Last week, I began what I expect will be a series of posts on ideas — where they come from, how we use them, where they lead us. Today, in part II, I would like to discuss something that we don’t always acknowledge, but that every writer will probably understand to some degree. To wit: Ideas can be frightening.
Odd, isn’t it? Ideas are the bread and butter of a writer’s professional life. Without them, we’re lost. But I can tell you from personal experience that every new idea, while exciting, at times even intoxicating, also scares me just a little bit. What if it doesn’t develop the way I want it to? What if it’s not such a great idea after all? What if it is great but I muck it up? Etc. Any of this sound familiar? It’s not that I don’t love to get new ideas, and it’s not that the fear of running out of ideas isn’t the most terrifying thought of all. I’m just saying . . . Ideas can be intimidating. If they are for you, too, read on. I’ll touch on a few of those scary scenarios and discuss how I deal with them.
1. What if my idea isn’t as good as I thought it was? This is a question I sometimes ask myself — with a fair amount of desperation — after I have invested significant time planning, outlining and even beginning to write a book. I’m assuming here that the idea in question has already made it through that preliminary stage where we convince ourselves that it has legs. We’ve jotted it down, we’ve watched it develop from a single “What if?” into a series of related plot points, characters, and envisioned scenes. This seems to be the real deal, something into which we can sink our proverbial creative teeth.
But now we’re ready to start writing, or maybe we’ve already written a hundred pages or a bit more, and suddenly the idea seems to have imploded. It has plot holes big enough to accommodate an eighteen-wheeler, our world makes about as much sense as Kevin Costner’s Water World, and our main character seems to be a Frankenstein’s monster of cliches and tropes, or a barely-masked imitation of someone else’s hero, or both.
Okay, first of all, take a deep breath, or drink something: A glass of wine. A fifth of vodka. A vial of belladonna. The idea is still good. Our plotting is still sound, if not perfect. Our hero is going to turn out just fine. A good idea does not mean that the book is going to write itself. This is going to take work, it’s going to demand rewrites and adjustments and all the other things that writers do to turn concept into finished product.
I find it helpful to go back to my notes on the original idea. (This is why I write down and date everything — I like to trace the evolution of my thinking.) Chances are, if we have pursued the idea this far, it is fundamentally sound. Quite often I find that whatever problems I am encountering have grown not out of the idea itself, but rather out of something I have done relatively late in the process to change or “enhance” the idea. Just as a poor decision made in the middle of writing a novel can derail the narrative, so a poor decision made in the development of an idea can take a project in unforeseen and unfortunate directions. Getting back to basics — in this case retracing the imaginative process to see where the idea turned sour and reminding ourselves of the basic kernel that first excited us — can get us back on track and “save” the project.
2. What if my idea is great, but I screw it up by writing it in a way that basically sucks? Yeah, this is the one that most often paralyzes me. And paralysis really is the right analogy. Fear of mucking up a perfectly good idea can be enough to keep even the best writer from putting a single word on paper (or computer screen). I can’t begin to tell you how many aspiring writers have told me something along the lines of “Yeah, I have a bunch of great ideas, but I can’t seem to get myself to write any of them. I don’t know what’s stopping me.” And I always want to say, “Sure you do; you just don’t want to admit it to yourself or me. You’re afraid. Right now you have a great idea, but you’re afraid that when you start writing it, your great idea will morph into a bad book. I know this because I face that same fear each time I start something new.”
Did I mention that ideas are frightening?
The thing to remember in this case — the thing I try to tell myself every time — is that an idea is not like an instant lottery ticket. Scratching away the surface to see what’s beneath will not invalidate an idea. If we start to take an idea in one direction and then decide after an outline or fifty or one hundred pages of writing that it’s crap, that doesn’t mean that the idea is useless. It just means that we need to rethink our approach. Sure, there are crap ideas. Trust me. I’ve had plenty. But again, chances are that if an idea survives those initial weeks of contemplation that I described in last week’s post, there is at least something good about it. But we have no guarantees that our first attempt to turn the idea into a book is going to work. Sometimes writers follow dead ends. Sometimes fits and starts are as much a part of the process as those smooth writing days we all love so much. Perseverance is often as important as talent. I can’t guarantee you that just because an idea is good, our first draft will do it justice. I can promise you one thing, though: If we allow fear to paralyze us, we’ll never turn the idea into a book. And that would be a tragedy.
3. I have too many ideas to focus on any one. Or . . . I’m afraid I’m going to run out of ideas, and if I don’t make the most of this one I’ll never write anything. I know. These seem to be opposites. But to me they’re really two sides of the same coin. I used to be afraid that I would run out of ideas, and I really did feel that I had to make the very most out of each one, just in case “the well” eventually ran dry. Then I swung the other way and was so aware of every idea I had that I was rushing myself to develop them all at once. I had to write all of them right away. I mean, what would happen if I got hit by a bus tomorrow?
Well, David, then some of your crap ideas wouldn’t get written.
The fact is, as soon as I start worrying about the number of ideas I have rather than about the potential of one particular idea, I am doing myself a disservice. New ideas will come or they won’t. Some will be good, some will be ridiculously bad. All I can do is write the books that beckon to me. Right now, I am working on the Thieftaker idea. I am working on two contemporary urban fantasy ideas. Together, they are more than enough to keep me busy. If I never get another idea, then fine — I’ll work these ideas until they’re played out, and then I’ll find something else to do. If two hundred more ideas come to me this week . . . Well, they’ll just have to wait their turn. I can only do so much at once. I guess what I’m saying is this: Devote yourself wholly to the ideas in front of you right now, the ones that speak to you, that excite you, that are firing your imagination. The next idea will come to you when the time is right, and really that’s all you can ask for.
So what, if anything, scares you about your ideas? Do any of the scenarios I outline here sound familiar? I’m at the beach this week, but I will check in periodically to respond to comments.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net