Thursday, May 29, 2014

How Do You Make Ideas Into A Book?

Every author knows the most-asked question at an event is: "Where do you get your ideas?"

Some people really hate this question. Others joke about it. Some just plain don't have an answer that is really helpful (it's a very hard question to answer). I'm a newbie who doesn't have the money to tour myself much, so I suppose I haven't heard it enough to be tired of it. I still find the question—and its frequency of being asked—really fascinating.

There was a time in my writing life that I believed if I just had the right idea, I could be published. I actually thought that my writing didn't even have to be very good—if I just had that idea that would make everyone fall in love with me regardless of how I put words together.

I have a feeling this way of thinking was not just my own, but many other aspiring writers as well. And our culture in general seems to put a lot of emphasis and wonder on the concept of getting "brilliant ideas," be they inventions, songs, movies, paintings, or books. That strange moment when a human being becomes almost godlike and creates something that touches others or makes their lives easier…it's as if we all wish to have that little piece of magic in our lives.

So I don't begrudge any person who asks me that question, who wants so badly to have their own piece of the wonder that is creativity. It's one of the most fulfilling things in my life.

I wish I could tell you where your Well Of Ideas resides, but today I want to answer the question I think might be even BETTER than the one that's always asked:

How Do You Make Ideas Into A Book?

I think that's what many people are really wanting to ask, but they might not yet have the thought to ask it. Because we get ideas all the time—all people do. Storytellers just train themselves to USE those ideas in a specific way. I'm really hoping I can translate it for you today. I may be wrong, because I can only speak from my experience, but this is my attempt to explain how my brain takes an idea and turns it into a story.

1. Training Your Brain To FIND Ideas
As I said before, I really believe all people have lots of ideas. But maybe not all people know how to use them or even realize they are having them. I remember when I was a teen writer—this idea generating did seem like a tough thing! I didn't know which ideas were good and which were bad (okay I still struggle with that sometimes). I didn't know what to DO when I had an idea I liked, where I was supposed to start.

Two things to train your brain: Study and Imitate

Looking back, I loved stories from an early age. It didn't matter the form for me. I took in story from animation (both American and Japanese), books, comics, movies. This is an essential part of being a storyteller—studying the greats. If you want to write, you've heard it many times before, you need to read.

And then comes imitation. All the stories I first tried to write were loosely based on other stories I loved. One was Sailor Moon-esque. Another had The Giver written all over it. Another was very femme fatale, probably a spawn of my fondness of action movies. Basically, I was imitating what I loved.

Which is a GOOD thing. Writers tend to freak out over imitation, but I truly believe it is a very important part of the creative process. In other creative pursuits, it's super super normal for imitation to take place. A piano player doesn't start out writing their own music—they learn the basics and play the songs of masters first. An artist doesn't start out executing perfect work—they copy styles and learn art history and then they begin to innovate.

Writing is the same. Don't be afraid to imitate (just don't try to publish something you know is an imitation). In imitating something you know is good, you learn. You see new things. You may even get new ideas of your very own.

My bet is you will start to get a lot of ideas, because storytellers definitely love to tell their own stories more than they like to tell others. We're selfish like that. I have always gotten more excited over my own work than that of others. (Which is also why I encourage aspiring writers not to be too afraid of their ideas being stolen—fact is, most writers won't think your ideas are better than their own.)

2. Practicing Curiosity To See MORE In An Idea
I think many people outside of storytelling, or those just dipping their toes in, envision ideas floating down to a writer from the nether fully formed. In reality, it's a lot more like this awesome tumblr graphic I saw a couple weeks ago:

Via BethanyHagen on Tumblr.
I have thought about this image since I saw it, because it is SO TRUE. Getting ideas is much more like getting a series of puzzle pieces and then being tasked with figuring out how they fit together. Sometimes it can take a long time for them all to fit, too. Or you'll get a key piece for a story, but not another for several years—and then suddenly it all clicks just when you thought that story piece was a lost cause.

You gotta turn into a relentless interrogator when it comes to getting a story out of your ideas. Those elementary school questions? Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Yes, those are super useful! I totally go back to that in a way. But then you start to learn even better questions to ask.

If you get an idea for a character: What do they want more than anything and why can't they get it? What are they most afraid of? What would break them in two? What would make them happy? (And then you ruin their life—because stories are ultimately studies in conflict.)

If you get an idea for a world: How is this place different from our world? Who lives there? What do they believe? Fight for? Run from? What would ruin this world? What would make it better?

If you get an idea for a scene: Why is it happening? What happened before? What happens after? Who will lose the most in this scene? Who will gain the most? Why does it matter to the story?

The more questions you can ask, the more story you'll start to get. That's where, for me, it gets really exciting. I love trying to solve the puzzle, even though sometimes it can be frustrating it's always interesting and rewarding. This is what keeps me coming back to writing, because there are endless puzzle pieces and they never go together the same way twice.

3. Executing Your Ideas The Way You Envision
Every writer can tell you this is actually the hardest part of writing. You can see these amazing stories in your head, and often your words on the page fall short of them (or almost all the time, alas). Writing is the art of using words to paint a picture, and it takes practice.

So study your craft, be it through reading or taking classes or surfing the net for the best advice you can find. Study, study, study. Never stop trying to execute better. Because the more you focus on how you execute your ideas, the more you will learn that is the true challenge. The ideas are wonderful and magical, but they can't shine without you putting in the work to be a good writer.

The more you learn to execute, the more you will understand how to manipulate your ideas. At that point, ideas will feel endless and you'll never really have to worry about how to get them again. Because you'll discover they were with you all along.


  1. Yes and yes! That puzzle image really says it all! I remember way back when I first started pursuing this writing thing, I had an idea for a picture book about a turtle. I wrote about one third of it and then it sat that way for years. And I have so many undeveloped ideas (or concepts) rolling around in my brain, but it can take a really long time before there is enough there to truly make a story.

  2. Excellent tips!

    I get my ideas from a wide variety of places, but one of the things I've found that drives them forward is asking myself the "what if" kind of question. It gives direction.

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  4. This is super true with Choreography too. I've seen dancers create a sub-par dance based on an amazing idea and beautiful choreography from a basic or small idea you wouldn't think could be so meaningful until it's executed effectively! It's a great reminder. I think all your tips apply to dance too.

  5. Great post. Heck, story ideas are everywhere, if you know to look for them. And give them your own unique spin.

  6. Thanks for sharing. It is so much fun to see how the creative mind works. I agree with you, I think everyone has ideas and stories to share. Humans have such a drive to create, but not always a direction. Your advice to read and imitate just a little will give some the much needed direction to jump start into the art of writing.