Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Good Idea Is A Good Idea

In a way, convincing someone that you are a good writer requires backward logic. Readers must begin to read by paying attention to the details, word by word, sentence by sentence, and not until they are done reading your entire story can they judge it as a whole. While one person's story might be more solid as a unit, another person's writing might be judged as "better" when readers are initially trying to decide between the two based on opening paragraphs, or sample sentences, or anything other than the piece in its entirety.

BUT, we as writers must trust that the reader is able to judge the story as a whole, eventually, because the alternative, leading someone through 300 pages of smooth-flowing prose only to reveal a story void of quality ideas is...sucky.

The idea. Coming up with a good idea is something writers often forget to do. I say this because I've read at least 300 short stories in 2009, and many times a piece will impress me until I stop to actually think about it. And, sadly, I often don't bother to come up with good ideas myself. My desire to write is so strong that I just want to get words down on a page, and then my drive to make those words engaging pushes me to revision, and before I know it, I have spent two years (or seven) polishing a book that doesn't have that critical good idea at its center.

What do I mean by a good idea? That depends on what you are writing about. A love story, for example, won't be an interesting story if the love isn't interesting. Even if it's written in beautiful prose, mundane love will feel mundane. Or, if one is writing a story about a criminal mastermind who tries to steal the nose off of the Statue of Liberty, a pathetic plan to get that nose (a really big saw!) won't feel satisfying. (Okay, okay, unless you're going for some sort of irony.)

If my own writing practice is any indication of other people's writing practices, we are not spending nearly enough time on developing that initial good idea--or the other good ideas required throughout a story. And, a dumb idea garnished with a grand sprig of parsley will only impress for so long. Eventually, the leaf gets lifted.

So, I'm sorry. I'm sorry because the FIRST thing we need to work on, the thing that takes the most brilliance, is the LAST thing a reader will see, if they ever see it at all. And, I'm sorry that pushing yourself so that the heart of your story is solid doesn't necessarily result in a reader's recognition that your writing is good when they are browsing through your book before committing to read the whole thing. A solid foundation is necessary to write a good book, but that good book will often be judged by its adornments. Still we press on, hoping that someone will see our vision and heart. And, our ultimate goal is to make everything exquisite, so that the lovely prose does not cover for a bad idea, and the good idea is not hidden by bad prose.


  1. I can’t start writing unless I already have that good idea in place, or I have an interesting situation and I take it from there. (My first story began as a dream with Nicole Kidman – long story.)

    I don’t think I’m at the stage where I consciously try to convince the reader of anything. I’m still building my writing arsenal and I make mistakes, but I learn from them. I write from the heart and I end up with honesty, if nothing else. Maybe it’s a common trait of new writers, that’s okay, I’m still developing.

    P.S. - If you’re planning to steal the nose off of the Statue of Liberty, I suggest using a torch and a crane.

  2. Interesting thought about backwards logic. I have started making sure there's something character or plot-wise that interests me in each scene.It makes writing so much easier and reading it back so much more pleasurable.

  3. We must be all on the same mind link these last few days because this is what I've been reading in the blogosphere.

    Backwards thought is the key, I think here Davin, you've posted on backwards revision before and it's really helped in my own work.

    I try to get the great idea first, and because I'm a panster I generally write most of the story and then when I get to the end to tie it all up, that's when I have to go backwards into it to find the original idea to see if it all fits together. Lots of work, lots of revision but it seems to work for me.

    We all can't be Hemingway but if we tell our stories with integrity and honesty I think "A Good Idea Is A Good Idea."

  4. Ah, to have a big idea and be creative and unique enough to pull it off with grace. For Monarch, surprisingly, I had no idea what themes it would have, what big ideas would be conveyed, and what creative measures and turns I'd take to get to them. I think that's why I had to rewrite the dang book over again. Next time I'll figure it out beforehand instead of moving backwards. Or am I supposed to move backwards? I'm all dizzy now. :D

  5. Great post. Yes, the idea is key, and often difficult to discover.

    Sometimes starting a story will bring an idea into focus but more often than not, for me, the times I've been most successful in completing stories are when the ideas struck me first light bolts of lightning.

