It’s the Question That’s Wrong

(This follows on from the post “The Question Writers Hate”)

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

A lot of writers find the question hard to answer — not because they haven’t thought about it enough, but mainly because there are problems with the question.

The first problem

is that it makes it sounds as if  having an idea is somehow the most important part of writing — as if there is a big magical pool of ideas out there and, if only we can find them, they will give us instant inspiration for whole books.

tree of ideas on flickr

Has anyone ever had an idea that immediately inspired a whole story? Please share it in the comments section.

I remember, many years ago, writer Val McDermid was asked where she got her ideas from. Val said the initial idea wasn’t the crucial thing.

The important thing was the long years of hard slog that was needed to turn an idea into a book.

tired writer 2

A lot of writers would agree with that. There’s a list of famous writers who agree on the wonderful “Brain Pickings” website.


So I’m going out on a limb now

to say that …

all writers would say that …



writing involves a lot more than just having a clever idea.

The important thing, if you want to do some writing, is to learn all the skills you need. There are a million blogs and webpages and books about that. Find one that suits you and get to work. Better still, find ten that suit you and read them all, then choose one to start with and use it as a guide.

The second problem

with the ideas question is that when someone talks to you about having an idea,  it’s pretty hard to understand exactly what they mean.

What about the last time you had an idea for a story? Did you find a character? A nice word or phrase? A setting? A series of events?

Where do you get your ideas? In her book  Dancing at the Edge of the World,  Ursula Le Guin says the question, which sounds so simple, is really very complicated, because as soon as you try to describe what you mean by the term ‘idea’, the definition slips around.


The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means

Ursula Le Guin

So, if someone asks where a writer finds their ideas, does that mean they are asking the wrong question?

Well no, of course not.

For one thing a question can’t be wrong. Because it’s …

well, it’s not an answer.


And also, when we hear people asking that question, we can see what they’re trying to get at. Because a book has to start somewhere. And it is interesting to know what thought first started the whole thing off in a writer’s mind.

Could you tell us about some of your moments of inspiration? Sometimes they’re hard to pin down …

So I don’t think the question is wrong or stupid. And in later posts, I might even try to answer it. I’ll talk about the kind of ideas that might start books. And soon I’m going to give a few away (ideas, not books … that will come later).

And then I’m going to tell you the one thing about ideas that you absolutely positively need to know.

Thanks to these people for the images.

“Two women doing a “skirt dance” on the precarious Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, 1900-1902″ (CHS-1212). George Fiske [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Reese trying to catch a fish” by Donnie Ray Jones on Flickr

“Man of Angami Tribe” via Wikimedia commons


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