Where do ideas come from?

Earlier this week, we had a couple of friends over for a drink, and, when the topic of conversation turned to writing, a question arose which all writers have to address. It comes in many, many different variants, but it’s basically this: where do ideas come from? It’s understandable why it crops up so often, since the generation of ideas is probably the most mysterious part of the writing process to a non-writer, and I’ve encountered several people who say wistfully ‘I’d love to write a book, but I can’t think what I’d write about’. It is, however, very difficult to come up with a response, since the real answer is either ‘from the aether’ or ‘from anything and everything’, which are both equally unhelpful.

Not only is the genesis of ideas mysterious, but there seems to be a common misconception that the deal is one idea per book/story, and that each idea is hard to come by. Now I can’t claim to speak for all writers, but in my case each work – except for very short stories – will include many different ideas, in a variety of forms, some very much changed from how they started. I have hanging on my wall a mosaic picture of a view from a window into a garden. It’s made of all kinds of stuff – bits of stones, pottery, old gin bottles – now turned into something completely different. That’s very much what writing a book is like for me – scavenged pieces cemented together, involving gin.

As for the question of how hard it is to have ideas, well, the honest answer in my case is that it’s not hard at all. It’s not even easy – it’s involuntary. Ideas come whether I want them to or not, from anything, at any time. The problem has never been, for me, lack of ideas – if anything, I have too many of the damn things. The hard bit is working out which are the good ones. The harder bit is working out how to stick them together to form that picture. And the hardest bit is actually sitting down and writing the bloody book.

So where does all this leave someone who wants to write but isn’t sure where to start? The above might not sound terribly helpful, and indeed when I first started planning this blog post I was thinking that the conclusion would probably be that the ability to have story ideas is a bit like synaesthesia: the raw material, the sensory stimulus, is the same for everyone, but the perception is different. I can’t smell music or hear colours, most other people can’t overhear a conversation in Starbucks and turn it into a novel. But then a tiny incident occurred while I was out walking. I heard a quiet twittering, and looked up into the nearest tree – to see a male bullfinch, bright orange breast standing out against the dull grey sky. A cheering sight on a dreary day. As I was admiring the finch, a man walked by, completely oblivious, eyes on the pavement, earbuds firmly plugged in. And I thought, well, maybe having ideas is less like synaesthesia, and more like bird spotting: if you keep your senses alert and look up when you hear a twitter, you’ll see the beautiful plumage. If you keep totally focused and intent on whatever it is you’re doing, you’ll miss out on all the possibilities. Well, that’s my excuse for being incredibly distractible, and I’m sticking to it.

Just for fun, here’s an exercise in how ideas can come from anything:

1. Hit ‘Shuffle All’ on your iPod. When the first song comes up, take a phrase from it, and/or record how the music makes you feel.

2. Eavesdrop on a conversation, preferably strangers. Record a brief exchange.

3. Flip through a magazine. What’s the first picture you see? Write a brief description of it.

4. Right, now you’ve got three ideas. Time to put them together and write a story!


A bullfinch. They’re much like story ideas: bright, beautiful, actually quite common, but you need to be alert for them.

Fan fiction – under the rock

After a couple of recent Facebook conversations with friends on the topic, I’ve decided to lay down a few thoughts about fan fiction – although it’s quite difficult to write about something so huge, varied and frequently deranged within the confines of a single blog post. Fan fiction is generally little-seen by much of mainstream society, but use the lever of the Internet to lift the rock of the original work and you’ll find a writhing, teeming mass of fanfic creepy-crawlies beneath. Alternate universes, unlikely crossovers, flipped genders, male pregnancies… it’s all there. Quality also varies wildly, from eye-gougingly awful to actually really good (in some cases, superior to the original). Some things, however, are reassuringly predictable – as one of my friends put it, ‘I think I remember where 99% of these fanfics end up…’ ie, with some man-love. I’ve heard a few theories as to why ‘slash’ fiction* has become so popular – something to do with the lack of well-drawn female characters in many works, or women’s desire to write romantic pairings free of gender-based power dynamics, or teenage girls exploring their newfound feelings about BOYS in a safe context, blah blah. Personally I think it’s because guy-on-guy is hot, duh, but that’s just my opinion.

From the point of view of a writer, fanfic is an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, it’s a fun way to get started as a writer, and a while back I did actually start developing some Harry Potter fanfic into a fantasy novel. This book was subsequently abandoned and I’ve since written only wholly original stuff, but there have been some high-profile cases of books which started life as fan works eventually becoming published in their own right – ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series (Potter), ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Twilight), and ‘Temeraire’ (the Aubrey-Maturin series). On the other hand, it must be a bit weird to see your beloved world and characters getting mashed around by some ham-fisted and possibly drunk amateur scribbler. Robin Hobb compares the experience to seeing a family picture photo-shopped to put everyone in compromising positions, and other writers have expressed their horror at discovering first-hand that Rule 34 (‘If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions’) does indeed have no exceptions. And in the worst case scenario, there can be legal wrangles which end up destroying part of the author’s copyright, as happened to Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is why most writers, even if they tolerate the existence of fan fiction, make a point of not reading any, especially if they’re writing an ongoing series – things can get very messy if a subsequent installment has a resemblance to a previously-published fan work.

