Out of Ideas?


I think it’s safe to say most of us have more ideas than we will ever get around to developing. They fly at us out of nowhere, and usually at the least convenient time (like when we’re driving, or in a meeting at work, out of a sound sleep at three o’clock in the morning when you can’t locate pen and paper, etc.).

Inspiration comes to me in many ways: Something I read, something I see on tv, something I overhear in a conversation, music I listen to, random thinking. So you can understand my puzzlement when I see messages on writing discussion boards, e-mail lists and the like, where writers send messages asking people to give them ideas for what to do with their stories.

I received at least three of these just today from different discussion boards. One person needed a title for an entertainment program that takes place in the story. A second person wanted unusual ideas about how to keep a future dystopian government from becoming cliché. Yet a third wanted exotic characters and creatures to populate the story with.

As an aspiring sci-fi/fantasy author, I’m not sure why I’d want to give away ideas for plots and characters, and alien life forms. Does this strike anyone else as odd? Are these people, in effect, asking others to give them a story?  Should they then credit anyone who supplies ideas as co-authors?

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25 thoughts on “Out of Ideas?

  1. Everyone here and on my blog takes off on flights of fictional fancy from time to time (just recently we were inventing sitcom episodes about the publishing industry, remember?) but that’s different than actually asking for help with something you’re actually working on; I dunno – that strikes me as kind of lazy, like those high school kids who sometime post on books boards, looking for help with their homework.

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  2. It just struck me as excessively weird for a writer or wannabe to ask someone else to come up with ideas for them. I mean, if you have no ideas or imagination, why would someone expect to become a writer? When we were goofing on the sitcom we were all coming up with ideas on our own. It wasn’t as if we actually wrote the episodes and had to ask fans to send in ideas. Although come to think of it, I see this happening a lot with marketing. They ask the public to suggest ideas for marketing campaigns, and people do it for their 15 minutes of fame. Why would I want to do their job for them? Bizarre stuff.

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  3. I definitely think there’s a difference a writer saying, “Gah. I’m afraid my idea for such-and-such is cliche. What do you think? Do you think it might be better if I did this?” And a writer expecting another writer to come up with a story for them.

    The former is helping, brainstorming, bouncing ideas off the other. The second is expecting another person to do the work for them.

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  4. That’s what I thought. It surprises me how often I’ve seen people asking for others to give them ideas. It’s as if they never left school, where the teacher assigned papers with a particular topic. They seem unable to come up with anything on their own, and now want other people to tell them what to write.

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  5. Recently a friend who was writing a story asked if I could help him come up with a Polish surname that looks harder to pronounce than it is – the kind of name that stupid people are automatically intimidated by; I rattled off a few (these always catch my eye because, well, because MY name is like that!) and one did happen to suit him. I have no problem w/stuff like that, but in that case, EVERY other idea in the story was his and his alone.

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  6. Yeah, that’s perfectly legit research, not at all the same thing. I got six more of these messages today (from posters on various message boards on NaNo’s site) asking for, well, here’s one as an example:

    “I want to have a seriously wicked demon go up against my main character, but
    I want to do it sans religion. Anyone have any good resources/recommendations
    on how to deal with demons without dealing with God and the whole religion
    thing, too? Is it possible? Has it ever been done well?”

    If the concept is beyond you, and you can’t be bothered reading up on the genre to see if it’s been done, why would you attempt it? This is why I’m immersed in vampire literature right now, and am watching “The Vampire Diaries” on tv. I don’t get HBO so I’m not following “True Blood” but IMDB does a recap every week so I have some of the storyline. I know enough about “Twilight” to be able to skip the 4th grade writing level in the books.

    Here’s another that I think is even more egregious:

    “My main character, although he is not very developed yet, needs a way to get
    from point A, to point B, in the story.

    He runs a chop shop, for ships. It’s an illegal operation, yeah, he steals
    stuff from other ships in the area in order to fix the ones up in his shop.

    The rest of the plot, he’s a smuggler. What he’s smuggling, I don’t know yet.

    I just don’t know what kind of situation would get him from here, to there.
    Writer’s block and pregnant lady brain have me missing some obvious stuff, I
    know it.”

    Isn’t that kind of the whole point of being a writer, to come up with your own story?

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  7. OK, I’m admitting in advance that I’m gonna be judgmental:

    these people don’t know enough about their topics to write very well. I don’t care if it’s fiction; if you don’t want to find out a little bit about your background, your back story, your character’s circumstances, you don’t really want to write this, and “has it been done well” sounds like somebody who’s too lazy to even do his/her own plagiarism

    “Pregnant lady’s brain” is a lame excuse and an insult to the countless women who have done no end of remarkable work while carrying a life. I personally had a student who earned a B+ on an ambitious research paper last year while pregnant with one kid and taking care of another (her comment “oh it’s no big deal being pregnant; I’ve been thru this before”) and I’m pretty sure my middle sister-in-law was pregnant w/her firstborn while she worked on her Master’s in psychology

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  8. This is what I’m thinking. I have to say, if you have to ask other people for ideas, just give it up. For f’s sake, this is what being a writer is all about! I was so astonished the first time I saw a request like this on a Yahoo group I moderate, I almost fell out of my chair. If you want other people to write the story for you while you take the credit, you typically have to pay them. That’s called ‘ghostwriting’. Even if you want to collaborate you have to at least give them credit.

    My general impression of most of the people who make these requests is that they are (mostly) very young, probably high schoolers. Although the pregnant lady probably is not. (at least I hope)

    Kudos to your s-i-l for working on a Masters while pregnant. Even in a trouble-free pregnancy your energy level can be greatly diminished.

