Where Ideas Come From: Negotiating with the Idea Fairy

Where do you get your ideas? According to a friend, the Idea Fairy leaves packets of them under our pillows. When I tell people this secret, it’s usually received with smiles. What’s not said, but what working writers all know, is that’s only one step in an entire process.

First, you have to invite the Idea Fairy into your life. Leaving out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies won’t do the trick in most cases. (You never know. That toy train story might lead to fame and fortune.) Creating a receptive state of mind includes recognizing those tentative sparks, even if you aren’t prepared at that moment to give them the attention they require to grow into fully fledged plot outlines. People vary in what suffices: for some, it might be a simple “wow, that’s cool” moment; for others, jotting down the thought or image on a paper napkin serves to reinforce the generation of ideas. Anything that says to your creative muse, “More, more!” will work.

“More”? Is this woman demented? Doesn’t she know I already have a queue of stories screaming at me to be written? The last thing I need is more!

No, the last thing you need is none. If you train yourself to ignore story ideas, the Idea Fairy will sadly pack up shop and go find a more welcoming host. So…

Second, you have to find a way to accept the gifts of the Idea Fairy, even when you cannot immediately use them. Acknowledge, yes. Promise the moon, certainly. Create a treasure-house of ideas, great. How about setting aside time, not necessarily huge chunks of it, for daydreaming about those ideas? It’s fine to have them appear in their packets under your pillow, but not so fine if you never give them a chance to grow. How will you know which ones will blossom into truly cool stories and which had better ferment a while longer? Besides, do you really want to spend all your time on stories you have already started (or are under contract and heavily outlined)? Unless you absolutely loathe coming up with new material, it’s helpful to carve out some play time.

Eventually, even the most die-hard I-must-finish-what-I-write advocate will find the time or market for something new. This leads to a third essential skill: the discernment of what size packets the Idea Fairy has bestowed.

Beginning writers often can’t recognize the difference between a novel-sized idea and a short-story-sized idea. That’s fine; for most of us, judgment comes with experience. It’s like sculpting wood. A dense hardwood can support an elaborate design, whereas balsa or pine are more suitable for simpler shapes. Sometimes an idea comes in such a compact, neat form that it begs to be a jewel-cut short story. Other times, it’s a keyhole glimpse of an enormous, gorgeously complex world.

I’ve been wrong in both directions — having what I thought was a short story explode into a novel, or else find that idea I wanted to flesh out into a novel was far more suited to a shorter length. My current project, an epic fantasy called The Seven-Petaled Shield, began as a series of short stories. I had so much fun playing in that world, I wanted to spend more time in it. To do so, I had to expand the original landscape and lines of conflict, but that’s another story.

With time and thought, most writers learn how to gauge the heft and strength of an idea. “I reckon that’s about 5,000 words,” “Nope, novelette,” “Looks like a short-short,” or “Sweet heaven, I’ve landed a trilogy!” Nothing creative is ever wasted. Stories mature in their own time.

I still make mistakes as stories take unexpected turns, both in what I need to include and in what must be cut. But the Idea Fairy and I have worked out a pretty good understanding. I never forget to say thank you. And the milk and cookies don’t hurt either.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing fantasy and science fiction professionally since 1982. Her first novel, a space adventure written under her former name, Deborah Wheeler, is now available as an ebook from Book View Cafe Press. Read her latest collaboration with Marion Zimmer Bradley, the Darkover novel Hastur Lord.

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Where Ideas Come From: Negotiating with the Idea Fairy — 32 Comments

  1. I use chocolate. You get some quite good chocolate, and balance it on top of your computer monitor. (This does not work with the modern flat screens, or laptops.)

  2. Also, run a dating service. Introduce all your ideas to each other. Novels are like bone-dry sponges, capable of dragging in an enormous number of ideas. (As long as they all play nicely together.)

  3. Learning to gauge the length of an idea took me a very long time. Most of mine are novels–whenever I try to do short stories, they tend toward disguised chapter ones–but now I can tell how long a novel it will be. Weird, that, since I usually don’t know everything inside the thing.

  4. I use my muse as bait. He’s gorgeous and the Idea Fairy loves to flirt with him. The only problem is that he loves epic stories and she’s always handing him trilogies, never short stories.

    Now, getting that kilted hunk to do his muse job instead of time traveling in Scotland is another matter. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Mary, I agree. It’s amazing how many ideas go into an epic Fantasy. Recently, I had to sit a new character down and ask him if he’s determined to be a Daliriatan king turned pirate and wait ten years for his turn, or if he’d be ok with becoming a 12th century Scottish chief instead and how he’d like to find a magic stone. You can guess what he chose.

