Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there are new releases, contests, and all sorts of other fun and no-bullshit writing advice. Check us out!
Well, hello. It’s Wednesday again. First, two announcements!
Yes, this is espresso and Bailey’s in a mug that says “I am going to hex your face off.” After I Tweeted that picture, I was snowed-under with queries about where to buy said mug. I got mine in 2006 from a CafePress shop (the shop’s owner was “lalejandra2″) that has now gone under. At least, I can’t find it. Which led to me putting a version of the mug up in my own shop, with no markup. (Because I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of a profit, however tiny, from it.) It goes without saying that if I find the original seller, I’ll change the links and direct everyone there. But I’ve dug and dug, and can’t find her.
Announcement #2 is kind of vague. Remember that zombie-hunting cowboy trunk novel I was working on? The one I was just delighted with, and was sure would never sell? Well…paint me lilac and call me Conrad, it sold. I can’t give any details, but I can say that I’m sort of…bowled over.
Now that’s taken care of, let’s talk about ideas. (WARNING: I am foulmouthed today. Read at your own risk.)
Chuck Wendig, in one of his absolutely hilarious and spot-on writing advice posts (if you’re not reading Terrible Minds and Practical Meerkat, you’re doing yourself a disservice) made a very interesting observation:
Ask a writer: “Where do you get your ideas from?” And the writer will reply: “How do you make yours stop?” Then he’ll bat at his hair as if it’s on fire. I can’t walk ten feet without thinking of a new novel or script idea.(Chuck Wendig)
I am going to take a slight detour here. (It happens at least once a blog post, doesn’t it.) It is ironic that I am starting out recommending collections of writing advice, since I tend to want to throw “writing advice” books across the room hard enough to dent the wall. (Kind of like how I feel about groups and workshops.) I read quite a few, back in my tender youth, and what stopped me was a cresting nausea. I won’t point fingers, but I can clearly remember reading a Certain Book On Writing and getting to the umpteenth time the Precious Author bemoaned how haaaard it is to write, and I just…snapped. I put the book down, gingerly, as if it was full of something noisome I didn’t want slopping out over the sides, and stared at it for a few moments. I was on lunch, and the food court around me was a blur of bright colors, customers (who were, since I was wearing my Retail Face, all Potential Enemies) and a flood of fried and processed pseudo-food smells. I stared at the book on the table next to the wilted salad I’d been forcing down.
And I thought, fuck that shit. I’d been mistaking the ersatz “work” of reading the damn books for effort spent refining my craft, but all I was getting was a big handful of “you must DIG and DIG to find inspiration” and “you must be PRESHUS! Like a DIAMOND SNOFLAKE!” and “if you need silence to create, then find a quiet spot,” along with other “advice” that was, in the immortal parlance of my grandfather, useless as tits on a boar hog.
Now that I am older, I can pinpoint the source of my discomfort and anger. Those books saw writing as the problem; it was something that had to be unlocked and solved in order to massage the author’s frail ego. To me, writing is the goddamn solution, and the few books I recommend for starting-out writers are firmly in the “this is the solution, and this is how it can work for you” camp.
ANYWAY. Detour (mostly) over.
Plenty of those PSRBs (Preshus Snoflake Riting Buks, I’m a little bitter, okay?) treat ideas as if they are Magical Fairy Dust sprinkled only over the Deserving and Self-Sacrificing once they have Performed the Magic Ritual and Danced the Magic Dance and Shook the Magic Handshake. Which is, to put it plainly, bullshit.
Ideas are a dime a dozen. The brain is built to come up with millions of them, jumping around like a monkey on crack. (Handy meditation tip: don’t try to stop the monkey mind. Give it a coliseum of cheering voices while it does its acrobatics, and move the rest of yourself out to the parking lot, where it’s a little quieter. You’re welcome.) Not only that, but a writer should be in the habit of looking and wondering.
Often, when a new or young writer says, “I don’t have any ideas,” my reply is, “No, ideas aren’t your problem. Your problem is twofold: first, you need to observe, and second, you have got to start taking your own imagination seriously.”
Taking your imagination seriously partly means giving yourself permission to ask ridiculous questions. (It also means taking your writing time seriously enough to protect it, but let’s not get distracted.) I know perfectly well that while riding along in a car and looking out the passenger window, thinking what if that guy was a secret agent coming home from work, where he’s just killed someone with a frozen string bean through the eye-hole? is ridiculous. Totally, completely, insanely ridiculous.
But it’s an idea. And when you start entertaining those Ridiculous Ideas, your speed in sorting and judging them increases fractionally each time. Observing is a skill, and sifting through your what-ifs and wherefores and I-wonder-whys (in other words, your ideas) is a skill too. After a while, the sorting becomes automatic, and when a Really Good What-If comes along (what if the Devil wanted to hire someone? what if there was this alternate Slovakia where Communism happened alongside a type of magic? what if there was this girl and the Goblin King took her baby brother? what if Billy the Kid had been a vampire? what if a prince suspected his uncle killed his father? what if fairies were real and their king and queen had a nasty fight? what if, what if, what if…) you can pounce on it like a bulldog on a piece of bacon.
You don’t have to wait for the Idea Fairy to shower you with crazycrackdust. The empty space between atoms is jam-packed with frickin’ ideas. What a writer must polish is observing and entertaining, so those ideas aren’t just muttering to themselves in a back alley, covered in vomit and coffee grounds. You bring them in, clean them up a bit, and see if there’s anything worth salvaging in them. The loonies and psychos and bores you throw out–unless they’re really Juicy Good Material. How do you know if an idea is Good Enough? Simple: you don’t, but with practice you get better at weeding out the only moderately juicy ones, not to mention the dry chafing ones. (I hate chafing.)
Ideas are not the problem, just as writing is not the problem. Writing is the solution, and ideas are merely a matter of opening your eyes and sharpening a few reasonable skills, harnessing your monkeybrain’s innate jumping-around to a wagon and making that crazy asshole pull for all s/he’s worth. It’s a lot easier to ride the cart if s/he’s providing some of the momentum.
Then comes the uphill part–actually writing the damn story. But that’s (say it with me) another blog post.
Over and out.