[tsat home] [#21] [editorials]
A Post-Office Box in Schenectady
by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
©2002 Quentin Long -- all rights reserved

One evening I was sitting at my computer after a hard day of converting the last of the Mahr issues to the current format, wondering if there was anything else I could do instead of drawing another panel of Modified Rapture. I decided to begin work on my editorial for TSAT 21, but there was just one problem. What would the topic be? A few minutes of fruitless pondering later, I suddenly realized that I had a topic -- ideas, and how to get them!

It's a question asked of every writer, be they amateur or be they pro: "Where do you get your ideas from?" That question has been asked of Harlan Ellison so often that he finally came up with an answer: Every week he sends $5 to a post office box in Schenectady, New York, and by return mail he gets a thick manila envelope filled with story ideas...

Of course that's nonsense -- while there are indeed post office boxes in Schenectady, none of them serves as a muse to the writers of the world. So where do writers get their ideas from? This question is actually irrelevant, but I can answer it anyway, and in one word, to boot:


It isn't what writers have that others don't, it's what writers do that others don't! Let's say J. Random Fan sees an episode of GalaxyTrek. He might like it or hate it; he might recite the plot to his friends when next they meet; he might be inspired to build a fursuit of that episode's monster/alien; he might do any of a dozen other things, none of which have anything to do with storytelling. But if J. Random Fan comes up with plotlines for possible sequels to that episode, he might be a writer. And if he creates G'Trek fan fiction that uses his plotlines, he's definitely a writer. An amateur writer, in all probability, but a writer nonetheless.

The paragraph immediately above illustrates one of the major sources of story ideas, especially where fanfic is concerned: Ask the next question. If concept X is true in a story's setting, what concepts Y and Z must be true as a consequence? Also, if X is true, what Ys and Zs cannot be true at the same time? If the story revolves around the nigh-magickal powers of some hyperadvanced gizmo, what else (besides what was shown in the story) can said gizmo be used for? If the characters in the story behave in a strange or unbelievable manner, why are they doing that -- what is it that's influencing them? A writer does Ask The Next Question; non-writers don't.

Of course there are other questions (besides The Next One) which can do the same job, and one of the best is, "What if?" What if all humans born from 1956 on had tails (The Age of the Tail, by H. Allen Smith)? What if an alien ecology invaded the Terran biosphere (David Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr series)? What if someone figured out how to restore life to the dead (among others: Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley)? If I may paraphrase one of John F. Kennedy's famous quotes: Writers see things that never were, and ask "Why not?"; non-writers probably don't ask anything, no matter what they see.

At this point, some of you may be asking yourselves, "Okay -- if it really is that easy to come up with ideas, how come so many people think it's incredibly difficult? Why would so many people badger Ellison about it that he had to come up with that bogus routine about Schenectady?" That's a good question. For my money, the answer is self-censorship. A non-writer might very well come up with exactly the same idea as a writer -- but whereas the non-writer might let it slide, telling himself "that idea couldn't have been much good anyway", the writer might sit down at his word processor and use that idea in a story. Non-writers are quick to dismiss ideas for being stupid or hokey or whatever; writers know that "it's all in the wrist action", that how an idea is presented is at least as important as the idea itself, and that you can get away with murder (figuratively speaking) if you approach it from the right direction.

That is why the question "where do writers get their ideas from?" is irrelevant. It's not where ideas come from, it's what you do with ideas once you've got them!

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