Being a Better Writer: Ideas and Education

Welcome back, everyone! I hope you had a productive weekend. I know I did. I did some more editing on Beyond the Borderlands (who’s excited for chapter 18?) and, at long last, finished up reading Ancillary Justice and put together my thoughts on it.

So, quick news bit. July is almost over, so we’re coming up on another Patreon reward for supporters. This coming August will be an excerpt from one of the “short” stories in Unusual Events (which is almost ready for alpha). Anyway, if you’re a Patreon supporter, you’re going to get another sneak look at one of those stories! Once the last story in Unusual Events is done, I’ll be going full-time editing on it and Colony, getting both of those ready for a release at last.

And that’s the news. Now … to your regularly scheduled posting!

So, you get a lot of questions as an author. It seems that once you mention you write and sell books that many people have questions to ask of you, and a lot of these questions start to blend together—or at least you start to see the inherent similarity in all of them.

Anyway, one of the more common questions that I find myself being asked on a regular basis is “Where do you get your ideas?” And today, I kind of wanted to talk about that. Because in truth, ideas just don’t come from nowhere. I don’t sit and do nothing while waiting for inspiration to strike. I have to be actively hunting for new ideas and concepts. And if you’re going to be a writer, you’ll need to do so as well. Today, I want to talk about education.

Now, I can already hear some of the early feedback murmurs from here, so I’m going to tackle this one right away. I’m not talking about K-12 schooling or your nearest equivalent when I say this. Nor am I talking about a college degree. Don’t mistake, both are important, and if you have the chance at either, you should be taking it.

But what I’m referring to is different. It’s something that I’ve sometimes heard called “Continuing Education.” Simply put? It’s the idea that one educates one’s self about the world long after they have finished standard schooling or degree curriculums (or before, or in place of).

Basically, it’s the concept that we go out and learn, regardless of whether or not we’re in a classroom of some kind. That we make ourselves students of life, seeking to learn and educate ourselves about all different sorts of concepts. Because let’s face it, if you’re going to be a writer, and then an author, you’re going to need to know the basics of how things work.

Ever seen Throw Momma from the Train? There’s a scene in the film where the principle character, an author who doubles as a community college English teacher, is listening to his students read their latest work, and one of them reads the tail-end of what they think is a gripping and thrilling submarine thriller.

Except it isn’t (a fact that audience is painfully aware of) for a myriad of reasons. But one of the most striking is that the writer has no idea how submarines work … or even what the language for them is. And so the audience is forced to suffer through the following line:

“Dive… DIVE” yelled the captain through the thing. So the captain pressed a button, or something, and it dove.

It’s terrible … which is kind of the point, given that the movie is a dark comedy. But the author of that piece wanted to write a story on a subject that they knew nothing about, and the result was a muddled mess.

Now, I know I’ve spoken of this before, and to many of you it should make sense. If you’re going to write about something, do your research, right? Maybe you’re nodding your head right now and saying “Yes, you’ve talked about this before. What does this have to do with ideas?”

Well, this time I’m talking about a different reason to be educated. Before, I’ve specifically spoken about researching and educating yourself while working on a book so that you can get the details right (something many authors still don’t do, sadly). But this time, I’m not talking about a specific book.

No, instead what I’m talking about it looking past just reading up on a subject when the need becomes apparent. I’m talking about pushing yourself to be educated and seeking knowledge constantly.

Before I spoke of the lightning bolt of inspiration, and how many will simply wait for the bolt to strike. And you know what? Those people will be waiting for a long time. Those who have the attitude of waiting for the lightning to hit are about as likely to hit it as a photographer is to get a picture of a real lightning strike without leaving their house. The truth of the matter is that while we can’tforce the lightning to hit, those who find it regularly do so because they’re making the conditions right for it to strike and are actively hunting for it.

Earlier I said that there’s a lot of people who ask, upon meeting an author, “How do you get your ideas?” But there’s a second, similar question, that comes right behind that: Here’s an idea I had, would you like to hear it? It might make a good book!

I hear this about once a week. Other, more public authors probably hear it more often (actually, I know they do, especially at signings). But each time, there’s a similar answer that gets tossed back, usually before the fan in question can start talking about their idea. “No thank you, I have enough ideas as is.”

I’ve actually seen some people be confused by this statement, as if they can’t understand how a person who writes books for a living would have more than one “idea” at a time. But here’s the truth: Most of these authors are going out and cultivating a mindset and lifestyle that’s going to provide them with those ideas. They’re keeping things fresh. They’re trying new things. They’re educating their minds.

There’s that word again. “Education.” But it’s accurate.

You see, like a photographer attempting to capture an image of the exact moment lightning strikes, an author who is hunting for ideas is going to be active. A photographer who procures a single image of a massive lightning bolt striking the ground? They’ve likely spentdays trying to get that one image. Searching all over until they find the right places to take pictures based on where they think a storm is going to be. Taking thousands of photographs when the storm does hit, trying to capture that single moment when pure, raw, electric energy arcs along the sky. And while they’re setting this up? Or waiting? They don’t stop doing everything else. They’ll be taking pictures of whatever else captures their interest, even for a moment, just on the odds that they’ll find something that will be as dazzling as the lightning, even in a different way.

