A few nights ago, I was giving a presentation in concert with Andy Miller (who corrals Northern Kentucky University’s Creative Writing Program) on “Marketing Short & Long Fiction.” You can tell how much the thought of becoming a ‘published author’ appeals to people since the library where we were giving the presentation had set up for thirty attendees, but ten minutes before we were to start, the seats were already full and more people were coming in. We ended up with an overflow crowd of over fifty -- which would be extremely ego-gratifying if I thought they were actually there for us. They weren’t; they’d come hoping to learn the ‘secrets of the publishing industry’ from writers who were already published and thus ostensibly knew the secret handshake.
Unfortunately, there are no secrets and that’s what we’d tell them. But that’s another subject...
Before the presentation, while they were bringing in more chairs, a very friendly older gentleman came up to Andy and me as we were talking. He handed us each an envelope, telling us to read it at our leisure — then smiled, said he was looking forward to the presentation, and left us. I glanced at Andy, who shrugged. I think we both knew what would be in that envelope. I folded mine and put it in my back pocket. The presentation, by the way, went very well and we both had a great time, even if we didn’t show them the Secret Handshake of Publishing.
When I finally remembered the letter the next day as I was throwing my jeans down the laundry chute, it turned out to be what I’d expected. “You might think it’s a dumb idea, but maybe. I am writing if you would be interested in collaborating to complete a novel I’ve started.“ (Yes, that’s an exact quote.) In ungrammatical and poorly-proofed prose that wasn’t set up in any particular letter format, he went on to outline the basics of his idea for a novel, suggesting that if one of us would just write up the idea into a novel and sell it with our connections, we could share the inevitable wealth.
I don’t mean to be snide. The man was at least polite, didn’t try to monopolize our time, wasn’t pushy or rude or obnoxious, and was obviously passionate about the story he wanted to write. Those are all good attributes, believe me. But... The assumption our gentleman made I find to be a common one, and it’s this:
Coming up with an idea is the hard part of writing. Actually writing a novel is the easy part.
I don’t understand. I think ideas are the easy part. My problem isn’t a lack of ideas; my problem is a lack of time in which to write them all down properly. Ideas are everywhere and so common it’s hard to avoid them: they’re in the news stories you read about or hear (which start you playing ‘what if’ games in your head and constructing dire scenarios); they’re in every person you see walking down the street (maybe the couple over there having an argument, which make me imagine what the argument is about and what precipitated it and what’s going to happen next); they’re in the strange sights you see (like the yard I once passed that had small Easter Island heads dotting the grass); they’re in the stories people have to tell you (listen to your older relatives; they all have wonderful stories you can adapt); they’re in always asking yourself “what if…” or “I wonder what happened next…?” or “Where’s the story in this…?” with things you read; they’re in looking deep into yourself and your own experiences; they’re in finding what you feel passionate about one way or another, and designing a world and a situation and characters that illustrate that theme…
Ideas are thick on the ground and float in the air around us. Yet...
At nearly every con I attend a nascent, hopeful writer will ask this question, thinking that they’re digging at the essence of Being Published: “Where do you get your ideas?” — which again hints at a general assumption that finding story ideas is the Hard Part. I’ll smile politely and tell him/her what I said above, adding that the problem with ideas isn’t finding them, but figuring out which one of the thousands is the one that should be written up next.
I’ve been approached at cons more times than I can count with a variation on “Hey, I’ve got this great idea for a novel, and if you’d only write it, we could both put our names on the book and you could have half of the advance…” I’ll smile (again politely, I hope, though I’m sure there’s some strain visible in my lips) and stop them right there, declining the offer with the comment that I just don’t have the time with writing my own books and all.
What I don’t tell them is that — in my opinion — just having an idea for a novel means almost nothing. The work of writing a novel is in taking that idea and populating it with believable, genuine characters, with doing the requisite worldbuilding to make the setting feel real and solid, with deciding how the character must move through this setting in such a way as to provide proper tension and rising action, in deciding how the all of this works together with the theme of the book, with foreshadowing the ending properly without giving it all away, in enduring the agony of the Sargasso Sea that exists in the middle of every novel when you despair of ever reaching the end, with the year or two years or more that you’re going to live with that #!%#@!novel as your constant companion until you finish the draft, with the revision(s) that will follow the initial draft, with getting responses from first readers and your agent and revising again and finally marketing the book.
That’s the hard part. Ideas?—they’re common and quick and in the long run mean very little. They’re absolutely not worth a name on the cover and half the advance. They might be worth a mention in the Acknowledgments. Maybe, at best, a dedication. For a really tremendous idea.
For that matter, having an ‘idea’ doesn’t give a writer a ‘story.’ There’s an exercise I play with nearly ever creative writing class I teach. I give them an opening of a story, and tell them to give me the rest of the story (in outline form). If there are twenty students in the class, they will hand me twenty entirely different stories. None of them will be the same -- even though they all start out from the same ‘idea.’ I’ll tell them they’re all free to write their own story — I can safely give away the idea because none of them would write the story I would write. Look at any random theme anthology out there: that’s a version of the same exercise. “I’m looking for stories about settlers on Mars who have dogs with enhanced intelligence...” Yet each story in that anthology will be unique.
Where do I get those crazy ideas? The same place you can get them: just open your senses and your mind, let your imagination have free rein, and live.