“Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of the “A Petal In The Wind” series. Her third novel, “The Great War”, will be released next month. Miko lives in Washington (the big one).

 

Ah, inspiration. Creativity. The stuff that propels people like us to write.

 

I once took a course in creative thinking. It emphasized that creative ideas will come to you when you’re thinking about nothing. They’ll pop into your mind when you’re out for a walk, or unloading the dishwasher, or brushing your teeth. Sometimes they do, but not with assured reliability. The same is true when you’re trying to solve a problem. Creative ideas may come, but often the idea has no connection with what you’re focused on, and you rarely get struck by “problem-solved” lightning. Even if you come up with a brilliant idea, then what? Brilliant ideas are a pressure chamber. They set the bar stratospheric. How can you possibly be creative when you absolutely, positively must?

 

Therefore when family and friends have asked me, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, I never could answer that question. Until now. It all comes down to check and balance.

 

I’ve taught myself to focus on writing problems – ideas to launch a story or fix a stumbling block – and find a workable solution, not count on one spontaneously appearing. One of my tricks is to forego creativity and focus on the problem logically. Often when right brain creativity fails, left brain logic can nudge forth a wisp of an idea that you can build onto until you at least have a direction. For example, if I’m inspired to write about a young girl who wants to leave home, I could come up with dozens of scenarios of why and how she leaves. But logically, in order for this to be a story, I know one thing for sure – she has to leave home. Then it becomes a matter of when – is her leaving the inciting incident that launches the story, or will it be the climax?  That narrows the choices, and the focus, therefore maintaining the check and balance between creativity and logic.

 

Then there are times when logic isn’t the answer. To balance that, I switch my thinking from left brain to right, using free-form writing when I’m stumped in a scene. I select two characters and begin writing a conversation between them. I don’t bother with punctuation or tags, I just write. It usually takes between two and five minutes, but eventually my brain switches over and what comes out aren’t my words, but those of my characters’. Then I check it for any insight they may have and usually garner an idea for moving the story forward.

 

Sometimes the present solution lies in the past. Throughout the decades, I’ve jotted down many detached ideas that seemed worth saving. Sometimes it’s a clever line. Other times it’s a plot twist from a book or TV show that struck me as ingenious. I won’t repeat it, but I’ll take the basic premise and re-twist it. I did that in my current novel, A Petal In The Wind III, to solve a mystery in a way that will keep the middle of the book from sagging. These are one-time-only ideas, though, hence the balance. Why waste a clever idea on a project that doesn’t deserve it? That would be like breaking your diet with a graham cracker, not even a s’more.

 

I’m very fortunate to be at a point where life is good. While I want to enjoy it for as long as it lasts, sometimes it concerns me. I worry: What if I let it go to my head and I turn into an a-hole (hereon referred to as “that word”)? I keep myself in check and balance by thinking of the most ridiculous, outrageous “that word” examples I can, and then find the silliness in them. It isn’t hard. That’s how I get many of my humorous ideas.

 

These different methods share one commonality. I believe that inspiration, creativity, and ideas are all most likely to happen when you’re immersed in writing. Not just writing, working on it. If we don’t write, keep writing, work on improving our writing, we don’t leave ourselves open to ideas. It’s like searching china replacement websites to find pieces from your discontinued pattern to replace the ones you broke. There’s no guarantee they will be found, but it’s more likely to be found.

 

Consequently the best answer I have to, “Where do you get your ideas from”, is: “From writing.” As Linda O. Johnston pointed out in her recent post, writing is writing. Even something as specific as novel writing is “writing”, whether you’re trying to summarize a 400-page manuscript into three paragraphs for a query letter, distilling the story into a single logline, or expressing the proper gratitude in your Acknowledgements page. Then there’s everyday life writing – from letters of condolence and congratulations to reviews and critiques, emails, thank you notes, journaling, and more. All writing challenges us to form a series of words that unite into paragraphs and pages, sentences and stories. Words that will elucidate, or entertain, or maybe both. For those of us who call ourselves writers, writing is a part of who we are, and each type of writing expresses different parts of us. It keeps us in balance, and if we’re lucky, in checks.

13 thoughts on ““Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” by Miko Johnston”

  1. Wonderful post, Miko. I love your suggestion for free-form dialogue between two characters. I’ve used monologues before, but your approach will be more fruitful. And thanks for reminding us that ALL kinds of writing “count.” I feel less a slacker now!

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    1. The first time I tried free-form dialog I thought, “How ridiculous” – I was instructed to take two characters out of 1899 Russia and put them in an airplane. However, it yielded a line that became the soul of the story. You never know what will come out of characters’ mouths.

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  2. Right brain, left brain. Keep writing. I know the solution is there somewhere. I keep notepads around for those free-wheeling thoughts, and sometimes I let my characters take over and write the scene for me. As you say, they have a life of their own, so why not let them do the work. The only way to get nothing done is to not write. What a terrible idea. Great post.

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    1. You’re so right about keeping as many tentacles out there as possible. A prolific writer like yourself is proof it works. And all of us under the WInR banner support that idea, from Kate’s famous “BIC” (butt in chair) to Linda’s, “writing is writing”.

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  3. I agree that a really good way to invite ideas to come to you is to just start writing. They come! Another great way is to find an idea in a book or a poem and riff on it. I read a Borges story with the idea that “maybe this is the last time I will walk along this street” and started jotting down ideas about “the last time.” A poetry-writing teacher told us to write a poem about an abstract idea, but the subject has to be bananas. See what you can do with that.

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    1. You’d be amazed at what can come out of a zany idea. Since you asked, the line that emerged from my first attempt at free-form writing was, “I have plans for you”, said to an orphaned girl by the women she hoped would adopt her. It gave the child hope, though the meaning behind it was darker than she understood. Thanks for stopping by, Ann.

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  4. Great blog post, Miko! Like Bonnie, I think I will try the conversation between two characters, and in a very unlikely place. Once I’m in a story, the characters do seem to speak for themselves. (This is a concept that non-writers can’t comprehend!) But to put two in a situation and let them talk to find a new idea – that’s pretty cool. And I like the idea of why & how, but importantly… when, in a story.
    I like Ann’s suggestion as well, to find an idea in a book or poem and “riff” (or brainstorm) on it.
    With all this good info, why do we (well, I) sit scared, staring at the screen, when asked to come up with a new story???

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    1. I’m glad you found my suggestions helpful; that’s what we’re all about, isn’t it? And I suspect it’s not the blank screen as much as not being able to write something that’s perfect – oh, the pressure! – that scares you (and every writer at some time). We have to remind ourselves, as Jackie Vick did last week, that perfection is a myth, especially out of the box. Just write. You can always fix it up later. Remember, it doesn’t matter what you start with, only what you have when you’re done.

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  5. Good post, Miko, with good suggestions! And yes, agree with you and several of comments, writing or thinking about writing is the key–especially for someone like me who falls in line with(and to quote) Dirk Gently, “It’s all connected”–consequently I’m a slacker, and just wait for it.

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    1. You prove my point – you can’t force creativity, only nudge and encourage it. Sometimes, you just have to wait until you’re ready to nudge and encourage, which interestingly enough may be the essence of a future post from me….

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