Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Good ideas, bad ideas, no ideas

with one comment

George Abbott

Over the course of a working life, a writer repeatedly finds himself confronting the same two cognitive leaps. The first is going from having no ideas to having one idea; the second is going from a bad idea to a good idea. Both are daunting in their own ways, but the first is infinitely more frightening. When you’re staring at a blank page without any notion of how to proceed, the process of getting a single idea can feel like climbing Everest. And I’m not even referring to ideas on the largest scale, the story premises and major plot elements that are generally cheaper and easier to invent than they look. I’m talking about the tiny stuff: what one character says to another when they enter a restaurant, what they should order when they sit down, even how to get them into the restaurant in the first place. These tiny details aren’t glamorous, but they’re the lifeblood of fiction, and each one represents a decision—which is to say an idea—on the part of the author. When writing is going well, you can get a cascade of ideas, each one following quickly from the next. But in order to enter that zone, the number of ideas you have has to be at least one more than zero. And that jump from zero to one can feel like it spans quite an abyss.

At the same time, it’s important not to settle for the first idea you have, and one of the hardest parts of being a writer is finding the willingness to honestly scrutinize and weigh those initial ideas on their own merits. Still, the chasm extending between zero ideas and that first, tenuous hint of a notion is so vast that even bad ideas deserve to be celebrated. Going from nothing to a workable idea is rarely a matter of one moment of insight—although it does happen occasionally, and a writer learns to treasure those moments of inspiration when they come. More often, it’s a slow, iterative, evolutionary process, with one bad idea leading to others that are slightly less awful, until you’ve finally got something that works. And those early bad ideas are infinitely better than nothing, simply because they exist. I never tire of quoting William Goldman’s story about the Broadway producer George Abbott, who found the choreographer for one of his shows seated in the theater with his head in his hands, the dancers waiting around for instructions. “I can’t figure out what they should do next,” the choreographer said. “Well, have them do something!” Abbott replied. “That way we’ll have something to change.”

William Goldman

So how do you get from zero to one? I could give you a list of the various brainstorming tricks I’ve written about in the past—use randomness, take a walk or a shower, look for a combination of two existing ideas, and most of all give it time—but there’s a larger point that needs to be made. Works about writing, including this blog, love to lay down rules of craft, but at the risk of obscuring their larger purpose: most rules of craft are designed to ease the passage from zero ideas to one idea. Once you’ve figured out the subset of rules that you find personally useful, you’re no longer starting entirely from scratch, however much it may feel that way each morning. You already know, for instance, that you want to structure your plot as a sequence of clear objectives; that a story is ultimately about what the protagonist wants from moment to moment; that you want to establish the initial problem as soon as possible; that these points are best expressed in the form of concrete images and actions; and so on. All at once, you have a better sense of the kind of idea you’re trying to find, and that in itself makes the hunt for that elusive X all the more manageable.

These rules also come in handy when you’re trying to turn a bad idea into a good idea, if only because they give you a set of objective standards for telling the difference. And the routines you’ve established are even more important. Taken in isolation, these habits are mechanical, even simpleminded: write every day, revise only after the entire manuscript is finished, cut at least ten percent from the final draft. Really, though, they’re all just a means of keeping you at your desk until those early bad ideas have transformed into something good. The rough draft of a chapter often comes down to the systematic working out of a few bad ideas, and it’s only once the entire scene is complete that you can figure out how you should have approached it in the first place, or at least have the perspective required to cut away that material that doesn’t work. At its core, writing boils down to the process of going from zero ideas to one idea, good or bad, and then living with that idea and all of its successors until they’ve evolved into something you like. Both steps are crucial, and both come with their own network of strategies that allow a writer to do it once, then do it again and again. It’s never easy. But it’s often enough just to know that it’s possible.

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2014 at 9:40 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

One Response

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    January 29, 2014 at 1:10 am


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