Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Stumbling into a story: recognizing a great idea

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One of the accidental themes of my recent posts has been the idea that, since a novel can take up a year or more of your life, you’d better choose your subject carefully. And at first glance, the stakes can seem dauntingly high. Choosing a subject for a novel is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the analogous process for a short story, since a novel takes considerably longer and is exponentially more complex. It’s possible to occasionally gamble on a doubtful premise for a shorter piece, or even a novelette, but for a novel, the potential cost in time and effort is far too high. And while I’ve previously outlined various ways of generating ideas, I haven’t addressed what might be the most important question of all: how do you know if an idea is worth it?

Part of me is inclined to slightly misquote A.E. Housman here, and say that I can no more define a good idea than a terrier can define a rat. Looking for good ideas is simply what writers do, consciously or unconsciously, and the process of identifying an idea for a novel is undeniably a matter of intuition. And the best ideas often come to us with a forcefulness comparable only to love at first sight, or perhaps to Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. When I first saw Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, for instance, I knew that I had to write a book about it. But at that point, I’d also been researching a novel about the art world for months, with a crucial missing piece at its center, which allowed Étant Donnés to slide neatly into place.

This gives us one important clue: great ideas don’t exist in isolation. They’re simply one important step—and not necessarily the first—in a process that will inevitably outlast that initial burst of enthusiasm. Which also means that your instinctive level of interest or excitement is not necessarily the best measure of whether an idea is good or not. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re going to be approaching a novel in all kinds of moods, and there’s going to come a time, especially after you’ve spent months on research and outlining, when you find your own premise exhausting. This kind of burnout happens to every writer. The real test of an idea’s value, then, isn’t how much you love it at first glance, but whether it’s the kind of long-term, sustainable idea that can nourish the lengthy process of writing a novel.

This is the best advice I can give: since great ideas are only meaningful as part of a process that includes craft, hard work, and a lot of luck, the best way to ensure that you’ll recognize an idea when it comes is to get the process started, now, long before the idea shows itself. You begin by deciding, once and for all, to write a novel; you tentatively arrive at a genre, a tone, maybe even a setting or some characters, while knowing that all these things are likely to change. Then you go exploring, casting your net wide at first, then gradually zeroing in on your true subject. That way, you’ve prepared a place for great ideas to nest, and are less likely to be sidetracked by ones that are seductive but unproductive—although you should always write everything down. And when you finally stumble across that great idea, if you’ve laid the groundwork accordingly, you’ll recognize it at once.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2011 at 10:07 am

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