Where do you get your ideas?

by Toni McGee Causey

It’s misleading, really, when we see a final product, especially a book or a film that works because we think, “Of course–that’s the way it had to be.” 

 Ribbon Car (final image)

But truly, it didn’t. There were a million ways for the idea to go wrong, or to get mixed up with another idea (or a dozen other ideas) and become a delinquent, flaw-riddled ne’er do well of a thought, ruining all the hopes and plans of its parent. This happens more frequently than we writers like to admit; we want to keep the magic in front of the reader, not the seams and the dirty sleight-of-hand that cracks the illusion.

Ideas, you see, really aren’t that big of a deal. They’re constantly piled in heaps around us. Everyone comes across story ideas all day long, every single day. That woman who once walked by with a leaf on her nose? There’s a character. Who does that? Why? What other wonky things would she do? (I saw that woman fifteen-ish years ago, and still have not forgotten her. One day, she’s going to walk into a story and belong there, and then I’ll know why she kept perching on the idea pile.) Ideas clutter our brains like so much junk, jangling around, getting bumped and smothered with other ideas, then jostled again and again until two things become neighbors and we start seeing them differently.

I’d been staring out a window at a flag whipping in the wind for several days, when I had the opportunity to go onto the scrap yard where we’re doing some concrete work. This particular scrap yard goes on for acres and acres, with all sorts of industrial items that have been scrapped and are awaiting the shear or to be loaded into a barge, bound for some foundry somewhere. This particular pile is where the crushed cars are stacked, and when I looked through the lens, I only had the sense that there was a possibility of beauty amongst items that are past their prime, dying or decaying. It’s an odd thought, but I took a few wide-angle shots, just to sort of “see” the items, to start filtering out the surroundings and try to focus. 

That’s when I noticed the red in the image, and I walked around the pile until I saw the red car.  Ribbon Car (original image)I loved the way the metal seemed to bend and flow, like a ribbon (flag) in the wind, and I zeroed in on it and grabbed a shot. I was losing the light and we had to go, so it’s a crappy shot with bad exposure, but I knew I could edit it.

And see, that’s really the trick when it comes to art of any kind. It’s not just the idea–it’s the vision. What makes a piece unique and memorable is the artist’s specific vision: what they want to communicate, what story they want to tell. That story doesn’t generally happen in the first draft or without some sort of editing. That editing might occur internally–especially after the artist has some years of experience and knows what they want to look for, how they want to capture it. With practice, they may be able to execute that vision on the first try. Most creations, though, take editing–layers of thoughts, sifting–yes to this, no to that–tweaking here, highlighting there, focusing the emphasis where the artist wants your eye. 

Most people will never see the thousand decisions that go into a story, if it works well. It’ll flow, make sense, be captivating, surprising-and-yet-somehow-fated. As artists, we need to also remember that it’s not terribly likely that we’re going to turn out something that is perfect on the first try. It may take layers and layers of editing before we get the story or the image into the shape we want, to tell the story that we want.

I’m in that place now with the new book. The first draft was done about a month or so ago, and I love three-fourths of it. I do not love one aspect of the ending (and I knew this all along), but I hadn’t quite seen through the debris of ideas to find the single way it had to be told. It took time away from it and then stepping around the pile, zooming in and seeing a specific section of the bigger image before I suddenly knew what I had captured, and therefore, what to enhance. Sure, I wish I had been able to turn out a pristine perfect draft out-the-gate and never have to edit, but that’s not the way I process ideas, so it’s never going to happen that way. I’ve made my peace with it, mostly because I love the editing process. (I love painting and photography for the same reason.) 

Ironically, what started off as a quickie photo shoot turned into something startling to me, which then informed some of the writing I’m working on in a way I had not ever anticipated, so that was a bonus. Plus, now I am (on the side, as a hobby) working on a series of “ribbon” images like the red car above. I think it’ll help me see with a fresh perspective.

So what are your hobbies, fellow ‘Rati? What do you like to do just for the joy of doing it–because you love the process, not because you’re necessarily any good at it. What is it that you love about it? And if you don’t have a hobby, but have been thinking about one, which one, and why?

[By the way, I’m having a contest right now for a free Kindle or Nook, plus some gift certificates. See my site for the news / newsletter / rules. Today is the last day to enter. I’ll be running more of these contests this summer, so sign up for the newsletter if you want to hear about them sooner.]


26 thoughts on “Where do you get your ideas?

  1. billie

    I have always loved the process of writing – the excitement of the first draft, the edits, etc. Same with photography. I love taking the photographs. I *used* to love the processing when I had my own darkroom – the trays, the chemicals, watching the images come up on the paper. Tweaking things like water temperature, chemical temperature, film storage temperature. These days I just shoot and post, b/c I don't get the same thrill in photoshop!