Just as a photographer cultivates everything, taking thousands upon thousands of photographs in the search for that lightning strike, so is any author going to want to do similar. Which, at long last, brings us back to the idea of continuing education.

The more you know, and the more you learn, the higher your chances are of coming up with an idea. Multiply that amount by ten, and you’ll find that rather than simply increasing the number of ideas by ten, you’ve increased them exponentially.

Basically, the more you know and the more you learn, the greater chance you have of noticing something neat, or of putting together what might have been two dissimilar ideas and producing something new and story-worthy from it. Keep adding knowledge and awareness, and your mind will jump to put the pieces together. From that comes a story.

For example, at the last LTUE, a panel was discussing the changes in society that technology would bring about and how to write about them, and one panelist was talking about how self-driving cars were going to change a lot of city living. “Imagine,” he asked, “what it will be like when you don’t own a car, but merely request one from your phone, and it leaves the nearest automated garage and arrives at your home. It’s no one’s car, just whoever needs it at the moment. You call it, and it comes!”

Then I said “And when it arrives, there’s a dead body in it.”

See, instant idea. All it took was the panelist talking about how different the world would be when the majority of people didn’t own cars and just “rented” them for whatever period of time they needed. My brain connected that with “and people would litter in them” to “mob disposes of bodies in cars” to “Whose problem is it if someone finds a murder victim in the car and no one knows how they died? How did the body get there? How would they solve the murder?”

Bam. Idea. One I never even used. Maybe someday … but that’s if I don’t have a thousand other ideas to go through.

The point? I never would have thought of that if I’d not been sitting there listening to someone explain how self-driving cars were going to change the world. I was getting new information, new concepts, and one of them began to ricochet with something I already knew until BAM, an idea was born.

Now, at this point, some of you might be saying “Okay, but how?” Others might be saying something a little similar. “How am I supposed to do that? I don’t have the time or the access to materials. I can’t do that.” To the first, I say, read on, we’re discussing that at last in the second paragraph. To the second, I say “Bull. You’ve got internet access and time to read my blog. You can find the time.You just need the will.”

So, how do you get this new information? You search for it. You set aside the time that would be mindless leisure, and you look for knowledge.

You know what’s in my Netflix que right now? Documentaries. About one documentary for every show. Blue Planet, Planet Earth. Documentaries on Tesla, Vietnam, Prohibition-era America, cartoonists, strange events around the world.

My Youtube subscriptions? The Engineer Guy. Last Week Tonight. Extra History. The Great War. It’s History.

There’s more places to find knowledge than that, too. If you’re reading this right now, it means you have the internet available to you. Google. Wikipedia. Did you know that the principles that made the L.E.D. (Light-Emitting Diode) were first discovered in 1907? If history and science had gone slightly differently, there’s a chance that we could have had L.E.D. lights in the first world war. How might that have changed things?

Bam. New idea. Why? Because I browsed r/AskHistory on reddit and then searched L.E.D.s from there, which led me to wikipedia.

What about TV Tropes? Ever try searching a real life event on there? Or clicking on the “real life examples” section of a trope?

Search for stuff. Watch youtube videos on how a computer works. How a car transmission works.

Get curious.

That last one is a bit tricky, especially in our day and age. So much of the public mindset has been pushed away from the attitude of seeking out new knowledge (as new knowledge can be “offensive” or “uncomfortable”). Learning is sometimes seen as “for children.” You’re an adult, you’re “supposed” to know everything you need already.

Don’t buy into that. Read competing ideas and papers to see both sides of a debate. Question how and why things work, and then go find out rather than leaving it unexplained. Check sources. Learn. Keep finding the new.

From that kind of knowledge, ideas will sprout. Like the photographer taking thousands and thousands of pictures to capture the one, solitary bolt of lightning, you’re going to be taking in thousands of new ideas, looking for the ones that are good enough and brilliant enough to be their own stories.

And you’ll find them. The more your mind has to play with, the more it will produce. Train yourself to ask “How?” and “Why?” and before long, you’ll find yourself asking “What if?” You’ll find yourself picking up some aspect of history, news, or science, and combining that with another piece.

Will all of these ideas be grand? No, of course not. Just like the photographer’s pictures won’t all be of that bolt of lightning. And maybe they never capture that bolt. Maybe the picture they end up walking away with is a picture of a pair of hikers. Or an oddly shaped tree. Or a field of flowers in the rain.

We don’t know. We can’t know. What we can know is that if the photographer never goes out, that picture will never be taken.

You want to be a writer? An author? You want to have ideas? Educate yourself. Cultivate your mind. Give yourself a lifetime of learning.

So turn off the social media consumer for a moment. Resolve to educate yourself, somehow, in some way, every day. Never stop the influx of new concepts, new thoughts, and new knowledge. Because that knowledge? That’s where your ideas come from, and if there’s nothing there in the first place, you’ll never have anything to have ideas with.

So go out. Learn. Do new things. Read new things. Keep your mind sharp. And you’ll never have a dearth of ideas to write about.

Now go out and learn something. Every day.

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