Where do you get your ideas?

This is a question that authors get asked a lot. I’ve thought about my own creative process before and produced unsatisfactory answers like, “They just come to me,” “When I’m in the shower,” or “I dreamed up my second book. Seriously, it literally came to me in a dream.”

But today an idea popped into my head as I was making my lunch. So that just proves that I have ideas because I’m hungry. No wait, that’s not it. This idea was about having ideas. And what I realized was that ideas come from reading a lot of non-fiction, be it news articles, books, scientific studies or bathroom graffiti:

graffiti

Thought-provoking bathroom graffiti.

Here’s why non-fiction can provide the inspiration for fiction: it’s because the human brain is wired to make connections and produce those sought-after eureka moments. That’s why human beings are so successful; our evolutionary advantage is that we can create solutions to problems. Of course “divine inspiration” is the non-scientific explanation for this phenomenon…

Even invertebrate animals come up with ideas based on their surroundings, so people definitely can (even those who lack backbones). The key thing is the fuel. Reading fiction might produce ideas – and it’s definitely important to read a wide range of fiction to learn about craft and style – but it’s all-to-easy to consciously or subconsciously fall in love with another author’s idea and simply reproduce it with a twist. Truly original creation comes from the juxtaposition of unrelated information that sparks something new.

Reading extensively is essential for any author, whatever their level of experience, but I would argue that while immersion in the very best fiction can provide stylistic inspiration, unique ideas are sparked by non-fiction. Maybe even by blog posts…

Photo credit: Chris Blakeley / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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Fantastically adventurous new book by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Goodreads interviewed author/designer Zachary Thomas Dodson about his debut book, Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel. It looks and sounds like a stunningly crafted multi-layered adventure set in the past and the future.

As the Goodreads article says,

With hand-drawn illustrations, meticulously detailed maps, a novel-within-a-novel, and even a sealed envelope the reader must not open until the final moment, Zachary Thomas Dodson’s debut novel is a feast for the imagination.

Read the article for some fascinating insight into Dodson’s process.

How the mind creates when you’re doing other things

As I’ve mentioned somewhere on this blog before, the name of my last book came to me in a dream. This quick read in this week’s Guardian explores the creative differences between writers who pre-plan their books (such as Michelle Paver) and those who wing it (such as John Boyne). It turns out that no matter which method you choose, your mind is working away in the background like a helpful little pixie. Or maybe like a beaver. Or a colony of termites. Anyway, the bottom line is, when you create, you aren’t really aware of everything that’s going on in your brain. And I like that.

Your brain on termites.

Your brain on termites.

Photo credit: Gnilenkov Aleksey / Foter / CC BY

 

Cory Doctorow’s self-publishing insights

Cory Doctorow is a science-fiction author who has lived his life inversely to me, in the sense that he was born in Canada and moved to Britain. In this recent interview he talks about a range of issues related to self-publishing, including DRM (Digital Rights Management, in other words, file copying restrictions), traditional bookstores, and copyright. Here’s his very interesting take on the definition of self-publishing:

To be self-published is not to prepare a file for distribution, nor to put it in an e-commerce system, it is to have and execute on a theory of how to connect the audiences with the works you are publishing. And unless you can elucidate that theory and test it and act on it and revise it, you are not publishing, you are merely formatting.

Cory_Doctorw_portrait_by_Jonathan_Worth_1

Cory Doctorow, sitting at his desk. And presumably working, although he could just be pretending to work so the picture looks good. Photo by Jonathan Worth.

This is a great definition. Writing in a journal every night and locking it in a bedside drawer isn’t self-publishing. Making an ebook and uploading it to Amazon is almost identical to locking it in a drawer, in the sense that no one will know it’s there. That’s why connecting with an audience is the key to self-publishing. There are a thousand-and-one theories out there about how to do that, and my job as a publisher (who happens to be publishing my own works) is to filter through those theories, concoct one of my own, try it out, and see whether it’s working.

Of course, self-publishing might not mean attempting to actually sell any books. For example, I’ve already connected with an audience of thousands with Silent Symmetry through my Amazon free promotional days. But this is all part of a long-term professional marketing plan. Maybe there should be a distinction between the two activities – finding readers and selling books – although “professional self-publishing” is a very unwieldy term to describe the latter. Then again, it’s not as unwieldy as selfpropub or proselfpub or ishouldjustgotothepubinsteadofthinkingaboutthis (though some would say I’m already a pro at the last one of those).

Marketing probably seems distasteful to some self-published authors. These are the types who believe that if they put their work of genius “out there”, fellow geniuses will discover it and they will be lauded and feted and get laid.

This is at best pretentious and at worst simply lazy. In Britain, self-promotion is often frowned upon. Interestingly, the British idiom for showcasing your talent is “to blow your own trumpet”, while in North America it’s “to toot your own horn”. But here’s the bottom line: if you’re a creative individual who doesn’t blow your own trumpet, all you’re doing is sucking on your own horn.