I picture Neil Gaiman’s mind to be a fantastic place, magical, wonderful, full of rock music and where words sit etched at different stages. I expect to see a place where his special power of empathising and understanding children resides. This author of The Graveyard Book, Coraline, Fortunately The Milk, The Sleeper and The Spindle, The Chu Series is a writer par excellence.
In his 1997 essay ‘Where do you get your ideas?’, Gaiman acknowledges that the occupational hazard of being a writer is that he often gets asked where he gets his ideas from. They come quite simply he says, from his head- imaginary universes, stories, thoughts, entire graveyards, characters, and houses.
Gaiman is persuaded by his then seven-year-old daughter, Holly to come and speak with her class. Gaiman is the cynosure of fifty pairs of eyes, all seven years old. As part of a Q&A session, a member of the audience finally asked him, ” Where do you get your ideas from?”. The writer realises owes a detailed response to the young boy, his question being based on genuine interest and curiosity. A question that is a sort of how-do-I go- about -this -writing- business?
You would think children would love to write stories, and share them with the world. Instead, you will find the average school-goer chewing on his pencil, vacant expression in place, wondering how to start and present you with the very annoying, ” What do I write?”.
Gaiman proceeds to give an answer, which I think must be printed out, framed and put in every school and university that wishes to produce robust writers.
You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?
(What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found out that your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of term – but you didn’t know who?)
Another important question is, If only…
(If only real life was like it is in Hollywood musicals. If only I could shrink myself small as a button. If only a ghost would do my homework.)
And then there are the others: I wonder… (‘I wonder what she does when she’s alone…’) and If This Goes On… (‘If this goes on telephones are going to start talking to each other, and cut out the middleman…’) and Wouldn’t it be interesting if… (‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if the world used to be ruled by cats?’)…
Those questions, and others like them, and the questions they, in their turn, pose (‘Well, if cats used to rule the world, why don’t they any more? And how do they feel about that?’) are one of the places ideas come from.
An idea doesn’t have to be a plot notion, just a place to begin creating. Plots often generate themselves when one begins to ask oneself questions about whatever the starting point is.
Sometimes an idea is a person (‘There’s a boy who wants to know about magic’). Sometimes it’s a place (‘There’s a castle at the end of time, which is the only place there is…’). Sometimes it’s an image (‘A woman, sifting in a dark room filled with empty faces.’)
Often ideas come from two things coming together that haven’t come together before. (‘If a person bitten by a werewolf turns into a wolf what would happen if a goldfish was bitten by a werewolf? What would happen if a chair was bitten by a werewolf?’)
All fiction is a process of imagining: whatever you write, in whatever genre or medium, your task is to make things up convincingly and interestingly and new.
And when you’ve an idea – which is, after all, merely something to hold on to as you begin – what then?
Well, then you write. You put one word after another until it’s finished – whatever it is.
Sometimes it won’t work, or not in the way you first imagined. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Sometimes you throw it out and start again.
In conclusion, he adds definitively,
Where do I get my ideas from?
I make them up.
Out of my head.