Friday, 15 July 2011

What's the Big Idea?

"Where do you get your ideas from?" is one of the more difficult questions for a writer to answer. "They float into my head on a wave of magical inspiration," isn't a particularly satisfying response, and neither is "I stole them all from Stephenie Meyer."

We all have our own rituals and thought processes for idea generation. Some will brainstorm, others will take a keen interest in dental health because they know the best ideas come when brushing their teeth. For my part, I've recently discovered a talent for literally forcing ideas out, a way of worrying over my lack of inspiration until the right concept drops from my brain. In addition to being a positive application of my neuroticism, this technique has given me two great ideas - the concept behind my work-in-progress (or work-almost-finished as I like to call it) and a shiny new idea for my next novel.

So is a writer simply an ideas factory? An industrial process that hoovers up inspiration from other real and fictional worlds, filters it through the experience of a lifetime and produces a string of book-shaped sausages? I'm sure we could all point to authors whose work appears to have been produced under those production line conditions, carefully controlled and packaged in a protective atmosphere. These are the authors who rarely surprise, but always satisfy - you know what you're going to get from their books and that's precisely the reason you pick one up. Other writers have a more wayward and capricious approach - sometimes genius, sometimes "what were they thinking?" Is there room in the market for both? Perhaps the key is not being so wayward that you alienate your readers entirely.

One of the worst things for an author is finding out that another writer has had the same idea as you. Which happened to me this very week. Worse than that, the writer who I now discover I share ideas with, is a friend. The central concepts of our novels are very different, but there is a key plot mechanic that we've both - quite independently - come up with. How could this have happened? We share work a lot, so the fact that neither of us had read the particular drafts of these particular books was unexpected. At least we can't accuse each other of plagiarism, but nonetheless, the experience has made me very uncomfortable. Perhaps I can't see the wood for the trees here and am focusing on a couple of similarities when a hundred things are very different. But if I've discovered these ideas in a friend's book, what are the chances of my other ideas coalescing in the mind of a writer I've never met? There are quite a few of them out there, after all.

Nicola Morgan had this situation happen to her at the worst possible time - just as her first novel was about to be published. Her blog post is well worth reading and I found it quite comforting - just because someone else has the same idea as you, it doesn't mean the end of your book.

Every writer wants to believe that they are one-of-a-kind (a unique and beautiful snowflake as Tyler Durden would say). They want to believe that their hard-won ideas are original and provocative, streets ahead of the mindless formula pap that colonises our cinema screens and bestseller lists. But somehow, it doesn't always seem to work out that way. Part of the problem is that we share a lot of the same inputs - news is global and inescapable, a single film can reach billions, a group of writers will share the same books through word of mouth. The pool of inspiration, when you look at it this way, is quite small. Is it any surprise that genres suddenly pop up, or that two writers find themselves coming to the same conclusion independently?

I could spend an entire blog post talking gloomily about the impending collapse of our culture, about how we seem to be recycling ideas more and more aggressively, remaking proven properties rather than taking a chance on the new and unique. But I think I have a part to play in breaking that cycle, by encouraging younger readers to step away from the obvious and inspiring them to build a whole new culture from the ground up.

Now there's an idea for a novel…



  1. I thought I was the only one stealing them from Stephanie Meyers?!

  2. Mark, you may be the only one who thought that Twilight was a romance between giant shellfish.

  3. Oh, I think I've mixed it up with Sponge Bob Square-pants.