“Where do you get your ideas?”
That’s just asking for a smartass answer, isn’t it? An Al Jaffee’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions response.
Harlan Ellison had flippant answers to this question. An idea service in Schenectady that sent him x number of ideas for each x dollars he sent in. Neil Gaiman belongs to the Idea-of-the-Month Club. I’m sure other authors—being the creative sort, after all—have equally insincere and brilliant answers to this.
The truth is, as all writers know, ideas are cheap.
I’m not asking you to challenge me on this, but—I bet I could generate no less than 100 ideas for stories in the next 24 hours (including the times I’m asleep). Ideas are all around us, whether we acknowledge them or not. I’m assuming that we all have overactive imaginations (a good trait for writers of fiction). Also, I’m assuming that we all find it easy to get lost in narcissistic association. We relate to this portion of reality because it reminds us of something we experienced in the past. As we get older, this happens more and more often to me.
Ideas are cheap.
I have ideas all the time. Often, I’ll find my attention wandering, and then I’ll catch a stray thought as if I’m doing some mental fly fishing. Something will occur to me, a strange idea or a premise. Then, I’ll think about it for a few minutes, perhaps mentioning something I find interesting about it to my wife. If I’m lucky, it will inspire a conversation that I may recall later. And, eventually—maybe—I’ll write the idea down to allow it to percolate further in my subconscious.
Nine times out of ten, this idea—this thought or vague story question—will go no further. But, that tenth time—
I have ideas for stories in my head, right at this moment, that I’ve been thinking about for decades. Stories that haven’t been written still. I have plans for a heroic fantasy series (not even just a book—an entire series) that’s been ricocheting around in my brain since the early 1980s. I’ve thought about the universe of the story, including its geology, sociology, and history, for nearly forty years now. I have characters and potential story threads, artifacts and sacred places. I have conflict and mythology. But, the pages aren’t writing themselves, and nothing resembling a single book—let alone a series—has emerged from these ideas. Yet.
Because that’s the hard part, you know. The writing.
Eventually, after people know that you have pretentions of being an honest-to-God writer, someone will tell you that they have an idea for a story. They’ll even entertain the notion of splitting the proceeds from the sale of said story. All you have to do is actually write it. Which is, one would assume, the easy part.
Ideas aren’t a problem for me. Even for blog posts. As of this very moment, I have plans for no less than forty separate posts, including this one. Using the 80/20 rule, I’ll probably end up writing thirty-two of these posts after losing interest in the others, plus whatever last-minute ideas I have for other posts. And, I won’t stop having ideas for other posts until I check into that great hotel in the sky.
As with any of my creative writing projects, my problem isn’t a lack of ideas. Since there is nothing new under the sun and the universe didn’t spring into existence the moment I achieved consciousness, I guessed that I couldn’t be the first person who suffered from having too many ideas. I discovered a 2008 Writer’s Digest article by Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant that even gave the problem a name.
I won’t keep you in suspense. Jasheway-Bryant referred to the issue as Too Many Ideas Syndrome, or TMIS. While a perfectly fine syndrome name, it’s too close to TMI for my tastes, although too many ideas and too much information are in the same ballpark.
It is, in fact, information overload and the frequent inability to focus on a single idea that makes TMIS a problem for some writers. Caffeine is the focusing agent I use most frequently. A cup of coffee (or three) and some uninterrupted time in isolation allow me to focus on a single idea long enough to generate a few pages. Nicotine was once my self-medication of choice for this particular affliction. It worked, too, but was slowly killing me at the same time. I quit smoking a while back, maybe as long as ten years ago now. You know you’ve finally kicked a habit when you’re no longer counting the days. However, there for a time I couldn’t focus enough to write anything.
I realize that caffeine isn’t exactly the healthy choice for me either. I don’t encourage taking anything—legal or otherwise—to achieve these effects. I understand the appeal of Ritalin or Adderall. My wife is prescribed a medication for her MS called Provigil that is purported to reduce drowsiness and improve brain function. I haven’t been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and have no desire to add more pill bottles to my collection in the kitchen cabinet.
I like coffee, so I think I’ll stick with that. Maybe ginkgo biloba as well.
Thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year are attributed to stimulant abuse. More than 10,000 deaths a year in 2017 and 2018, in fact. Say no to drugs, kids.
Since I continue to struggle with the problem, I’m not the best source of ways to combat it. As an inveterate list-maker, my usual strategy requires extensive planning, reducing an overwhelming project to discrete tasks, items that can be checked off of a list. It’s easier for me to concentrate on facets of an idea, separately, when thinking about the big-picture idea causes my mental gears to lock up.
I will also switch off between ideas when the going slows to a crawl on one. Keeping multiple irons in the fire isn’t a terrible strategy when you’re blessed with an overabundance of ideas.
That’s it. No earth-shattering revelations this time. I was taught, long ago, never to bring up a problem that I didn’t have a potential solution to. But, that’s what I’ve just done. You did get a link to a neat article about it, though. It offers some potential solutions that I chose not to plagiarize.
If your brain is swimming with too many ideas, know that you’re not alone.