Writing Excuses 10.1: Seriously, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
Key points: Writing Excuses, Season 10, will be structured as a master class. That means homework! How do you generate ideas? Geewhiz and then struggle to a story? Do something like… Tone, theme, idea? Wow, I want to blow that up? I wonder what that would be like if… See the related podcasts on being influenced. Some ideas bring their own outline or structure with them. How do you find the gems? It has attractive depth, suggesting ramifications and ideas. Does the idea excite you? Does it suggest conflict and a story? Sometimes you need to reward yourself for generating an idea, but you can’t work on it now — so write it down! But how do you get ideas? Go two deep! Push past the first idea to a deeper idea. Read and follow new and old technologies. Ask “What could go wrong?” Don’t grab the first thing in the garden of low-hanging fruit, look for fruit that’s higher in the tree, that’s different. Synthesize!
[Mary] Season 10, Episode One.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season 10! No, seriously, where do you get your ideas?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] We are starting our 10th season of Writing Excuses. We wanted to do something different for this season we’ve been thinking about for a long time. We also identified a problem we have, which is that our students often wish and express a desire to be taking writing courses but can’t, either reach them or can’t afford them and things like that. So we thought we would approach that.
[Mary] So what we’re doing is we have structured the entire season as a master class. You will be doing theory and exercises and of course our usual banter and the occasional…
[Howard] And one thing… Well, one thing to keep in mind here is that Brandon just called you all students, instead of listeners. It’s on. And that means… Homework!
[Brandon] Yes. So some of the changes we’re going to be making are writing prompts are going to be transforming into writing exercises. Now we will still occasionally be doing a writing prompt. Most of the time, we’ll be doing these with wildcards. What the formula is going to be is we’re going to do each month a topic. We have posted these on our website. In conjunction with that topic, we will do two theory episodes where we talk and approach that. We will also do a Q&A episode with listeners about that topic. We will also have one wildcard episode, usually the second one of the month, which is going to be nothing… No relation whatsoever.
[Dan] It’ll be our usual unfocused chaos that you’re used to from the previous nine seasons.
[Brandon] The goal of that is we know that some of you listen very intermittently, you just grab episodes that are interesting to you. We don’t want to break what’s working, so you should still be able to listen to all of this independently and not change your listening habits. However, if you listen straight through and do the assignments as assigned, the goal is to help walk you through this year through a story that you’re working on.
[Mary] But we don’t want you to think we’re taking you back to 101 levels.
[Mary] We believe that you’ve been listening for several seasons and that you are here because you are committed and want to improve your craft, not because you are just starting.
[Dan] If you’re a brand-new listener, this is still a great place to start. We’ll be giving you the basics that you need. We’ll help you through it. And welcome to the podcast.
[Brandon] Thanks for listening.
[Brandon] So, let’s launch into it. No, seriously, where do you get your ideas? We… As writers, one of the most common questions we are asking… Asked is where do we get our ideas. It’s become something of a cliché among writers that that’s what fans ask.
[Mary] But even when I’m doing an intensive workshop, we often see people who struggle with getting from the geewhiz, cool idea, to an actual story. So…
[Brandon] So, month one is going to focus on ideas. We’ll be doing two podcasts, the first will be about generating ideas and the second one will be about taking an idea and developing it. In this podcast, we’re going to talk about idea generation, and we’re each going to talk about where we get our ideas and how we choose which ideas are actually good ones.
[Mary] One of the things you will find is that everybody starts in different places. I tend to have what I call the geewhiz idea, which is… Sometimes it can be something that I have seen in a bit of research, like honey ants are these ants that drink a lot of nectar and they get really big and they become a food source for their colony. What would happen if there was a sentient species that did that? What would that civilization look like? So that’s an interesting geewhiz idea, but then I had to struggle to get it to a story.
[Brandon] One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I very often have tone ideas. Meaning I’ll be working on a piece and I’ll consume some piece of media. I’ll read a book or I’ll see a movie or I’ll just be thinking about some of my favorites and I’ll say, “Wow. I really wish I could do something like that.” Recently I’ve been doing Mistborn books with a Western meets Sherlock Holmes feel. Both of which are because I was experiencing that media and saying, “I wish I could do something like that… Wait, I’m a writer. I can totally do something like that!”
