It’s More Fun If You Take It Out And Play With It: How To Grow Ideas

Together, we will raise this idea to destroy cities.

Ideas are fragile things. They need care and attention before they can blossom into…

Wait a second. Got my notes mixed up. That’s kids. Kids are fragile blossoms. Or something. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention during those baby-sitting courses. And yet all my cousins survived. I think. I have a lot of them, so I’d need to do a head count to be sure.

Anyway.

Ideas. You have an idea. A little one. And you need to know how to grow it into a book, into a full-fledged mecha-Baphomet-Idea with fire breath and razor wings and inspiration spewing from every orifice. It will storm forth from your word-writing engine to lay waste to the shelves of lesser books and hear the lamenting of their indices.

Buuuuut it’s also kind of…new. Undeveloped. And until it grows and loses its first set of fangs, you don’t want to risk anything happening to your little baby idea.  So you don’t tell anyone about it. You don’t pick at it very much. You just wrap it up and keep it safe. You want to protect it from the viciousness of the word-world, with its reviewers and unpleasant Twitter accounts. You want to coddle it.

Too bad that won’t get you anywhere.

Ideas are not fragile. They can’t be and survive. You might feel protective of it at first, and that’s only natural. After all, it’s a part of you. But if it’s ever going to be all that it can be, then it needs to get kicked around a bit. Have those rough edges knocked off. If you keep it locked up away from anyone and everyone, it’ll turn out like one of those weird kids whose parents never them go outside and refused to let anyone inside the house unless they were coated in hand sanitizer.

So, here’s what you do with your brand spanking new baby idea: take it out into the fresh air. Let it stretch its tiny little wings. Examine your idea from all angles. Look for the flaws. What doesn’t fit? Where are there gaps, and what can bridge them? You can do this yourself or you can get others in on the game. But, much like toys, ideas are a lot more fun if you take them out of the packaging and play with them.

Before you know it, the idea will grow. First subplots, then characters, then a set of rending talons the likes of which the world has never seen themes. By questioning it and prodding it and generally working with it, you’re giving it what it needs to get big and strong. And it will. Eventually, if it gets big enough, it’ll dominate your thoughts, squatting in the middle of them like a dragon on a conveniently-located pile of gold*. You won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

And what do you do then?

You write it, of course.

*Handy for the shops and near a good school, just in case it gets hungry.

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Writers Don’t Want Your Damn Ideas

She is one thousand percent done with your shit.

Every writer has had this experience:

You meet someone, and they find out—maybe you tell them, maybe someone else already has—that you write. And they get this gleam in their eye and you just know what the next words out of their goddamn mouth will be: “Hey, I’ve got this idea. It’s all ready to go. Now that I’ve done the hard part, you should write it for me and then we can go splits.

If you are a nicer person than me, you listen to them politely. If you are a much nicer person than me, you make some noncommittal noises and let them leave with the impression that you consider yourself lucky to have heard their idea.

If you’re exactly like me, though, you treat them to Cersei Lannister-style bitch face until they feel the cold winds of eternity blowing through their soul, laying freezing waste to what they encounter, cutting down men like wheat in the field.* Winter isn’t coming, you shambling pubefarmer; it’s here, in my eyes.

Writers don’t want your ideas. We have enough of our own.

Seriously, whenever I finish something and am trying to decide on the next thing to write, it’s never a case of looking for an idea. It’s a case of choosing from the dozens of new ideas that are clustered around my feet, all clamouring for attention. If you’re imagining standing ankle-deep in an adorable crowd of puppies, don’t. They’re not tame, these ideas. They climb over each other. They bite. The stronger ones bury the weaker, so  what I’m actually choosing from is a hundred varieties of monster: vicious, blood-thirsty, and demanding.

And then these happy assholes come along with their idea—their usually poorly-thought-out, undernourished, barely-alive idea—and want you to put it before all the clamouring monsters clawing at your legs and climbing up your back. Because, despite the fact that they’ve never found it interesting enough to spend hours putting the damn thing to paper themselves, this idea is just that fucking awesome. And, the implication is, your ideas are shit.

