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Author: Melissa Burkley

The Writer’s Laboratory #3: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

The Writer’s Laboratory #3: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

Where do writers get their ideas?

This is the question writers are asked the most. And it is the one they enjoy answering the least. According to acclaimed author Neil Gaimen, getting asked this question is the primary pitfall of being a writer.

“Doctors, for example, are always being asked for free medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting a profession that must be and then people change the subject fast. And writers are asked where we get our ideas from.”

So why do writers hate answering this question? Because the truth is, they don’t have a clue where their ideas come from.

Gaimen admits this outright: “I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they’ll stop.”

So too does Stephen King, stating in a Q&A, “I can tell you about fifty percent of the time where I got the idea. And the rest of it is totally like getting an idea in a dream and I can’t really remember where they came from.”

But a shrug of the shoulders and a “I don’t know” is the last thing the person doing the questioning wants to hear. So writers learn to make up answers.

“In the beginning,” Gaimen says, “I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: ‘From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ I’d say, or ‘From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,’ ‘From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement’.”

So how is it that people who make their living from writing can’t tell us where their story ideas truly come from? I think the reason has to do with the fact that the human mind is what psychologists call a “dual-process system.”

Psychologists have long held that the mind has two major systems: controlled (conscious) and automatic (unconscious). Here is an excerpt from my textbook entitled Motivation Science (co-authored with my husband), that describes these two systems:

The controlled system is the part of our mind that we are consciously aware of and is within our control. People generally assume they are aware of everything that happens in their own mind, but in fact, they are really only aware of this controlled aspect. When you are trying to make a conscious decision (e.g., Should I eat the brownie or the apple?) it is your controlled system that weighs the pros and cons and ultimately decides which food item to eat.

The automatic system occurs outside of our conscious awareness and essentially is the part of our mind that handles all the dirty work in order to make our lives easier. It scans all the sounds and sights and smells that constantly bombard your brain, interprets and organizes the information, then decides if it should be discarded or if deeper processing is in order. Without it, our brains would have to process each piece of information one by one. (Note: If you want to learn about the automatic mind in greater detail, see Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink”)

One system is not any better than the other. Rather both systems are necessary and they work in tandem. For example, when you are talking to friends at a large gathering, your unconscious brain is processing all the other information in the room (sights, sounds, smells) so that your conscious brain can focus on what your friends are saying. Don’t believe it? Just wait until someone across the room mentions your name. Now how did you hear that if you weren’t actually listening to everyone else’s conversations? It’s because your unconscious mind was doing that for you, hearing and filtering it all out. But when it heard your name, it knocked on your conscious mind’s shoulder and said, “Hey, they said our name. This is important. Better attend to it.” For obvious reasons, psychologists call this interesting phenomenon the “cocktail party effect.”

To get a better sense of how these two minds work together, here is an analogy I used in the textbook:

Every year, nearly 5 million people travel to Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon, and for those who want to make the trip down to the bottom, there are two choices:

1.Do the 24-mile round trip hike on foot. Take it from our personal experience—this choice is rough, especially since it is much easier hiking down the canyon than it is going back up!

2.Take a mule ride down. Although this second option is less strenuous because it requires less footwork on your part, it is not without its dangers. The mules walk the steep, hazardous trek on the outer edge of the trail, their hooves just inches away from the rocky cliffs. Often, just as the mule takes a step, its hoof will slide on a lose rock, threatening to dump the animal and its rider off the treacherously high perch. In those tense moments, riders often try to take control of the animal to steer it away from the edge, but despite their effort, the mule refuses to obey.

People who select the second option often ask why the canyon relies on mules rather than horses. The reason is that a horse generally does what the rider wants to do, but a mule does what it wants to do. The stubborn nature of mules may sound like a negative trait, but miners in the 1800’s quickly learned that mules were better able to navigate the canyon’s treacherous trails because mules were more interested in preserving their own hide than listening to the sometimes poor instructions of their riders.

 

In this analogy, the stubborn mule is the unconscious mind and the rider is the conscious mind. The fact that most writers are unable to articulate exactly where their ideas come from suggests their ideas come from their unconscious mind. Maybe it was a dream they had or a story they saw on the news or a book they were reading that fired up the engine. Whatever the cause, it sparked a creative idea in their inner mule and suddenly they were off to the races.

For me personally, I do a lot of my writing in my mind so that by the time I sit down to my computer, the heavy lifting is already complete. Most of my “mind writing” occurs during those ten minutes at night while I am lying in bed trying to fall asleep or the ten minutes in the morning where I’m just starting to wake up. (Occasionally a story idea or snippet of dialogue rises up in the middle of the night as I’m rolling over or trudging to the bathroom—that is the worst!). As you can see, my “mind writing” tends to occur at times when my conscious brain is only half awake, allowing me to better hear the quiet voice of my unconscious mind.

Recognizing that ideas don’t just get consciously invented out of thin air is inspiring. Because we all daydream or get bored and find our mind wandering throughout our day. The only difference is that writers have trained themselves to listen to their inner mule rather than ignore it.