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  9. Well, this is one of those subjects I actually dislike discussing. I seriously never would ask anyone something like that. I might ask, for example “Do you think this name is okay, or should I change it?”, or even “Does this scene strike you as odd?”, or “If I did this with the story, do you think it would ruin it?”.
    Something along those lines, but I definetly do not ask people for ideas on how to develop the plot or even ideas for characters. I mean, that’s really weird I think. As a wannabe writer I’m filled with characters, situations, worlds, ideas. Be it reandom or schematic. I never saw the need or the will to ask others for something like that, and I really can’t understand those who do it.
    Maybe those are just teenagers who think it might be cool to be a writer, and so they try going at it the easy way.
    And you’re right. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to lay down all the ideas I have and are sure to still come in the future.

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    1. Hi Ana,

      I am starting to get the impression these are very young people, for the most part, who have not really done any writing, and don’t know how to sit down and just brainstorm when they get hung up on a plot point. I am still surprised, though, that there are so many who ask for this kind of help with their stories.

      It would never occur to me to ask someone to help me with the plot, or inventing characters. I’ve got enough of my “little darlings” running around in my head screaming to get out as it is.

      Eventually we all need feedback on a story like you said (does this work? should I cut this character out? etc.) but that’s a part of the editing/revising process.

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      1. This might have something to do w/the way writing is taught at the jr. high/high school level these days. Many of my freshmen tend to show up thinking that we teachers will tell them what to write, if they just ask us often enough – that there’s some Single Right Answer and that “revision” means standing in the right line, obtaining the right answer, and writing it down word for word, as it was handed to them. It’s funny: some of them look truly joyful when they realize that this is nowhere near the truth – that the only “right answer” is the one they can articulate persuasively – and some others remain kinda resentful, as though I’m not giving them their money’s worth.

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  10. The biggest reason I have not is because I’ve never written much fiction, and I’m not sure if I could make a whole novel hang together from start to finish. I think the only thing that keeps me from being certifiable is that I’m aware, 100% of the time, that these characters live in my head and not anywhere else – at this point they all have backstories, names, spouses & kid; hell I think I know them well enough to tell you everybody’s favorite color, or at least what color car they’d buy if they went shopping for one tomorrow/next chapter. Fairly often I “hear” whole scenes or run through whole dialogues, not because I think they are good literature or of interest to anybody else, but because the scene in my head is entertaining to ME. Don’t I have to have a little more concern for my reader, to be a real novellist?

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    1. “The biggest reason I have not is because I’ve never written much fiction, and I’m not sure if I could make a whole novel hang together from start to finish.”

      Only one way to find out: start writing! You never know where you’re going when you start, it’s like a road trip with no map.

      “because the scene in my head is entertaining to ME. Don’t I have to have a little more concern for my reader, to be a real novellist?”

      Newp. As Harlan Ellison said (Yes, I know I quote him a lot) “Write for the most intelligent, wittiest, wisest audience in the universe: Write to please yourself.”

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  11. “You never know where you’re going when you start, it’s like a road trip with no map.” – Maybe it’s like Westlake said, it’s astonishing to look back and see where we’ve been.

    Well, I’ll let Liz and her husband and brothers marinate in my brain pan a little longer, and when they are ready to come out you’ll be the first to know!

    p.s. I saw your NanoWriMo page and I just love your little avatar. Is that stock photo, or does she live in your yard?

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  12. Oh cool! I can hardly wait to read about your mental inhabitants 🙂

    That little dude lives in the apple tree in my backyard. I don’t know how he sleeps way up there in the branches, but he does.

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    1. You have such cute varmints! We had a resident racoon, but she was a big sloppy thing who tore up our garbage and hissed when we shooed her away: nothing you’d want a photo of. Fang saw a big skunk go parading into our garage last night, and now he’s afraid to go in there (don’t worry; it’s a detached garage!) I’m going to have to set out a bowl of ammonia, and leave the door cracked just enough the make Pepi le Pew want to get the hell out of there.

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      1. They are a shy bunch out here, very different from the raccoons I was accustomed to back east (remind me to tell you about the ones in Dam Neck, VA). They have never gotten into our trash here, and no one has the locking cans or dumpsters. This one (don’t know if it’s a girl or boy) is sorta adventurous, I caught it INSIDE the house once, eating the cat food. It walked straight back out onto the deck when I came around the corner and started freaking out. Since then I don’t leave the screen door to the deck open 🙂 And this deck is attached to the second story of the house, with no stairs. It just climbs the posts, like it would a tree, to get up there.

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  13. If you ever switch over to children’s fiction, this little critter is your first protagonist!
    Our neighborhood isn’t even that rural, but I think that’s the problem – all the construction and renovation and road-widening is eating up their natural habitats and these guys are survivors; they adapt by camping out in suburban backyards. I see almost as many deer in Middlesex County as I do in the Catskills, where at least they have someplace to go.

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  14. Hi Steven,

    Thanks for dropping by. Yep, that’s always the way 🙂 I tend to get stuff while driving, and finally bought one of those little electronic voice recorders. I don’t use it often, but I know I would have lost a couple things if I hadn’t had it with me. I do tend to be lazy about the stuff that pops up just as I’m drifting off to sleep. I hate to switch the light back on and grab pen and paper, which causes me no end of frustration when I wake up in the morning and have completely forgotten whatever it was I was sure I’d remember in the morning!

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  15. Hi again. I did have one of those recorders for a while but either the batteries ran down too quickly, or I almost crashed trying to press record whilst driving. Now I just tend to repeat the idea or phrase or whatever has come to me over and over and over until I can get near pencil and paper. And I always have paper by the bed because that’s the other time I can guarantee an idea will sneak up on me. Crafty blighters, ideas, eh?

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