Monday, 29 September 2014

Where do ideas come from?

Personally, I think Neil Gaiman had one of the best explanations for where ideas come from, namely that he doesn't know and he doesn't really want to know in case it scares them off.

However, I have noticed myself typing out the same couple of idea prompts I learned at university every time I see this question online or on a post-it note stapled to the door of my bunker. So in order to save myself typing them out each time (and sneakily making a paltry scraping of ad money) I type them out here for your browsing perusal.

Enjoy. They only cost me 9 grand and three years of my life.

1) Carry A Notebook

In the above videos, one of the useful things Gaiman points out is that "Essentially, [ideas] come from daydreaming. And I suspect it's something every human being does. Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they've had an idea. It's not that they have any more ideas or they get inspired more than anyone else, we just notice when it happens a little bit more."

This is fantastic, but I am criminally absent minded. The seven point plan for world peace that occurs to me on the way to Sainsbury's is usually gone by the time I get to the tills, and I'm left later sat in front of the open laptop when I get home scratching my head and trying to remember why guinea pigs were involved in stage 2.

Consequently I carry around a notebook. It's a nice one, it has a little strap around it so it doesn't come open. And I guard it carefully. Not because the contents are valuable, but because if found by someone who doesn't know me, I'm fairly sure its contents could get me committed.

But what it does contain are ideas. I cross them off as I realise them. Ideas for scenes, opening lines, characters, events, snippets of dialogue, and solutions to problems. And shopping lists. But mostly ideas. If you want to fill a book with ideas, you'll need every single one you can get,

2) Freewrite

Another popular idea generator is free writing. I was pretty sure I'd written about this before, but I can't seem to find the post so here it is again in brief:

Write anything for 5 minutes. Do not stop for punctuation, spelling or logic.

Anything. Even if it results in the following:

Oh god, what am I writing? I don't even know. I have literally no ideas. Like an empty box in the back of a shed covered in dust but there are a load of boxes in the way so you can't quite see properly - is that a leg sticking out of it? it looks too big to be a leg. oh god it's moving. WHY IS IT MOVING AND WHY AM I STILL IN THE METAPHORICAL SHED.

There you go, now you've got the beginnings of a horror story about giant spiders. First scene: a young couple are moving into their new house when they discover an old box at the back of the garage. When his body is discovered nobody believes the plucky young researcher at the local museum, until people start disappearing...

Yes it's Jaws with spiders, but you get the idea. No matter how bad the initial piece of free writing is, there will be an idea or the spark of one in there if you look hard enough.

Freewriting works because it loosens up the creative side of the brain and forces the critical side to take a back seat. If you really, really examine your thought processes when you're stuck, it's not that you're not having ideas: You have ideas all right, but you've trained the critical part of your brain to shoot them all down. The more you let your critical side get away with this, the less in tune with your own creativity you become.

Conversely, the more you give your creative side free reign, the more in tune with it you get. Seriously, the more you do a thing, the easier your brain finds it to do that thing. That's neuroplasticity, Kyle. Science. Let the ideas out, and snip them down when you're finished creatively outpouring.

3) Automatic writing

Right. This is a bit of an odd, hippy one, so feel free to ignore it and stick to the first two if you like.

To cut a long story short, an artist called Brion Gysin used to lay down newspapers to protect the table while cutting up canvases. He noticed that in cutting up these headlines, sometimes they fell together in funny, tragic, bizarre or poignant phrases. He liked it and called it the cut-up technique. This inspired William Burroughs to write The Naked Lunch, which is pretty much the same thing but with a manuscript he had written. It's a bizarre book, but this also inspired David Bowie (yes, that David Bowie), who created a machine that scanned newspaper articles and spat out rearranged sentences, which he started using as lyrics.

Got it? Accidentally produce the profound from accidents. So how do we apply this?

Find a page of text, photocopy it (please don't go round cutting up people's books, it's mean), and then cut out each sentence. Then cut each sentence in half. Scatter them on the table or the floor. Turn them all right-side up so you can see them. Then start putting together any interesting combinations you see.

It depends on how interesting the source material is really. If it's a page from something by Neil Gaiman, you'll have a lot of dark imagery to work with. If it's a page from a cookbook, less so, but the results might be funny. If you mix Neil Gaiman in with a cookbook, I'm 90% sure the results will be about eating children.

The results will not be great English, but they WILL be great ideas and rich in the kind of imagery you need to tell a great story.

So there you have it, three ideas to get you started if you're stuck:

- Carry a notebook and write down any cool ideas before they disappear,
- Write anything to get your creativity going, and then edit it into just the good bits,
- Cut up a bunch of text and rearrange it randomly to see what pops out.

I look forward to finding out how useful these are to people.