows where ideas come from? A glimpse of a newspaper, something my mom said (don’t tell her I said that), and the best kind of all–the ones that come up out of the blue–orphans, waiting for you to give them life and a home.

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  25. BTW, the paperback version of Violet Raines came out this past Tuesday. YAY!

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  26. I just hope that old Aunt Myrtle, or whoever gave you that lovely book, Chris, is not reading this blog.

    Horrors!

    As for ideas…I get a sense of place and a character’s voice and then I have to ask, “What if…” and, “What’s the twist?” over and over again, until I have a story worked out for the character and setting.

    I pray, too. A lot.

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  27. The news often gives me pause to consider stories and the ‘what if’ question is always good but the ideas that have become stories for me stem from observations of broken things in life like traditions and relationships.

    I enjoy this blog and I am looking forward to meeting you at the NJ SCBWI First Page Session next week.

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  28. I have no ethical issues with the imprisonment of creative elves.

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  29. Fortunately my family is bizarre. Every time one of them opens his/her mouth, I’ve got a new idea. Some of them aren’t particularly “marketable,” but if I take the time to weed through the too weird to just the right amount of weird, there’s usually something there to work with.

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  30. I’ve never had a problem coming up with ideas and always looked at writing prompts as other people’s annoying little assignments that got in my way…until I went to a retreat with Cheryl Klein and Ruta Rimas.

    Wouldn’t you know they were full of prompts that actually helped with a work-in-progress. Huh. So I’m much more open to that sort of thing now.

    My problem (well, one of them) is that I often have ideas that are better than my abilities as a writer and storyteller.

    To wit: An agent once asked if I’d mind if she gave my story idea to another one of her writers who could probably pull it off. That was sort of humiliating.

    It does keep it interesting, though, feeling like you owe a level of excellence to your ideas and characters. I never think of this work as typing. It takes everything I’ve got, every time I sit in my chair.

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  31. Most of my ideas come from dreams. I dream with such vivid clarity, when I wake up I have to jot down the scene.

    Some of them have become books, and I have several more simmering on the back burner. Premise is no problem for me, it’s the execution that is a challenge.

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  32. Well, I always have way more ideas than I have time to make into stories… as for where they come from, I keep a blog where I freewrite (usually based on photographs), and many of my best ideas have come from these exercises. But the ideas have to stick and grow in my mind for a few days to turn into a story that feels worth pursuing further.

    Also, Stephen King’s On Writing is one of my favorites, too!

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  33. My ideas are my life. I lead a wonderful, eventful, humorous, unbelievable, sad, optimistic life. Please check is out at http://5kidswdisabilities.wordpress.com

    Lindsey Petersen

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  34. The main source of inspiration for me lately has been music. It could just be a line or a feeling the song evokes or my interpretation of the lyrics, but the last three novel ideas I had were from songs. I’ve had one from a picture, one from a dream, a few from other characters. But my favorite piece of inspiration? A misread license plate that inspired me to create a character that would have that license plate and create a novel around her.

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  35. Long ago, before Neil Gaiman was. . .well. . .NEIL GAIMAN, another author at a school visit was asked where ideas come from. (It is THE most frequently asked question from kids) and Norton Juster answered, “From a postbox in Poughkeepsie.” I know because I was there. It was my children’s school. They are in their 40s now.

    Great minds DO think alike, evidently.

    Jane

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  36. Jane, you must be um… like 60.

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  37. I don’t know where all my ideas come from but they just pop right into my head at the weirdest moments. And wahoo – I always seem to have at least 2 good ones on deck.

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  38. I can see it now – “Canal Kate is a gripping novel about an American girl in Venice who doesn’t speak Italian and keeps pushing people into the canals without feeling bad about it.” I literally laughed out loud when I read that… I write picture books and since I work in an elementary school library, I’ve got a great source at my fingertips every day.

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  39. In October I happened to be an American girl in Venice. No, I didn’t push anyone in the canal. Instead, I watched a rather large American woman try to hoist herself out of the canal on to the docking-place (whatever it’s called) as she had fallen out trying to disembark from the gondola. I thought my problems were bad- eating and drinking in Venice with a sinus infection and not being able to taste anything. I was actually feeling sorry for myself.

    I walked behind her as she made her soggy way back to her hotel. She giggled and chatted with her friend as if it was no biggie. She held it together. I cringed inside and thought if that was me, I would spend the rest of my stay in my hotel sobbing, pulling my head out from under my pillow only to swill some wine.

    After witnessing throngs of people with screwed up looks on their faces staring at this woman in disbelief, I’d think twice about pushing someone in! But it sure does make for a good story!

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