There’s a belief floating out there in the wild that the thing that really matters when it comes to writing a book is… a great idea.
And the complement to that is: Once you have the ‘great idea,’ the hard part is done and you’re home free. I mean, to this very day you’ll see books and films where either a lost writer gets the “aha” moment of a great idea and everything is roses from then on, or maybe someone steals the brilliant idea and then of course they have a runaway bestseller from it. Because of course it’s all about the great idea.
Don’t get me wrong. Having a great idea is a good thing. But even if it’s one of those one-in-a-hundred ideas that actually sticks around for a while after popping into your head—to the point where it’s a potential story-starter—it’s just the very beginning of the job.
Because the idea is the easy part.
Because the idea is where the work starts, not ends.
Because a good idea without equally good execution isn’t worth the napkin it’s scrawled on.
Sort of like how thinking of a cool destination (Aha! I’ll go to Bora Bora!) isn’t the trip in itself… there’s all the planning and preparation and travel and then—once you’ve arrived—you still need to get out there and make the most of your time in the new location if you want to have an adventure worth remembering. Or how thinking of a college major (Aha! I’ll get a degree in computer engineering!) isn’t exactly the same as actually going to a university and doing the hard work of earning a degree.
The idea for a book is not the book.
Not even close.
In a workshop I gave, we were discussing this. I said, “So let’s think of a basic story idea. Maybe there’s a boy and a girl. Or any two people of your choosing. And maybe they annoy the hell out of each other, so they avoid each other. Then they get thrown together and they have to actually, like, work together… and talk to each other… and spend time with each other. And both of them find themselves maybe… actually… liking the other? No way! But it can’t be denied—there’s something there. But then events conspire to tear them apart. And they’re both miserable but they try to hide it, because of course they officially don’t like each other. Life totally sucks for both of them until they admit it—they want to be together. Then they have to go through a very challenging situation to finally get back together—and maybe resolve the problem they were originally thrown together to work on, in some creative way—but when they finally do admit their truth and get together… ta-da! It’s so worth it.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s the basic plot for maybe half the books ever written. But if we each wrote a book based on it, we’d end up with a bunch of very different books. Because we’re different people, and different writers. And what we bring to the table… our personal choices… our unique voices… all our thought and work and craft in the actual writing of it… is what makes the book special, not just the germ of an idea that sparked it.”
And as important as idea generation is, I think part of what bothers me about the paradigm that the idea itself is the special/creative/magical part of being a writer is that it takes away from all the other things it takes to write a book. Almost like someone is implying, “Oh, of course you wrote that book, because you had that idea. That was the hard part. Maybe if I’d had that idea, I could have written it too.” (Maybe. Maybe not. But see above—we’re all different, and we’d almost certainly write different books even if we started from the same idea.)
As any writer knows, the most common question people ask you is, “Where do you get your ideas?” We went into this in detail in an earlier post, but—assuming the asker is an adult—it’s feels sort of like someone standing next to you in the middle of a massive food court and turning to you with, “Where do you get food?” (You might be tempted to say, “Like, dude… it’s literally all around you.” But that’s not helpful, because if they knew that, they wouldn’t be asking.)
[We can talk about idea generation in another post, but in my opinion it’s often a combo of (a) making a regular habit of playing “What if?” in your head, and (b) taking two seemingly disparate things—panda bears and peanut butter?—and finding some interesting commonality or mash-up involving them, in a unique and/or thoughtful and/or entertaining way.]
So yes, absolutely spend some time daydreaming and coming up with story ideas. And when you get a “keeper” idea you think is worth developing, go ahead and write a book from it, using that idea as the initial spark. And when you’re all done and the manuscript is written, revised, edited, and polished to the best of your abilities, go back and compare the relative weight of the initial idea with that of all the time and work and emotion and craft you put into writing it. I think you’ll likely find that the initial idea, as important as it is, isn’t nearly as significant as the actual writing of it.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.