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Sean Williams
Yes, that question. 
06.55 pm 09.05.06
Where do stories come from?

Some writers hate having to answer this question, but it's a valid one. If we don't try to analyse the source of our stories, what happens if that source dries up? Not for a moment do I believe that any writers have just one source of inspiration, but sometimes it's easy to trace a story's genesis back to its root. I've pondered this ever since Stephen Donaldson came to Adelaide in the 1980s and told a crowded bookshop that he'd gotten the idea for the ending of the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant from the sight of a spray can in a public toilet (or something like that--it was a long time ago). If something so trivial can inspire such a masterwork, why aren't we inspired to greatness every time we do the shopping?



I get a lot of ideas from dreams. This doesn't answer the question, really, but it does at least give me something I can point at. A moment in time, or an image, or a feeling, rather than a vague "wherever". Metal Fatigue, the Books of the Change and "A Map of the Mines of Barnath" would not exist but for the right dreams at the right times. (Or maybe they would have, but in different forms. Who can know? In this universe, that's how it happened.) I still remember the dreams; they haven't been written over by the later story-telling, and I find that interesting too. The memories are quite separate from the final account, unlike just about everything else in my head.

There are other stories whose geneses (that so doesn't look right) I can pinpoint with surety. Astropolis would not be a work in progress had I turned down Garth Nix's invitation to join him, Jonathan Strahan, and Charles Brown for dinner at the famous Flower Drum restaurant in Melbourne, 2002. Geodesica exists because I wanted to write a love story spanning a million years. Are they the same thing, these instances that led to bigger things? Not at all, but they were the seeds as I remember them.

The lifespans of some stories are so blurred I can't untangle them. The Crooked Letter is one such. There were two short stories I drew on for inspiration; I remember that much. (One of them, "Signs of Death", might see print this year, but "Soul Pollution" will stay forever unpublished, even though it contains the seeds of several important characters.) Years of thinking about religion from the perspective of an atheist helped me devise the complex "human life cycle" portrayed in the book (half-glimpsed and misunderstood as afterlife, reincarnation, etc). I've been mucking around with twins as long as I've been writing, and plan to keep doing so in future books. So it's very hard to say where it started, or even when it stopped, because in my head it remains an unfinished work, one I would love to go back over one day, from a new perspective and with a lot more experience under my belt.

In the end, does it really matter? Maybe that's the question writers should be most afraid of. Who cares where their ideas come from, really? As long as they're good ones.
Comments 
09.50 am 09.05.06 (UTC)
Silly. Storks drop stories down the chimney.

Despite having some pretty feature length hollywood dreams, I've never used any as story seeds. There was one dream where I took a bit, and used the idea as an incidental in the mechanics of a world, but that was it.


In Margo's week in Clarion, she handed out two sets of cards. The first set had a random unfinished sentence, and we had ten minutes to write based on that sentence.

The second card was a picture, with the same task.

I found that ideas from words flow much easier for me, than from pictures.
09.55 am 09.05.06 (UTC)
I found that ideas from words flow much easier for me, than from pictures.

That's interesting, Tessa. I think I'm more visually stimulated. I wonder if it's genetic?

One of the exercises I give groups is to combine two or three randomly chosen pictures into a story synopsis. People are amazingly creative when given random data (he says, holding up religion as evidence thereof).
10.06 am 09.05.06 (UTC)
I don't know. I half think it might be related to mind space - getting an idea for a written story from a sentence means you're already messing around with words. I might just suck at the transition from pictures to words.

I know most of my better short story ideas tend to spring from having misread sentences and thinking "wow, that's weird and cool- oh wait."
10.14 am 09.05.06 (UTC)
An awful lot of names come to me that way. Pirelius (from The Blood Debt) was a misspelling from my niece, Jessica. I stole it without remorse.

Sometimes I think that if we really admitted just how much creativity happens by accident, we'd be too terrified even to try. Or maybe that's just me. What's the point of making a concerted effort if a single unlucky break can undo it all?

