How asking the right question led me to a job that’s lasted ten years …. and counting.
There’s so much good advice out there for writers it’s difficult to know which, if any, to follow. We’re told to:
- show don’t tell
- Write every day
- Write about what you know.
- Kill your darlings.
- Don’t work for nothing
All good advice. But sometimes working for nothing can pay off in unforeseen ways. I’ve just written my 125th column, The Writers’ Idea Store, for the UK writers’ monthly magazine, Writers’ Forum. You do the maths – that’s over ten years! (I have to pinch myself sometimes). In that time I’ve written approximately 103,750 words – and I still haven’t run out of things to write about.
So where did I get the idea for The Idea Store from?
For many years I was a regular attendee at the wonderful Writers’ Holiday at Caerleon, a place where I made so many good friends and happy memories. (Writers’ Holiday is still going although it is now held at Fishguard.)
Apart from all the great courses and workshops (not to mention the amazing food) they also held what they called After Tea Sessions, where people volunteered to give a talk (unpaid, of course) on a subject of their choice.
I was just beginning to sell my short stories at that time (thanks to a brilliant short story course I’d attended the previous year given by the lovely Lynne Hackles) so I thought I’d have a go at an After Tea talk. It was the first time I’d ever done any public speaking and thankfully quite a few people turned up, so I wasn’t talking to an empty room. The subject of my talk was: Where do short story writers get their ideas from?
To prepare for it I contacted every short story writer I knew (and some I didn’t know) and asked them that same question. I got such a good response that I ended up with enough material to give a whole week of talks!
When I got home, my copy of Writers’ Forum was waiting for me. As I read it, I realised I could use all the material from my Caerleon talk and make it into an article. Which I duly did.
Only, as I wrote, I realised I had enough material for more than one article. So I wrote the first article and with the covering letter suggested I could maybe do a series on the subject.
The editor, Carl Styants, thought my Idea Store sounded a good idea and that he’d see how it went. And ten years later, it’s still going. Only now, I don’t just ask short story writers the dreaded question, but novelists, feature writers, poets. Published or unpublished. Everyone has a story to tell. And most are happy to share it.
My little 40 minute unpaid talk paid off with a job that’s lasted over ten years – and still counting. And whilst it hasn’t earned me a fortune, it’s a steady income and I’ve met some lovely people along the way.
Where did I get the idea for the title from?
I’ve now written over 400 short stories, serials and articles and having to think up titles for them all has been challenging at times. Sometimes I come up with one I’m really happy with, only to find the editor’s changed it. I still smart at the memory of the short story with the title Here Comes Batman! that was changed to Oi! Boy Wonder! Other titles appear as if by magic. My first published story was entitled Angels on Oil Drums, still one of my favourite titles.
But I have best selling author Neil Gaiman to thank for my Idea Store title. Because when asked the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas from?” question, one of his replies was “From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis.”
And that was it. Wouldn’t it be great, I asked myself, if there really was an Idea Store – the writers’ one stop shop? And if you think that sounds vaguely like a certain well known furniture store, that is purely coincidental.
The format of the column has changed slightly over the years and I now include a Fiction Square which is very popular. (More about that in a future blog post). But mostly, it’s about me asking every writer I meet that most irritating of questions:
Where do you get your ideas from?
And if you ever feel like answering it, regarding your own work and would like to be featured in a future Idea Store, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. Either leave a comment below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org