by Dan Blythe
Authors who, like me, are veterans of a few school visits – about 400 in my case, at last count! – often find themselves being asked that immortal question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ It’s one which used to annoy me in my early days as a published writer, one which I even perhaps found a little fatuous. These days, I try to engage with it more. What does the questioner actually want to know? At heart, I think, they are asking how you do that thing we all dread – going from a blank page, from nothing, to getting something down on the page. Where does that all-important ‘idea’ to start you off come from?
If you are anything like me, you won’t be short of ‘ideas’. They can be many things. Scraps of overheard conversations, half-formed outlines for characters, scrawled flow diagrams for plots with lots of arrows and asterisks – and a great deal of messy crossing-out. If anyone ever uncovers my notes after I’m long gone and decides to edit them, I wish them luck. They’re going to need it! Making order out of this chaos of ideas, that’s what counts. Creating a convincing conversation out of those scraps of dialogue. Turning those character outlines into people who feel real, people who make real choices with dangerous consequences. Transforming that scrappy plot outline into something which actually has a shape, which is a story and not just a situation.
Often, new authors’ books are not short of ideas. They can be full of imaginative scenarios, good set pieces, clever worldbuilding. The one thing, though, which all new authors need to be very careful to build is a structure around these ideas, something done with them. It’s what I often refer to in reports as a ‘dynamic’. The reader needs to feel that the story is being propelled along by the characters’ choices, not dragged along behind them – or, even worse, just sitting still.
Things need to happen for a reason, and need to make sense. The characters should not just orbit around a static situation. They have to get things done, they need to make discoveries, they ought to change in interesting ways.
Often, this may mean removing scenes which you loved writing, simply because they don’t add anything to the plot dynamic or the character development. It may mean taking out whole sub-plots, or cutting entire chapters down to a bare minimum.
Where do you get your ideas from? You can get them from anywhere you like – from life around you, from the people you know, from the things you read, from dreams or idle thoughts. But ideas are just the raw material. It’s not where you get them from that’s interesting. It’s where you take them.
You can find Dan on Twitter, YouTube and our website! And don’t miss Dan in conversation with Cornerstones founding director Helen Corner-Bryant talking all things editing, writing and selling your book. Loads of tips and industry insights for first-time novelists and writers, and more below!