    There are three things/hobbies I want to do that probably have to do with my love of process more than anything else – I want to knit a poncho by our woodstove in the winter. Now, I love ponchos, and have an idea of the colors I'd want to use, but the charm of that idea is the actual sitting by the woodstove knitting it. I think on some level it represents having the time and leisure to sit and do something like that. (have to learn to knit first too!)

    I also want to reclaim my ability to read and play the piano, just enough to learn George Winston's arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon. We have the keyboard, it's set up in the living room, and I now have the music for that piece sitting on the stand. I just have to make some time to sit and work on it. Fueled by the thought of getting to the point where I can play it with spirit and abandon, the way he seems to…

    And, I want to learn pottery enough to make a complete set of dishware. I've only done a little bit of pottery in my life and I loved the process. The idea of making all the pieces and then being able to use them for many, many meals over the years is what calls to me.

    Love you finding that red ribbon of color in the huge pile. As an aside, I often think when editing the first draft that I'm finding the silver threads and pulling them all the way through the ms. That image is part of what makes me love the editing process.

  2. Tracey Devlyn

    Hi Toni!

    Such a beautiful picture! I'm always amazed by folks who have an eye for taking pictures. My hobby is playing the piano. I started taking lessons only a few years ago, with many starts and stops along the way. I'll never be any good at it, but I love hearing a favorite tune coming from the keyboard that I'M touching.

    BTW, it was great having you on RU. Can't wait to spend time with you again in May!

    Take care, Tracey

  3. toni mcgee causey

    billie, I love that poncho idea–I can see you doing that. I once (pre-teen years) crocheted a poncho (bright orange and brown–no clue what I was thinking, but that I loved the vibrance of the yarn… it went with exactly nothing that I owned). I thoroughly enjoyed the process waaaaay more than the final product. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    My husband does pottery (when he has time), though he leans toward Raku (gorgeous stuff). I tried pottery for about five minutes and realized it was sooooo not my calling. I have the very sad misshapen bowl to remind me.

  4. toni mcgee causey

    Thank you, Tracey! I really loved being at RU – looking forward to May!

    I keep thinking I'll get back to the piano again, too, but I never seem to sit down long enough to refresh my memory. I was a mediocre player, at best — I learned to memorize more than sight-read and now I just cannot seem to teach myself to sight-read to save my life. (Have you ever listened to Peter Kater? His songs Thanksgiving and Spirit – well, that whole album–are awesome. I so wish I could play like that.)

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Wonderful pix but I especially love your description of crafting a novel ln layers – it's the only way I know to work, and a needed reminder for me right now – in that deadly 3/4ths of the way through a first draft hell.

    Everyone here knows my big hobby is dance (and this week I have the bruises to prove it). But people might be surprised to hear that I think of the teaching I do as as a hobby – it really is that kind of alternate pleasure that uses other skills that I enjoy applying, and clears my mind (and body!) for the writing.

  6. PK the Bookeemonster

    I guess you could say my newsletter, Premeditated, is my hobby though I'm trying to make it into a business. I work on weekends to get a new issue out each month of the new releases in crime fiction. Got word this week that it won't be at LCC in the gift bags now. So it will remain a hobby for a while longer.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, Alex.

    I hear you, on the layer thing. I have to remind myself as well–seems like every book. Every time I get past the euphoria of typing "the end" for the first time and actually read that sucker through again, I see the flaws, the things I've missed, and know that it'll take more layering to accomplish the goal.

    It's not that dissimilar to oil painting, where you block out an undercoat and layer in the darks and then build up to the lights.

    I love that teaching is a hobby for you — I know so many people have benefited (including me), and we're very grateful for that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. toni mcgee causey

    PK, that is a bummer, truly, but it'll be but a minor setback on your path. You've worked so hard and you're pursuing terrific creative avenues–I hope you stick with it!

  9. JD Rhoades

    Love playing the guitar and singing. I've mentioned before that music tickles that creative part of my brain, and it just feels so good when a song comes together, when I know the chords and riffs and words so well that it's just effortless.

  10. Eika

    That is an amazing picture, in my know-nothing opinion, even without editing. Well done.

    Something I do that I'm no good at? Make braided rugs. It's really just working with cloth, and sewing, altogether; I know enough to do a basic hem, and in a class once I made a stuffed animal from a pattern, but I really can't tell you why things work. But online, I found instructions on how to make a braided rug… but it doesn't cover how to fix the mistakes.

