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Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

After ‘How much do you earn?’ the question most asked of writers is, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ Anne Tyler has written 21 novels, so she’s bound to know, isn’t she?

‘I wish I could claim I had ever had an inspiration for a novel!’ Oh. Right. ‘I spend about a year between novels. My decision to start a new one is just that, a decision, since I never get inspirations. I’ll say, “It’s time I stopped lolling about. I’d better think something up.”’

She digs out her box of index cards – filed loose: wouldn’t Hilary Mantel approve? – on which she has noted fifty years’ worth of potential ideas, passing over dozens each three-year period of the previous novel until she happens them on them again at a time she is ready to consider them.

‘Then for a month or so’ – it’s always a month – ‘I’ll jot down desperate possibilities … Eventually, one of those possibilities will start flowering in my mind, and I’ll manufacture what’s initially a very trumped-up, artificial plot. I’ll write maybe one long paragraph describing the events, then a page or two breaking the events into chapters, and then reams of pages delving into my characters. After that, I’m ready to begin.’

So it’s not inspiration that really counts, it’s plotting. I remember hearing P. D. James describe her writing process. The greater part of ‘writing’ for her was the plotting. She would plan her novel to the last detail for at least a year before setting about the ‘laborious task of writing’.


I think if I knew what was going to happen at the end of a story I wouldn’t feel the need to write it down. Or maybe I would. Especially if it were a crime novel. (Another reason why I failed?) And maybe it’s the case that the genre dictates how a novel is put together. I wonder if the plotting and planning process varies for someone like Joanne Harris, whom we met recently. Does she set about a book in the same way each time whether it’s a Norse epic or a psychological thriller?

A lot of writers do chapter breakdowns. Do you? When she came to write her first book, Jan Mark wanted to know what the required 40,000 words looked like, so she measured her chapters against a book she knew and admired. But that only happened once. And maybe you just can’t help how your book will turn out on the page. For years, Anne Tyler’s books always ended up having ten chapters, which she couldn’t really explain when quizzed about it. The same is true of Anne Fine, none of whose books has been ten chapters long since I pointed out this particular convention to her.

You can drive yourself crazy worrying about how to get the words down. Or you can basically wing it.

Above her desk is a quote from a poem called ‘Walking to Sleep’ by Richard Wilbur which Anne Tyler believes is about writing:

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,

Or a general raises his hand and is given the field-glasses,

Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.

Something will come to you.


Is that how you feel about your own process?

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