As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, the original idea for Thieftaker and its sequels came originally from a footnote in a history book that described the life of one particular thieftaker, London’s notorious Jonathan Wild. A footnote. In a book I was reading for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with writing.
Ideas are funny things. They come from everywhere. They come unbidden, and will absolutely refuse to come if I TRY to force them. They can come in any form: characters, plot points, magic systems, worlds that present themselves to me, etc. They all begin with “What if?”, but from there they take on lives of their own, becoming as individual as children. Often they come at the worst possible times; they are particularly likely to show up when I’m in the middle of working on something else, most likely the last book of a series that I really HAVE to write and REALLY don’t want to write.
And so I usually have to jot down the idea and leave it for another time. That’s much easier said than done. Because a good idea — a bright shiny new one that makes my heart pound and my mind race with possibilities — will beckon to me from a closed file, or a hand written journal, or a scrap of paper tucked into a drawer somewhere. It will keep me up nights. It will absolutely distract me during a work day.
It’s a cliché to say that ideas are the most powerful forces for change in the world. But like so many cliches, this one is rooted in truth. Ideas — bad or good — can change the course of history, to say nothing of the course of a career. But that’s where I’ll keep my focus. The idea that grew out of that little footnote on thieftakers I read seven years ago has dominated my life ever since. It has become the focus of nearly all my professional work. It has consumed my life — my energy, my time, my hopes and ambitions — ever since it first presented itself to me. Yet, there is another idea in my life, one that is embodied in a second novel/series about which none of you (except Faith and Edmund) know anything. I think that idea might ultimately lead to even bigger moments in my career than Thieftaker will. We’ll see.
That’s the other thing about ideas: They offer no guarantees. They seduce us with whispers of possibility; they dance alluringly across our minds, tempting us, turning “What if?” into something double-edged, so that it’s no longer a creative question, but rather a commercial one. “What if this is the book that makes me a star . . . ?”
So what are we to do with these creative sirens? How do we make the most of them? How do we keep them from fizzling out? How do we know if they will lead us to something great or to disappointment? How do we keep ourselves from being paralyzed by the sheer scope of all these possible glories and pitfalls?
I find that I can tell within a day or two whether an idea is the real thing or just a distraction from the other work I ought to be doing. If a new idea spawns additional ideas and questions, if I find myself making connections with that original notion, if the idea leads to the discovery of additional characters, plot points, narrative threads and the like, then I know that I’m on to something that could lead to a book or series. “An idea,” Robert Frost once said, “is a feat of association.” I believe that what he meant is that ideas usually involve bringing together two or more disparate elements into something new and different. (Like connecting pirates with magic, or a lonely young British ex-pat with a mysterious mirror, or vampire hunting with a Cherokee skinwalker, or even thieftakers with conjuring and Colonial politics.) But I would take Frost’s quote a step farther and say that promising ideas lead to new associations and connections. If after a few days a new idea has basically remained static, that usually tells me that the idea is probably not as good as I thought initially. Also, not surprisingly, I tend to lose interest in those static ideas, and so I usually don’t pursue them as enthusiastically.
What do I do with my ideas? How do I develop them? As I mentioned before, I ALWAYS jot them down. Good or bad, dynamic or static, I write them down somewhere, usually in a word (lower case — I don’t use MS Word, thank you very much . . .) document. If they spawn new ideas, I add to that document, dating each entry so as to keep track of the idea’s development. I do a lot of brainstorming. Those documents are often shot through with questions: “How does the magic work?” “Why would Ethan become a thieftaker in the first place?” “What connections exist between the murder and the political events?” Sometimes I need days or even weeks to work out the answers; other times the answers come to me immediately. Sometimes they demand research; sometimes they merely demand long walks lost in thought.
In all cases, though, knowing what questions to ask is every bit as important as whatever answers I find. The process itself enhances the idea. Even the most dynamic idea — that ones that lead to a hundred different associations of character, worldbuilding, and plotting — need help eventually. It’s not that a neglected idea will at some point cease to be “good,” but rather that it might grow stale and too old to feel exciting. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, even the shiniest ideas can have expiration dates. I keep my ideas fresh and alive with the question and answer process I’ve outlined above.
There is, of course, far more to say about turning ideas into books, and I will follow up on this post in coming weeks. But why don’t we pause here for questions and comments? What do you do with your ideas? What problems do you find yourself facing when confronted with an exciting, new idea?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net