This recognition also offers a solution for the dreaded “writer’s block.” I find that when this pestilence strikes, it’s because I’m relying too hard on my conscious mind to twist the story into what I want it to say and my mule-like unconscious is refusing to go along. Which is why if you find yourself struck with writer’s block, it may be best to just hand the reigns off to your unconscious brain. Step away from the task at hand for a moment and try something else to get in touch with your unconscious mind. Go outside for some fresh air. Do a fun writer’s prompt. Start on a new project (preferably a short one, maybe a 500-word micro story) to get the creative juices flowing again. Then, when you’re ready to return to the target project, don’t force it. Relax the reigns and allow your inner mule to dictate where you should proceed. Chances are if you let it, your mule will take you in new and exciting directions.

Of course, once your mule comes up with an idea, your inner rider—or should I say inner “writer” 🙂 —has to step up to get words on the page. My unconscious mind may whisper ideas to me but then it’s up to my conscious mind to translate these ideas and images and voices into coherent sentences and believable dialogue and vivid metaphors.

Hopefully knowing that writers’ ideas often start from unconscious sources will help you tap into your creative side a bit. But what do you do when your mule is just refusing to budge? Are there things you can do to spur your creative mule into action? Yes, and that is exactly what my next blog post will address!

The Writer’s Laboratory #2: Why Metaphors are Important

The Writer’s Laboratory #2: Why Metaphors are Important

The metaphor is one of the most powerful tools in the artist’s toolbox. This is the case regardless of whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or a blog (Notice I couldn’t even get through the first sentence of this post without using one!). Writers love metaphors (and their like-minded cousin, the simile) because they add texture and beauty to an otherwise dry description. (Note that for ease of explication, I will use the term “metaphor” for the rest of this post to refer to both metaphors and similes).

Now, most writers know that metaphors are important. But what is less known is (1) why metaphors are so powerful and (2) what makes a good (or bad) metaphor. Lucky for us, psychological research on metaphors has exploded within the last decade to help us address these points.

So let’s start with the first question: Why are metaphors so powerful? The answer is that metaphors are not just a literary technique; they are a very potent psychological technique.

In their simplest form, metaphors compare two concepts that at first seem unrelated:

All the world’s a stage

Love is a battlefield

Life is like a box of chocolates

              But look closer and you’ll see that each of these takes an abstract, hard to understand idea (the world, love, life) and compares it to a simple, concrete, well-understood idea (the stage, a battlefield, a box of candy). Now not all metaphors do this (e.g., “The basement was a dark cave” simply combines two concrete concepts). But the best ones connect something that is less understood with something that is more understood. As a result, good metaphors help the reader understand something they otherwise might have not.

In On Writing, master storyteller Stephen King notes this ability of metaphors to improve comprehension when he says that they enable people to “see an old thing in a new and vivid way.” For this reason, he says that metaphors are like a kind of miracle that occurs between writer and reader. I tend to agree.

Metaphors are also important because they help writers abide by the all-important “show, don’t tell” rule. For example, in the book Misery, Stephen King’s main character Paul has been rescued after a car accident by a crazy woman named Annie. At one point, she leaves Paul for two days without water, food, or most importantly, pain pills for his broken legs. In this scene, Paul is simultaneously wrestling with crippling pain, thirst and hunger. To communicated this, King uses the metaphor of a horse race, with the horse Pain, Thirst, and Hunger all jockeying for first place. So rather than tell us outright what Paul is going through, King uses a metaphor to show us.

But metaphors go beyond just comprehension and demonstration, they actually change the way we think of a concept on an unconscious level. To demonstrate this, consider a study conducted by Thibodeau and Boroditsky in 2011. In it, half of the participants read about a crime-ridden city where the criminal element was described as a beast preying upon innocent citizens (animal metaphor). A separate group read essentially the same description of the city, only it described the criminal element as a disease that plagued the town (disease metaphor). Later, when asked how to solve the crime issue, those who read the animal metaphor suggested control strategies (increasing police presence, imposing stricter penalties). Those who read the disease metaphor instead suggested diagnostic/treatment strategies (seeking out the primary cause of the crime wave, bolstering the economy).

This study shows that by changing the metaphor actually changed the way readers thought about the crime issue. If it was a beast, it needed to be controlled. If it was a disease, it needed to be treated. Thus, writers can use metaphors to strategically control their readers’ perceptions.

Okay, so you know metaphors are important and hopefully you now have a better understanding of why that is the case. But not all metaphors are equally powerful. We can all think of good metaphors that seemed to soar when we read them. Others hit the ground with a thud.

When it comes to designing metaphors, there is an infinite amount of things you can compare your concept to. So how do you make sure your metaphor is a good one?

In my opinion, the best way to craft a metaphor is to start with your target concept (e.g., sleep) and identify the quality you want to highlight (e.g., sleep can be heavy, peaceful or restless, you can slide into it or collapse). Once you’ve landed on your quality (e.g., slide into), then generate other things that also share this quality (e.g., a baseball player sliding into home plate, a pat of butter sliding down a hot griddle, a sled sliding down an icy hill, a weary body sliding into a warm bath).

