Essays on the Writing Life
Where do you get your ideas? According to a highly successful writer 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.
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 is 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 finding that the idea I wanted to flesh out into a novel was far more suited to a shorter length. My latest 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 began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with Jaydium and Northlight, (and the omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels), and short stories in Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy and Star Wars: Tales from Jabba’s Palace. Now under her birth name, Ross, she has written an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. Her collection Azkhantian Tales, includes four short stories set in that world. Book View Cafe also offers her nonfiction Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life and a number of her stand-alone short stories.