Ideas are worthless
I read recently an article by the wonderful Zach J. Payne on ideas, how new writers are rather overprotective of them, as if it’s the idea and not the craft that tells the story. It’s a nice read and doesn’t say anything that I would disagree with, so I encourage you to read it and check out some of Zach’s other stuff.
I’ve always been more creative than the average person seems to think they can be. I put it that way because I’ve never understood how impressed people seem to get when I tell them the premise of the latest novel or short story I’m working on. They’ll say things like “your book sounds really cool I’d totally buy it!” or “your story could totally be a TV show on Netflix!”.
Sometimes I just want to scream back, “You could do this too! I got this aMazInG iDeA spacing out in physics lecture or something. It’s not special!”
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the sentiment, and I appreciate the compliments. Still I’ve never seen my ability to generate an idea as a skill worth commenting on. Maybe the premise is what initially sells a product to a consumer, but it’s not what got them excited after the fact, or what got them talking or got them showing it to a friend.
In other words, the first and eighth seasons of Game of Thrones have the exact same premise, yet one is clearly more enjoyable than the other.
I’ve seen a lot of talk online, especially here on Medium, of the value of keeping a thoughts journal.
Write down everything. Everything. Even what you had for lunch today. Even your weird recurring daydream of replacing your boss' coffee with your own hot piss. Even if you took a shit after breakfast like usual or not.
First of all, if I wrote all my errant thoughts down I’d definitely sound at least a little insane. Not all your thoughts are useful, and the thoughts you don’t act on are as much a part of you as the thoughts you do.
But second, and more importantly, how “good” an idea is has no bearing on how worthwhile it is to develop. Mundane, slice-of-life premises have spawned some of the most creative pieces of art out there, and cool, unique ideas have been squandered on writers without the skill to make them work.
So here’s what I do instead.
Ideas, like people, will come and go. Most will pass you by with little fanfare or importance. But sometimes you’ll meet one that will stick around. Stay in your head for a while. One that’ll make you think. Maybe you fall in love. Maybe you fall in hate. Maybe you just have a ton of fun. Either way, the important thing is you can tell they aren’t going anywhere.
When I find an idea like that, I don’t just write it down, I write it out. A draft journal, if you will, instead of an idea journal. I write a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, a sentence — anything that will give you a sense of how the real thing feels in your hands.
Ideas are idealized and intangible. They’ll always look good as long as you can imagine them as the perfect story. You have to start that project to realize that perfect idea of yours might not be so great.
Any idea can be made into a good story, but not every author is equally suited to realize every idea or communicate every experience. If you think you like an idea only to find it’s a pain to write well, don’t be afraid to throw it away and work on something you have a better chance of making shine.
I find a draft journal, whether as a physical pen/paper notebook or some digital approximation (my “journal” is just a Google Docs folder with a bunch of unfinished manuscripts suffering inside), a much better use of an author’s time.
Big picture-wise, it also stops you from thinking of stories in terms of hopping on the newest idea before they all “run out”. Instead, you think about what experiences you can bring to your future readers. At the end of the day, that’s what enjoyable, worthwhile, transformative writing is.