One of the things I get asked a lot as s writer, and I think all writers get asked this every now and again is the old “where do you get your ideas?” Or as my high school councilor once asked in exasperation “where did you even come UP with an idea like this young lady? I’m calling your parents again.”
It’s not especially magical. I imagine it’s a little bit different from writer to writer. (I know a guy who meets a guy on a street corner st 3:38am on alternate Fridays, I don’t know what he pays the guy, but it’s a hell of a price. The ideas? The ideas are primo.)
For me, I’m endlessly playing a game of what-if in my head. It’s apparently a game I’ve been perfecting since I was a small child. If you ask my dad what the most annoying thing I used to do as a child was to ask endless strings of what-if questions spiraling out from the mundane to the absurd with emphatic “well what if it DID” when I was told “but Mena that would never happen.”
Picture me, six years old. No front teeth, pigtails and coke bottle glasses sitting in a car in the mid 80s.
“Daddy, what if our car broke?”
“We’d get it fixed” he’d sigh knowing what was coming.
“Well what if it got broke because a dinosaur laid an egg on it?”
“We’d get it fixed.”
“But what if it was a PURPLE dinosaur, a big one, so we couldn’t fix it?”
“We’d buy a new car.”
“What if the purple dinosaur came back and…”
“MENA That will never happen! The dinosaurs are all gone!”
“But what if it DID?”
“Do you want Taco Bell or not?” Yes, I wanted Taco Bell.
I never stopped asking what-if. I people watch and wonder about the unique private lives of everyone around me, and suppose what-if scenarios around the idea that some stranger is WAY more interesting than I am. When I go to a new location, or get bored—which you can imagine I do a lot—I imagine complicated escape scenarios from the location. Six-year-old-me in coke bottle glasses leans in and whispers “what if ninjas attacked right now?” And I know better than to try and assure her that will never happen. It’s just my luck that my muse is precocious six-year-old-me.
We’ve gotten more sophisticated than that over the years too, me and six-year-old-me. When I’m listening to music, I find myself wondering “what is the story this song could tell if it were an urban fantasy novel instead of a punk song?” Or, “what kind of character would manifest on the page if her backstory were really just Beyonce’s “Daddy’s Lesson.” <— This question actually saved the second half of my recent novel Dead Machines, actually. Come to Tokyo, buy me a drink, and I’ll tell you all about it.
It happens when I watch TV or especially “bad” movies. I love “bad” movies. I love watching them and seeing the love the creators poured into what ended up being kinda maybe schlock? I respect a finished movie that’s kinda questionable over an unfinished art ‘film’ that never bothered to translate its vision to people outside of the creator—that’s kind of a different discussion. I love to watch “bad” movies and ask “what if this was really good tho?” A lot of questionable tv, questionable entertainment, you can still see the bones of a great what-if. And the poorer the execution, the easier it is to see how I’d do it my way. Not better, but more my way.
I also listen to a lot of youtube storytellers reading what I would call “outsider art.” Commonly, it’s called creepypasta but that term is kind of watered down at this point. What it ultimately is is the internet’s answer to campfire stories. People write the spookiest or goriest stories their minds can come up with on reddit or wherever, and a lot of really REALLY good fiction is born. A lot of these creators end up fantastic writers on their own, and those are super enjoyable, but what I really love are the very raw stories by non-writers just trying to get the best story together they can. There’s this air of reality baked in because everything is—impossibly perhaps—presented as “this really happened to me.” You can’t beat the what-if in that. Often the execution of these stories leaves something to be desired, but the core idea or some side idea will catch me off guard and wake up six-year-old-me. Screaming, probably. Then grown me takes her what-ifs and adds years of craft and what I like out of a story. “Man, no one in their right mind would go in that basement like that, but what if they had better motivations and… yess…. Yeeessss!”
