Ask Correia 4 – Idea Management

 I was asked this question after my last writing update.  During that post I outlined the next few projects I want to tackle and the order I want to do them in. I started to respond, but then realized it was actually kind of complicated, and maybe I could help out some aspiring writers with my inane ramblings.

I just wanted to know how you keep track of all of these ideas. Or in other words, how do you organize it all. I love to write as well, but I suck at getting it all organized. In my head, everything works, but getting it onto my computer screen nice and tidy is tough. Its fun, but its tough. Do you have a set process for coming up with and incorporating new ideas? – Mikey Smith


This is actually a couple of different things, so first off, let me talk about ideas.  Ideas are the cheapest commodity in writing. Successful writers are not just successful because they’ve got good ideas, it is because they can take those ideas and then put in the work to make them into a good book.  What I’m trying to say that good ideas are the easy part. The actual writing part is hard.

For example, I was on a panel about this topic at Life, The Universe, & Everything at BYU this year. LTUE is a writer’s symposium at BYU, and its guests include some of the very best and brightest minds in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. (and somehow I manage to trick them into inviting me back every year!) Brandon Sanderson (who I suspect is actually a wizard) did a little game where people in the audience shouted out things, and then he had a few minutes to come up with a plausible plot.  I think the items he was forced to work with were sentient sponges and Rapunzel’s hair, and he managed to come up with a quick plot that sounded just absurd enough that if I read it on the back cover of a book at B&N, I would have had to purchase it.   My understanding is that Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series began the same way at a Con, only his challenge was combining the Roman legion and Pokemon.

I did this 2 hour seminar with super-author John Brown at LTUE also. It has a lot of info about stringing together plot ideas and twisting them to make them interesting.  I am the Vannah to John’s Pat, and I think it turned out pretty good.

A common thing with published writers is that we’ll occasionally be approached by aspiring writers with some sort of offer that consists of “Hey, I’ve got this super awesome idea. I’ll totally give it to you, in exchange for co-authoring it with me”.  Many authors I know have had something like this happen.  The problem is one of misconception.  Writers don’t lack for ideas, we lack for time.  (a second huge misconception there is that co-authoring is somehow easier, when I’d say that it is about twice as hard as just doing one by yourself).   I think many of the aspirants look at this as their way to get published. Let the famous guy do the heavy lifting with all that grammar, plot, and editing crap, and your super awesome idea will surely see the light of day.

Ideas aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things, though.  Sometimes you can have a book that is totally about the idea, and it works, but it usually works because of the good plot or interesting characters in addition to the idea. I’ve read many sci-fi books that were “big idea” books, but honestly, I can’t really remember anything about them other than the big idea.  For example, there was this one where Neanderthals didn’t die out, they were living amongst us secretly, just waiting for Homo-Sap to screw up so they could take over. I don’t even remember the name of the book, because other than the idea, it was pretty dull.  Heck, that idea is full of potential, but the execution was forgettable.

Or your idea could be Teenage Wizard School or Sparkly Emo Vampire, both of which sound like ideas that rate meh at best, but turned out to be the best selling books of all time. (the first one because they were actually very entertaining, and the second… hell, I still can’t figure that one out).  

Okay, but that doesn’t answer Mikey’s question.  How do you get, manage, and use ideas?

Getting ideas.  Ideas are everywhere.  Seriously.  In conversations with friends, in stories, watching TV, taking a walk in the park, looking at pictures, kind of everywhere.  Now, I’m not saying to watch TV and then steal the plot, but you can have something vaguely related set off a spark in your own brain.  For example, look at this picture I found on Cracked this morning.  (from the article 5 lovable animals you didn’t know were secretly terrifying by the Word Puncher, Robert Brockway, who is a psychotically funny dude)


Seriously.  Look at that thing… As a guy who is known for writing books about monster hunting… jeez.  I could do something with that fetcher.  Tell me that by looking at that picture it doesn’t spark some ideas in your monster loving head.  Imagine walking out to your car in a darkened parking lot and that thing is standing on the roof…. See, you’re already forming ideas.

