That means “What I wish somebody would have told me when I was starting out.”
There’s so many fine details about how to handle ideas that I guess one thing I wish I understood in the beginning is that “idea discernment” is very important.
Ironically, the very idea that I wish somebody had explained to me clearly is explicitly stated in my bad example story, “Melancholy Elephants” by Spider Robinson. Now, in 1983, I could not have understood the context of this story’s Hugo win and its “insider nature.” This story would mean nothing to, and be unreadable by, the average person. I think most familiar with the sci fi field, especially that generation (story dedicated to Virginia Heinlein), can see why it got the Hugo.
Now, this story contains the line, “Senator, if I try to hoard the fruits of my husband’s genius, I may
cripple my race. Don’t you see what perpetual copyright implies?” I’m sure everyone can understand the incredibly high stakes in this tale. Also, it has a “Senator” and treats him with respect (dated, much?). For all I know, he’s some sort of Heinlein analogue – and of course “fruits of my husband’s genius . . .” (and his loins!) (the more I think of this, the more I think it crystallizes everything wrong with the hollering fool that cleared the room phenomenon). But enough of that! Also very unfair since everyone says what a great person Spider Robinson is, and he has written many cool, entertaining stories.
See what happens? ANYTHING can spawn ideas and it’s the discretion to understand which ones work that is such an important part of writing. Also to be fair to Spider Robinson, who was writing something about Robert Heinlein’s work, and the endless desire of the certain subset of peculiar sci fi readers to coopt their favorites (plagiarism, cheating, “information” confused with story – which is set forth at great length in Spider’s tale – I read the unreadable, guys) – he did take this idea, he did run with it, it is perfectly done for its subset audience. So actually, my “bad” example is a good one.
Spider has his female “character” (I use the term loosely) explain copyright cases of the time after presenting an argument that musical composers were getting really bad, with few new melodies, because all the other ones had been “used up” over time. Then, she tells the Senator (not sure Spider knew exactly what a great analog the old beast would be for “EEEEVILLLL!”), “That ended the legal principle that one does not copyright ideas but arrangements of words. The number of word arrangements is finite, but the number of ideas is much smaller.”
Well we all know from mechanics that any line of dialog that relies upon excessive italics, bolding, or other techniques to show hollering doesn’t really work . . .
But there you have it – “The number of word arrangements is finite, but the number of ideas is much smaller.”
False. However, the way the ideas are executed . . . that’s the ticket. We are nowhere near using these combinations up, and I doubt that it will ever be, as Spider suggests in the story, exhausted due to a simple time factor, with people living longer, and others “using up” all the good idea combos.
That said, what is it about ideas? How do we decide what’s a good one, and which one we should run with?
Well, here’s a model. As I always say about models, it’s a model, not “the” model. Try it on for size and see if it works for you:
- context: is the idea suited to our time and place and the audience?
- resonance: is the idea something that has meaning to, or can be presented as meaningful, to the audience?
- compelling: does the idea compel you to explore it further?
- stakes: is the idea something that can mean something very important to a character or characters?
- scope: is the range of the idea suitable to the type and length of story you want to tell?
Now, as to scope, that’s the subject for an entirely other examination, as there are ideas that “fit” every length of work. At a certain point, I can’t say precisely when, I became able to take the “natural length” that all my stories seemed to fit in and understood that I was simply selecting ideas and types of stories that fit in that length (novelette, 8,300 words, in case you wondered). Suddenly, I became able to “hit” various lengths, because it was simply a matter of envisioning the mechanics of the story – what was the conflict, how was I presenting it, how many scenes would the story need, etc. An idea with large scope is what makes most novels run.
In fact, I think those books that people think are pointless and “about nothing” are things with an idea-base that lacks the scope to hang a story of that length on it. Because our world is flexible and nothing is perfect, a small sub-audience does like these types of books and stories, just as “Melancholy Elephants” seems to be one of the most excruciating stories I’ve ever read, when it’s really just an essay in dialog form presented as a “story.” There’s an audience for that, too – even a Hugo audience (I DO think the voters, some of whom are the same today as they were in 1983, might go for this one again if it appeared today and not back then).
But that said, neither of these is the main body of short fiction or novels. The main body of both of those are stories people can understand, that are about conflicts and challenges happening to the people of the stories.
So, I am “god” of the ideas now, but I so wish that someone had explained “how to choose” back then. I spent hours listening to people (Ray Bradbury et. al.) saying they “had more ideas than they could write,” – file cabinets, card files, filled with IDEAS!!! Yeah, well if it isn’t working for you, don’t jam a square peg in a round hole, and devote sufficient time to the workings of the idea and its use and meaning and best communication – before you invest days, weeks and months of your life – writing something that fails on the most basic “idea” level in that it is not resonant enough or not appropriate to carrying the story you have to tell.