Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Idea Machine

Where do you get your ideas?

If you’re a writer, or trying to be, sooner or later some wide-eyed civilian is going to ask you this. The standard answers are, “Everywhere,” “I don’t know, they just come to me,” or “Schenectady.” (This last is a famous joke among science-fiction writers. I believe it was Harlan Ellison who started telling fans he got shipments of ideas from some guy in Schenectady in exchange for a monthly fee. SF fans, who on the whole have no sense of humor, started demanding the guy’s address. I’ll bet some enterprising person in New York State made himself quite a mint with that scam before he got found out.)

For myself, I’m going to have to go with answer #2, or maybe a combo of #2 plus #1, because sometimes I honestly don’t know. I’ll be reading something, or watching TV, or overhear something while standing in line at the supermarket, and all of a sudden I’ve got a new character or plot.

Sometimes nothing happens with these creative snippets. I jot them down in a notebook for resurrection when I have a dry spell. Either I get back to them or I don’t. Sometimes the idea demands I go to work on it right friggin’ now, and I end up writing the story. Sometimes a couple of these ideas mash up together and create a whole new story.

The requisite examples: I’m currently on the second draft of a mashup story. A couple years back I toyed with the idea of a M/M romance between a rancher and a shapeshifter posing as a mustang. Nothing came of it until last year when I was trying to get a romance between two motorcycle enthusiasts to gel. It didn’t work until I made one of them a werehorse with a love of bikes. I made his boyfriend an ex-Army man suffering from survivor’s guilt and it practically wrote itself.

In another case I was reading an interview with a comic-book writer and how his childhood obsession with the Wild West, Wyatt Earp and Universal’s monster movies eventually morphed into the Wynona Earp comic and TV series currently airing on SyFy. Out of nowhere I got a flash of a comic book writer/artist with a crush on his neighbor who uses the guy as the model for a superhero character. The comic book takes off, much to the neighbor’s chagrin. I’ll get to that when I’m done with the other six ideas I’ve got waiting their turns.

Sometimes it gets weird. I’ve been reading a lot of ménage and erotica lately as part of my freelance job. In one book a restaurant owner offers the BDSM heroes banana splits, “made special, just the way you like them.” Instantly I pictured big mounds of ice cream with nipple clamps on the cherries. I didn’t say all my ideas were good ones. This one’s good enough for a laugh on the Shapeshifter Seductions blog, where it will be appearing tomorrow.

I’m beginning to think some people are just wired this way, to be idea machines. Their brains mis-hear words, make jumps in logic, smoosh non-related notions together and create something entirely new. How many dozens of patents did Edison file in his lifetime? Or Da Vinci. Did the man ever sleep?

Closer to home we’ve got the legendary Jack Kirby. If you’ve seen a Marvel movie in the last five years, you’ve seen Kirby’s creations on screen. Thor. Iron Man. The Fantastic Four. Captain America. The Hulk. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Ant-Man. The Black Panther, comicdom’s first black superhero, is about to make his big-screen debut in Civil War. He first appeared in the Fantastic Four comic, as did Galactus, the Silver Surfer, Dr. Doom, and the Inhumans (who Marvel is pushing until they can get back the film rights to the X-Men—another Kirby co-creation, by the way). Not Spider-Man, though. That was Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Although it’s rumored Kirby may have helped design Spidey’s costume.

You want to see an idea machine running at full throttle? Look at Kirby’s output during the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m pretty sure he never slept either.

It’s debatable how many of these concepts were Stan Lee’s or created in conjunction with Lee, and how many may have been pure Kirby. But consider this: Kirby left Marvel for DC in the 1970s. While at DC, Kirby debuted his “Fourth World” series—four different comic books, each with their own brand-new characters and concepts, that when read together told one huge, overarcing story, something unheard-of back then. He also did a couple other new books on the side. Stan Lee did not create any new characters for Marvel after Kirby left. Eventually he moved into the publisher’s chair and stopped writing altogether.

I’m not saying all Kirby’s ideas were good ones. And his execution sometimes left a lot to be desired. His writing, for instance. Kirby’s dialogue tended to be “stiff” and “stilted,” with a lot of phrases in “quotation marks,” which made the “word balloons” look like “this.” Like William Shatner talking, but in prose. As an artist, he set the standard for years. As a creator, he was more prolific than anyone this side of God. As a writer … eh. They can’t all be winners, folks.

That’s the other problem with ideas. You can’t always go with the first one that pops into your head. Sometimes they just need to sit and ferment for awhile. You may have to mix two or three together in order to create a plot or characters that work. Or maybe the idea’s okay, it’s your execution of it that’s not working. Hand that one off to a writing friend and move on to something else.

If your idea machine’s running, you won’t have to worry about running out of inspiration. In fact, you could make yourself a nice little sideline selling the extras to aspiring writers, like that guy in Schenectady. I’ve got a dozen ideas right here to get you started. Just send me $10.95 every month …

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