Or here is an example from my own writing.  Most of you who read this blog have read the 7 sample chapters for The Grimnoir Chronicles: Hard Magic. (coming Spring 2011 from Baen Books, Yay!)   TGC came about because at LTUE a few years ago, somebody in the audience didn’t want my opinion, because I was just a “contemporary” fantasy author, not an “epic” fantasy author.  So I decided I wanted to write something “different” that still followed the tropes of epic fantasy.  (lots of characters, complex world building, magic system with rules, world changing events, etc.)

So I had a goal. Then I had a conversation about this. This is the picture that set off the entire TGC universe: 


My son picked up a free promotional copy of Marvel’s young guns best new artists.  This picture was in it.  One day I was talking to Mike Kupari, co-author of Dead Six, and he was flipping through my son’s comic book.  We both agreed how awesome Spiderman looked set in the 1930s.  I’m not really a Spidey fan, and I’ve never read any of the Marvel Noir titles, but that was such a badass image there, and it really stuck in my head.  Mike then started talking about his character, Valentine, set in a noir/pulp world, and I made a crack about ninjas fighting on a dirigible. That set me off. We then had a four hour brain storming session, while I drew pictures of blimps and men in hats with futurized Thompson subguns.   20,000 pages of history books and four months later I had another novel. 

Managing Ideas.  So you’ve come up with an awesome idea. Write it down.  Some of us keep a notebook, others have a file on their computer, whatever works, just save it.  You may see some super cool visual that you want to use, but it might not fit in any of your current projects. Save it for later. The original idea for MHI occurred several years before I actually wrote it. The characters I used in Dead Six had their genesis in the first, failed novel I attempted to write in 2000-2001. (it was called Minute of Angle, and it really wasn’t that bad all things considered, but it wasn’t up to snuff) I’ve got a file filled with lines of dialog, character sketches, odd little notes and turns of phrase, and anything else you can think of, just stashed and waiting for something they may fit into.

The way Lord Machado looked in MHI was based on going fishing when I was younger, where you’d get those big bags of dirt packed with worms. That led to a note being jotted down at the dawn of MHI that said something like “Earthworms are creepy. Lots of slime. Dirt. Gross.  And make him a conquistador.” Why? Because my brain said so.

It could be anything. Years and years ago I heard somebody insult a cashier at Taco Bell. The customer was speaking to his friend. The cashier rudely interrupted with his political opinion about “so you’re the kind of that do people do X” and the customer snapped back with “and you’re the kind of people that put the cheese on my burrito, so snap to it.”  Ten years later I’ve got Earl Harbinger saying something similar to a nosy waiter in a greasy spoon in Monster Hunter Alpha.

To continue with the earlier example, after my original brainstorming session with Mike, I sat down and wrote about ten pages about the Grimnoir world.  ¾ of that didn’t end up in the book, and lots of it changed as I actually wrote and studied more about the real history of the period I was tweaking.   

So I’ve got this alternative-fantastical world, I need ideas on how to populate it.  The story starts in El Nido, California, which is my home town. I grew up there, and it is an old fashioned kind of place.  It wasn’t hard to imagine my home town in the ‘30s, since that was when most of the place was built. The whole bit with the Portuguese hating the Okies? Not fabricated. I heard that kind of thing from the old guys growing up. Ideas that had been in my head since I was a little kid ended up on the page.

Using Ideas.  Don’t be afraid to be different. If you think it is awesome, and it will make your fans happy, you can do it. When I was originally writing MHI, there was very little comic relief. Believe it or not, it started out much more horror than fantasy.  Then one night my wife was in bed, reading a fantasy novel, and she got frustrated and threw it on the ground.  “What’s wrong?” I asked. 

She responded. “I’m sick of elves. Elves are always the same. Everyone is just rehashing Lord of the Rings, over and over again… Why can’t elves be different for once?  Make them… I don’t know… rednecks or something.”

Suddenly a light bulb went off over my head. Redneck elves. Why not? I thought it was hilarious. But then again, that’s not “tradition”. People might not like it because it was different. But I said screw it, and that turned out to be everyone’s favorite part because it was an original idea.  Besides, many of my really good ideas come from my wife. Also, for the record, Mike came up with the idea of Interdimensional Insurance Agents.