What’s my attitude? Well, Patrick Rothfuss was completely delighted when he discovered some slash based on his books (and it’s pretty well written too, in fact), considering it proof that he had truly arrived as an author, and I think I’d agree with him. Fanfic, after all, is evidence that your story has affected someone. Even if they hated it. So they felt the need to bring your dead character back to life, hook him up in a three-way with Harry Styles and Wolverine, and then get him pregnant by both of them at once? Well, why not eh – in the happily delirious world of fan fiction, anything is possible.


Patrick Rothfuss’ blog, with his delight at finding some slash: http://blog.patrickrothfuss.com/2008/02/yes/

A summary of the Marion Zimmer Bradley case: http://jimhines.livejournal.com/507999.html

Robin Hobb’s blog, with an excellent summary of the case against from an author’s point of view: http://web.archive.org/web/20051124223715/www.robinhobb.com/rant.html



*the term ‘slash’ derives from writing the names of the couple with a / in the middle, as in ‘Kirk/Spock’. It has nothing to do with the guitarist from Guns ‘n’ Roses. Although, if you were wondering, yes, Slash slash is available. These days, many fandoms create cute portmanteau names for couples instead, like ‘Johnlock’ (very much not to be confused with John Locke) or ‘Merthur’. Or ‘Slaxl’.

A daisy chain of writers!

I have been asked by my friend and fellow writer-cum-blogger Helen Ellwood to participate in a blog chain, in which I have to answer four questions and then send those questions to someone else, thus linking both forwards and backwards to other writers.

Helen writes fantasy and also non-fiction adventure about her own improbably exciting life. She has a three-in-one blog about writing, living with disability, and arts and crafts, which can be found here: http://helenellwood.blogspot.co.uk/

And here are the questions, with my answers:

What am I working on?
At the moment, not a great deal, since my back pain is preventing me from doing much actual writing. My second novel, ‘Forever 27’, has been progressing in fits and starts, and I am hoping to get stuck into it in earnest soon. I am billing it as ‘a tale of sex and death and drugs and magic and rock and roll’. Inspired by the ’27 Club’ of musicians who have died at that age (eg Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison), it tells the story of a journalist with magical powers and her stormy relationship with a rock star who’s convinced he’s doomed to join the club.
How does my work differ from others?
An interesting question. My first novel, ‘The Heartland of the Winter’, currently out on submission with publishers, is a fantasy novel, but one with a story driven by human characters rather than dragons. In it, I explore the impact of a harsh climate on society, and how a young individual copes with being introduced to that society.  It’s an imagined world, but I’ve kept the fantastic elements – ie magic – to a minimum. I wanted to create characters the reader could relate to, and push them to the extreme, without giving them any magical get-out-of-jail-free cards. So I think it’s different from other fantasy books because, while the main characters’ situation has supernatural causes, they don’t themselves have any powers or resources which wouldn’t be available to the reader.
‘Forever 27’ is more of a magic realist work, set in the real world (or at least a version of it!). It’s not whimsical, but it certainly has its share of the macabre. Since it’s a work-in-progress, I don’t yet feel quite confident to say exactly what will set it apart, but I can say that at least part of what I’m trying to do is to explore what makes people creative, and how creativity can be used, burned out or even stolen.
Why do I write what I write?
 I was initially drawn to fantasy because I enjoy reading it, and because I like having my own little world in my head where I can make up whatever stuff I like to torment imaginary people. If that sounds rather like a kind of mental illness, well that’s probably about right.
I was drawn to write something about the 27 Club firstly because of my love of their music (you can blame my Hendrix-fanatic father for that), and also because I think there’s something very interesting about the way some creative people burn out young and others manage to keep going and going – just look at The Rolling Stones. Founder Brian Jones loses it half way through the 60s, drowns in his swimming pool (at 27), while Mick and Keef just carry on rolling into the 2010s.
How does my writing process work?
I’m not sure I’m organised, or experienced enough to have anything that can really be called a ‘writing process’. I just bash it out and hope for the best.
Link to next writer in the chain to follow soon!





A vanishing pleasure?

Happy new year all, and welcome to my 2014… it’s not been a stellar year so far, but there is at least plenty of time for it to improve. And early January is always enlivened by the new shiny objects received at Christmas, including of course several books to add to the reading list. I should really try to make some more headway with said list and spend less time looking at Buzzfeed. My reading habits have been put to shame by my husband, normally quite a slow reader, who has munched through 5 books in the past couple of weeks, exhausting all available volumes of interest. So today we ventured out to Waterstone’s to get something new.
It’s funny how, over the years, Waterstone’s has gradually transformed, without actually itself changing all that much. I remember when it was an ogre of the high street, gobbling up lesser shops like Dillon’s and Ottakar’s and putting poor independent booksellers out of business. Now it’s a beleaguered symbol of old school retail, under threat from the evil empire of the Amazon, a fire kindled under its profits. I don’t actually have that much sentimental attachment to Waterstone’s, not compared with late lamented Borders and its very generous approach to allowing customers to read books in store, or Blackwell’s in Oxford which nurtured me through my academic career. But I was struck today with the sheer joy of book shopping, the pulse-quickening sensation of walking into a whole building dedicated to books, and being able to wander around tables covered in books and shelves full of books, and browse through hundreds of the things, picking them up, feeling the weight, flipping through them, admiring the covers of the special editions, the gloss and the matte, the hard back and the soft, the fiction and the non. And then the excitement of walking out with a fresh purchase, longing to get home to try it out, every book a present waiting to be opened. I love reading physical books, I love having them on my shelves, and I love shopping for them. I don’t know how much longer book shops as a species will last, but I’ll miss them when they’re gone, and I’m going to enjoy them while I can.