[Brandon] Mistborn came in the first place because I said I want to do a fantasy heist novel. I love heist stories. Can I do this in a fantasy setting? That’s all tone. I’m looking to match a tone and that’s… I’ve never realized before how frequently I do that.
[Dan] I do something very similar, but not so much trying to match the tone as just the theme or the idea that somebody else has done. I’ll watch a movie, I’ll read a book and think, “That’s so cool.” In a similar experience, I want to play with that idea. I can. I’m an author. But my version of their story would be so different. I like what theme they were exploring, but I want to say different things about it.
[Brandon] Dan… Oh, go ahead. Sorry.
[Howard] I just look at Wow, that’s a cool thing. I want to blow it up.
[Howard] I wanna… But then… I mean, the first idea is I wanna blow it up. My second thought is “But what if I just set fire to it instead?” No, no, no, no, wait. Thermite? Oh, wait, hang on. It’s actually made out of aluminum. I very quickly run down this destructive chain.
[Howard] And will often end up at biological warfare instead of explosions.
[Brandon] Now, Howard, I know you also have science fiction ideas, where you’re like, “Wow, if I have this thing spinning at this rate and this weird orbit…” Sort of technical makes-my-brain-hurt sort of stuff, and then out of that comes some story with stuff blowing up.
[Howard] Yes. That… Well…
[Mary] There is a running theme.
[Howard] The James Bond movie Casino Royale which began with the parkour chase…
[Brandon] I think that’s the second one.
[Dan] No, that’s Casino Royale.
[Brandon] Is it Casino? Okay.
[Howard] That’s Casino Royale with the urban running. I remember looking at that and thinking, “Wow, that’s really neat. I wonder what that would be like in a rotating reference frame where gravity is a little lower?” From there, I ended up creating parkata urbatsu, which is the martial art of urban movement in the Schlockiverse. It is a long path from watching a James Bond movie to creating your own futuristic martial art, but I can look at every chain in that path and see how I moved from an idea that was pretty cool and belongs to somebody else…
[Howard] To an idea that is pretty much all new.
[Brandon] We can reference with this, podcasts we’ve done in the past about when you can be influenced and how to steal without actually stealing. How to be influenced. We’ll link those in the liner notes. I think those will be helpful podcasts to relate to this one.
[Howard] Oh, great. Now you’ve made homework for me.
[Brandon] Sorry, Howard. I wanted to ask you, Dan, have you ever watched something…
You said you get your ideas from I-want-to-do-that. Have you ever had the they-ruined-that,-I-want-to-do-it-right?
[Dan] Yes. The famous one that I talk about a lot is Battle Star Galactica, which I adored the re-imagined series and the way they were playing with the concept of what is a human, what does it mean to be human. The opening credits of every episode talked about the Cylons and ended with, “And they have a plan.” But they totally didn’t have a plan.
[Dan] You get to the end of that series, you get just to the end of the first season, and realize they’re making this up as they go! They don’t have a plan. So I wanted to do both of those. I wanted to play with my own version of the Cylons, which is what the Partials are, but I also wanted to figure out their plan in advance, so that you could get to the end and go, “Oh, my goodness, this all actually does make sense.”
[Howard] Wait. So when… An idea can actually be like an outline?
[Dan] Oh, don’t get ahead of our first…
[Brandon] Yeah, outlining’s not for a long time.
[Howard] I know it’s not. But the idea that…
[Dan] Yeah. In this case, the idea… One idea was for the cool artificial people, and the other idea was for an outline. I want to construct this very mysterious outline. I want to be able to have multiple people who seem to be working together but are not, and have it all actually make sense when you see the gears moving behind it.
[Mary] A lot of times when you’re looking at a tone thing, also, there’s an outline comes inherent with it. Like fantasy heist novel, there’s an inherent structure there. So sometimes you do have that as part of your idea. But the challenge then is what you fill it with.
[Dan] Sometimes, the outline… Or the idea that appears to you out of nowhere does not suggest anything. The cloning novel that I talk about all the time which I have now finally sold. I got that from watching The Sixth Day, the Arnold Schwarzenegger cloning movie, and thinking, “Okay, I want to do cloning, but I want to do it my own way.” I came up with my own cloning technology, and then thought, “Well, now what?” Which I guess we’ll talk about next week.