Because these people think that a writer is nothing more than a tape recorder with a pulse, a device to record their genius. Anyone can do it, right? They certainly could, if they only had the time. But since they’re far too busy doing important things, they’re willing to share the glory with poor little you.

Note to everyone who feels the desire to offer their ideas to writers: don’t. We are not the elves to your shoemaker. We don’t need your ideas. And we are far, far too busy for your shit.

*Not always true. Sometimes I just laugh.

Monday Challenge: No One Rides For Free

You can get a lift, but it’ll cost you.

Let’s talk about compromises.

Your characters, if they do anything interesting at all*, will sooner or later have to make deals with other characters. And those other characters will want things in return. Things that your character might not want to give. But, if an agreement is to be reached, they will. Or they won’t, and there’s no deal.

This is about cost. As the old saying goes, ass, gas, or grass: no one rides for free.

It’s especially true in fiction. If conflict is the essence of story, then why make things easy for your protagonist? Don’t give them a free ride. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, anyone who gets things too easily is either boring or hated. Either way, not protagonist material.

What is your character willing to pay in order to get something? What kind of deal will they make? And with whom? Are they sure they can trust that person? And, if they’re not, then why are they making the deal?

Monday Challenge, kiddies: Write someone making a deal at great personal cost. What kind of deal, what kind of cost? Hey, that’s your call. You expect me to do everything around here?

Now, go write.

*And if they don’t, then, seriously, why are you writing about them?

Skinny Dipping In The Fountain Of Weird: How To Get More Ideas

Sweet, sweet weaponized death.

I get a lot of questions about the way I think. Not all of them the good kind, either; about half those queries are phrased “What’s wrong with you?” That’s because, if you spend any significant amount of time with me, either in real life or online, you’ll eventually be exposed to the Fountain of Weird. This is what I call the part of my brain dedicated entirely to Weird Shit: dinosaurs with tanks for heads, six-limbed cat-people, a five-dimensional intelligent ebola virus, Soviet Russian weaponized cupcakes that eat you. Everyone who reads this blog? You’ve already been exposed. I hope your shots are up to date.

The questions, though—or at least those ones that don’t cast doubt on my sanity—are mostly about the process. How do I think of stuff? Why is it so easy? Why the hell would you say that out loud?

The reason I think of this stuff is because I’ve trained my brain to say yes.

It’s easy to dismiss things as childish or silly or ridiculous or wrong. It’s especially easy when those things don’t actually exist. But by taking the time to consider them, no matter how fucking weird they are, you open the doors to creativity. You’re allowing your mind to play. And that’s where the good stuff comes from.

If you’re always saying no, then sooner or later your brain will stop presenting you with the strange and wonderful and often downright disturbing stuff that it comes up with. It won’t do work that’s not rewarded.

This is why so many writers say that coming up with new ideas is never a problem. They’ve trained themselves to think this way. To say hell, yes to the sentient muffin bakery with the side-mounted cannon* that just crawled out of the dark recesses of their mind. Because what looks silly at first glance might have a great idea hidden inside.

And if not, you just spent five minutes imagining a sentient bakery firing muffins through windows**. How is that not awesome?

So, teach yourself to say hell, yes before no. Teach yourself to consider before you reject stuff outright as stupid or wrong or, my personal favourite, ‘a waste of time’. Give that weird thing some time, even if it’s only a minute or two.

Because the weird things, my little badgers, are the best things.

*”DO YOU KNOW THE MUFFIN MAN NOW, MOTHER FUCKER?”

**I’m officially stuck on weaponized baked goods today.

Monday Challenge: 4 AM On The Bathroom Floor

God damn it, if you knock over the BBQ while stealing my neighbour, at least put it back! Assholes.

Nothing good ever happens when you wake up suddenly and unexpectedly at four AM.

I don’t care what your life is like, if you’re not intending to wake up at that time and you do, some shit is going down. A phone call from jail. That worrying knock at the door. The feeling that something is very, very wrong.

Or, if you’re me, the food you ate several hours before rising from its bodily tomb with a vengeance.

