Where Do Your Ideas Come From?

The theme for this week's blog is about where we get our ideas. It's probably one of the most frequent questions I'm asked, especially by people who aren't actively engaged in the writing process. I wish there was an easy answer. Like maybe there was this Idea Tree that grew out in the backyard and you could just go pick one when you needed a good, ripe one. (It would grow right next to the Money Tree that my dad was always talking about when I was a kid.) That Idea Tree would have come in so handy when I was writing television scripts for PBS and the pressure to come up with a good idea, in a very short period of time, was intense. I NEEDED one and I NEEDED it by next week. An idea frenzy is never very conducive to actually coming up with something fresh and creative. In fact, it often worked just the opposite. Good ideas tend to run from the smell of desperation.

So what is the magical path to a great idea? I'm not always sure WHERE an idea comes from, but I do know WHEN they tend to arrive. For whatever reason, it's usually when I'm in the car driving somewhere. So if there isn't an Idea Tree, maybe there is an idea GPS that leads in the right direction.

START from HOME: Most, if not all, of my ideas are based somehow in real personal experiences. In Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird she says, "Start with your childhood. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O'Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life." I often start with questions to help me remember:
What was important to me then? Why? What did I love reading at the time? What did I spend my time doing? What did I want most? What did I fear the most?

TURN LEFT at the NEXT LIGHT: Although my ideas are often rooted in reality, there is an important twist that has to occur to make it a story and not a memoir. That usually occurs when I ask myself, "Yes, but what if?" One of my recent manuscripts was inspired by the real story of JonBenet Ramsey, which was in all the newspapers at the time I moved to Colorado. I couldn't quit thinking about JonBenet's brother and how this tradgedy must have effected his life. Later that germ of an idea resulted in a story about a girl who's sister was killed and the guilt she had regarding that event. It wasn't anything like the truth. I had to be willing to turn off the "real" road and take the fictional twisting path to a completely different outcome. Sometimes I've heard a writer say, "but that's not what happened," and the response is "but the real story isn't always the BEST story."

TAKE the ROUNDABOUT: I have this picture book manuscript called Tracey's Always Right. It was the first manuscript I sent out on submission many, many years ago. It's been rejected, critiqued, revised, resubmitted, rejected, critiqued, revised, resubmitted, rejected... (you get the idea). It's gone round and round so many times that now all my writing friends run in horror at the idea of reading and critiquing the newest version of Tracey. Sometimes an idea, as wonderful as it might seem, just doesn't go anywhere.

ENTER the FREEWAY: I'm not a big fan of driving on freeways. Luckily in Colorado where I live, I don't have to very often. There have been times in my writing life that I've felt bombarded with ideas, much like cars whizzing by at 75 miles an hour. The traffic in my brain is piled up and I don't know where to start, so therefore I sit helplessly in the gridlock. I have lots of ideas, but none of them seem like the RIGHT idea. When that happens, sometimes I just cram all of the ideas into one manuscript. The result is a story with too many big ideas. You know what I mean. The one about the vampire with the eating disorder who lives in a steampunk city and can time travel with his werewolf girlfriend into a dystopian future world to defeat the mermaids in the kingdom under the sea? Focus, Donna. I've found the best way to cope with an idea pileup on the freeway is to just jot them down and bank them. They'll be a time when I need them (see below).

STAY on the CURRENT ROAD: When I drive home to Texas from Colorado, there is a stretch of road across West Texas that you can go hours (feels like days) without seeing anything or anyone. It's a strangely beautiful desolation. Sort of like when good story ideas seem few and far between. The chatter in my overactive imagination clears and leaves me with an uncomfortable silence. In times like these, I have to remind myself to keep on the current road --keep opening up the WIP, keep writing in my journal, keep listening, keep reading. I have to trust I will eventually reach civilization again.

YOU HAVE ARRIVED at your DESTINATION: It's all worth it. There is nothing like the feeling of when that idea clicks and I start fleshing it out and changing it into what it will finally become. I know it's a totally new place that I've never been before, yet it was where I was meant to end up all along.


What a fabulous road trip, Donna! But you're wrong about just one thing: I would definitely read TRACEY again!

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