As a fiction writer I tend to feel like this is a stupid question, whilst as a journalist it feels amateurish and slightly redundant to ask it. Read their work and it’ll often become pretty apparent – Irvine Welsh didn’t come up with Trainspotting because he spent a lot of time hanging around Disneyland, for example.
Writers get ideas from all over the place. I think there can be merit in asking about the inspiration behind a particular project, but where do you get ideas in general? That’s ridiculously vague.
Frinstance, walking home in the snow gave me an idea for this month’s Pictonaut, a comment from a friend prompted a forthcoming blog post about why I identify as Ms not Miss, and I regularly write about things I have seen on the internet. Where do my ideas come from? Life. The universe. Everything.
When I’m not writing, I’m generally thinking about writing, or reading writing by someone else and thinking ‘damn, I wish I’d written that.’ I’ve experienced two sorts of writer’s block to date, but neither of them stems from lack of ideas – rather, they come from:
- Lack of confidence – that moment where you are 1,000 or even 15,000 words into a story and you suddenly realise the whole thing is dross, or has been done before, or isn’t going to work unless you change something but you can’t see what it is yet.
- Lack of time – I am not in a position where I can write full time, because I have bills to pay which freelancing doesn’t cover, and I have so many ideas I can’t write them all, which can be overwhelming and depressing.
Both of these blocks are debilitating, and have contributed to periods of not writing. I’ll put off the current project because it’s such hard work, but I won’t start anything new because it seems like procrastinating when I know I should pull my finger out and finish the previous thing. All of which is rather self defeating, but such is the human condition.
Still, neither of these issues involves being out of ideas, which is what the question implies. If you have to ask where someone gets their ideas, it suggests you don’t have any of your own. I guess that means some people don’t constantly scribble down fragments of their thoughts to expand upon later? Weirdoes.
I recently read an article about all this, which hypothesised that when someone asks a writer where they get their ideas, they are coming from the perspective not of faintly interested third party, but of wannabe-writer. That is to say, they want to join the ranks of authors lounging around garrets until the muse strikes, whereupon an exquisite manuscript is produced in one draft and followed by months of hanging around literary parties being terribly droll.
The same article goes on to suggest that these people are not really asking where writers get their ideas, but ‘how did you become a successful writer,’ which is of course a different thing. It is something I have an answer for, though.
You become a successful writer by writing.
‘But Ali,’ you might say, ‘not wishing to be a dick about it, you are hardly what society would deem a particularly successful writer. You write all the time, sure, but only earned £200 from writing in the whole of last year – your living comes from temping. Surely there is more to writing success? Perhaps a magic well containing only profitable ideas, so that we don’t waste time with stuff that won’t work?’
To be honest, the fact I make any money at all from writing is a huge success in my eyes. Writing is a compulsion, something I do almost without thinking. I’ve been putting my words on the internet for free for more than a decade in the hope others might enjoy them, and I gauge my success not just in financial terms, but in positive encouragement from readers. Fifty hits on that last post? I’ll take that. Someone hit the ‘like’ button? Ace. These are indicators a) that people read my words and b) weren’t so bored they chewed their own faces off – reason enough to suppose that one day, someone will give me a column/book deal involving large sums of money.
However, for those who don’t want to take the working at it until you’re good enough route, there are actually some super secret ways of finding success slightly more quickly, which I will impart now.
- Nepotism. This is particularly handy in journalism – so if you happen to have a relation or close family friend who is already a successful writer, for goodness sake exploit that connection.
- Be a famous footballer.
- … That’s it. The rest of you are just going to have to put the work in.
Some other, arguably more helpful comments on this subject: