Please, Turn Off the Idea Faucet! by Alan Orloff

Please, Turn Off the Idea Faucet!

by Alan Orloff

I get the question all the time: where do you get your ideas?

You may not know, but there’s a service that works like Netflix did before streaming. You subscribe, and they send you three ideas a month. When you’re done with them, you exchange the old ideas for some new ones. 

No, not really.

Actually, there’s no one place I get my ideas. I get them from observing people and situations when I’m out and about. Standing in line at the post office. At the bank. In the grocery story. I get them in the shower. I get them while I’m exercising. I get them when I’m reading someone else’s book. I get them from watching the news or listening to the radio in the car or reading a newspaper. (For those of you who don’t know, that’s something that comes every day and it’s made of paper and there are stories printed on it! Mostly true stories!)

I’m bombarded by ideas from every angle. I’m always thinking, What If This, or What If That, or Wouldn’t it be cool if this crazy, insane, unbelievable thing happened? So be alert, writers—you never know where that brainstorm will be coming from!

Once, this happened: several years ago, I was at the wonderful Sleuthfest conference in Florida. I woke up at 4:00 am on Sunday morning with an idea, almost FULLY FORMED, in my head. With a few tweaks to the basic (cool, high-concept) premise, I turned it into PRAY FOR THE INNOCENT, which won the ITW Thriller Award for Best E-Book Original. Of course, now I’m just a little bit disappointed when I wake up every morning without a great idea!

Most writers I know have too many ideas. We have so many ideas, we just know we’ll never have enough time to write them. With so many ideas, the challenge becomes one of whittling down the pile of possibilities. How do I go about that? First off, I let the nature of creativity do its job. Many of the ideas I get are just momentary flashes of inspiration. Lightning strikes. With time, they peter away. Dissipate. Melt into the ether. Some vanish completely without a trace, as if they were never there at all. Those ideas, for whatever reason, aren’t keepers.

But I find that certain ideas stay with me. I return to them, over a course of days, weeks, months, years. These persistent ideas—the ones that have sunk their teeth into my brain and won’t let go—those are the ones I take a closer look at.

To evaluate my idea to see if it’s viable, I run through a checklist:

Will my idea make a compelling story?

Do I “like” the protagonist and his or her quest?

Will I mind doing the necessary research?

I don’t know about you, but it takes me at least three weeks to write a book. Will I get bored spending so much time with this concept and characters?

Do I think I have the skill to write this type of book, to my standards of quality?

And, because I’ve chosen to look at writing as a business, there’s always that tug of war between complete artistic freedom, and my goal of being published. So my ideas have to clear a couple of additional hurdles:

Will people want to read it (topic, hook, etc)? Does it have a big enough market appeal?

Has it been done before? (That’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but it does factor into the mix.)

If I get enough positive answers, then I move forward, full steam ahead, and try not to get derailed by any more GREAT IDEAS!

At least until I’m ready for another one.


Alan Orloff’s work has won the ITW Thriller Award and Derringer Award and been a finalist for the Agatha Award. His ninth novel, I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP will be released in February from Down & Out Books.