[Brandon] Right. We’ll talk about that next week.
[Dan] Where do we go with this idea that does not, by itself, suggest its own story.
[Brandon] I want to ask one more question of you guys. How do you know which ideas are good and which ones aren’t? Because as writers, often times we have more ideas than we can write. Once in a while, you run into somebody who doesn’t have enough ideas. We’ll talk about that next. But first, how do you separate the gems from the rocks?
[Dan] Well, going back to the cloning story that I was just talking about, I knew that one was great when I started telling people about it and instantly everyone I told said, “Oh, what about this?” They would all come up with their own ramifications of that technology and start spinning off new ideas of their own. I knew I had found a gem.
[Brandon] Wow. So if you can come up with a pitch about it, you can get across easily to people?
[Mary] Well, I think it’s not actually just the pitch. It’s that when people start doing that, that demonstrates that there is a lot of room in that idea for a story. There’s potential.
[Dan] That there is attractive depth.
[Brandon] Right. Okay. So, attractive depth. I like that a lot. For me, it’s a mix of how excited I am and about whether the idea actually suggests a conflict and a story. When I think about it, does it inspire me to begin spinning off directions or is it a geewhiz but that’s not a story. Which of these is it? I end up taking the ones that suggest more, that suggest a problem. Those are the ones that I spend more time mulling over. It’s really the ideas that really start attracting other ideas that are important. We’ll talk about that next week as well.
[Howard] If the idea is just so compelling that I want to start working on it instead of working on the stuff that is currently paying the bills, that’s usually a really good sign that I have a problem.
[Brandon] We all know you have a problem, Howard.
[Howard] But… Well, I make a point. The part of my brain that generates ideas needs to be rewarded for generating the idea. I accomplish that by writing the idea down. If I got something that is consuming my thoughts and distracting me from the ideas I’m currently executing on, I’m pretty sure that’s a good idea and so I will write down all… A whole bunch of notes about it and I know it’s good. Then I can let it go and get on with getting work done.
[Brandon] Awesome. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Mary?
[Mary] The book of the week that I’d like to recommend to you this week is Lock In by John Scalzi. Now one of the cool things for me about Lock In is that John started with this idea for this game, and you’ll hear him talking about this in some of his interviews. There’s this really cool idea for a game for people who are locked in to their bodies and using mechanical apparatus or threeps, short for 3POs to move around. He had this fantastic idea that needed all this world building. That idea is not in the novel anywhere.
[Mary] It’s not even referred to in a side note or in a news broadcast. It is not referenced anywhere in the novel. But all the world building and other ideas he had that came with it are in the novel. So all of the idea generation… Basically he started with an idea and then went two steps down to a new one. That’s the novel that he wrote. It is brilliantly narrated in two different editions, one is by Wil Wheaton and the other is by Amber Benson. The reason it’s in two different editions is because, and a lot of people will read the text version and not realize this, the main character is not given a gender. Because the main character became locked in at the age of two and has always lived in an android body. So is not gender identifiable.
[Brandon] That’s awesome. That is so cool.
[Mary] So… It’s such a cool idea.
[Howard] Very, very fascinating. If you go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, you can start a trial membership with Audible and you’ve got two choices for this book. You can get it narrated by Amber Benson. You can get it narrated by Wil Wheaton.
[Mary] It’s awesome either way.
[Howard] Yeah. It’s awesome. It’s awesome either way.
[Brandon] Excellent. So, ideas. Let’s say we have listeners who are struggling either identifying the good ideas or even generating them in the first place. How can we help our students, what can they do to have better ideas and come up with more of them?
[Mary] One of the things that I like to talk about is going two or three ideas deep. Which is, you have your first idea… That idea is probably related to something that was floating around. So you are probably not the only person who’s having that idea. So you go one idea deeper than that. So, let’s say that my idea is what about… This is going to be a terrible idea. What about a team that plays basketball with oranges?
[Dan] You’ve read my next book already?
[Mary] See. It’s like, “Oh, Dan’s working on that.” Well, the part that I’m most excited about that is the oranges. So what if it’s not a team? What if it’s an individual… An assassin who kills people with oranges?
[Mary] An assassin is way cooler. I’m more excited about the assassin than I am about the oranges.