    My rug has been wrinkled, gone from circular to ocean-wave-type edges, gotten holes, been too tight, been too loose… it's about big enough for a seat cushion, now, though I couldn't figure out how to fix one mistake and cut out about four inches on an angle and sewed it back together clumsily to fix that. I know I'm terrible, but it's something soothing for my hands to do. Why not?

  11. Barbie

    I love writing and the process of it. Not sure I'm any good at it, but it doesn't really matter. I mostly write for myself, you know, so I always have "friends" and someone there for me when I need them. And I really, really love how story ideas are *everywhere*. Like, once, I was having an argument with my brother and he insulted me — not called me a name, it was an expression he used to diminish me — and *bam* I just smiled and said, "You know, that is a GREAT motivation for a serial killer. That's going into a book." And, surely, someday, I'll be writing a book with that idea (and dedicating it to him!).

    I wish I had more focus for more hobbies, though. I'm not particularly talented at anything, and, really, don't don't usually enjoy doing things I'm not particularly good at (yeah, I'm that sort of person! :/) so, I don't have many hobbies. I need to work on that ๐Ÿ™‚

    I missed your blogs, Toni <3

  12. Cornelia Read

    That ribbon car image is stunning–thank you! And my lady with a leaf on her nose is a young guy who had a cowlick in the back of his mohawk. Someday, he'll be in a story. Wonderful post!

  13. Catherine

    I had to really think about this for a bit as my main past time is reading. I love seeking out new books, online, in store, second hand book stores, libraries, with friends, by myself, swapping with my daughters…chatting with friends over coffee. I love seeing how different businesses promote reading and books as product. I am a book fiend…so I don't think it's a hobby.

    Cooking is though. I think it became a hobby out of necessity. If I don't seek out new recipes I'd probably just end up eating avocado toast and an apple. I do like easy entertaining. Where I can call someone up and say look I've got a huge pot of Cuban black bean soup simmering come on over.

    In terms of process i like finding good produce (raiding my Dad's organic vegetable garden is a good source as is farmer markets) I like the research of finding new recipes, through reading or conversation. I like the smell of fresh herbs and food hitting the pan.I like presenting food attractively. I even get a kick out of finding serving ware from junk shops and antique stores to present the food. I've acquired over the years some nice table cloths this way too. Etsy is my vintage tablecloth enabler. I've holidayed touring vineyards and love serving friends and family my food with wine I've discovered. As a former florist I like being able to forage in my garden and throw a few flowers/twigs together to pretty things up. Heck this hobby threads through a lot of what pleases me… I have a bit of a candle addiction too. These usually get lit around the house when I'm entertaining because I believe just about anything or anyone looks a bit better by candle light. I like turning what could be just fuel into a good time.

  14. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Great post – and I remember you and Carl taking us round that particular scrapyard. I could have spent weeks there with a camera. I have a particular shot of a pile of crushed cars with one red one in the centre, that's about my favourite. Can you email me the finished ribbon shot, though? I've been trying to look at it all day on the blog and for some reason it won't load.

    Hobbies? Well, I've turned a lot of my hobbies into a way of life – construction, photography, cars, bikes, sailing. I just did a set of four canvasses for our bedroom wall that I'm ridiculously pleased with, and I'd love to get into HDR photography. Stunning stuff.

    Glad the book's coming together – can't wait to read it ;-]

  15. toni mcgee causey

    ARGH. I shrank that size by over half, and it's still not loading for some people. Sorry about that folks. It's too late for most, but I'll try shrinking it again to get it to a small enough file size to load properly.

    Catherine, I love how you describe cooking. You make me wish I had a villa somewhere with gardens just out the back door and a horde of people to cook for, just for the love of it. (I neither like to cook, nor gardens, nor hordes of people; you have a voodoo doll over there, don't you?)


    Cornelia, LOL on that cowlick! (And thank you, glad you enjoyed the photo.)

  16. toni mcgee causey

    Yep, Barbie, you're cursed with the writer gene, where, even in the middle of a freaking argument, you suddenly see how that'll go in a book. I'm afraid this is a permanent thing. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    LOL on not having hobbies because you're not good enough at them. That's sort of the point of hobbies–you don't have to be good. And by pursuing them, you usually improve.

    Kim, ๐Ÿ™‚ — I hope that was a good reason.

    Eika, thank you. And I love how you pursue the braided rug hobby, even if you're not quite (yet) happy with the results. It's terrific that it's a soothing thing for your hands. I think the world would be a far more peaceful place if people followed that same philosophy and braided rugs instead of bashed at each other.

