Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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Thoughts on Writing #36: Plotting Against You.

It's time for the thirty-sixth essay in my ongoing series of essays on the art, craft, and process of writing. There will eventually be fifty essays in all, all of them based around my original set of fifty thoughts on writing. No, I didn't set out to write an essay series, but I figure it's too late to object now. These fifty essays touch on a lot of different topics, and are all aimed at helping you stay sane as a writer, sometimes through process, sometimes through perspective. Here's today's thought:

Thoughts on Writing #36: Plotting Against You.

I don't actually mean that there's some sort of vast global conspiracy against you, although I can't promise that there isn't. To expand on today's thought:

You're going to get ideas from wherever it is you get ideas. There's no magic well. There's no "proper source." They'll come when they come, and you can't force them to show up if you're not ready to have them. The "what if..." moment is one of the most amazing things there is, and when it happens, you'll be the king of all creation, you'll be so fucking cool that nobody can stop you from conquering the planet...but you can't make it come. Just expose yourself to the world, and wait, and see what happens.

The question "where do you get your ideas?" is one that haunts writers, from the high school creative writing prodigy to the grizzled old lion who's published seventy novels, all of them still in print. People always want to know where the ideas come from, like there's some secret well or magical wardrobe that we're just not willing to share. I wish this were true, but it's not. So how to do we handle the fact that we're working with a resource that is at once limitless and severely limited, and how do we keep from bludgeoning our friends? Let's take a look at ideas, where they come from, how to attract them, and why we'll never be able to schedule their arrival. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

True Or False?

"There only two kinds of ideas: good ones and bad ones."

"I'd be a best-selling author if I had good ideas."

"You can't control where ideas come from."

"There's no point if you don't have a great idea."

"Ideas are like horses: never change them in the middle of the stream."

Of these five statements, I would argue that only one of them is true—the one in the middle, the one that says you can't control where ideas come from. Let's break these down and see if we're in agreement.

Good Idea, Bad Idea.

I've heard it said that talent, effort, practice, and stubbornness don't matter in an author's career. What matters is that sacred offering, that impossible dream, The Good Idea. If you've had The Good Idea, you can become an overnight sensation, rock the world, and become the new God-Monarch of the Bee People, all without lifting so much as a pinky finger. If you've had The Good Idea, the hard part is over. Okay. Let's consider some Good Ideas. See if you can guess what story I'm talking about.

* Pre-teen wizard learns the craft while fighting the ultimate evil.
* Vampires are totally hot and romantic.
* Surprise! You're secretly a princess!
* Perky blonde girl surrounded by demons, vampires, and the forces of darkness.

These are, in order, So You Want To Be A Wizard?, by Diane Duane; The Vampire Diaries, by R.L. Stine; Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, from DC Comics; and Marilyn Munster, from The Munsters. But they can also be Harry Potter, Twilight, Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries, and Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Odds are good that you've heard of the latter four, if not the first four...but that first germ of an idea, that first elevator-pitch inspiration, can be reduced to something virtually identical. Sadly, that doesn't mean that everyone involved with all eight ideas is now rich, famous, and rolling around in piles of money on their own private island. But these were all good ideas.

Let's consider some apparently Bad Ideas. Again, see if you can guess what story I'm talking about.

* Horrible genetic mutation becomes cuddly, hugs little girl.
* Jane Austin meets Valley Girl.
* "Let's set a romance on a boat that's famous for sinking!"
* Deformed mad genius as brooding romantic musical antihero.

So there we have Lilo and Stitch (Disney), Clueless (Alicia Silverstone), Titanic, and The Phantom of the Opera. Whether you like any or all of these, it's hard to say that they weren't good ideas, since they all made lots and lots and buckets of money, but they all look pretty terrible on paper. Carrie didn't work as a musical, so why did Phantom? Since when are little blue alien monsters the cornerstone for a successful stuffed toy line? And who wants to see a movie where you know the boat is going down? Lots of things that "can't miss" somehow manage to do exactly that, while other things that shouldn't make it past the starting line go on to win the whole game.

There is no such thing as a "good idea" or "bad idea" when you're talking about things more complex than "sticking your hand in the alligator" and "eating a cookie." Believing that the sacred Good Idea will save you from years of effort is just a way to drive yourself insane. It isn't the ideas that matter. Nine times out of ten, it's the execution.

Best-Sellers By the Bucket.

I am afraid I must now crush the souls and dreams of hundreds of aspiring writers, because what I have to say next is not exactly fun to hear. Brace yourself. Here it is:

Having a good idea does not guarantee you becoming a best-seller.

