Understanding the Nature of Ideas
One of the most common questions writers get asked, at least based on my experience and that of the other authors I know, is where do we get our ideas. Or sometimes we’ll get someone who has an idea of their own wanting to give, or even sell, it to us for it to be developed into a story. We never take them up on that, just as we never really give satisfactory answers to the question of where our ideas come from. Part of that is because it’s an impossible question to honestly answer, I can’t trace the exact origin of my thoughts any more than you can, people dedicate entire lives and philosophies trying to unravel where those sparks of cognition come from. But the other reason we tend to skim past that question is because we know the truth. A dirty, filthy little secret I’m going to unveil to you right now.
Ideas are easy.
Now I know a lot of people’s hands slapped at the keyboard in fury at that last bit, and are already racing down to the comments to call me an asshole, but for those of you still reading take a deep breath and here me out. An idea, at its most basic level, is just a seed. A kernel of a thought. A one-line synopsis that could be taken in untold directions. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a very popular idea.
Idea: Book following the life of a spell-casting child in a magical academy.
So, Harry Potter, right? Or wait, The Magicians technically falls into that scope too. And there was The Black Magician series, and that Discworld book following a student at Unseen University, not to mention Wizard’s Hall, A School for Sorcery, I think you all get the idea. That’s without even counting ones that are derivative of the idea, aka magic school but we don’t call it magic. You know, like if there were superheroes at a school instead, an element you might see in X-Men, or PS-238, or Super Powereds.
I’m not trying to say all of those works are just rip-offs of each other, all dating back to some proto-book we’re stealing from (Don Quixote). My point is that different authors can take the same idea, the same seed, and develop it into entirely different works of fiction. Because the idea is a starting point, and barely one at that. There is so much more that goes into a work than the initial concept. Developing the world, the tone of it as much as the lore and history that built it. The types of character you want to have, the sort of challenges the MC(s) will face, the length, narrative structure, numbers of arcs per entry, series vs. standalone, what level of violence/swearing/sex to put in, I could go on for long enough to fill out the rest of this blog. Writing a book isn’t a matter of popping out an idea and then letting the rest unspool. Ideas are the first small step you take in writing a book. That’s why we tend to skim past the question when it gets asked: partly because it’s hard to trace the origin of a thought, but mostly because there’s so little about the idea worth discussing. All the things we added onto the idea, all the character designs and plot threads and that stuff are topics we usually won’t shut up about. But the idea… there’s only so much to say.
That’s sort of the point of the blog today: we put too much emphasis on ideas. However, I’m not writing it in hopes that people will stop asking about the ideas, it’s a harmless question that very few people mind answering. No, my real target for this one is all the writers out there struggling because they’ve got it in their head that there will be some huge “Idea” that comes down from the mountain and be unmistakable for anything but solid gold. I get emails from authors fighting with themselves more than anything else, going from project to project, never finishing things up, because they get a new idea and mistake it for being better than what they’re working on. It’s rarely better though; the new ideas are just easier. You haven’t hit walls in the development yet, or found frustration trying to write the plot. A new idea is shiny, and promises that it will be the one to unspool easily from the writer’s mind, a book that practically writes itself. But those are hollow promises. No idea can deliver on that, because it’s the creation of the story that gives them value. An idea on its own is just a thought. A “that’s neat” which can be easily set aside and forgotten about.
I’m not saying that some ideas don’t offer more room for development than others, part of writing is learning to recognize which ideas you can turn into a short story, novel, series, or nothing at all. The key word there is “you”. Some writers can take preposterous notions and spin a series out of them, others would only be able to grow a novella from the same seed. Knowing how to evaluate and nurture those story seeds takes practice to get right, and some will lead to dead-end projects along the way. That’s fine. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s nothing wrong with failing. Taking risks, trying new things, that won’t always work. Failing is part of the job, and you should embrace it sooner rather than later unless you want to make yourself miserable. But you won’t get the practice you need if you never see your ideas all the way through to a final product, jumping ship to something shiny and new doesn’t do you any favors.
Lastly, I want to talk for a minute about originality. It’s a common idiom these days to say “Nothing is original” and leave it at that. Which is fair, to an extent. As the wizard school example showed, a lot of tales do leave from the same starting station. But while yes, any idea you have will doubtlessly have been tried before, that doesn’t mean they’ve done it your way. We’ll use a real life example that comes up fairly often: nerdy vampires. For anyone who follows the A&D authors, you might be aware that John Hartness, Rick Gualtieri, and I all write books about dorky vampires that satirize elements of urban fantasy. People will often ask if we were inspired by one another, or ripped the others off, which is A) impossible, since they were all released so close to each other we couldn’t have had time to read another and write/edit/publish our own and B) sort of misses the point. Despite all those books starting from the same concept, we took them all in wildly different directions. You would never mistake any of our works for one of the others, because all the character development and world-building made them into strikingly different tales. So yes, in a way originality is impossible, even when you think you’re on the cutting edge of something, but when you develop beyond the initial idea there will be so many turns and choices to make that you don’t need to worry about ending up with the same piece of work as anyone else.
I rambled a lot in this one, but the tl;dr of this one is simply that as an author, it’s dangerous to get hung up on the notion that ideas are the biggest part of the creation process. If you go that route, you start waiting for perfection instead of learning the tools you need to take a simple concept and build an entire story around it. Don’t waste time expecting perfection from the first step of a journey, focus on learning to see those stories through, even if they end up below the quality you consider publishable. That’s how you make the mistakes and improve, so that next time you have an idea you’re better equipped to see how it’s best pursued, or if it’s worth chasing at all.