    Right now I'm writing notes on a new novel idea. I'm still searching for the big idea so I keep asking "why a reader would care about this story?"

  6. Charlie, I think it's great that you write from the heart. I once tried to take a writing class that I would eventually get kicked out of due to official school stuff, but on the first lesson, the teacher said that the most important thing was to make sure you are writing from the right place. It sounds like you are doing that.

    Cardiff Sparrow, that is something I'm getting better and better at too. The more I read Tolstoy, the more I understand that he does that with every sentence. Each one reveals something about character, and for me that makes for very engaging storytelling.

    Piedmont, I guess I'm a backwards kind of guy. You make a good point. Sometimes we get lost along the way and lose that good idea, and we always have to evaluate ourselves at the end to see if we stayed on track. I guess at least the pantsters must do that.

    Lady Glam, That's what happened to me with Rooster. I think that's why it took me years to find a story in it. I was originally motivated by a character, and then by details and structure, but it took me a long time to actually stop and think about what the heart of the story was. When I did that, everything felt like it snapped into place.

  7. Paul, I do agree that sometimes the good idea can develop. My most recent publication, "Red Man, Blue Man" started out that way. I began just writing what I felt were random sentences, and then the idea, based on that randomness came about. I think what holds it together is that I focused on that oddness throughout the story. We need that central idea--at least I do in this stage of my writing--to hold the story together. Perhaps a more experienced writer can get away without it.

  8. If a story that I'm writing or a scene that I'm writing or even a sentence that I'm writing doesn't interest me, how can I expect a reader to become engaged?

    If I write well, and make each scene worthwhile, then the readers will see my vision and my heart. :)

    Love this thoughtful post, Davin.

  9. I can come up with ideas, but finding the time and patience to hammer them into 80,000 words is my challenge. My attention span has a half-life of 33.7 seconds.

    But in regard to my ideas, they are unique, but more on an off-the-wall than an out-of-the-box kind of way. Don't know if that's good or bad...

    And i don't want to steal the nose off the Statue of Liberty. I just want to pick it.

  10. Robyn, I think the key to what you've said is that you have to write well AND make the scene worthwhile. For me, it's very hard to manage both. :)

    Rick, I sometimes go back and forth on how important I think originality is in my own writing. But, I think in general, an original thought is valuable. And, do you REALLY want to pick her nose? REALLY?

  11. This is exactly why brainstorming and getting all your thoughts down on paper is so crucial. To stop once you think you have an idea is ok, but ask yourself, is it just an ok idea? We need so much more than just ok to take us where we want to go.

  12. Originality had value, but so does familiarity. I am amazed at the popularity of re-makes in Hollywood these days, for example.

    Still, it all depends on the execution.

    And in regard to Lady Liberty: you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friends nose. Do I really want to mine for treasure there? Who nose.

  13. T. Anne, That's good advice. I wish I could get myself to follow it more often.

  14. Callarion at Night evolved from one sentence that popped into my head while driving to class in late 2005 ... "God, satyrs are annoying."

    That line is no longer anywhere in the story, mind you, but the whole world and what the Big Idea was spawned from that one sentence.

    Which is par for the course for how my big ideas end up happening.

  15. Matthew, my novel Rooster also came from a story about a time traveler who goes back time to watch himself being exorcised. Now it's about a guy who goes to Thailand for a funeral.

  16. Nicely put, Davin. I'm hoping mine works out to have the good idea and the good writing. *crosses fingers and looks worried*

  17. Lois, from the few pages of your novel that I've read, I think you have a very interesting premise for your main character. It caught me by surprise in a great way.

  18. I know and it's so difficult! For me anyway. Coming up with the idea is, by far, the most challenging part of my creative process.

    So, if you have any extra floating around that you're not using.... ;)

  19. 'a dumb idea garnished with parsley' :)
    But oh dear, oh dear. You are poking a sore spot as I contemplate whether I'm missing something in my story ideas. Sigh.

  20. Tess, from the comments, it sounds like the good ideas come easily to some and not to others. Maybe it depends on what parts of writing come more naturally to all of us.

