The secret well of ideas

The secret well of ideas !If there is one question that every published author hears at other events, it is this one : But where do you get all those ideas ?

Secret well of ideasMany people who dream of becoming a (famous) writer are scratching their head to find this mysterious well of ideas. Most are under the impression that writers form a tight circle around a secret lair of the golden-egg-laying hen. The secret well of inspiration, teeming with ideas!

This belief joins another one : all writers signing at the events are filthy rich!  Or if they are not, it must be because they don’t have access to a good well.

This in nonsense, as chance and fashion are the capricious ingredients that make or unmake successes. Also, many are convinced that once this idea has been fished out of the well, the main work is done, the book will write itself! Hence this ubiquitous anguished question : will someone steal my idea?

Relax, it is rather the opposite. Ideas are like dandelion seeds, easy to blow : pfffffuit!

Chaaas blowing dandelion seeds

They are blown in the sky half-formed, and many budding writers try to capture them with  clumsy fingers ! When they manage to catch one, they notice that there is still a long way  between the seed and the grown tree, between the idea and the completed book!

About ideas, the following scene happens often at a signing table (preferably when the writer is alone). A fan walks by, telling of his wonderful idea for a novel, an idea so genial that the writer should leave all his current projects to do the hard work on it! It happens especially with the SF writers…

An idea may be a very small seed at the beginning, so we must not try to pull from it a completed 600-page spy novel !

Imagine if the writers worked like that!

(Who is this author?)

Les Nuages de Phoenix (The Clouds of Phoenix) was my first SF novel aimed at YA. The novel idea took a long time to grow.

It began with a simple mental picture, a girl looking at the clouds. One of my favorites activities when I was a child. I happened to like meteorology (and I later followed climatology courses when studying Geography). The place took form, Phoenix is another planet with a green sky. Why green? Ah, enter the airborne particles size, and many other explorations.

In that special environment, I found out that the little girl, Blanche,  was handicapped, a consequence of a grave accident, and she wears an exosqueleton that gives her legs the capability of running at 80 km/h (a fun fact when I mention it in classrooms). New characters appear : Blanche has a family: an big sister in love , a father worrying about the oxygen production plant, etc.  Those characters grow and eventually become like friends of the writer. This is a very nice step in the creative process, and I will come back to it in a future blog entry.

Cover of Les nuages de Phoenix

The clouds of Phœnix‘s seed idea took about one year to grow discreetly, before I was ready to write the full-length manuscript. Afterwards, there has been the long rewriting and edition process under my editor’s eye. All in all, the novel took almost two years (working on it part-time) between the seed and the finished work.

I wrote about the challenge of growing a story in my French blog. A story begins as a tiny seed, which we put in soil and water, leaving it for a time. But the idea grows in silence. And nothing prohibits us to have more than one idea growing! Certain will get ripe earlier than the others.

So, our inspiration tree must be fed, in three ways. We draw first from our own life experience, that help to get empathy with what our characters are living through. Then by our readings, any kind of reading: for researching our subject, for fun, for exploring different genres and ways of storytelling.. and last but not least, our imagination, always creating bridges.

The inspiration Tree

Many of those links may be absurd, but some will prove fecund.

A writer cannot get into an ivory tower and tell himself that his fertile imagination will be enough. Our plant needs watering, fertilizer, care: the three inspiration sources interact between themselves. And when the story gets too profuse, the care will later include pruning

(to be continued…)


4 responses to “The secret well of ideas

  1. You’ve reminded me of the many people who ask me questions at writing workshops for beginners. There are those who ask, “WHERE do you get your IDEAS?” They try to understand some of what I tell them — I don’t express it anywhere near as well as you do!
    Then there are those who ask, “Where do YOU get YOUR ideas? I got some while out for a walk, I got one in the grocery lineup the other day…” and those are the ones who already understand more than I could ever teach in a workshop.


  2. The the other thing writers hear all the time is: “I have this great idea for a novel. If you write it up, I’ll split the profits with you 50/50.”

    I shouldn’t sneer at such people too much, though, because I once fell for that myself. A coworker discussed his outline and world building with me and I really thought he had a great novel taking shape, but he was struggling with getting the emotional content of his scenes down on the page. And I knew a writer who could wring emotional content out of the phone book, so I actually approached her and suggested a collaboration with my colleague– which she then correctly pointed out was a grown-up version of the “I’ve got an idea you can write up.” Well, duh! Naturally, she had her own ideas thank you very much. I felt very, very stupid. So it is an easy trap to fall into.


  3. To Robert: A 50-50 split? That’s more than I got offered : to do all the work for the sole glory of this brilliant idea…
    To Paula: good nuance in your point. I am still searching for that comic I made on the subject: “The fan who want you to work for free on his-her brilliant idea”


  4. Nicely done, Michelle.


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