Let’s Skip the Awkward Part

Introductions are always a little graceless, especially when they’re coming from nowhere. Like writing that blurb about yourself on a dating site? Pain. Full.

So instead of bumbling about I’ll jump in by plagiarizing myself! Always an excellent move.

My name is Eliza Hirsch, 2011 graduate of Clarion West. And for your eyeball’s pleasure, here is a post I wrote recently on my home blog, about the creation and evolution of ideas.

From Idea to Story: Thoughts and Exercizes

This post was inspired by my new Tumblr, where I’ll be throwing things that inspire me. If you want a peek inside my brain hole, feel free to click on over.

Creative people are often asked where they get their ideas from. I think anyone who has been writing for a while will know what a strange question this is, though I admit to having asked the same thing myself a few times. The question usually isn’t–where do the ideas come from? It’s more, how do I use these ideas, and make them more than snippets? How do I flesh this scrap out, build it into something that will move people, delight people, intrigue and excite people?

JK Rowling said she had the first bits of her ideas about Harry Potter when she was on a long train ride. She didn’t have any pen or paper with her, and so she was forced to mull these ideas over in her head, stringing things together for hours on end without the benefit of being able to put anything down in black and white. Her method, whether by intention or because of circumstance, was essentially daydreaming. Prolonged periods of daydreaming. And I think that is the root of the creative process. We have to give ourselves room to dream. And then we have to anchor those dreams to some kind of reality.

So how did this wildly successful author come up with her ideas? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she took them and created a world out of them. And there are at least as many ways to do this as there are authors. I’m still finding my method, that tried-and-true process that works every time.

I think I’m on a wild goose chase. I’m sure as I grow both as a writer and as a person, what works for me will change. But that’s good! It forces me to try new things, and occasionally stumble upon something new. And the whole point of being alive is to learn, to live, to grow.

Here are a few things that work for me right now. Who knows? Maybe they’ll spur something in you, too.

Creating Characters From People

It’s cheating. I know. But it’s the best and worst kind of cheating there is. We all know people with idiosyncrasies that drive us up the wall, or make us want to study them like animals in a lab. Or something like that. And when it comes to creating believable, interesting characters you could do a whole lot worse than picking them from the ripe field that is your life.

Now, I’m not recommending trying to put Dad into your story whole cloth. That won’t work. It can’t. Human beings are so intricate and complicated that any facsimile we try to create will inevitably come out forced. Instead, try inserting Dad’s laconic nature into the best friend of your main character. Or his love of puzzles into the villain. In doing this, you inject something familiar into this character. You’ll know, from experience, how this aspect of a personality works, and it will be easier to conjecture. And by using just one piece of the person, you avoid the “OMG you put me in your book and I’m a jerk! What do you think of me?” problem.

Who is This Going to Hurt Most?

So you’ve got this awesome idea for a world where people literally share one heart, and if they don’t find their mate before a certain age they start to die. Great. Now, you go to choose a main character and–you find the middle-aged woman comfortably married with three children who have been linked with their mates since birth. Hmm…I could think of a couple of ways you could use this woman, but I don’t think she’s MC material for this story.

How about the CEO of a company in charge of finding people’s mates? If he fails, well, there goes his commission! Again, not a strong candidate.

Or how about the girl who’s fallen in love with her best friend, who gets murdered. And then she finds out her mate is the guy responsible for the murder. Now this has potential.

Who does your idea hurt? How can you make it hurt worse? I’ve mentioned this here before, and it applies as much today as it did a hundred years ago and will a hundred years in the future–put your character in a tree and throw rocks at them. But before you get them up there, find the character who has trouble climbing trees, find the character with thin skin, the character scared of heights and projectiles. The connections will start coming, growing like sinews between pieces of your ideas until you have something vaguely story shaped.


Then, if you get really stuck, do something crazy. This is an exercise borrowed and tweaked from Holly Lisle (who has a whole, comprehensive course about how to take an idea and make it into a book).

Take a magazine. Rip out a bunch of pictures. Scatter them over your floor. Start throwing things at your impromptu collage. A penny will do. Wherever that penny lands, let that inform your next scene.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a far-future hard SF. I have no experience in this genre, so excuse any unintentional foot-in-mouthing I may commit. You’ve just massacred an issue of Vogue, so you have a spread of watch ads, fashion shoots, and the like. Your penny lands on this*:

Congratulations! Your characters have just discovered a new alien race! Or perhaps that trunk she’s sitting on contains the WMD your hero will have to wrest from the grips of evil. Or this is the villain disguised as your hero’s long-lost sister, dropping in for a none too friendly visit. There are a dozen ways you can take this particular picture, easy, and this picture is pretty…well, boring.

The ideas are everywhere. It’s the connective fibers that are harder to come by.

*photo ripped shamelessly from the internets.

Also, I’m not affiliated with anyone. Any links are free from outside influence.

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