Friday, May 14, 2010

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Most of us get this question and when I answer, as I sometimes do, "The newspaper," I'm often met with incredulity. They legitimately ask, "'Stoner & Spaz' came out of the newspaper? No, but a decade or two ago 'Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright.' And after that 'Margaux With an X.' When I wrote for that TV cop show, everyone read the Metro section; we couldn't think of crimes and capers as bizarre as the ones in the Times.

I was brooding about this the other day after an half hour in the library prowling the Teen Section, reading first pages, and feeling my spirits sink. So I made up a little exercise -- I started with a middle-grade kid. He has a mouthy younger sister, and he suspects things aren't going to well between his parents. At school, a best friend he shoots hoops with has started hanging out with a guy our narrator can't stand.

Conflict, right? One(s) we've all seen before. I'd have to be a better writer than I am now to turn that story into anything. So I opened the newspaper to a heartwarming story about a ten year old, blind baseball player. Hmmm. Heartwarming makes me want to slit my wrists. What if my narrator's sister was blind and a pain in the butt. He has to look out for her and she doesn't like being dependent. Now I'm interested. The problem with the parents and the narrator's best friend issue glide into the background.

I turn the page: a young woman who's gone missing turns up. She wasn't kidnapped; she just ran away, unable to face her parents and friends who thought she was a UCLA student when she really wasn't.

So our narrator senses his parents aren't connecting anymore, his younger sister is acting out, his best friend has abandoned him and then he gets a call from his missing sister who says, "You have to help me!" I'm interested again.

Everyone knows the apothegm about trying: There's no such thing. You're either writing or you're not. So maybe not so much thinking. Are you floundering? Open the newspaper.


  1. The author looking everywhere for ideas, abandoning one, trying another, not giving up: that's so heartwarming.

  2. I love the examples you used to show how much richer a story can become through outside inspiration. I took a theater class in college in which we all had to write pieces inspired by something we found in the newspaper - the range of ideas was just amazing.

  3. We had a lecture from Jackie Briggs-Martin at the last residency that told us, if we're stuck, to go look at folktales. I was stuck. My next book is The Snow Queen, coming out in Fall of 2011. Next time, I will try this.

  4. I used to think that reading a ton of random things when trying to start a new story was a form of procrastinating, because apparently I'd read anything rather than have to put new words on the page myself. Then I realized it was really trawling for ideas for the story. What a relief to be able to write and procrastinate at the same time! ;-)

  5. I have an idea that your method is the same one they use for Law and Order too. Er, used.

  6. Has any writer jumped on the Barefoot Thief yet? 17 year-old in Pacific Northwest who steals luxury cars, boats, and even three planes. Has yet to be caught, and always leaves a barefoot print mark. Even has a FB fan page.

    Go for it. (though I heard a rumor he's sold his movie rights?)

  7. Lisa, I want to read your version of above story. Soon. Anne, way cool that Jackie's great lecture inspired a new book. Congrats. Tell us more, tell us more.