Chances are you will come up with more than one comparison, which is fine. From there, use the rules below to decide which is best.

  1. Keep it Simple. If it takes a long time to explain the connection between two concepts, then you probably need to pick another comparison. Metaphors are designed to make things clearer, not muddy things up even more than before. Along those same lines, don’t mix metaphors. Once you start a metaphor, stick with it. Don’t change it up half-way in (e.g., he was skating on thin ice and finally decided to bite the bullet).
  2. Keep it Relevant. When using a metaphor, the writer is agreeing to an implicit promise to the reader that the two concepts are in some way connected. The connection doesn’t have to be immediately obvious—the best ones aren’t. But it should feel like a lightbulb going off in readers’ minds. Suddenly they see the connection where they didn’t before. For instance, Stephen King provides this example of a poorly written metaphor: “He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.” The reason this metaphor flops is because there is no seeable connection between waiting for an examiner and waiting for a sandwich.
  3. Keep it Thematic. Metaphors work better when the comparisons selected are consistent with the voice, location, time or theme of your story. For example, a chef falling in love might reflect on his “desire to devour her every word” or reflect that “she added seasoning to his otherwise bland life.” Instead, a tailor might describe the same experience as “fitting like a hand inside a glove” or that “she mended the torn seams of his heart.” And a horticulturist might see their “blossoming relationship” as “a plant that needs to be watered and nurtured.” The point is, you should select metaphors that reinforce other elements of your story.
  4. Keep it Original. No one wants to read a metaphor they’ve come across a hundred times before, so avoid overused or clichéd comparisons. Stephen King provides these examples: ran like a madman, pretty as a summer day, fought like a tiger. Here are more: When it rains it pours, dressed to kill, at the speed of light, cute as a kitten, and so on. And I’m sure you can think of many other examples.
  5. Keep it Strategic. Strunk and White say that “similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath.” Not everything in your writing needs a comparison. So be strategic about your use of metaphor. After all, as Freud reportedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Women in Horror Annual 2 Now Available!

Women in Horror Annual 2 Now Available!

The second volume of the Women in Horror Annual (WHA) is now available on Amazon! This amazing anthology includes my short fiction “Rumspringa,” alongside so many other great pieces written by female horror writers. I am super excited to be a part of this great collection!

Introduction to “The Writer’s Laboratory” blog

Introduction to “The Writer’s Laboratory” blog

Stephen King is my all-time favorite writer because he is so good at creating stunningly real characters, trapping them in extraordinary situations, and then watching how they claw their way out. So when Stephen King offers good writing advice (and he does so often), I try to listen. But of all the advice he has given over the years, my favorite is from a 2003 award acceptance speech. In it, he suggests that writers shouldn’t strive to be good writers or even great writers. They should be honest writers.

What does it mean to be an honest writer? According to Uncle Stevie, honest writers are ones who have “told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.” He uses the true account of an airliner crashing and killing everyone on board. Although the story would have more literary flair if the pilot’s final words were a witty phrase or a touching farewell, that’s not what happens in real life. In truth, the pilot’s final words captured on the black box were this: “Son of a bitch.”

Being an honest writer is important because, ironically, writing fiction is inherently the crafting of a lie. You are creating make-believe characters and placing them in make-believe (and often impossible) situations. But to make the reader truly believe your story, you need to drape these lies on a scaffolding built in reality. And that means knowing how to write characters and create plots that reflect how real people act in the real world.

Okay, so hopefully we are all in agreement that an author needs to write about their characters honestly, but how exactly does one accomplish this goal? The answer—you need to know something about human psychology.

This insight is why aspiring writers often take an Intro to Psychology course in college. They hope to learn things about the way people think, feel, and behave that they can weave into their own writing. But what if you didn’t take psych in college? Or what if you did but it was so long ago you don’t remember what you learned? No worries. That is what this blog is for.

As a psychologist, I’ve spent two decades studying what people do and why they do it. I’ve conducted laboratory experiments that explore how people react when placed in unusual or undesirable situations. I’ve read thousands of scientific articles on human behavior. What I’ve learned from all this is that humans are predictable but, depending on the context, they don’t always behave the way you would expect. Human behavior can be logical or irrational, selfish or altruistic, kind or hurtful, consciously controlled or automatic.

So how can we anticipate how a person will actually respond? Often, the deciding factor is something small. The person’s personality, the situation, or any of a whole host of factors. To unpack this Pandora’s box of knowledge, you need to learn the factors and processes that affect people’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. And unless you’re well-versed in psychological science, you need a guide. Because the more you know about the discoveries made in psychological science, the more equipped you will be to write honestly.

I designed The Writer’s Laboratory to combine my two passions—psychological science and fiction writing—in a way that teaches others how to become more honest writers (and as a result, better writers). In each post, I will pick a fascinating psychological concept, briefly discuss the research behind it, then offer suggestions on how to use this information to improve your own writing. When possible, I will pull examples of the concept we’re exploring from common works of fiction—novels, movies, TV shows—to vividly demonstrate how other writers have tapped into human psychology for their own work.

I hope you enjoy the blog and find it helpful!