[Brandon] An assassin who uses random implements as their hallmark, that they kill with something that you’re carrying on you?
[Brandon] Something like that? So he has killed with oranges before, or she has, because they found somebody with an orange, but whatever the person happens to carry with them, they will use to kill.
[Mary] Like now they’re killing with the Hugo award.
[Brandon] That’s an awesome idea.
[Dan] It ends up, by pure chance, being an orange every time.
[Dan] And he’s getting pigeonholed by the media. He’s like, “I’m not the orange killer, guys. That’s pure coincidence!”
[Mary] They’re discounting the other murders.
[Dan] They don’t give him credit.
[Howard] No, no, that wasn’t him. This killer used a banana.
[Brandon] Okay. It’s okay. [Garbled… Sketch]
[Mary] That’s what I mean when I’m talking about an idea that’s two deep.
[Brandon] Yes. Yes.
[Dan] So if you are having trouble leaving getting to this point…
[Dan] To… So many of us have talked about how we get ideas from other sources. Make sure you are consuming media. Make sure you’re reading books. Make sure you are reading science articles. Get on Twitter and follow Wired Magazine, the Science Channel, all of these places that are just overflowing with amazing new technologies in neuroscience, in robotics, in…
[Mary] Old technologies.
[Dan] Space travel.
[Mary] Surgeon’s apprentice… Chirurgeons, however you say it.
[Mary] Apprentice just did this whole thing about a rotating… A wind up rotary saw for surgery from the…
[Howard] Oh, gosh, I saw that.
[Mary] I was just like, “I want to tell stories with that terrible, terrible instrument of destruction.”
[Brandon] Yeah. Asking yourself, “What could go wrong?” is a great place to start. Look at one of these pieces… Read history and say, “What could have gone wrong that didn’t?” And let’s make it go wrong.
[Dan] A few years ago when I was first really trying to teach myself how to write short fiction, I spent a week at Mary’s house in Portland. I had listened to some radio show on the drive there about memory and about how a scientist in New York had just developed a drug that can wipe memory. Just based on that, I wrote four or five different short stories, all on this one concept of erasing memory chemically.
[Brandon] That is pretty cool.
[Howard] It’s funny. You mentioned Twitter. From a humor standpoint, I refer to Twitter, and I’m coming back to the orange… I refer to Twitter as the garden of low hanging fruit.
Because you will see something happens and on Twitter, 10,000 people will all tell the same joke. Because it is fascinating to watch, and as a humorist, I watch it and I ask myself, “What’s the fruit that’s higher up in the tree? What is it that I can reach for that’s different?” It’s this same principle. We’re looking for not the easy idea, not the idea that immediately leaps to mind, what’s the idea that’s past it, where you have to push a couple of other ideas out of the way or synthesize a couple of things and find something that hasn’t already been hashtagged a million times.
[Brandon] Wow. That’s a really great metaphor.
[Dan] What you just said about synthesizing. That is a great source of ideas. If you have a couple of things or maybe you just have one thing that might be cool but you don’t know what to do, mash it together with something else. Take random stuff and just combine them in new ways that no one’s thought of before.
[Mary] Jane Austen with magic.
[Dan] No one would ever do that.
[Dan] Trying to be serious here.
[Mary] Wild West fantasy heist.
[Brandon] We said at the beginning that what we want to do is start giving you writing exercises rather than just prompts. This won’t be every time, but we will be doing it consistently. For a given month, we would probably build on the exercises we have given you. We’ll wipe it clean for the next month with the next topic, but if you do these, you can then use them the next week with the writing exercise we give you. If you skip a week and don’t do it, we will make it so that each exercise can be done cold as well. But we’re going to give you this writing exercise today.
[Mary] I want you to write down five different story ideas in 150 words or less. Think of them as little notecards. I want one story idea to come from interviewing or talking to someone. One to come from research. So reading some… Reading a magazine or a book. One from observation. Take a walk. If you see someone walking down the street, think why are they going that direction and see what story comes from that. A piece of media. Something that you’ve watched. Take an idea and shift it slightly. Or music. See if you can be inspired by music, either the lyrics or the tune. The tone.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, this has been Writing Excuses, Season 10. Hopefully, you will enjoy this master class as we go through it this year. You are totally out of excuses, so now go write.