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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2011-09-22 05:42
Subject: [process] Ideas and their discontents
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing

In case you haven’t read it, go read John Scalzi’s post from yesterday on ideas. It’s okay, I’ll still be here when you get back.

Ideas. I swear to God, they are the easiest part of this business. They are for me, anyway, and for most working writers I’ve ever talked to about it. Why people think otherwise is beyond me. (Well, not really. After all, I am a highly trained professional imagination user, so by the Law of the Tool, ideas would of course seem easy to me.)

Except, like everything else, the devil is in the details.

What constitutes an idea?

Is it the general statement? “These two kids fall in love, but their families hate each other.”

Is it the high concept statement? “Gang wars. Forbidden love. Two kids whose dads are the biggest crime bosses in the city pursue their infatuation to a disastrous end.”

Is the it synopsis? [ Romeo and Juliet at Wikipedia ]

Or the themes? Or the outline? Or… Or… Or…

I for one am quite capable of writing a short story in service of a single image that pops into my head. I don’t need more than that to drive me. My novella “Our Lady of American Sorrows” derived completely from a dream about some priests riding in the back of a military truck through a small, Latin American town.

But for other writers, such an image doesn’t count as an idea unless they can see more. Perhaps the through line, the resolution, or the character arc. That very much depends on the writer. So while I could probably writer an entire novel from nothing more than the idea of a werewolf with achondroplastic dwarfism, another writer would need a great deal more/different to qualify that idea.

For me, notions, concept and ideas are all essentially the same thing — creative stew. For others, more flesh or structure is required.

What’s an idea to you? How much do you need on the page or in the brain before you can turn it into a story or a novel?

Originally published at jlake.com. You can comment here or there.

Post A Comment | 9 Comments | | Link

User: joycemocha
Date: 2011-09-22 14:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It really depends upon the idea for me. I'm probably going to write a little bit about my story that just hit the press (blog tour and all that for publicity), but different stories have different ways of playing out. In some cases I can run with an image or an idea and the characters and plots come into place easily.

In others, the image/idea just isn't enough. I haven't figured out the mechanism yet. I do think that my best, most haunting and evocative stories come from idea/image first, then characters arise to support the idea. I very rarely start with a plot first. It's either a character (with or without an arc) or an image. Sometimes it needs to stew a while to come together, sometimes not.
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Twilight: Imperious
User: twilight2000
Date: 2011-09-22 14:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
How much do i need on a page/brain? Depends on the idea. I wrote a flash piece (currently under consideration) on the basis of one picture that triggered a whole torrent of ideas. I wrote a novel nudged by a character I met once upon a time IRL. Often it's a quote or line from something in the morning read (news, etc) that will spark something.
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User: chris_gerrib
Date: 2011-09-22 14:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think most people (even, for a long time, me) confuse "idea" with "plot outline." I've had the idea of a near-future Mars covered with lots of little semi-independent settlements for years, but until I had a plot outline, the book didn't get written. (Pirates of Mars, coming out eventually from Hadley Rille Books)

Now that I know the difference between "idea" and "plot outline" I have a plethora of ideas. The ideas are looking for plot outlines, but ideas, I has them.
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scarlettina: Plot bunny bite
User: scarlettina
Date: 2011-09-22 14:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Plot bunny bite
I need to know where I'm going. An image is great, but if I don't know where I'm going, I find it awfully hard to start. Images can certainly be inspiration, but I always have such a hard time with plotting that I need a map, at least in my head, before I hit the road. I may need to get over that.
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User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2011-09-22 18:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
How long a story?

'Pope Hecate Silvermoon' could make a very short thingy like in old SF: circumstances of Constantine waking up from a dream about conquering in a different signo. Or it could make something as long as the Deryni series, by carefully working out the details of an alternate history where that was the only change.
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Max Kaehn: Game
User: slothman
Date: 2011-09-22 19:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a gamemaster, I need the idea for a conflict that will be interesting to the players, as well as ideas to make the setting vivid for them to imagine. They don’t need to be unique on their own, just in combination.

Overall, I follow the Warren Ellis method (though I have yet to generate sex rays) of pouring things into my brain until they all start connecting up spontaneously, so there needs to be a lot of background material to work with. Once I have enough of the background material, the original ideas start showing up and suggesting novel combinations.

I can get a lot just by hitting good source material— when running fantasy, books about daily life in the ancient world are superb, and stories that were interesting to people in that world. (When I was running an oriental fantasy, reading Outlaws of the Marsh and Journey to the West was invaluable.)
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User: dsgood
Date: 2011-09-22 22:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Until at least one character comes alive for me, I don't have a story. And character questionaires, lists of traits, etc. don't do that for me.

Ideas? I have too damn many, and I'm bad at figuring out which ones are story ideas -- let alone GOOD story ideas.

Some time ago, someone on Usenet asked for story ideas. I threw out a few, including: The horrifying discovery is made that the President of the US is NOT an alien.

The requester didn't write it. I didn't write it -- and didn't think it would work as a story.

Lawrence Watt-Evans wrote "He's Only Human."
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Daibhéid: think
User: daibheid
Date: 2011-09-23 00:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ideas are easy. Anyone can come up with an idea. That's what's awesome about an idea.

Making them viable...that's the hard part.
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User: mmegaera
Date: 2011-09-23 01:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A single idea isn't useful to me unless I can build on it. A lot of ideas aren't build-upon-able.

So, yes, coming up with a useful idea is one of the harder parts of writing for me.
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