“If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you’ll only have to throw away the first three pages.” – William Campbell Gault
If we had to pick a winner among all those questions that are most asked of writers, it would be: Where do you get your ideas? It is less a question born out of interest and more a cry for help: it’s disheartening to see them churn out novel after novel while we sit in our rooms and chase our tails over a single story. Not unreasonably, we assume that there must be some trick to it that they’re not telling us. Sure, we no longer believe that there is a secret island where thoughts and inspiration grow on trees, waiting to be plucked; no, we don’t think it is that easy, but we don’t think it should be this hard either.
The other reason why we ask that question so often – and this is not talked about all that much – is because we think that the idea is paramount, that it is the one event that signals the birth of the creative process. (That is why the tagline of this website says ‘From idea to publication’.) We think it’s so important that whenever we sit down at our desks, we rack our brains for that one life-changing thought that will lend wings to our story, and when it doesn’t occur we despair. We let go of many small ideas that may yet become good stories for the sake of that elusive black swan.
This obsession with ideas is not as intense in other arts. Nobody hails a musician or a singer or a dancer for his idea. In the visual arts, the idea does get a mention, but it lags more ‘skilful’ aspects like composition, framing, brush strokes, lighting and perspective. Only in writing does the idea loom giant-like in people’s eyes, and the hidden subtext is that the ‘what’ is infinitely more important than the ‘how’.
Yet if you were to look at the central ideas of great works of fiction, you will seldom see anything groundbreaking. If you wrote down on a piece of paper two lists of ten words each – one for humanity’s frailties and one for its strengths – chances are that you will cover the themes of most novels ever written. What, then, makes one story different from another? What could you possibly have to add to all that has already been said about everything in the history of literature? Should you bother with this writing business, and if so, why?
The answer, though I admit I’m biased, is that you should certainly bother with it because no matter what anyone has said about anything, no one has said it the way you will. This is why the ‘how’ matters; in fact, the ‘how’ is all that matters. You could be writing about something as universal as mother’s love and you can make it fresh if you can force yourself to peel off all the ideas that popular culture has planted in you and look at it with your own eyes, clearly, honestly.
Clarity and honesty – that’s what it boils down to. If you see something in your mind’s eye, and if you’re honest about it, write it down just as you see it. Take me to that place you speak of, put me there so that I hear the sounds and breathe in the smells, tell me of these people you’ve created, of their joys, of their sorrows, of their lives. Tell me their stories as you would to your friend, as you would to your mother, as you would to your child. If you care about your world and your people, I will too.
I will not complain if there are no aliens in your story or if the world doesn’t end. I will not crib if there’s no magic. I will not mind if there’s no suspense. Make me love the people you love and you’ve got me eating out of your hand. Write clearly and truthfully and I will come to the edge of your world with you, even if it is a world much like my own.
And maybe once seeing things this way becomes a habit to you, maybe once showing others the things that you see just as they are becomes second nature, you will find that the secret island of ideas – in which you’ve long stopped believing – does exist. It is right under that heavy cloud of grey mist where all your memories reside, and the longer you live, the more it swells and heaves with whispers of people you’ve known, of places you’ve seen, of things you’ve touched, and each one of them is tugging at your sleeves and begging you to tell their story.
Go on. Pick one.