Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Good Idea Is Hard To Find

How do you know when you've got a good idea? Some of my writer friends tell me that they know they're onto something good when it inspires them to write, when the words flow almost by magic, the story "writing itself." One of my friends tells me a good idea is "the weirdest thing I never imagined I could imagine" that he's never read anywhere else. Me, I think I've got a good idea when I'm excited about the story and think I'm writing a book I'd like to read.

But...in my conversations with these very same writers, it turns out that some of these ideas that look amazingly fantastically great and brilliant for a week or a month don't actually lead anywhere. Or, we don't know where they lead and spend years trying to find out. Michael Chabon, in his book Maps and Legends, talks about wasting five years on a second novel that never panned out, because the idea wasn't enough to sustain a novel and there wasn't actually a story there, just an idea about a city. My own first novel had what I thought was a compelling protagonist and series of events, but the ideas behind the plot were pretty trite and, really, just plain dumb.

I've begun short stories with a clear image in my head of a main character, and never managed to find an actual story for that character. I've also had utterly brilliant first lines that generated prose which petered out after a paragraph or two. Sometimes, what seems like an amazing idea turns out to be very slight, and I find that I've been chasing a mirage across the desert while my story dies of thirst. Or some other, better, metaphor of your choice.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this, and that many of you have also begun writing and felt initially that you had a good, strong idea only to find that the muse was only mumbling to herself, not giving you anything you could really work with. So the question becomes how do we know when we've got a good idea for a novel?

There probably isn't a universally reliable test for this, but over the years I have developed a short list of questions I ask myself about ideas before I sit down and write. Admittedly, some of these questions are best answered by actually trying to write out the story, but one must begin somewhere in forming a methodology (for those of you who reject/are repulsed by any sort of methodology in your art, you can stop reading now).

1. Does this idea generate other ideas? Can I keep brainstorming off the initial vision and spin out more--and more interesting--ideas? If the idea doesn't give me additional ideas right away, I don't bother. Sometimes, you know, they grow into better ideas if left alone for a year or so.

2. Does this idea generate a lot of questions? The more questions the idea raises, the better for me, because I like to solve problems in my writing. If an idea leads to a dozen "what would happen if..." questions, then I've got something I can probably use.

3. Does this idea seem to go anywhere, like to a climax or other ending? If I can't work through from beginning to middle to end of a simple story using this idea, I let it lie until it grows into something more story-shaped. I used to just write out as many ideas as I could, but I don't do that anymore.

4. Does anything about the idea really surprise/shock/anger/frighten me? The stronger my emotional response to the idea, the better. If I'm not emotionally involved in some deep way, the story will end up being boring, even to me. I think it's a great idea to write about things that make us uncomfortable.

I also make notes, draw pictures and otherwise push ideas around before I commit myself to the splendid misery of writing prose. These days, a lot of "writing" takes place in my head before anything gets on paper. I've grown much more cautious as I've aged. So how about you? How do you know you've got a good idea? How do you know you've got an idea that will generate a whole book? How do you know when you don't?


  1. Scott, I think this probably answers my question as to why so many writers have a bazillion ideas and have multiple projects going at the same time. I don't work that way. I make sure the idea I do get - when it FINALLY comes - is strong and solid. This is why I have only written two books so far, and why I only have a handful of short stories. I used to think I was just slow, but your post makes me think more carefully about that. I think I am, perhaps, more careful than anything.

    This post can go hand in hand with Davin's post from yesterday. If your idea leads to some sort of change within your character, the plot, even yourself, you may have a good idea on your hands. I like your outlines of how you personally know when you have a good idea. Those work for me as well. I do a lot of thinking before I actually start writing. So far I haven't written anything that I've abandoned because it didn't lead anywhere. Not that they're all good ideas, but it does show that I'm careful about it, at least. I always have to follow through.

    This is a post every writer should read. It's essential to know when we should abandon an idea.

    And is your title a play on O'Connor? If so, that's brilliant. :)

  2. I know I have a good idea if I leave it alone for a while and it still interests me when I come back to it later.

  3. Great post.

    I don't think all great ideas lead to novels or even short stories, I think that great ideas are just that, ideas. It's what you do with it and how you handle it that makes a good story.