    Tricia, this is a sore spot for me too. I worked long and hard to get a good idea into Rooster after not having one for years. It wasn't a fun way to work.

  21. Wow, Davin, you make some good points here. All the beautiful prose in the world will not save a boring book. Great post!

  22. This is another of those things that interests me as a peak into how other writers operator. I'm a deductive thinker; induction baffles me. So I always start with an idea or theme. Even if I'm writing off a prompt or something, I get an idea from the prompt and then go from there. I can't imagine writing from a different starting place.

    Weird! :)

  23. Awesome post. Beautiful prose will never make up for a bad story. That's what I'm hoping anyway. Right now all I feel I've got going for me is my story. I think my story idea is awesome - I just wish I was a better writer to do it justice. Everyday though, my writing improves and one day, I hope, my prose will live up to the amazing story.

  24. This is a really good post Davin, but I got lost in chuckle after chuckle thinking about the "criminal mastermind who wants to saw off the nose of the Statue of Liberty" (which is a really funny idea when you think about a Saturday morning cartoon kind of way).

    Trying to be serious here though, you make some good points here. I'm a fairly picky reader (no fingerpointing at my ridiculous choice of reading Dan Brown, yes I'm paying for it now), and it is the "good idea" books which are able to catch my eye, as opposed to those which are just so-so. How do we as writers "find" that good idea? Well, since just about every topic has been broached in some way or another, it's our own creativity that allows us to take a so-so idea and mold it into being better, which is why writing is so difficult.

  25. I'm good with the ideas, just trying to work out my adornments. :)

  26. While Big D has written a fine post full of important thoughts, I am going to disagree, possibly just over terminology.

    I think that, just as Big D says here, there are generally two things that make for bad books. One of them is bad writing (possibly we can call this "weak execution"). The other thing is not really, I don't think, lack of an idea. What I think is lacking is more like a proper story. Or, perhaps, proper storytelling.

    Fine writing can impress us and let us think that we've read a good story until we stop to think about it and realize we've read finely-written writing about nothing. People often complain that literary fiction fosters this sort of book. Genre fiction isn't immune to lack of story, either. Sometimes a novel is full of ideas (flying steam-powered zombie monkees!) (vampire librarians! on crack!), but these ideas surround nothing; these books are like Faberge eggs. You can't eat a Faberge egg, and similarly these types of books aren't filling or nutritious, because they don't tell stories; they merely show off ideas or facility with prose.

    I'm going to argue that a story about mundane love could be spellbinding if the story were compelling and examined, with real interest, what made the relationship less than spectacular. That could be a story. I think Big D gets closer when he talks about the really big saw and the Statue of Liberty's nose. A good story must be believable, even if it's a fantasy. It has to obey an internal logic and something has to happen for some point. Plot isn't story. Setting isn't story. Premise Is Not Story. Et cetera. I ramble now and must get back to work.

  27. "a dumb idea garnished with a grand sprig of parsley will only impress for so long"

    I like this phrase a lot. Very apt.

    One thing that struck me, however, was this:

    "...the good idea is not hidden by bad prose."

    Because good ideas, and even terribly stupid ideas, can be wrapped in some very workmanlike prose and still hit bestseller lists. Why is that?

    In the ideal case, we have lovely prose and a spectacular idea. Then you get Mark Helprin and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the like.

    In the end, I gauge my ideas by how excited I can get about them. If I'm interested in the initial idea, and after 5,000 words am still interested, perhaps I have something.

  28. I'm no good, beyond pure exercise, at writing without an idea. All my stories come from first awesome ideas (I'm SO like a reader!) If I don't have the awesome idea, I can't write it.

    So, even if I have a great character, if I don't have any idea of what said great character is going to DO, then, I can't write them. Sorry!

    Usually I can find a place where great idea and great character meet. That's the sweet spot ;)

  29. Jill, thanks. Sometimes, I can be in the mood to just read nice prose, even if there's nothing behind it. Both, those days seem to come by less often over time.

    C.N., and I'm just the opposite. The thought of planning ahead of time is very intimidating to me. I just have to start and fix things later.

