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The Basics: Creating Ideas

September 23, 2008
Right now, writing is a big deal in my home. The kids are starting to learn to break down writing into steps, and my sweetie has headed back to college and is going through the same process as the kids, though on a more advanced level. So, of late, we’ve had many discussions about the nature of writing and the steps involved. This will be the first of a series of posts reexamining the basics of writing.

Where do ideas come from? How do I know when I have a great idea? Help; I can’t come up with an idea?

More than any other part of writing, there’s a mystique that has built up around The Idea. It’s easy to test this assertion. Ask your non-writer friends what it takes to write a great novel, and at least half of them will tell you it takes a great idea. In beginning creative writing courses, you’ll find more student who expect to be taught about ideas, than about revision and grammar.

I’m here to tell you that The Great Idea is a myth.

There is no idea that will effortlessly turn into a great story. There are no stories that write themselves. The only good idea is one that interests the author enough to write it. That’s all the idea is—a starting point.

To borrow a term from movie making, an idea is usually a McGuffin—a plot device that sets the characters in motion but has little to do with the story (the Maltese Falcon being the most famous).

Many entry-level creative writing classes have a simple exercise designed to illustrate this point. My teacher passed around three baseball caps, each with slips of paper in it. We each drew out one of each—a random character, a random profession or hobby, a random action—and we had one week to write a short story that began with the chosen character performing the chosen action.

So, fine, I don’t have to kill myself waiting for The Idea. How to I come up an idea that will get me writing?

There is no one answer to this. I’ve had ideas spring into my head fully formed. I’ve had to grind out ideas with pen, paper, clusters, lines and post-its. Each author is different and each idea is different. The best advice I can give you on this it to keep thinking about ideas. While driving, walking, working, showering…keep a little bit of your mind thinking about a character, or a setting, or a message you want to get across. Let your subconscious mind do the hard work. Or get a friend and head out to a cafe and make up storylines, to each other, about the people you see.

But most of all, don’t wait for a great idea before you begin writing. Give yourself a deadline, and when that deadline arrives it’s time to start writing. You can always revise your idea as you go.

One Comment
  1. September 23, 2008 9:21 pm

    Looking forward to these posts. No matter how experienced the writer, it always helps to revise the basics every once and a while.

    I’ve learnt that ideas can come to you, provided you give them to right fuel. Don’t sit around waiting. You have to actively give your mind things to create ideas from. Read, watch the news, listen to music, go out and experience life and things will come.

    And I agree with you on them not always being fully formed. Talking about ideas, fleshing them out and actively trying to add things is important.

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