    I'm sure there are plenty of fantastic ideas out there that never amounted to anything because of the people who had them. If you don't know what to do with your great idea then it will never reach its full potential.

    This was a fantastic post! I'm gonna go think on it some more now haha. :)

  4. I'm not saying this is the best way to do it, but my test for myself is simply to start writing and see what sticks. I'll have an idea, so I'll just riff on the subject for awhile, and I find that I either get bored with it--most of the time--or I keep going, which produces a book or short story. This at least is how I have done it in the past. As I'm starting my next project, I am finding myself thinking more about it and writing in my head, as you say, Scott. It does feel more cautious, and I think that caution comes from the realization that my writing takes more focus now than it used to. I think I learned enough with my past writing to know that wasting time by writing fluff can be beneficial in some ways, but it can also cause irreparable damage to a story. That's okay. I allow myself that. But, I'm not in the mood to do it at the moment.

    I like your first item on the list. I think I've always done that a little intuitively, but formalizing it would help me a lot.

    Great post, Scott! And, it leads well into something I wanted to write about tomorrow.

  5. I think it might be necessary for writers to go through a phase where they write out every idea they have as well as they can. That's how we learn to write, isn't it? That's how we find our prose voice (by writing a lot of prose) and learn the mechanics of story telling (by trying to make stories that work and sometimes failing). So I wouldn't discourage any young writer from trying out as many ideas as they can; it's also how we learn what form our ideas take, and how we learn to recognize our ideas in the first place.

    I forgot to mention that I know I have a good initial idea because the thought itself feels different from other thoughts in my head. Don't ask me how it feels different; it just does. It shines more brightly and is cold, like a glass of ice water on a summer day.

  6. Scott, I agree with you 100% about new writers exploring ideas. You're right in asking how else we would possibly learn to write. We just have to write! I started writing so young that of course I have work from back in grade school and high school that I abandoned. I've forgotten all about that work. I count that period of my life as a very elementary experimental writing stage. But I've also had great things come out of that time, like my first novel that I've completely redone.

    In the end, everybody writes differently. Like Davin, many writer simply start writing the idea to see where it goes. But I do feel that the more we get under our belt the more we'll recognize what will work and what won't.

  7. My latest WIP has been practically writing itself. I’ve been lucky in that sense but it’s boring. I’m being serious (for a change.) It’s an okay premise but it’s been done before. It’s a bit frustrating but what choice do I have except to look at it as practice.
    I thought my first book had an amazing plot. The idea itself forced me to start writing. It just needs a real writer to make it soar. Maybe I’ll revisit it in ten years.

  8. Scott and Michelle, I didn't see your comments before I added my two cents.

    Makes sense. :)

  9. Scott, do you have synesthesia?

    I do.

  10. Davin: Oh, yeah. Music and colors and the sounds of words and sometimes architectural spaces are all sort of related in my head and I get weird temperature stimuli sometimes as well. I can't quite verbalize it because, frankly, I've never really tried before. I have pretty consistent color/music associations.

  11. Charlie: My newest book is one I've tried writing a couple of times over the last decade or so. The first attempts were dull, even in my opinion. A couple of months ago I had a new idea for the story (a change of setting and time period) that brought the thing to life in a surprising and really cool way. I had pretty much abandoned the idea for that novel, but now I'm excited about it. Some ideas just aren't "ready" for us yet when we first encounter them, and need more time to gestate.

    I have another half-finished novel lying around waiting for a surprising idea to push it into a new direction and make it possible for me to finish it. The novel is called The Metaphysics of the Rat and takes place in 1612 in Mantua. It's got a good premise, but I could never figure out how the story ends. I like to think that at some future point, I'll figure it out and write the damned thing.

  12. I wish I knew the answer to your question, because then I'd be a published novelist. As always, the posts here are thought-provoking, and I thank you for that.
    It may just take a time for a lot of stories to percolate. Neil Gaiman said it was many years for "The Graveyard Book" and again for "Stardust" to be written after he had initial ideas.
    I've decided if I don't want my runaway writing train to wind up in Topeka when I wanted to be in Spokane, I'd better spend more time upfront working on theme and visualizing character change.

  13. Sustained resonance. When I first get the idea, it resonates with interest, importance, and excitement. It feels like something bigger than me, but that with enough effort I could tell well. It trails a wake of other ideas, about character, climax, setting, theme, etc. It makes me want to write it.

