Advice SectionLooking for ideas

Being a reworking of an old letter on the subject.

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Text last revised: March 16, 1999

The traditional question to ask SF/fantasy writers is said to be, "Where do you get your ideas?" Frankly, I have trouble just understanding the question -- how can you not get ideas?

I get them from the world around me -- from everything I see and hear and read. Just look at anything and ask yourself questions about it. The problem isn't a shortage of ideas; it's choosing which ones to use.

And no, I don't have any way to turn off new ideas. This can be a nuisance at times, but beats the heck out of the alternative, which is writer's block, which I've had a few times. And as far as getting a story out of it -- Neil Gaiman did it already, in an issue of Sandman. Don't remember the issue number, but it was one of the "Dream Country" sequence, and the story title was "Calliope."

He did it as horror -- there's one nasty scene where the writer is desperately writing ideas on a brick wall in his own blood to try to keep up.

(Don't worry, he deserved it.)

I've never had it that bad, and it never lasts more than a couple of weeks at a time. Even so, I've thrown away hundreds of ideas over the years, just for lack of time to write them. And I have roughly three hundred that are recorded for later use -- not counting the big pile from before I got a computer.

And of course, I've written a hundred and five short stories and twenty-four novels, not counting works in progress. [This can't have been right even in 1999. I'm over 130 shorts and forty-eight novels as of January 1, 2016.]

This is why I maintain that ideas are cheap, of course. Ever heard Scott Card's "1,000 Ideas In An Hour" talk? I don't know if he does it any more, haven't seen him in years, but I heard part of it, where he was demonstrating how you can cross-reference ideas to generate more ideas -- for example, if you take the basic idea "Magic has a cost," you can then cross-reference it with every form that cost can take, and put each on a sliding scale. Suppose that magic costs the user his own flesh, for one. Now, you get one sort of story if a major spell just needs a fingernail clipping, and an entirely different one if it takes a finger. Or an arm. Suppose it doesn't have to be the user's flesh -- then evil magicians, who are willing to sacrifice innocents to pay for their magic, will predominate, and good magicians are always going to be in a terrible bind. And good people, to defend against evil, might willingly give up limbs, might raise children specifically for the purpose of feeding magic...

Or if magic costs money, so the rich can do magic and the poor can't, what sort of society do you get? What if the cost is so high that nobody can afford more than one or two spells?

What if magic costs years of your life?

What if magic costs emotion, so that wizards become more detached and disinterested with every spell?

You get the idea. It's just ringing changes. It's easy.

Ideas are cheap. The hard part is turning them into stories -- and at a certain level, even that gets easy, really; it's just a matter of finding time to sit down and do it, and do it well. Stuff like "Spirit Dump" or "Efficiency" is like five-finger exercises, really. Fred Pohl, in The Way The Future Was, calls it "monkey tricks," and he's right.

Every so often I hit an idea that looks especially interesting, though. The best ones are usually taking a cliche and finding something new in it; I love those.

On ringing changes: compare "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers," "An Infinity of Karen," "The Drifter," and "New Worlds" -- all the same idea in different variations. There are several more that I haven't finished yet.

And then Harry's has spun off its own variants. These things do that; a good story will spawn more ideas, ad infinitum. Not sequels -- well, those, too, but I had variations in mind. And there's always deeper background to look at, with stories to be found there, too -- if your hero in one story has a disintegrator beam, for example, who built it? Who invented it? How did it affect things at first? What else could you do with it?

Once you've got a premise, you just fit in a standard plot--there really are only a few, but you can vary the details infinitely--and you have a story.

And while describing this, I've inadvertantly generated some new story ideas; for example, if you've got disintegrators, what does that do to murder investigations? And think how easy it would be to fake a death... leave whatever disintegrators leave, and just go away.


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