  5. I live in Schenectady, where they have that handy post office box. I need to warn you, some of the people in this city have gotten to the point where they don’t have an idea left in their heads. Outsourcing may be a good idea. ๐Ÿ˜€

  6. Nonwriters don’t understand idea length. I mention something and the reply is, “You should write a book about that!” No no, it’s too short and snappy, gotta be a short story. Other ideas are manifestly too long for anything but 100k in words or so, and it would be wasteful to fling it away in short fiction.
    The ‘mating’ of ideas is very useful. That’s why you should record ideas in some way, not only to placate the idea Fairy, but so that the ideas can all get together at singles bars on Saturday nights for cheap sleazy hookups.

  7. Short stories have a single line of forward momentum, whether driven by action, character, or whatever. If you did that in a novel, it would feel thin, like eggshell. In a short, with everything not essential pared away and every element doing double or triple duty, the effect is — or should be — like a perfect one-carat diamond.

  8. Mary, I like the ‘ball bearing’ image. Unfortunately, I don’t get that class of idea – mine are _all_ sticky burrs. The moment I start writing anything down, it spreads. (I’ve literally had far more novel ideas than short story ideas.)

    What I need is a guide to how to polish an idea and turn it into a shiny ball. if I ever want to write short stories. It might be useful in turning out standalone novels, too.

  9. Even after years of writing, I can’t seem to judge story length at all. Probably because like green knight above, I usually seem to get ideas for novellas (novellae?) and novels. Apparently, the short story ideas end up under someone else’s pillow.

  10. You could leave extra ideas in baby baskets on other people’s doorsteps. With a note, “Please take care of my child.”

    OOh, we are having way too much fun with this!

  11. Deborah, there’s no such thing as too much fun!

    I love the concept of an idea bazaar – I have several novel ideas lookng for good homes, but would like to bring a few short stories home.

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  14. The only real way to tell the length that a story wants to be, is to get behind the wheel and drive. You can tell immediately if it needs lots of highway and room to roam, or whether you can keep everything nice and tight within a smaller circumference. A short story is like a joke; it gets there as fast as possible with no detours on the way. A novel sets out for Pittsburgh, but takes a side jaunt to San Francisco and then gets a yearning for beignets at Cafe du Monde, which entails swinging down to New Orleans.

    • My technique is to write out the outline, and then start to write the story. The percentage of outline I’ve gotten written equals the percentage of story it took up.

      The trick is that the words per percent differ from one story to the next.

  15. I always thought ideas came from a post office box in Schenectady.

    They must now be outsourcing to fairies…

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  17. Lately my most off the wall stuff comes from the idea fairy opening a door into my dreams. The characters start re-arranging furniture and banging and clanking so loudly I can’t sleep. If I promise to jot notes in the morning they let me sleep a little longer. Not always. I used to remember it all and dutifully write it down at least as a character sketch. But the idea fairy knows me too well. If I forget one little nuance I get repeat performance the next night, and the next, until finally sleep deprive I give the character sufficient attention to placate them.

    Until I have absolutely no time and then I can’t help but write the whole book.

  18. I always think of inspiration as a particularly flighty friend who come breezing in from who-knows-where with amazing clothes and all kinds of stuff falling out of an over-stuffed bag. Then she goes breezing back out again leaving odd bits of jetsam that she didn’t mean to leave but nonetheless won’t miss, and lots of terrific ideas that have been mysteriously wrapped up in an entire ball of crepe paper. When you open the ball you get lots of great bits, but you also end up with a huge mess of jetsam, gifts, and used crepe paper to clean up. I love those visits.

  19. I tell people I have an idea tree in my back yard, and then I just sit back and wait until one is ripe and I pick it and there we are. I said this at a panel at a con once and I literally saw somebody write it down. I was *this* close to losing it in public…

    As for short vs long story ideas, I occasionally – very occasionally – get mugged by short-story-sized ideas. Most of the rest of the time I climb onto that horse and it bolts with me and where I started with a nice clean neat 2000-word idea I soon find myself passing the 40,000 word mark yelling “whoa” like that matters and hoping like hell that the storyhorse will finally get it and whoa before I hit another doorstop at the end of it all…

  20. I love all of these! I shall issue engraved invitations to my Idea Fairy to various tea parties, pool parties, surfing adventures, safaris into Dreamland…