Tuesday Therapy: Letting Ideas Cook

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have Margo Lanagan as a tutor at Clarion South. Rumours of Margo’s famous “words not to use” list were proven true (the list included things like ‘crystalline’ and ‘iridescent’, and now I can’t see either of these words without thinking of Margo) and her passion for writing was (and still is) infectious.

This year, Adelaide Writers Week has been dedicated to Margo, which is not only incredibly exciting but also completely deserved. Reading even a snippet of Sean William’s dedication explains why:

Her body of work is extensive: fifteen novels, fifty short stories, and four highly acclaimed short story collections, White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes and Yellowcake. She is the winner of multiple Aurealis, Ditmar and World Fantasy awards, as well as the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction. Her work has been nominated for the Sturgeon, Stoker, Tiptree, International Horror Guild, Locus, Shirley Jackson, Children’s Book Council, Hugo, Nebula, Commonwealth Writers Prize, alongside the Queensland and New South Wales’ Premier’s Awards. It is a list that aptly describes the diversity of her readership.

On top of all this talent, Margo is an absolutely lovely person and generous with her time and advice. For this week’s Tuesday Therapy, she shares some tips on fostering ideas and letting them grow:

Let your idea cook. I make notes for short stories on sticky notes or in notebooks. Each note is maybe an attractive halfof an idea – for example, “People buying silence in a can, jar, pill, or just downloading some.” Usually I still need a central character and situation. Having chosen a story to begin on, I carry this half-idea around with me, and it becomes my daydreaming material. I escape to it, idly look at it and like it, toss it from hand to hand and push it around whenever I’ve got a spare minute. Then when other business takes over, I move on from it, but at the next daydream opportunity, there it is with all its possibilities coming to life around it.

At some point, when I go back to it, it’s grown an extra, interesting leg – I can sense the character at the core, their age, gender, possible occupation, their mood and maybe a mannerism or two, and I’ll get a sense of what the problem is with regard to their silence-purchases, or their friend’s, or their partner’s. I might make a note about this possibility.
Then in the next little while I’ll poke at that new idea-piece and see if that’s really the one, or if something beyond it or beside it, or completely opposite it, is really the thing that I want to tackle with the story. Sometimes I’ll cast around for a bit, making more notes, asking myself questions; other times I’ll just be so convinced by the idea that actual scenes, bits of dialogue, bits of interior monologue will start forming in my head, and I’ll start putting down the actual story.

The crucial stage of this story-generation is the doing of other things – the day-jobbing, the washing of dishes, the conversations, the not-looking – just as much as the taking-up again and actively working on the story. Hand it over to your subconscious. That way, deeper, wordless, instinctive parts of you get a chance to bond with the idea, and when you reach for it again, it’s gathered a stronger sense of purpose from lying in the muck down there. It means something more to you, and in turn packs a stronger punch for your reader.

Thanks so much, Margo!

Margo Lanagan writes mucky dark fantasy novels and stories. She has a particular fondness for including cranky and unpleasant witches, who are sometimes sexpots, too. Her latest novel, Sea Hearts (published as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the UK), is about selkies; you can view a lovely book trailer for it, including an interview with Margo, over here.


  1. This is so, so true. We can get so caught up in getting the words down, getting the story out the door, because so much of the world is now, now, now that you forget that ideas take time. If someone as brilliant as Margo works like this, it’s a lesson for us all to take on.

  2. I ended up following this advice for my current project by accident.

    A great idea bubbled up in fall 2010 but I was still knee-deep in another WIP. So I would spend a little time here and there developing the idea–first the theme, then the world, then the people–and the idea was cemented over the course of about 7 months, as I finished drafting the WIP. I think that long gestation time was integral in its formation. First and foremost, the whole story feels well connected, because I spent all that extra time lining things up, placing interesting characters in the background to eventually bubble up, coloring in details. But it’s also helped with pacing and characterization.

    Time spent with an idea is something you can’t replace or fake; for me, it’s that time spent driving home from work, as I listen to music and stare at other people in their cars… that’s when I find myself shouting, “Of COURSE that character does that! How did I not see that before!”

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