Sometimes you might be surprised. Ideas that you’ve had for a long time might suddenly have a chance to insert themselves into projects in unexpected places.  You guys haven’t read this yet, but I’ve got a villain in something coming up that is based on Carson from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, only supremely evil. I’d always thought that having an uncharacteristically effeminate oddball turn out to be a James Bond level super-villain would be awesome.  And while writing on the fly, there was suddenly just this perfect spot to throw this dude into the mix.  It turned out really well.

Practice.  In addition to the above, one thing I’ve really seen over the last few years is that the more you train your brain to come up with interesting ideas, the easier it becomes to crank those out on demand.  When you get used to doing this kind of thing on the fly, it gets easier and easier.

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17 thoughts on “Ask Correia 4 – Idea Management”

  1. Traditionally from my experience in working with Doc Travis, the newer author does the majority of the “heavy lifting” when collaborating. He did the same when he wrote with Ringo, and Ringo with Weber. And finding enough time for two authors to work on one project that doesn’t have a pressing deadline or a contract backing it is hard to do.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that unless a publisher is interested in a collaboration project between established and up-and-comer or a senior author comes up with an idea and REALLY wants you to write with them, collaborating is for the dogs. Unless you actually know the writer outside of the business.

    Or, you know, some NYT bestseller asks me to change my tune so we could collab together…

      1. Doc’s release date is unknown. I suppose we’ll eventually have to find the time to finish the damned book. THEN we’ll have to convince Toni to give the Warp Speed universe another shot.

        My release date was two years ago. Still no book. Take it as you will. 🙂

    1. Really? I hadn’t seen that one. The last Mercedes Lackey book I read was the one with the witch-detective vs. the Aztec gods, but that’s been a long time.

    2. I think those elves were more along the lines of motor heads than rednecks. Rednecks tend to be more rurally orientated and I think that series was set in an urban environment.

  2. Ideas come easy. I’ve got a whole bunch of half started books. Its taking the time to finish the labor of love that you NEED to finish because you WANT to know how it ends.

  3. Ideas do come easy. I have folders and folders of discarded ideas. My problem is I always feel like I’m ripping off something great because I write what I like to read. And if I don’t feel an idea is original enough I pitch it. I’ll get published one day, but I’ll be damned if I’m ever accused of stealing from the work of my favorite authors.

    Warpcordova, if you talk to Doc Travis you should tell him to get to work on another Voyage of the Space Bubbles, whenever he’s not rocking, mountain biking, or saving the world from cosmic catastrophe 😛

    Last thing, is amazing

    1. Nick, that’s exactly the problem that led to my creating the reptilian species that I’m currently working on. I remembered something from a 1970s Dr. Who episode that appealed to me, but obviously was taken. So I started looking at what I liked best about the creatures from the show, then set to work playing around with biology, culture, et cetera. After a while I have something that bears no resemblance to the original aside from being reptilians with an honor-based aristocratic culture. Then I tossed in a stray mammal and watched all heck break loose. 🙂

  4. Heck, hoss… The part that did it for me was when the lady who had read a few too many anne rice books tried to reason with the vampires…

    It sparked of reality, in an unreal situation.

    Now, not to tell you what to do, but you really need to do this (grin): Build to a scene… A horrid, teeth-gritting, slime-dripping scene… And it’s ended in about two seconds when the hero/heroine whips out a .45…

    I’ve been working on a coupla things – keeping me somewhat sane, and all that… hard part isn’t the plot, or the action, or the descriptions, or the dialog – it’s all the linking everything together. That’s the hard part.

  5. Mr. C-

    Loved the redneck elves, had you been hanging out with my E. TX relatives for inspiration? Minus the pointy ears and magical abilities…then again, they could make homes and cars magically disappear or burst into flame, only to be replaced by wads of cash.

    Thought the orcs were great too– if you haven’t picked up any WarHammer 40K (don’t play, just always enjoyed the backstories) the Orks may be right up your alley. And remember, “Red ones goez fasta!”

  6. Ask Correia 5: Villians that rock

    Hi Larry. Here is another writing question for you; what qualities make for a good villain and how do you create/craft quality villains in your novels?



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