    Then, I don't. Not right away. I write down my ideas and move on to other things. If I find myself coming back and adding more things, and staying excited about it over days and weeks and months, and it's still the thing I really want to write, then I know the idea is (likely to be) worthy.

    BTW, I love the "splendid misery" line.

  14. As you said, when ideas feel alone, disconnected, I know they're probably not going to work out in the long haul (i.e., a novelization).

  15. Michelle: I used to try to make a story out of every single idea I had, because I felt lucky to even have an idea. Some of my ideas were just titles; some were less than that (I still have the character name "Aunt Anomie" bouncing around in my head, with nothing else attached to it). How good it felt to be writing was more important to me than what I'd actually written, but that was okay because it got me to write a lot and experience is good. Good experience is hard to find. (Yes, in my head "a good [anything]" is always followed by "is hard to find." Flannery and I go way back. Have you read her letters? Her intial query to the woman who became her agent is hilarious, especially in this day and age.)

    Justus: Your current idea spins off lots of other ideas, which is good. Are you writing again, or are you still spending your time at the PlayStation? Don't make me come down there!

  16. Scott, yes I've read her letters. I don't remember her query though. I'll have to check into that. Flannery is one of my favorite authors, and I dearly love my professor who introduced me to her and Annie Dillard. Oh wow, what a combo. Talk about mind blowing. Both of them have had a great influence on my writing.

  17. I'm definitely writing some, but Dr. PC, Ms. Wife, and Mr. Loyal Friend are making it more difficult.

  18. I have to believe in what I write, every single time I put pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard.) Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe (that this is a good idea.)

    When I have finished a particular writing session and think back on it, nine times out of ten, I am convinced I pretty much wrote crap.

    So, when I am brave enough too look at it again, the piece either confirms my suspicions that it is crud, or I am pleasantly surprised.

    I love it when I am surprised! And I love it when the writing keeps surprising me.

    Good Ideas= those that won't let go of us. Even if I write a cruddy draft, I chalk it up to the idea not being ready to be written yet.

    Not so good Ideas= forgettable. If it doesn't tug at me and demand a little page time, well, probably not going to be that good.

    Thought provoking, yet again.


  19. Everything depends on the moment . . .

    With my currently being revised project - I sat down and wrote the rough draft of the first half in 2 weeks, and the second half in another 4 weeks (6 total). I totally went with my instinct on this project.

    I have another project that I wrote, set aside, rewrote (somewhat), set aside, and then changed some major things here and there and BAM! I absolutely love the rewrite, more so than when I initially wrote the first draft many moons ago.

    Do I have a harddrive full of ideas? Yes. Perhaps the muse will sing to me one day on all those jumbled ideas. Perhaps not. I take what I can get, when I can get it, and hope for the best every single time.

    I like your methodology (even though the word, along with 'theme', makes me shudder. Perhaps I need to revisit some of those ideas with your questions close at hand when I get some idle time in my life. : )

    Great post. Thanks for the insight.


    p.s. Lady Glamis, I thought this was unplugged week??? ; )


  20. Scott, it is unplugged week, but I'm hopelessly addicted and keep the Lit Lab open to my glorious communication. I'll post on Thursday, as well as comment here and there on this blog. I know my reasoning is completely screwed up, but I'm writing a lot more this week, and that's the whole point I suppose. :)

  21. Scott, I love this post. I've been chewing on an idea for four months. So far, it has a beginning, middle and end but I haven't solved all of the issues that my character will face. Some of these issues are my own, and I'm looking forward to exploring them through her. But I'm not ready to put it on paper...yet. I have to wait until I can't stand to keep it inside anymore before I talk about it or put it on paper. Your list was very helpful.

  22. So, even when we find great ideas for stories and everything flows, then we face the obstacle of finding editors who like our ideas. At least that's my newest phase! I'm learning that we can have good writing skills, fresh ideas, but our stories also have to be something that can sell. As new, first time authors, editors want to make sure they can sell our books. Thus, as much as we hate to think about the market as we choose ideas, we definitely have to keep it in mind.

  23. Jody: I don't know about keeping an eye on the market. I just write stories I'd like to read, on subjects I care about. The market can take care of itself.


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