Then I remember Kevin J Anderson's immortal words: "The harder I work, the luckier I get". And I feel much better.
12.40 pm 09.05.06 (UTC)
I think there are several reasons many writers (including me) hate the question. One is the implication that that sudden burst of inspiration is all you need to become a successful writer - no research, no rewriting, not even the hours spent just writing your first drafts (and no rejection letters while you're learning how to do it). One is the delusion that it only takes one idea to write a book, when the creation of every character and every setting and every plot twist requires multiple ideas. And, related to that, is the problem that ideas come from everywhere: I forget who it was who said, name a story of mine and I might be able tell you where that idea came from, otherwise it's a stupid question (no, this isn't a verbatim quote. If it was Harlan, as I suspect, I've probably left a few expletives out.)

Also, as Stephen King pointed out somewhere, no-one ever seems to ask Harold Robbins or Arthur Hailey where they got their ideas from, because being obsessed with money and status and work is considered absolutely normal in America, whereas sf and horror writers get it all the time. And in my case, the question "where do you get your ideas from?" usually has the subtext of "you weirdo" or "you pervert". And rarely in a good way.
02.45 pm 09.05.06 (UTC)
Right on, Stephen. I should have stated in my original post that I don't like being asked that question either. The answer I usually give is indeed "everywhere" because anything else just feels too complicated.

I also kinda get the feeling that a real answer isn't required. It's a ritual with no meaning, one of those questions you have to ask when making new friends. Every non-standard profession has them, I suppose. Shift-workers must get sick of being asked how they manage sleeping during the day, for instance. So burdening the conversation with a long explanation will only hurt everyone involved.

That doesn't mean writers can't continue to ponder the issue, though. I certainly intend to, just in case the usual wells dry up one day.
02.21 am 12.05.06 (UTC)
Anonymous
I also dislike being asked where my ideas come from, for two reasons.

Partially, it's because I've never had trouble coming up with ideas. My brain just never bloody stops, and that's just a thing for me. In my case, the more pertinant (and scary, and frustrating, and... etc.) question is: "Why is it that I have trouble forming my ideas into readable novels/stories?"

Mostly, though, it's because I think ideas tend to come more from an amalgamation of sources than the one source that is the trigger of that idea. Donaldson may have been triggered by the bathroom spraycan, but it was after a bunch of other stuff, ideas, experiences, had been percolating, probably since birth, that made him see a novel series where other people saw stinky stuff hanging on a wall. If I were to start to analyse where some of my ideas come from, then I'd have to spend my entire life in therapy (do I *really* want to know why it is I would try and have Character A have a romantic relationship with Character B, who just so happens to live in Character C's head? I think not...)

Heather
03.01 am 12.05.06 (UTC)
All true, Heather. Leave the untangling for the academics, I reckon. Psychoanalysis can wait until you're famous and people are writing PhDs about you. :-)

I think there is still some value in being confronted with that question, every now and again. Not just to make sure we can fix problems when/if they arise, but also so we can become aware of patterns we might inadvertently fall into. A lot of my early protagonists had next to no agency in their stories; they were pushed around, passive, sometimes unsympathetic for that reason. I had never noticed this until someone pointed it out to me. I try, therefore, to rein in my automatic annoyance at the usual-questioner in the hope that they may actually tell me something new, this time.
11.17 am 13.05.06 (UTC) - Ideas
Anonymous
Shift-workers must get sick of being asked how they manage sleeping during the day, for instance.

Me especially, because it reminds me that my 17-month-old hasn't actually let me sleep during the day!!

I'm with you Sean - I don't think people want a definitive answer (ie, like asking someone where you bought a certain pair of shoes).

I think people ask because it illicits interesting anecdotes.

And I think people ask sf/h/f writers because their ideas are, generally speaking, more bizarre/interesting that say, a guy who wrote a book about someone walking around all day (James Joyce, Ulysses).

I'm actually writing a horror short inspired by a public toilet! :)

Gary K
02.09 am 15.05.06 (UTC) - Re: Ideas
I think people ask because it illicits interesting anecdotes.

True, and the last thing they want is a long treatise on the nature of ideas and what generates them. Hell, that's the last thing I want to give at a party, so as long as we stay off the topic we're all winners. :-)

I'm actually writing a horror short inspired by a public toilet! :)

I did that once. It was published in Southern Blood a few years back. Ain't the fear of pissing in public a wonderful thing? :-)
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