I realize this makes it sound like what I’m saying is “steal all your ideas from creators you think you’re better than.” Let me stop you right there. When I call a movie or a bit of outsider writing poorly executed, it’s still executed and that is literally the most important quality of any fiction. Seriously, done is more important than anything else in my opinion. I’ve never made Abraxis Guardian of the Universe, so I have nothing but love for whoever who did make it. Same with the creepypastas. The value there is the raw creative output. I imagine fan fiction is the same but that’s not so much my vibe.
And really, idea theft is complicated. I never listen to a story or watch a movie and go “I will retell this whole thing but better!” I can’t. I can only tell a story my way, and that can’t be better or worse because it’s just different. I never sit down to retell a story. Even if I’m looking at s fairytale, for example. I sit down to answer, or attempt to answer a what-if inspired by that other story. And I think that’s a key to making sure my ideas are fairly fresh. I don’t get inspired by the stories I read or see or make up on the fly while people watching. I take those what-ifs and isolate them as much as possible, with mad props to the things that inspired them, and build from there.
A thought experiment then.
I’m sitting at work in the teacher’s office. I’m done my prep for the day and am trying to look busy or make up new work to do. (I’m a teachers assistant. My work load can be light at times.) I live in Japan. So. Six-year-old-me wakes from her nap and says “what if ninjas…” and I’m bored so I follow it along a while.
Ninjas are kinda goofy. At least within the context of actual modern day Japan. What’s not so goofy when done right? Ghosts. So what if ghosts from the rice fields and suddenly over took an isolated country JHS? What would that mean? Why would they do it? There’s a lot of good folk lore I could research. Who are the heroes of a story like that? Me? Students? The exhausted faculty? Imagine a story with a team of exhausted but good hearted teachers dropping off one my one trying to save the students from a ghost invasion! Ah man I could follow this storyline for DAYS. Maybe I will. The idea is that you let your brain go, ask silly what-ifs about basically everything, and then you rein it in and try to make sense out of it.
I mean, it’s not like I’m going to write a story about big purple dinosaurs laying eggs on cars…
…but what if I did?
If you want an idea of how I what-if my way into fiction for free, check out my free short story Until She Wakes. It’s about robots, but it’s about a whole lot more than that. https://books.pronoun.com/until-she-wakes/
If you like what you see, or you want to know how I got from Evangelion plus the uniquely questionable 80s Reb Brown movie Space Mutiny to Dead Machines, my novel about motherhood, robots, survival and ghosts, you can check out the first two chapters for free. https://www.instafreebie.com/free/TBevZ
Or just dive in and buy it. I think it’s awesome. You might not normally read this kind of book but… what if you did? 😉 https://books.pronoun.com/dead-machines/
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My Blog https://filamena.wordpress.com
And lots of places fine fiction is sold! I use some strong language in my books, social media and blog. Just a heads up.
Io Suta was a mother and a relic of the Last War. A hard-wire robot pilot using a coupling system to control her giant bipedal war machine. A mech or “mobile suit”. After the Final Crisis, she found a lost population of migrants and fell in with them doing the only thing she had ever been any good at. Fighting.
Io and her suit, the Areol ended up the migrant’s first and last line of defense against the dangers of a universe in chaos.
Her story starts when a dangerous new kind of Jack, an uncontrollable enemy, drives the migrant fleet to crash on an abandoned terraforming experiment. A new life? New hope? There was no way to know, and no turning back.
Dead Machines is a novel set in a distant future after the collapse of a vast space-faring human culture and the end of a seemingly perpetual war.
The machines of war, giant bipedal robots originally designed for salvage and contstruction, mean the few pilots left alive who can control them have an edge. But not for long. It’s a time of aging technology and few resources to maintain them.
Whole populations, huddled in multi-generational transport ships, drift from broken planets to destroyed space colonies looking for a safe place to start over. Io Suta, along with a few other pilots, defend one of these populations.
This book follows the story of the migrants early days on an abandoned planet and the struggle for old war machines, both metal and flesh, to find a new way to live. Every one left alive is haunted, in one way or another. Some ghosts are more literal than others.