Editor’s note: this post was first published in 2010. (Courage 2 Create will return with new posts on November 26.)
People are all like old TV antennas picking up different signals. Sound waves, smells waves, emotional waves, etc. Most people generally pick up these typical signals and that’s it. Let’s call these signals part of the “analog” frequency.
Writers and other artists, on the other hand, are like satellite dishes. We get ALL the channels. Some channels seem completely useless and absurd, some are plain brilliant, others are as boring as the one’s everyone else has seen. I’m not sure what it is, it’s like we’re tuned into something different. It’s like those whistles that make a sound only dogs can hear. Sort of like that. Let’s call this the “digital” frequency.
Since we writers are satellite dishes, how do we manage that constant inflow of random ideas? How do we sort through all of it and throw out what’s trash and keep what’s gold? How do we zero in on the channel that will serve us well creatively?
How To Find An Idea You Are Absolutely In Love With
People have asked me how I come up with my ideas, so here are my personal rules for finding that right idea. It’s important, especially when writing a novel, because as we said, it’s going to be a long engagement.
The idea has got to be worth it.
(Note: I am not offering this advice because it’s helped me get published and sell a bunch of copies of my book, no, obviously that hasn’t happened yet. [Still writing it. Present tense.] I’m offering this advice because these steps have gotten me writing again, they have gotten me focused on one particular book and determined to finish. That’s a big deal for a writer, so I really hope this helps you to at least get focused on ironing out your most marvelous ideas.)
1. Wait For It
Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait… Yup. Sadly, writing, unlike most careers, requires a whole lot of patience and waiting, even at the very beginning. And no type of waiting is more excruciating than waiting for the right idea to come along. But I think it’s an important step. Because of lack patience, I used to move forward on mediocre or average ideas. Eventually, I’d find myself lacking in inspiration half way through and I would have to give up and start the waiting game again. So this step is a big time saver even though at first it seems impractical.
2. Pick What Persists
Ok. You got a lot of good ideas. Or at least a ton of them that seem like good ideas. You don’t want to throw out any of them, so you keep them all together in a document on your Mac or PC, or in a notepad in you drawer, or a journal on your dresser. But the question is: Which one should I work on first? If I go with one, won’t the other one’s rot and die? Or become (gasp!) outdated and unusable!
Well, I got a rule about this. Generally there’s a high when you get a new idea, but it’s a high that is not discriminatory. Which means at first, any new wild idea seems like gold. Don’t act on it right away. Let it sit. Put the new idea away by writing it down and putting it in a drawer. Don’t look at the notes you wrote down for a while. If during the week, the idea pops back in your head go back to your notes and keep adding to it. By all means DON’T STOP inspiration if it comes.
HOWEVER if after several weeks, and then after several months, the idea does not jump back in your mind, please go back to your notes and trash it.
That’s right: trash the idea. It’s not the right idea for you. Don’t keep it around. It will distract you from your “one and only.”
“But it’s still good” you say. “It may not be my masterpiece but it is one of those gimmicks that do well in the mainstream. Because if I don’t do something with the idea it will be lost forever!”
No it won’t. The idea is in you. That’s where it came from and that’s where it will stay if it’s meant to be. If it’s meant to be, it will keep coming back and it will not go away. It will grow inside of you. (I know, sounds gross. But it’s true.)
Someone else will pick up the idea you threw away, don’t worry. Remember, you’re not the only dish picking up the frequency.
3. It Is Your One and Only
So the idea keeps bugging you. But it isn’t yours until you accept. So go ahead, accept it. If it’s been persisting for more than a couple of weeks, for more than a couple of months, if it’s been with you for two years for god sakes marry it!
I’m sure this persistent idea has everything you ever wanted in it: the right characters, the right story, it’s in the right form or in the right genre (or its genreless), it’s got the right themes and metaphors, it utilizes what you already know, it allows you to say something you always wanted to say but didn’t know how to. Don’t doubt it anymore! The idea is your one and only. If you haven’t put it to paper yet, start writing immediately and don’t stop!
4. You Are Its One and Only
So if your idea has passed the first three steps you’re in a great place. You can even stop there if you want to and go ahead with the writing.
But there is one more step if you want to be totally sure, and this one step is simply for practically reasons. It’s sort of like a ring on the finger. A constant sign or proof that the idea is truly yours and that the both of you are going to be together forever.
So, drumroll, please...
It’s the right idea if you are the only one who can bring the idea to life. The only one. As in, the way in which you life has turned out has somehow made it possible for you to write this particular story. No, not like a serendipity fate thing. (Although if you want to see it like that, you’re welcome to.) But really, I think it’s more of this: your specific life circumstances and experiences have made you specifically capable of writing this very specific novel, that others, who do not have that same specific background, would find it impossible to write.
If your idea passes all four tests, then: congratulations! You may kiss the bride or groom.
If your beloved passes all four steps, then you are more likely to stay committed to it and not give up on it half-way through, or divorce it if you ever lose your job, or if your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you, or if the sky should fall. The key is consistency. You got to be able to wake up in the middle of the night and talk about nothing in particular with your idea to pass the time, and still love its company.
So now that you got your one and only and it’s got you, you have to remember: it’s only the beginning of the relationship.
Now let’s see how the marriage turns out.
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