    Mary, it sounds like you are going in the right direction. The prose will come as you write more and more. Once you get that into place, if your story is already strong, you'll be all set.

    Eric, I think to find a good idea we need to give ourselves time. I often don't do that and spend my time on the other parts of writing. I need to focus more on ideas.

    Jenn, maybe we can switch brains while we work on our second drafts. See me after the show.

    Scott, now I'm not sure if this is a difference in terminology or not. I also think we write fairly different kinds of books, so this is interesting. For me, I associate storytelling with structure to much to say it's a matter of story. Mostly, the idea of master plans comes to mind, stories about big cons or deep secrets. If the story is built around something like that, and the actual big con or secret is not interesting, I think it will be a disappointment, even if the story is told well. I feel like I'm talking about concept, perhaps, rather than story. I'm not sure.

    Simon, I think in general readers are more likely to forgive bad prose over bad ideas. The ideas are more important, but, as you say, the ideal is to have both, and I think that's what we're striving for.

  30. Big D: You know, I don't know. See my post for Friday for more about how I don't know. I will say that I disagree with "we write fairly different kinds of books." I don't think we do. Golly, I'm being disagreeable today. Don't take it personally; I still love you best.

  31. I totally agree!! I've read so many books only to get to the end and scratch my head, because it didn't seem to have a real plot.

    I usually start with a seed of an idea, then start writing just to see how it forms. I thicken up the idea once I'm into the book a little and get to know the character's better.

  32. Ali, I'm trying hard to find the sweet spot, as you mention. I don't always do.

    Mr. Bailey, perhaps at this point we should agree that you're disagreeable...or something like that. I take it as a compliment that you don't think we write different kinds of books!

    Hugs and Kisses,
    Big D.

    Krista, I think I get what you mean by thickening up the idea. As I write my early drafts, I can often feel that there is some hint of an idea there, even if I can't say what it is outright. Then, in revision, I attempt to bring it out more.

  33. Davin, that's very kind. I'm so glad that you like it. I thought it was fairly unique. It makes me happy that it surprised you in a good way. I should be able to send the rest tomorrow.

  34. I kind of disagree.
    Sometimes the great ideas come out of the writing.

    Seriously now. You expect me to sit down and have Great Idea on Day One, and then after 90 days of outlining/drafting, not have one better idea?

    Talk about stifling creativity.
    I think it's better to have Decent Idea, then work on it until it becomes Great Idea through hard work and serious exploration of the characters.

    Otherwise, I'd be stuck sitting in front of the computer, saying to myself, "come on, Great Idea!"

    I'd rather sit in a pumpkin patch on Halloween.

  35. lapetus999, Even a decent idea is better than a bad idea. I'm talking about the way some writers don't wait for any sort of decent idea because the writing is more appealing. For myself, the ideas form as I write. And, not necessarily at the beginning, but at some point I think you must let that good idea come into play. I worked on my book for at least a couple of years, revising and revising, without taking the time to let that good idea happen.

  36. That's like a guy in my critique group. He has a great idea for a world--but he has no story.
    I think the Great Idea has to start with the story. Without a great story, all the great ideas in the world come to nothing.

  37. I will just say that reading a well written book with no point (interesting concept, story, whatever) is like going on a hot date that turns bad.

    I fall in love easily with beautiful prose and get all my hopes up about how great and life-altering and fascinating this story will be, how I'll add it to my shelf of wonderful fantasies that I can escape to when I feel like reading a good book.

    I usually suspect halfway through the book that something is amiss. "Wait a second... Am I about to run into xxx cliche ending? Or moral lesson?" If that happens, it's like finding out that your date is an Amway salesperson who has only met up with you to make a sales contact.

    Then again, sometimes there is no point to the story at all. It just ends, without anything interesting happening. In that case, it's like realizing that your date is beautiful but stupid, too vapid to hold a conversation let alone build a relationship.

    I've been on the latter kind of date. My mom has experienced the first kind.

    They make me more angry than if the writing was not so beautiful and I hadn't gotten my hopes up.

    However... I may have already bought the book, and it's too late. So, I guess in terms of book sales, it's probably better to write good prose than a good story.


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