Saturday, March 28, 2009

Write Stuff: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

To quote one of our regular commenters: ZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

You want to see a writer wince, ask Where Do You Get Your Ideas? at a conference.

Pretty harsh? You want to know the inside truth about writing and writers, yeah? Well, the truth is, that's a silly question. Published writers get their ideas from the same place unpublished writers get them. We get them where YOU get them. Are you honestly going to tell me you have NO IDEA about what to write?

Of course not. Of course you have ideas about what to write. That's why you want to be a writer. You have stories you want to tell.

What people actually mean by this question -- especially aspiring writers -- is how do you know what idea to go with? Why choose one idea over another -- because one thing I've noticed...ideas are plentiful. Good ideas are harder to find. Fresh and commercial ideas are scarce on the ground. Best to keep a notebook of them or a file when they do occur.

So the first thing to consider when an idea comes to you is...are you really passionate about it? Does the idea excite you enough to carry you through 70-80K something words of slog? Because after the initial enthusiasm burns itself out (usually in the first few chapters) it's all hard work. Regardless of how much you love the idea or the characters or any of the rest of it. Writing -- good writing -- is hard work. Don't ever kid yourself otherwise.

Next, is the idea complex enough? Is it better suited to a short story or a novella? If what you've basically got is a gimmick, then start thinking about how you fill that in and turn it into a novel with plots and sub-plots and themes and layered characters.

Not sure? Start outlining the major points of the story. I don't mean Roman numerals and bullet points. I mean start informally jotting down the main things that happen. Is there enough story there? I mean, can you make this story fast-paced and engaging for 320 pages? Does everything hang on something silly like...miscommunication between two people who would have sorted it all out in five minutes in real life?

Not every idea is a good idea.

Next point to consider: has it already been done to death? Now, just because an idea has been done a lot doesn't mean you can't do a good job on it yourself -- technically, there are NO new ideas -- but it does mean you need a fresh approach or something to make it unique. Maybe your writing voice/style or sense of humor or themes or characters are enough to make the story your own, different. Maybe not.

So think about that. If it's an idea that has been done a lot -- amnesia, for example, or the murder of an ex -- maybe your style, your way of telling the story is unique enough. Maybe you've got a particular angle on it no one else seems to have done. Maybe you're going to set it in the Middle East rather than a gloomy manor house in England.

Is it hot and topical? Commercial? I'm not saying only write hot, topical and commercial ideas, but if your idea just happens to be hot, topical, and commercial...that gives you an edge over the competition. And, by the way, the competition is fierce in publishing. Over half of everyone I run into at a writing conference is hoping to write a book or in the early stages of writing a book. I kid you not when I tell you that I am always a little startled to meet someone who describes her/himself as "just a reader."

So how do you know if an idea is hot, commercial, topical? Go check out a copy of Publisher's Weekly. It lists all the books being published -- pay attention to the non-fiction section as well as the new mystery releases. Pay a visit to your local bookstore. What's getting published? What are people buying?

Now let me tell you a truth about ideas. We all hope for that reader who asks Where do you get your ideas? And means Where do you come up with those brilliant ideas of yours? But mostly...that's not what is meant. Mostly what is meant is exactly what we've discussed above -- how do you know whether to invest time or energy in an idea? And part of how you figure that out is trial and error. You start writing and you find out that...oh. There's not enough here for a book. Or you finish but agents and editors are underwhelmed by the same old, same old.

It takes experience to know whether an idea is strong enough to run with, and you get that by practice. Yep, writing is like anything else. You learn by doing it. By trying and failing. Repeatedly. You start writing and submitting and you keep going until you get the hang of it.

Nor can you ask an experienced writer whether your idea is strong enough, because while in theory any idea might be strong enough, whether an idea succeeds or not will depend on what you bring to it -- your own imagination and skill. And there is no way to foresee that. You just have to do it and see for yourself.