Views From The Captain’s Chair- The Idea
The idea is what starts it all. Without the idea then the project never happens. Every novel or story has to have that spark, that catalyst that drives the creation of the work. Without the idea you are flying blind. (Unless flying blind is the idea, but that’s a whole other post).
So…where does the idea come from?
Good question. For you? I have no idea (see what I did there?). For me? Read on!
Everyone’s idea generator (available at Home Depot for $99.99 after rebate) is different. Some folks wake up in the middle of the night and write it down only to get up the next day with zero recollection of the nocturnal inspiration. Some get inspired by other works or by the Muse (available at Pier One Imports for $35.99 plus tax). Many struggle through several variations on a theme of an idea until the final one solidifies. Others it just “comes” to them fully formed. And drugs. Let’s not forget drugs. Each artist is different.
For me, I tend to get my ideas right before bed. They slam into my semi-awake head and I write them down. I always write them down! There is nothing more disappointing than knowing you had a great idea the night before but can’t figure out what it was. I actually had that happen a couple weeks ago. I wrote down the title, without any description, then had no idea the next day what the actual meat of the idea was. Bummer.
Now, pre-sleepytime ideas are not my only source of inspiration. I’ll have conversations with friends and they’ll be talking about something unrelated to horror or scifi and my brain will latch on and say, “Huh. What if blah blah was actually blah blah?” Many times I get blank, but polite, stares. Sometimes I get head nods. Every once in a while I get the “you should totally do that” high five. Hell, I have an idea right now that will probably become a series next year that I got from a friend. He had an idea, gave it to me, and I fleshed it out and will be running with it! Yay for friends!
Oh, and don’t start whining about “being original” because that is bullshit. There hasn’t been an original idea since man started telling stories around the cave fire. And even back then the stories were probably handed down by our alien overlords that seeded the planet. Derivative is fine, as long as it is good and it is marketable.
And, being in the scifi/horror/thriller genre, which are all pretty derivative, I have been known to get my ideas by mashing up two or three other ones into a new form that hasn’t been done before.
Case in point: Dead Mech (available on Amazon for $2.99).
When I got the idea for Dead Mech, I was watching TV and the Transformers 2 commercial came on. Regardless of your opinion of the franchise, those freakin’ robots are pretty awesome. Seeing those guys led my brain to connect to the old MechWarrior and BattleTech games that I never played, but always wanted to. Gundam probably hopped in my noggin as well. Those thoughts instantly melded with my desire to write a zombie novel, but in a way that hadn’t been done before. Bing, bang, boom, a few seconds later it all coalesced into the idea of what would happen if a mech pilot died in his/her mech and turned into a zombie. Dead Mech was born!
Other times the ideas come from outside sources. Take Z-Burbia, for instance. My publisher, Severed Press, wanted a “straight up, Romero-esque” zombie series. My first reaction was that it had been done so much there was no way I could bring anything new to it. Then the “write what you know” adage smacked me upside my head and I realized that the beauty of Romero is that he is commenting on the American Way, using zombie horror as almost satire. Dawn of the Dead was set in a mall to mock consumerism. What if I set my series in the same type of suburban subdivision I lived in and mocked the pointless crap that goes with that?
Bam! Z-Burbia, baby!
Mega (available at Amazon for $2.99)? How did I get the idea for Mega? Again, Severed Press wanted some deep sea thrillers and sea monster horror novels. Giant, prehistoric sharks are always a good fit for that kind of stuff. But, I didn’t just want the same old “scientist finds shark, shark eats everyone until scientist kills shark” novel. (For the record, despite some of Mega’s reviews, I have never read MEG by Steve Alten. Didn’t know it existed until well after I wrote the first Mega novel and saw it mentioned in a review).
Again, as with Dead Mech, I decided to meld genres. I took the giant shark, deep sea horror novel, and mixed it with the elite team of badass fighters novel. Team Grendel was born. Why did I go that route? Because I saw how successful the elite team stuff was for authors like Jonathan Maberry and Jeremy Robinson, just to mention a couple. I turned a horror novel into an action adventure thriller novel and it has certainly paid off.
This brings up another way to get ideas: the charts. No, seriously. If you aren’t sure what to write, but are burning to write something, then look at the bestseller charts on Amazon. See what is selling there and if anything piques your interest then go for it!
Which leads me to my last part about ideas: it’s okay to think of marketing. I have dozens and dozens of ideas for novels, but only a couple are worth pursuing. For me, there is zero point in wasting my time writing a novel if I don’t think it will sell. And I’m not talking about it selling to a publisher, I’m talking about it selling to readers. Because that’s what really matters.
Think of it like this: you’re a chef and you have an amazing idea for a dessert. You know it will be delicious, you know once folks try it they will be blown away. Only problem is it is banana cheddar spinach pudding. It may be the most awesome pudding ever made in the history of awesome puddings, but no human being is going to order that off the menu. Same goes for novel ideas. Thinking of marketability is totally cool.
Are there more ways to get ideas? Hell yes! The ethereal idea machine hovers above us all and drops little nuggets constantly in an infinite number of ways. The trick is to tune your senses to pick up those nuggets. Just like the act of writing, the act of generating ideas takes practice and patience. You have to be willing to churn out some crap ideas before you find that golden nugget. And it is okay to churn out crap as long as you keep on churning!
Still don’t know how to get an idea for your breakthrough novel? Then maybe that is the idea in of itself right there. Think on that for a second and see where it takes you. You never know what you will find in the most unlikely of places. The real point is that ideas come from everywhere and eventually, as long as you don’t quit, “your” idea will happen!