Reading between the lines…

I had one of those conversations on Friday, the ones every writer dreads. Okay maybe not every writer, I am making a grand assumption here based on a small pool of reference, but hell grand assumptions are what make the world go round, or so it seems much of the time… The conversation in question started with a question, its one of the questions, the questions anyone who writes gets asked from time to time…

Where do you get your idea’s from?

Oh, how I hate that question. And it’s not because its such a cliche of a question, though it is, and like most cliches, it has a certain root of truth to it. But yes, I get asked it from time to time, I suspect everyone who writes does. I also suspect everyone who writes doesn’t really have an answer, I know I don’t. At least, not one that would satisfy those who ask the question. Though many may ask it out of nothing more than vague interest, some I am sure, ask it because they want to know the magic formula. Certainly, this seems to be the case every time it is asked on a writers forum, which in the case of the several I lurk upon, is roughly every couple of days. Without fail the person asking the question goes away unhappy with the answers they receive. Because no one likes the answer that most of us seem to ultimately come up with, and certainly I usually come up with:

We don’t know!

Well, I don’t at any rate. Maybe some writer somewhere does. But if that’s the case, they are keeping it to themselves.

But there is another answer, one which doesn’t satisfy those looking for a magic formula either, but one that is as close to the truth as you’ll likely to get. We get our idea’s from reading… Those who want us to tell them the magic formula never like that answer either. Reading doesn’t sound like the easy option they were looking for. Which in the case of writers forums on Facebook and the like is generally why the question was asked. But in the end, it comes down to reading…

We get our idea’s the way magpies build nests. Plagiarism is not a sin in the First Orthodox Church of the Scribbler, its more or less the first commandment. As the FOCotS Bishop of Maine has been known to say…


Oh, we don’t steal whole plots from other writers. Not that there are that many basic plots about in the universe to start with. We don’t steal characters or ideas, or even a word or a phrase here or there. Well, I don’t at any rate. But reading feeds the imagination in ways no movie, play, tv series, or anything else come to that ever does. It fires the mind and then sits smouldering in the back for a while, sometimes forever…

But there are different ways to read, and a writer I feel need to read differently to everyone else. Though again, this may be just me, I don’t have any real authority on this score. But if I was to give advice to anyone about how to become a writer, other than reading Stephen Kings ‘On Writing’ and quoting it a lot in blog post… Its teach yourself to read as a writer should.

I don’t mean learn to read between the lines, between the lines is easy. Anyone can read between the lines if they just take the time to think about what they are reading. What you need to learn to read is the bits that aren’t between the lines, but behind them.

The question to ask is never ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ But what were you thinking about when you starting writing? What were you trying to say but never said? What were you trying to express three layers down from all those words you wrote?

And you shouldn’t be asking it of a writer, not if you aspire to be a writer yourself, because you have already asked that question, each and every time you start to read anything, and sought out the answer yourself. More importantly, with practice, study and a whole lot of reading, you’ll never need to ask another writer you meet that old cliched question, ‘Where do you get your idea’s from?‘ because if you have read their work you’ll have an answer to it yourself…

Of course, it may not be the same answer they would give or the right answer, but it is a right answer, and that’s what matters. Though again, that may be just me…

Oddly enough this answer has never satisfied anyone who ‘aspires’ to be a writer but is looking for the easy route via questions on writers forums…

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