Freedom of Writing, inspiration, Stories, writing prompt

What an idea!

Photo by Tracy Lee, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some years ago, after rejecting an author’s short story for the Book a Break Anthology, I received a reply in which she acknowledged that a weakness in her story was the idea itself. In actual fact, her idea wasn’t bad; there followed a discussion in which we agreed that while a poor idea brilliantly executed will always be better than a brilliant idea poorly executed, it’s better yet to have a brilliant idea brilliantly executed.  

I’m not sure how or when an idea strikes me as brilliant enough to be developed. The more that development proceeds, it will at some point, inevitably, stop seeming brilliant and turn into a struggle to find the words that will do the original vision justice. For that to happen, though, it had to come through all the previous stages of development unscathed – which means it must have been brilliant enough in the first place, right?

I currently have 72 files in the Ideas folder on my laptop, but the number of actual ideas is much higher because most of them are in a single document. They might run to a couple of lines or a paragraph; often they’re just a few words. Those that emerge from this survival of the fittest are rewarded with a document file to themselves; eventually, they may even get a folder.

The folder stage is reserved for the elite. By that time the text may run from 3000 to 20000 words. I currently have 16 folders, but half of them are gathering the substantial amount of dust that lands on my keyboard. That still makes eight active ideas to keep an eye on, by which I mean that any article I spot related to that idea will be read, sorted into the folder, and may lead to an addition or amendment to the text. But that’s a matter of minutes; at any given time there’s really only one idea bubbling away at the front – the others gently simmer further back.

Whether any of these ideas is brilliant is obviously debatable. And the point remains that it isn’t having ideas that’s hard, it’s doing something decent with them. But brilliant or not, all ideas start with a little spark in the brain that either gathers strength or fizzles out. Putting them in my Ideas folder means that some at least have a chance of surviving, sometimes emerging many years later, like Brood X (though rather less numerous).

As to where they come from, the sources are multiple, but I’m currently drawn to the zaniness one regularly comes across browsing the news. A few examples:

French police say they are building a case against an international gang of toy thieves specialising in stealing Lego – and they have warned specialist shops and even parents to be aware of a global trade in the bricks.

A mafia fugitive has been caught in the Caribbean after appearing on YouTube cooking videos in which he hid his face but inadvertently showed his distinctive tattoos.

In the flesh, Jeanne Pouchain appears very much alive and well. Convincing the French authorities of this has proven another matter. After being declared dead by a court, Pouchain has spent three years trying to have herself officially resuscitated.

A Welsh man has issued a public call to help find two Irish men who helped him return home from Australia in 1965 by packing him up and mailing him in a crate.

Whether any of these will be developed remains to be seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeanne Pouchain eventually makes it past the next couple of stages, reaching the point where the hard slog begins.

And you? How do you handle your ideas?

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23 thoughts on “What an idea!

  1. Mike DiMatteo says:

    Much the same way but I use Notion. I have a file made wherein I write ideas for my Substack (I use that outlet for history/political/commentary pieces I produce) and another file I’ve created on Notion for book/short story ideas. The beauty of notion is that not only can I create another “level” from which to write or develop the idea, it also has apps for my phone and iPad – so I can jot down notes anytime (I refuse to use Google Docs). I also created labels for each item (Idea, working, completed) so I can call up any of them, like tagging. Sounds complicated but it isn’t at all. It’s just a way to keep ideas, notes or research (each chapter of my book has its own page with subpages of research connected to it) handy. Thank you for the piece.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Yup. “…it isn’t having ideas that’s hard, it’s doing something decent with them.”

    Turning ideas into flash fiction works for me. That gives me a feel for the depth, the levels of complexity the idea actually has. Getting the stories published tells me the story has some appeal. The bottlenecks to this scheme are that ideas come faster than stories and stories come faster that publication.

    One way the Writers Co-op helps is that you can convert an idea into a story for our Show Case. You could get feedback that might motivate you to spend the time and effort to create a new novel.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Ah, the bottleneck, yes. Not a lot to be done about that, so it becomes a matter of selecting the few that seem at that point to be worthy of development. And just hope that turns out to be right – though the doubts are bound to crowd in at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. MamaSquid says:

    I don’t get as many ideas as most writers do. Right now, in addition to my current WIP, I have three book ideas, two of which have resulted in about ten chapters of discovery writing but never really went anywhere – yet. I believe they have potential. And it’s not an idea in the sense of, “Oh, this would be clever!” It’s more like, “I would enjoy exploring this.” It always starts with a scene for me. I have a Scrivener file called “Destination Unknown” where each document in the binder is a different idea. I play with them there. Usually, they never make it out of that document file.