I was thinking about the nature of four AM as I was lying on the bathroom floor very early Sunday, feeling the nausea eventually turn into a migraine.* Partially because I had nothing else to do once I finished re-reading all the comics I keep in the bathroom, partially because I’ve decided to turn all the random crap that happens in my life into ‘research’.**

I came to the conclusion that it’s not just the circumstances. There’s something about four AM that sets off a reaction in our heads. It’s like a short hand for ‘something bad is going to happen’. Like sunrise being used as a symbol of new beginnings. Waking up unexpectedly at four am, in the darkest armpit of the morning, is the symbol of something fucking up. The machine of your life gives a lurch.

It’s probably a great place to start a story.

So, Monday Challenge, which was technically conceived on a bathroom floor at Ass O’Clock Sunday morning***, is this: wake your character up at 4 am. Something has happened to get them out of bed, and it’s nothing good. What is it? The knock at the door? The explosion outside the house? The baby crying? Or the aliens landing in the back patio knocking over the barbecue?

On your mark. Get set….write!

*That’s just how my body rolls.
**Hey, you deal with shit your way, I’ll deal with it mine.
***Probably not the only thing conceived that way.

Monday Challenge: Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies

The lesser known “Pole vaulter falls, everybody dies” never really caught on.

You ever read a book and wonder how in the name of God’s most holy asshole it got published? I don’t mean the ones that you, personally, have a problem with; those are a dime a dozen and not every book is going to appeal to your taste. I mean the ones that are genuinely, deeply flawed. Not literary flawed, either, the kind that in the right light can sometimes be mistaken for artistic vision. I’m talking about the big problems: a character that disappears halfway through, a major plot point that’s never resolved, a sinkhole-style plot gap that opens under the rest of an otherwise acceptable book and sucks it down into the nether realm.

Or the ending. Somehow that’s the worst. It’s like a betrayal of all that time you spent on the rest of the goddamn book. You’ve got to stick the landing, folks. It’s not over until the covers are closed.

I distinctly remember being in bed with the Snowman when he finished a particular book. He turned the last page, read, blinked, and said, “What the hell was that?” In bewildered and increasingly irritated tones.

Probably not what the author was going for. *

You’ve read at least one. So have I. And while the initial urge might be to throw that book so hard that it leaves quite an impressive dent in the drywall**, I’m trying to wreak less havoc on the home lately. Hey, some places you can go full-on kaiju, like a daycare, and some you can’t.

So, in the interests of not having to go to Home Depot again this week, I present the following alternative:

Monday Challenge: Pick a book or story that didn’t end right and write the ending it should have had. According to you. If it’s really irredeemable, then ‘rocks fall, everybody dies’ might be your first instinct, but push through it. There was something that made you read that godawful word abortion to begin with. What was it? What promise was made that got you hooked? Then write what the resolution of that promise should have been.

Just like the Olympics, kittens***: you’ve got to stick the landing.

*Though you never can tell with some.
**Three points if you have to plaster it afterwards.

***Now I want the internet to provide me with Olympic Kittens. Or Kitten Olympics.

Monday Challenge: Places and Faces

Can you feel the hate?

Today’s writing challenge is a shameless homage to one I did in a writing workshop a couple of years ago. This post captures the essence of it, but for the non-clickers, it was about writing places. New ways to look at settings. I learned a lot of stuff in that workshop that I still use. When it comes to writing techniques, I am like the little old lady with a pocket full of string: never throw anything away that might, eventually, turn out to be useful.

Usually, when I think of places having souls, I picture urban environments. Maybe it’s the concentration of people, or the very human marks we leave on the landscape, but I just find it easier to put a face to the place. To figure out who that neighbourhood is, not what. But I feel like stretching out today, so let’s look at non-human habitations. They don’t have to be rural or isolated, but the human presence shouldn’t factor in.

Monday Challenge: Take an inhuman landscape and tell me who they would be if they were a person. Discard human furnishings like buildings and roads and nuclear power plants; tell me about the land and the sky.

For example, if I was to look out my window, the backyard thus viewed would likely turn into an icy, cruel, androgynous figure with a smile like a razor blade and long, blackened nails tap-tapping on the glass. Come out, it says. You have to come out sometime.

Like fuck I do.

I showed you mine. Now show me yours.