Earlier this week I was asked a question which may evoke a wry smile amongst fellow writers: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I will be honest: my usual response to this old chestnut of a question tends towards glibness.
Sometimes I quote a response attributed to Asimov: ‘I just leave out milk and cookies overnight, and in the morning the milk and cookies are gone and there’s an idea there.’ Or, to put it another way, buggered if I know.
Sometimes I quote the late great Sir Terry Pratchett: ‘I don’t know where ideas come from but I know there they go: they go to my desk, and if I’m not there, they go away again.’ Or, to put it another way: what appears to have happened by magic to you, dear reader, is actually the product of a lot of hard work.
But this question was asked with the earnestness of someone beginning their ‘writer’s journey’ (naff phrase, but accurate). It was one of my students, arriving a few minutes early for class and brimming with enthusiasm. Unfortunately the Creative Writing sessions I teach are somewhat time-limited and focused as they’re run over the lunch hour at Creative Assembly, and as this current batch of students haven’t been the most talkative, I was a little thrown by the question. My answer was ‘Everywhere!’ which he didn’t find that helpful, understandably enough, so I expended it to say that the real trick isn’t coming up with ideas, it’s knowing which ones might form the basis for a story. But he wanted to go back to the seed, the germ. He wanted to know what Step Zero is in the magical process of making stories.
It is something the course covers later, though thanks to the aforementioned time constraints, we only touch on it. The proper, thought out answer – for me anyway – is another question. I use questions a lot in developing stories: who, what, where, when and most importantly WHY? But before we get to any of that, we need a starting point, and that is a two-word question, so obvious – to writers – that we often forget how miraculous it can be to people who don’t live for and through their stories.
The question to ask, the starting point for every story is simply : What If?’
- What if I woke up one morning unable to understand human speech?
- What if a great and evil galactic empire existed in a galaxy far, far away … but so did a plucky rebellion?
- What if benevolent aliens have always lived among us, but we only find out when the evil aliens who are their nemesis turn up here?
- What if an assassin is put in a position where she has to kill the person she cares about most in the world?
Of the above questions two are ideas that came to me this week – no idea if they’re viable yet, that comes later – one is an idea that came to me nearly three decades ago and became my first novel and the other … well, you know what the other one is.
But regardless of where they ended up – or in the case of the two new What Ifs, where they might end up – every story starts like this. As writers, asking this question is second nature to us. But we forget that not everyone thinks this way. We’d be wise to remember how the genuine interest non-writers have in what we do. And we shouldn’t be afraid to tell them that every story starts with a simple, two-word question.
Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire series, published by Gollancz, as well as numerous short stories, one of which won the 2016 BSFA Short Fiction award. To fund her fiction she writes content for video-games and teaches creative writing to games developers. Her most recent novella is The Martian Job, which is just what it sounds like: The Italian Job, on Mars.