One of the most common questions I’m asked when I describe the novel I’m writing is, “How the heck did you come up with the idea?”
Chuck Wendig recently included a version of this question in a post on his brilliant Terrible Minds website Ten Things To Never Say To a Writer. His reply? “The real question is, how do we make them stop?” (He’s far more eloquent and picturesque than I am, so after you’re done here, go read his post. )
It made me both laugh and sob a little.
There’s no question I’ve forgotten ten times as many story nuggets as I’ve used. A hundred times as many. And when people ask me that question, it almost always takes me a little aback. “How do you not find stories every day?” I want to ask.
Many (if not most) writers are inundated with ideas. We scribble in notebooks and on the torn-off flaps of the envelopes our bills come in. We find half-legible sentences in weird places all the time. Under a layer of coupons, receipts and limp celery leaves in the recyclable grocery bag, on moldy-edged napkins in the cooler last used at the Sasquatch Music Festival—two years ago. Sometimes we snap pictures of unusual incidents of fog in the woods or a rusty bike leaning against a street sign or we try, try to sear into our memories all the details of a woman waging a losing battle between her skirt and a gust of wind.
Inspiration comes from everywhere, and frankly, it’s annoying.
So many ideas want to be stories. We’d like to make use of them all, but there are only so many waking hours, and the truth is, most of the inspirations don’t make for good stories. They’re scenes, or settings, or character studies, elements essential for every story, but not stories themselves. If a writer tries to capture all of her ideas and make stories out of them, she’ll accomplish nothing. I’ve been down this road, spent weeks, months trying to make a story out of something that was nothing more than a great scene.
The maturity of knowing what makes a capital-S Story and what doesn’t, of being able to recognize early on what has full potential, is one of the hallmarks of a writer in control of his craft, in my opinion. Not that one shouldn’t explore story ideas, or that the notebooks filled with half-formed plots or the partially-written novels are wasted effort. Every job, every craft requires its learning stages. Only, when a writer gets to the place where he or she can look at an idea, an inspiration, and judge its capacity to become a full-fledged story, she has achieved a certain level of professionalism. The ability to look at one’s own ideas with a measure of objectivity.
As writers, we have to cull through all of those inspirations flooding in every day, be choosy.
That oh-so-famous quote in writers’ circles: Kill your darlings.
It’s attributed to many famous inksters but the first evidence of its use is by Arthur Quiller-Couch, a not-so-famous lecturer on writing craft. Generally, the advice is thrown around for scenes or sentences, bits of your story you should edit out. But it also applies to ideas. No matter how badly I want to write a novella about the couple “having intimate relations while the woman was getting a chest tattoo,” I can’t. Because that, my friends, will not a story make.
So I’m tucking away the scrap of the Crate and Barrel catalog on which I scribbled that bit.
Honestly, that one’s just too good not to use someday.
Image attribution: Belarusian industrial design duo Solovyovdesign's Brain-shaped lightbulb