I know, I know, but it's tragically true. Some ideas are before their times, and thus come out years before their genre or sub-genre will "hit it big." Some ideas are after their times, and come out after everyone has gotten burned out on mermaid-zombie-pirates with vampire cat companions. Others are awesome, but so hard to define that they can't find their audience, and wind up missing out on the recognition that they deserve. Some of my favorite books and favorite authors have never been "big," because they just haven't had the right timing. These are awesome ideas. These are incredible ideas. And yet they don't actually explode the way I honestly think they should.

Other things hit huge while being based around an idea that's been done before, or isn't all that inventive, or is really just riding a current cultural wave with the grace and skill of an Olympic bobsledding team. Having a good idea will help you become a best-selling author, but it won't be the single defining factor that pushes you over the edge into that secret land of milk and honey and zombie ponies.


If Your Idea Isn't Good, Just Give Up.

I've heard people say, in all seriousness, that there's just no point in continuing if you don't have a great idea. If your basic, foundational concept is not so incredibly innovative, exciting, and new that it makes people catch fire just from hearing it, you shouldn't bother pursuing it any further. Just give up, and go back to waiting for the big idea to hit you.


Should you have an idea? Yes. Don't write your mermaid-zombie-pirate adventure just because mermaid-zombie-pirates are hot right now; if your central idea is "I want to make a lot of money," you're unlikely to get very far. But seriously, "teenagers get horny" (Romeo and Juliet), "sometimes men are obsessed with killing things" (Moby Dick), and "adultery gets you in trouble" (The Scarlet Letter) are not the biggest, best, or more complicated ideas anybody's ever had. If the idea you have seems like a lame one, take it for a drive around the block and see how it runs. That old jalopy may have an engine in it that can take you for miles, while that sweet little sports car may not make it out of the driveway. Execution, remember? The best idea in the world doesn't guarantee you'll actually have a story to tell, while the worst idea in the world may well spin out into a fantastic story.

The idea is only the beginning. If you abandon every idea you have that doesn't seem to be made of gold from word one, you're going to find yourself with a lot of free time on your hands, and be very confused by the fact that everybody else seems to be getting a hell of a lot more done.

Idea and Pony Show.

This one's a little more difficult to articulate, so be patient:

It is possible to start something with one idea of what it's going to be, and realize midway through that you have been working from the wrong idea—that you, in fact, need to switch to a new idea if you want the project to live up to its full potential. There are those who say that this is not okay, and that you should either commit fully to your original idea or abandon the project entirely, beginning a whole new project for that new idea. I must respectfully disagree with this position. Take, for example, my own Discount Armageddon. The idea it's based on may not be the most high-brow—fighting monsters through the power of ballroom dance—but it's mine, and I like it.

As is always the case, the book came with more than just that single idea. I had ideas about the plot, the characters, the setting, all sorts of things, Almost nothing is a single idea writ large; the world is made up of hives of ideas, each one masquerading as a book, film, or short story. In the case of Discount Armageddon, one of my original ideas was that I would write the book in third person, rather than first. The InCryptid short stories are third person, after all, and it would allow me to play in a format that's very distinct from Toby's world.

I wrote about eighty pages of the third person Discount Armageddon, and it was crap. It was dead on the page, listless and lifeless, and even though it contained a lot of ideas I felt passionately about, it wasn't going anywhere. I decided to try changing one of my ideas, and rewrote the text in first person...and suddenly, hey-presto, I had a book! It's the same project. It's the same protagonist, and all the foundational ideas have remained the same. But at the end of the day, one of my original ideas had to go for the rest of them to shine. That's okay. It's allowed. You have the right to be wrong, and you don't have to stubborn yourself into staying that way. I promise.


And finally, we get around to the core point of today's essay, which is this: you can't control where ideas come from. I really do wish you could, because I'd love to be able to schedule getting new ideas, but you can't. You're going to get ideas constantly, from everything. Sometimes they'll be totally fresh, original, and wonderful in their shiny newness. Sometimes they'll be the idea that everybody's having this week. Most of the time, they'll be somewhere in the middle. But they're going to happen in their own sweet time.

Most of us learn the tricks for encouraging ideas to happen. I take long walks, either with my iPod tuned to shuffle or with no music at all; I go hiking; I call up one of my more tolerant friends and start chewing on the concept I'm trying to express like a velociraptor gnawing on a gigantosaurus bone. These things may work for you. These things may not. Experimentation—good ol' trial and error—is really your only route to victory, because every author, like every idea, is different. That's a good thing, since it means we can all have mermaid-zombie-pirates without stepping on each other's toes. It's also a bad thing, because it means that there's no magic button.

You'll have ideas when you have them. What you do with them from there is the part that's up to you.
Tags: advice, contemplation, writing
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