January 20, 2012

"Click", or the Ever-Talked-About Mysteries of Inspiration

"Where do you get your ideas?"

Writers (and other artists, but maybe especially writers) often get that question, and possibly even more so when they practice their craft (or art, or trade, or whaterver else you want to call the act of putting words on a page to make up a story) in sci-fi, fantasy, horror or other strange, zombie-filled arenas (Why do you use so many parentheses is another question I get asked a lot).

The answer varies quite a bit depending on your personnality, the way you work and your personal neuroses.  Some get inspired by other books, or news, or a stain of pureed banana shaped like Jesus (yes, I have a new baby, why do you ask?).  I've heard that Stephen King answers "Cleveland."

The way it usually works for me is what I can describe as a "click" moment.  It usually takes me by surprise, when I'm letting my thoughts wander.  Almost unbeknownst to me, my brain suddenly latches on to one thought.  Many times it's an image, like a man alone in an office building on New Year's eve (to see what kind of story comes from that image, read our next issue, available in march.  Awesome.  Fits every budget).  Sometimes it's a line, like "Alistair was at the country club when the world ended", which was the starting point for one of my favorite stories I've ever written (It's called Alistair's Armageddon, and you can read that one in HBM issue 2, Safer Where You Are.  Aweso...  alright, moving on).

In any case, when I get that image, or that line, it comes with a thrilling sensation in my chest, the type you get when you have a great present you're waiting to surprise someone with.  Contained excitement.  That's how I know the idea's good, that I should run with it.  Over the years, I've learned to trust that feeling.  I don't think I've ever written a story that I was happy about that didn't come first from that "click" moment, at least to some degree.

Then of course there's all the tedious work, ten percent inspiration, ninety percent perspiration, all that stuff they teach you in writing books and seminars.  No good writing can come without that (see Alex's post about editing).  By all means, edit, work at it, sweat, swear.  "Vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage", as Nicolas Boileau said.  But I don't think I'd be writing if it wasn't for the rush I get from the "click".

(Oh, and I use parentheses a lot because they're fun and my thought process is like an overloaded, super-caffeinated flowchart on crack).

(But I don't do drugs).


  1. (this is a great post)

  2. The funniest answer I've ever read to the "Where do you get your (crazy) ideas?" is from Harlan Ellison. He usually answers "Schenectady. There's a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send 'em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas."

    Actually, what many readers don't realize is that many writers don't worry too much about where or how to get their ideas. They usually have too many ideas, to the point of not knowing what to do with them all. Writing is often a way to get rid of an idea so you can move on to the next one.

    There's another aspect to this whole "ideas" concept. There is no truly original idea. All ideas are simply links between existing concepts or ideas. A seemingly original idea is just a link between two or more existing ideas that no one has ever thought to make before.

    Ideas don't appear from a vacuum: they flow from existing situations, events, ideas, people, places, etc. People who seem to be more inspired than others are just better at making those links, either through intuition, logic, or just by being good at letting existing ideas flow free in their minds, until they notice interesting collisions.

    Anyway, that's how I understand creativity, as that appears to be how my own brain works.

    Also, Vincent, we must be kindred spirits of a sort, because I also tend to overuse parentheses a lot, especially when I'm writing quickly without organizing my thoughts prior to writing. I sometimes end up with multiple levels of nested parentheses (though it helps that I'm also a trained computer programmer, which forces me to properly close each set of parentheses.)

    I think this stems from the fact that our brains work faster than we can type, so we keep getting ideas we want to add to whatever we're writing, and we use parentheses to insert those ideas into the otherwise normal flow of our writing.

    In some ways, it's a little bit like some stutterers I know: they sometimes appear to be stupid, or even retarded, when in fact they are often of higher-than-average intelligence, except that their brains work faster than their mouths can generate speech, leading to a form of clogging at the "output stage".

    I hope my submission will be selected for publication. From what I've read of yours, Vincent, I think you're the HBM editor who is most likely to like my story.