Where Do Ideas Come From?

This has been on my mind a lot lately. I finished a novel before the summer holidays and I was hoping a new and irresistible idea would brew itself up effortlessly and be waiting for me at the start of the new term.

Needless to say, it didn’t happen.

I’ve only started a novel twice before and I remembered the slow awkward phase at the start, the phase that felt a bit like trying to catch smoke or herd cats or train butterflies. The ideas were vague tendrils that could disappear if you looked too closely at them.

The last novel I started began as a dream. It helped a lot. The atmosphere and the characters were there, urgent and real, waiting to be written down. I knew them, I’d lived through it, it was my dream.

Just after I’d started writing that novel, I got ill. I had a high temperature and spent a few days in bed. This also really helped. In that fevered state, I planned out the main story arc of the rest of the book.

Sadly, neither dreams or fevers are available on request, so I had to look somewhere else - and stop examining my family members for the slightest sign of peakiness in the hope of catching a fresh cold…

Fortunately, around that time my colleague Rachel Connor posted on Goodreads a glowing review of Scarlett Thomas’s book Monkeys With Typewriters. 

I immediately went and bought the book and devoured the sections on idea generation. Then I dived straight into the matrix exercise – this is where you use a grid to list lots of things you know or are interested in, from locations to names to past jobs to current obsessions. Working with your grid, you can then track across it, linking disparate areas, forging creative juxtapositions and mining your own material in a really astonishingly effective way.

This helped to a point, but then I got stuck. It was as if I’d built a fire, but run out of matches when it came to lighting it.

If only I had a deadline, I realised. For me, a commission is the best creative spark in the world. I’m a Virgo: we’re good with deadlines. The idea of missing a deadline makes me feel physically ill. When I was at Uni, I handed in my final essays a whole week in advance, allowing me to spend the remaining days as typist for my best friend – she became famous for sprinting across the campus, having written several essays during the night, and handing hers in with about thirty seconds to spare.

So if there is no commission and no deadline, you have to make your own. I set myself little milestones. I decided I would have a rough plan and a few scenes written by the time I went on a brilliant Arvon course taught by Maggie Gee and Jonathan Lee.

The course was so galvanising, it set me up for the next few months. By the end of that time I had an agent, so I made up a new deadline by which I’d have a first draft to him. And so on.

The point is, the deadlines broke things up. Brought pressure. Made me sit at my desk, even when I was tired and the TV that evening was good (God bless Sky Plus).

I realised: ideas come when you write.

During the process, I discovered another useful observation: my inner critic is a right lazy cow. She doesn’t get out of bed till she’s had breakfast and two cups of coffee. By midday she’s a right pain:  ‘An author? You? You can’t write. Nobody is interested in your ideas. Delete it all.’

If I set my alarm for 6am to write new scenes longhand for an hour before I had to do other stuff, the ideas came and didn’t get squashed by Inner Critic. The ideas could be written up and developed later in the day, but at least there was some raw material to work with.

So, here I am, at the scary start of a new idea, trying to ignore Inner Critic, setting my alarm at 6am and praying that I get a minor cold. Wish me luck…