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This Writing Life: Ideas are the Easy Part

16 January, 2013

If you frequent writing blogs as often as I do, you’ll soon come across pro authors bemoaning a fairly common phenomenon: namely, fans (or, in some cases, complete strangers) approaching them with a great new idea. “I’ll let you know my idea in exchange for a share of the profits!” said enthusiastic fan will exclaim. “We’ll make millions! All you have to do is write it!”

Now, if you’re a writer, you might be starting to notice the flaw in this grand scheme (and not just the suggestion that you can make millions from writing). To begin with, writing a novel is hard. Writing a good novel is even harder, no matter how great the idea it’s based on. I can’t count the number of times my ‘great ideas’ have turned into mediocre stories as soon as I started setting them to paper.

Ideas, on the other hand, are easy. This week alone, I’ve had at least one short story idea every single day. Most of those will probably never get written, but the ideas are there, with a greater or lesser degree of promise, and that’s before I get to novels, or serial fiction (I’ve got plenty of ideas for those, too, more than I could ever possibly hope to write).

There is, I’ve realised, something rather bittersweet about a ‘really good idea’. Even as you develop it, and enthuse over it, and daydream about it, you can’t but help remember what I pointed out earlier – that writing is hard, and that what you initially envisage might not be what you end up writing. Coming up with ideas is fun and exciting, but it also takes very little effort, and the more you use your imagination, the easier having ideas becomes. (Or perhaps it’s that you simply start to see the ideas in the world all around you, and to recognise more swiftly the ones that might have legs.) It’s easy, beguilingly so, to get lost in ideas and feel like you’re creating something magical, but in the end, you’ll have very little to show for it.

This, then, is my final point: don’t be that ‘writer’ who nurses a single brilliant idea, or even a whole notebook of them, endlessly refining and imagining and reinventing. Ideas are, of course, vital to a writer – but a person with only ideas isn’t a writer until they’ve, well, written. No matter how hard or scary solidifying those ideas into a story is, you have to do it, and you have to put in the hard graft of actually writing. In the end, seeing those ideas unfold into something more marvellous than you’d ever imagined is the very best reward of all.

  1. 16 January, 2013 6:54 pm

    When I have ideas about a story I try to write them down in bullet points and often enough forget about them. but I also often find them again and they remember me of my original story; so i start to write in a notepad and maybe later on a keyboard where – usually – the story changes or develops further. And somehow that’s an additional fun part, even tho they’re often enough simply ridiculous 😉

    • 17 January, 2013 10:41 am

      Hi Hanni! Yes, I find bullet points work really well for getting ideas down quickly. I remember a quote from Stephen Donaldson who says he tries to forget all the ideas he comes up with – it’s the ones he remembers later that are the ones really worth writing. Sometimes writing an idea down, forgetting about it and then finding it again later really helps you decide whether your ideas were good or not.

  2. 26 January, 2013 12:46 pm

    Of course, if you become a big enough star in the publishing sky, you can have an idea and hand the grunt work off to an employee or partner or whatever. But first, become a multiple book bestseller. Yeah, right. Anyway, this was a fun post to read.

    • 26 January, 2013 10:07 pm

      Indeed, there seem to be an increasing number of writers who produce such a vast number of books per year that you suspect they’re doing very little of the writing at all. James Patterson springs to mind – his books have included a second name (always in smaller type, of course!) on the cover for some time now, so I’m not sure how much of the ‘grunt work’ as you put it he’s actually doing!

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