    When I’m deep into a manuscript, I do often get ideas for that manuscript. I either write them into the notes section in Scrivener or pop them into Keep. My lack of ideas is something I’ve always been a little insecure about, but I take forever to finish a novel anyway, so it’s not like I ever sit around not knowing what to write.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I have semi-written ideas going back into the 1990s. Hundreds of them. (My computer can no longer read the ones older that that.) It’s appalling, amazing, discouraging, heartening, to go searching through my old files. Both fiction and non-fiction. Some ideas are just a sentence or a paragraph; some are an entire book outline. Some I think “Wow, this would be a good one to work on!” Others I say, “Huh? What was I thinking?”
    Many of the story ideas I stopped working on because I couldn’t figure out where they were going.
    Are you familiar with the concept in physics of virtual particles? That’s what this seems like. The finished stories are actual particles with solid reality. The ideas and fragments are like virtual particles, popping in and out of existence, but without quite enough energy to become real.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’ve been assembling a “library” of all the things I’ve written. It’s a thing of getting older. I’m astounded that I have completed over 40 books–more non-fiction than fiction. Then I have another two dozen “works in progress”–except there’s no longer any progress.

      Liked by 2 people

    • mimispeike says:

      “Many of the story ideas I stopped working on because I couldn’t figure out where they were going.”

      I have many like that. I set them aside, and eventually return to them. I recently finished Miss Spider’s Dinner Date, that I started ten years ago.

      Liked by 2 people

    • “Ideas are like virtual particles.” Now you’ve got me thinking about where they pop in & out of…. Is there a universe where all of our unused ideas go? 😏 Now there’s another story idea.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sounds very similar to my own backlog. I have some going back to pre-laptop days, in old notebooks or on loose paper stuffed into a drawer. Still loathe to throwing them away, or only those that strike me now as ridiculous.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. mimispeike says:

    I don’t have story ideas. I have character ideas. Develop a character, live with it, it will blossom and, eventually, write your story for you.

    Many of my stories are spin offs. I have more spin offs than Norman Lear.

    I’ve been asking myself lately: what will be my next story? Not that I need a new idea. What I have in the works will occupy me for the rest of my life. But I can’t help wondering.

    I can’t write a character until I figure out what drives them. So I suppose I conceive the backstory, and go from there.

    All my folks have a ton of backstory, whether I get it down in the text or not.

    Liked by 4 people

    • “Many of my stories are spin offs.” I have suspected that all of your stories are connected, Mimi. Maybe, in your own creative backstory where the characters and their milieux are all together.

      Now there’s a story idea: Sly falls down a rabbit hole into a Wonderland with all your characters at a Tea Party where each discusses the current topic from the perspective of their own experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “I can’t write a character until I figure out what drives them.” Absolutely! I’m currently grappling with a character driven by two contradictory urges. I know I’ll eventually sort it out but for the moment he’s being devilishly uncooperative.

      Liked by 1 person

    • My characters invent themselves as I go along. A fuzzy idea of a character emerges, then they talk and act themselves into existence. I’m often surprised and delighted by what emerges. Some spring from an offhand comment but develop into a major character later in the story.
      I’ve also had many of my characters illustrated by the same guy who does my covers. That forces me to think through how they look and dress, how they present themselves, etc. In this regard, the aliens are the hardest to do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I couldn’t put it better myself, Mike – that’s exactly how it works with me. As for the illustrations, do you mean you give a description to the cover designer or do they imagine it themselves? And how much of the description finds its way into the book?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I give my illustrator descriptions of the characters taken from the text. He takes my fragmentary descriptions and puts life into them. I’m amazed at his results. And once I see his renderings, it helps me elaborate their appearance and actions.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Perry Palin says:

    I’m with Mimi on this. I have characters. I write about people. The people drive the action of the stories. Whether they are fishing, or walking into a store, or sitting in a park, or riding on a train, or drinking, or trying to teach a class or trying to survive a class in the student desks, i see my characters driving the action of each story. When I know my characters, they’ll give me ideas.

    I have maybe a dozen ideas that I am working on at a time. If I spent my limited writing time cataloging more ideas, I wouldn’t have time to write. The current ideas, and those from the last year or so, fit pretty easily in folders on a flash drive, and are easily sorted and found.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In the interaction between character and plot I find it difficult to say which comes first. They feed each other, grow together, a certain character either doing something because that’s the sort of thing they’d do, or reacting to an event that comes upon them unexpectedly. In both cases the plot is also advanced. But plot without the psychology of the characters is just an empty vessel – not that that prevents many authors from selling thousands of such vessels.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Interesting French news list … one of your news items I actually recognize … the welsh man looking for the two Irishmen … There is definitely a documentary I think CNN or the History channel did (Maybe even 60 minutes … clearly I don’t remember) where they reported on this story, but I also think there is a movie about it as well … Sorry going off my sketchy memory.

    Liked by 1 person

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