This post is partially inspired by a discussion with Alison Wells over on good ol’ twitter about ideas. And it is partially inspired by that question that writers often get asked: “Where do you get your ideas from?”
Ideas are easy. No, really. Really. Or rather: basic ideas are easy. Free floating ideas are easy. They’re everywhere. Sometimes you have to learn to recognize them, but once you do that – ideas are easy.
It’s developing the ideas, and selecting the right ideas to write about, and then actually writing about them, that’s tricky.
I used to just jump in. Get an idea, start writing. Chapter 1. Leap right into Chapter 1. You accumulate a lot of first chapters that way. Second chapters and beyond – not so much. The idea’s not strong enough. There’s just not enough there to keep you going – and look, there’s another new shiny idea, all tempting and glossy and untainted by your attempts to tie it down to the page! Let’s run with that, instead!
The new idea is almost always going to be more attractive. You haven’t been disappointed by the way in which your technicolour imagined version fails to appear, instead turning into a mess of words which may or may not be any good. It’s full of potential. (And as Dylan Moran advises, you’re better off leaving your potential alone – “it’s like your bank balance, you know – you always have a lot less than you think.”)
The new idea gets you energized, and fills you with hope. It gets you started. But then you have to keep going. Especially for a longer short story or for a novel – the kind of thing you can’t write a first draft of in one sitting – you need something else.
You need, actually, a number of different ideas. Because a book isn’t just about one idea, the hook that often gets put on the back cover or in a tagline on the front. It’s a tangle of a whole bunch of ideas – things that matter to you, things that you care about, things that you’re willing to write about and keep writing about for months at a time.
One of my very favouritest books in the world is Emma Donoghue’s Hood. It has so much in it that just works, that just slots together in interesting and true ways. That’s the end product. The raw material involved ideas for two separate novels, which were then fused together with the most interesting, engaging aspects left in. I love that idea – it’s an example I use often in creative writing classes, talking about the thinking-time before you leap into the writing-stage. The planning stages, the outlining stages – whatever you want to call it. People have different attitudes towards how much they outline, and whether they know exactly what’s going to happen in their story or leave some or all of it up to chance, but whatever way you work, I think there’s room for note-making. Some way of keeping track of all of these ideas you have, without starting to actually write them in full. Some way of holding on to the snippets and fragments, so that when you commit to a new project, there’s not just one thing to keep you going, but several things that will keep you hooked.
A single idea can’t carry you through a whole book. You need to flesh it out, to add more layers, more stuff, more things-you-want-to-write-about or scenes-you-can-see-clearly. So it helps to have several already scribbled down, things you can knit together in something that excites you and energizes you enough to keep going after Chapter 1.
It’s also a way of grounding the new-shiny-fabulous aspect that often gets you started, if you can tie it into something you’ve had rolling around at the back of your mind for ages. You need to write about the things that excite you but also the things that continue to fascinate you – love, death, work/life balance, friendship, finding meaning, first times, challenges, betrayal, fish-out-of-water scenarios, fairytales, whatever they are.
I scribble or type my ideas and fragments. I’m usually close to a computer, or to my Giant Handbag that contains, among many other things, a purple notebook which is pretty but just about battered enough for me not to feel as though every thought captured in it has to be perfect or worthwhile. And I like to have the words there right from the beginning. Other people save different things – words too, because that’s what writing is, after all, but also playlists, or photos, or drawings, or newspaper clippings. Things that ground their idea and carry a little bit of it in them. Things that you can return to when you’re actually writing to remind yourself of what it was that drew you in and made you want to write about these people, that situation, this world.
Some people jump straight in. But I’ve found that for me, the best way to avoid stalling after Chapter 1 is to make sure there’s more in the fragments, in the ideas-mess, than just an initial single flash of inspiration.