  17. toni mcgee causey

    Dusty, I have never heard you play–we're going to have to rectify that one day. ๐Ÿ˜‰ You make the entire hobby sound beautiful and peaceful. And it also made me realize I never felt peace playing the piano–I just felt annoyance that I wasn't better, faster, wasn't something "more" all of the time. (I don't feel that way with photography or painting–I can be really bad, and it's still fun.) This revelation just relieved me of a lot of guilt for not doing more with the old piano I've had since third grade. I might just find it a new home, where it would be loved. You rock.

  18. Rob Gregory Browne

    Music is my hobby. At one point in my life it was going to be my professionโ€”I even got a chance to score a reality show pilotโ€”but at some point writing novels took over my life. Making music takes me to another place. A private place. And always soothes me.

    And folks, I've had the pleasure of reading several chapters of Toni's new book. It's mind-blowingly good.

  19. kit

    Hi Toni,
    whenever I read a book..it's like I have a miniture movie camera in my head..moving right along with the action…so to understand something of the process on how you achieve it is an education for me..and it's something I take with me.
    My hobby is community theater..it was also something I went into during my school years. I can honestly say..I have never wanted to be an actor or in the spotlight like that. Nope..my side is technical..how do we acheive the effect or bring the ideas alive for an audience….and make it look effortless..keep the *magic*..so when someone is watching..they BELIEVE..
    .I also want to *touch* most of the audience, so as they are sitting in their seats…the everyday things go out of their heads and they get caught up with what is happening..I want to do my best to transport them..right in their seats to the middle of the action.

    I work with children's and usually student productions..so everything I do is like the support system of what holds up a production..from costuming, lights and sound, doing what I would like to see done with the money and budget that is available…it's imagaination, knowledge and having an idea of what can be achieved..it also teaches the kids so much, that they can take with them as they grow up.
    One costume I remember working on was for a high school production….it was for the main charactor's opening number…most everything was right..except the director was not impressed with the girl's costume..now, you could possibly think it wasn't important and she had the rest of it down pretty much..the right notes in her song…the movements..but that's where the visual came in..too much, and it woudl look silly..not enough and it would fall so flat..had 3:15 minutes to make an impact..we hit just the right note.
    Now, some people will come, because well, they are our children and families support their children's efforts..
    Also, not that there is any pressure, but the continuing success of future endevours sometimes depends on how the last production does, and how it is recieved. Every production is like a new opportunity.
    Theater is sometimes like smoke and mirrors, a grand illusion..supported by some very real things…and when you mentioned the red ribbon(flag) thatis what I first thought of.
    take care, kit

  20. kit

    one further thought….in order to keep within budget…being that we are a small theater…we have used home furnishings for material….my hubby, said he fully expects to come home and see an outline of a skirt or jacket cut out of our furniture if I thought it was the correct drape or substance for a costume…..or sleeves cut out of our drapes for a period play..(the sheers). actually, go to thrifty stores and use those.

  21. Catherine

    Ha, no voodoo doll but people who like to cook need people like you who hopefully are happy to sit around and eat. It's sort of like the reader/writer contract. We need each other.

    In things that have stood out recently…While I was pulled up at the lights in the suburbs, a family rode past… where the first two little boys were riding bikes…and then Dad and the two youngest followed on uni-cycles.

    I looked to my daughter sitting beside me and went,' Now that's something you don't see every day.'

    'Do you think the first two are rebelling as the two wheelers, or are they seething that they're not part of the uni-cycle pack…' This little sighting was way too out there not to make me mull over the possibilities.

    I love Cornelia's imagery too.

  22. toni mcgee causey

    kit, I love your passion for what you're doing, and you're changing lives, every day. That is flat out awesome.

    I always wanted to act in a play growing up–to the point where I used to put on little plays on our carport, complete with costumes and singing and dancing. (Thank God there is no film. That is blackmail material right there.) All through junior high, I couldn't wait to get to tenth grade, because the tenth graders were the first grade allowed to be in the plays. Then, finally, the year came, but Mrs. Dixon left and some blonde-headed woman showed up, and she didn't believe in plays or the magic and we did speech projects instead. I would have loved loved loved a place / opportunity like what you're providing.

    Catherine, you cook, I'll be more than happy to sit and eat and talk. That would be a blast. I'm cracking up over the "rebelling" notion of the two-wheelers. What a great observation. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  23. kathryn magendie

    This is such a spot on wonderful danged tootin' on the mark post that I've bookmarked it to link to on my wedneslink days, if that's okay, and of course have to give credit to writer unboxed Vaughn Roycroft for sending me this way.

    Just really a great post. Dang, wish I'd written it ๐Ÿ˜€

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