Sneak Attack Ideas

By Alton Gansky

Ideas sometimes attack
from behind. They arrive at the least likely times, and at the oddest hours.
The best way to find a great idea is to  stop looking for one

Writers are idea merchants, purveyors of content,
information, story, and thought. We dig around in the world’s trash bin hoping to
find something of value. We visit yard sales of content, examine stuff that has
no value until we trip over a prize. Like a spotlight we search the darkness
for something of interest; something we can use; something we can make grander
than it already is.
And it ain’t easy.
The most often asked question of novelists is, “Where do you
get your ideas?” It has made some writers a little testy. Dean Koontz has
answered that question by saying, “I get my ideas for a mom and pop shop on the
corner.” (Or something like that. I’m working from memory.) I recall Stephen
King repling to the question this way: “I have the brain of a child—I keep it
in a jar on my desk.” (Again, a paraphrase from my Swiss cheese mind.)
It is difficult to pin down where ideas come from because
they don’t come from a single place. They hover in the air, hide in newspapers
and magazines, show up in a single line in a movie; they buzz the airfield of
our dreams. If you’re a multi-book author, then you can look back over your
novels and recall where each gem of an idea came from. Most likely they came
from very different places and arrived on your mental doorstep in very
different ways.
My first novel, By My
, came to me after visiting a child and her family in Children’s
Hospital of San Diego. I had always planned to write nonfiction, but the idea
wouldn’t leave me alone. My novel, A Ship
, was a “throw away” idea. I used to include a page in my
proposals with a list of possible books, each with two lines of description. I
added that story because my list had too much white space at the bottom of the
page. I recalled something I had read in the Los Angeles Times, thought about it for a minute or two and wrote: “The
World War II submarine USS Triggerfish
has returned home fifty years late, in the wrong ocean, and without its crew—but
it did not come back alone.” What did I mean by that? I had no idea. Still,
Zondervan loved the pitch and asked for a full proposal, which I didn’t have. In
the end I did three books with that protagonist.
Ideas don’t come on a schedule. They never call first. They
just show up and refuse to go away. It’s our job to recognize the good ones.
How do we do that?
First, a good idea refuses to go away. It’s a ghost that
haunts the halls of the writer’s mind. It may stay with you for years before
fully revealing itself, but when it does, you’ll know why.
Second, you form an attachment to the idea. The characters
become real and populate your mind. Sometimes they sit quietly in the corner;
other times they demand to be heard.
It is my belief that most professional novelists have more
ideas than they can handle, but they keep gathering more. That’s the third
point: A writer never knows when a good idea will become great. My latest fiction
is part of a series of novellas written with Bill Meyers, Frank Peretti, and
Angie Hunt. The
(number eight in the
series) is based on an idea I had years ago but didn’t know what to do with.
There was no CBA publisher at the time that would touch it. I didn’t even
bother to send out proposals. Then when it came my turn to do the next book in
the series, the idea stepped up and said, “My turn.” It worked.
Novelists are merchants of ideas, finding something of value
that others will appreciate and benefit from and then making it available. The
trick is selecting the right idea at the right time. There is as much craft in
molding an idea as there is in penning a story.
Alton Gansky writes
novels, novellas, and nonfiction. He’s also been known to chase ideas with a
butterfly net.