I know. I know. Already I feel you pulling away. I sense you tensing up, like a flicked sphincter. You’re mad. I can see you’re mad. I get it, you have ideas, and ideas are the backbone of fiction, and dangit, you tell yourself, my ideas are very interesting, that guy doesn’t know. Except, I do know. Your ideas aren’t that interesting.
And here’s the trick:
That’s a good thing.
I don’t intend for this to be a long post, but I see writers lamenting sometimes their lack of ideas, or their inability to fulfill the promise of a premise, or worst of all, I see them hoarding their ideas — as if they shouldn’t even write them into a story lest they screw it up, somehow. This is a piece of advice given to young writers sometimes, right? “Oh, don’t give away your best ideas on your early work.” Which is so fucking strange to me, it’s like, “Don’t start off on a strong foot, instead, snap your ankle and run on that, instead.”
Listen, in this house, we recognize that ideas are not gemstones.
They are costume jewelry. Trinkets, at best.
We do a lot of work as writers forcibly filling parts of our job with a kind of mythic importance, a bold magic that feels hard to deny — THE MUSE and MY IDEAS and THE PROSE said with a rolled ‘r’ — and mostly, that’s a huge disservice. It doesn’t seem like it is, it seems like we’re just trying to recognize the majesty of what we do, but in the day-to-day, that makes it very hard to just get stuff done. It’s so much harder when you imagine that you’re performing surgery on a snowflake than if you’re just digging a latrine, you know? And it’s not that I want to say that writing your book is just like digging out some kind of caveman toilet — it’s not. It’s more important than that. It’s more mysterious and more magical than that. But it’s important not to give it too much power, you feel me? If you are overwhelmed by that magic, that mystery…
….you’ll find yourself paralyzed by the haughty significance of it all.
Which can happen with how you regard your ideas, as well.
We like to believe that ideas are the most interesting thing about our work.
And, by proxy, that they are the most interesting thing about us, the author.
The idea is valuable as a stepping stone. It’s useful as a springboard. Sometimes a really interesting idea is the first strong rung in the ladder, sure. But that is all that it is. It’s a hook. It’s a twist. It’s a notion. It is not the backbone of the work. It is not the blood and heart of the thing. It’s not what makes your story interesting. Sure, a good idea might nudge people to check out your story, if the idea is easily encapsulated in a sentence or two, but it’s not what keeps us there. What keeps us there are characters with problems, what keeps us there are not simply core hooks but things that go deeper than mere ideas: hopes, dreams, wishes, fears, arguments, and the unruly thoughts you wrestle with at 3AM. What keeps us there is an interesting journey, a compelling problem, a fascinating escalation of conflict and question, and pages that have more to say than the plot that falls upon them.
Story is so much more than an idea.
An idea is the door to the house, not the house. In some cases it’s not even the door, it’s the fucking doorknob. It might be pretty. It might not. But it’s just there to get you inside, okay?
Expect less from your ideas, and less from yourself when it comes to those ideas — and again we’re speaking about inciting ideas, core ideas, not larger and unrulier ideas like theme and argument. I hear writers lamenting that they don’t have any good ideas? Fuck that. Just think of a character. Think of a character that interests you. A character that has a problem you find compelling and, in some ways, upsetting. That’s a way to begin. If you’re afraid to “give away” your ideas into a story on the chance you don’t do it justice? Hell with that. The idea is there to do you justice, not the other way around. Lead the idea, don’t let it lead you.
All right, carry on.
*shoos you out of the house*
* * *
WANDERERS: A Novel, out July 2nd, 2019.
A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”
A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.