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I don’t really generate a lot of ideas anymore. I don’t usually create stories from the ground up, working entirely from scratch. Even characters, which always seem to abound, don’t spring forth on their own anymore. (I don’t count characters created for fan fiction because they already have a ready-made world to plop into, and world does a great deal to inform the character.) I don’t think I’ve generated a “new” idea for a long, long time.
This might sound terrible, but it actually isn’t. Most of my story and idea generation came when I was a kid, before I’d absorbed over two decades of media. I made a lot of crazy, weird stuff up, and fortunately I wrote some of it down. The novels that I work on now really aren’t “new” in the usual sense. They’re refinements on something that had already been generated. It may seem like I’m coming up with new ideas, like with The Arcenciel Romances or Faylinn, but even those started out as pieces of fan fiction that evolved into their own thing. Everything else is moving stuff around, changing the trappings, figuring out structures and mores that make sense, and discovering the inner lives of the characters. I’m shaping the clay, not digging it out of the ground.
I think this process is actually a good one, at least for longer works. Youth generates ideas without regard for logical or logistical sense. The images and feelings are what get wrapped up in the idea and stick with it. Then, as one grows and gains experience, you can go back and pick through that motley crew of story ideas and characters and choose the ones that work. Sometimes you even combine parts of different ideas into something else, like I did with four short stories that became the basis for Rinamathair. Others can be refined, or discarded if they would take far too much time to shape into something coherent. The only time the lack of new idea generation gets me is with short stories. Novels are a slow burn, but short stories you’re supposed to just drop out and go. Obviously they require some refinement as well, but the shape of a short story is different and more difficult for me to tackle. I have trouble making characters feel fleshed out when I don’t have a lot of time to spend with them.
The only time I can say that new ideas are generated now is when I dream. I keep a dream journal by my bed, and if I remember something from a dream, be it a sequence, a snippet of dialog, an image, a character, or a feeling, I’ll write it down. (That’s how The Mariner Sequence got started actually.) There are dozens of story seeds and story parts littered among the barely-legible scribbles of that journal. It’s a little sad to think that I probably won’t have a long enough lifespan to turn all of them into stories, to use all of that material. But I keep it in mind, and when I get stuck on a current project, I check out those seeds to see if there’s anything I can use or incorporate. (Hint: Never throw any ideas away. Keep them in a folder; they may come in handy later.)
Let’s face it: it’s all a giant tossed fruit salad and mixing bowl of inspiration and experience, so it’s best not to get too hung up on the idea of “making something new.” Chances are you already have the ingredients to make something pretty spectacular. It’s just a matter of blending and seasoning to taste.