You Really Have No Idea

granola_stateAny writer in the creative arts can share a version of this story. It is invariably something that has directly happened to them: They’re at a party, making small talk, meeting people. They are asked, “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Really? What do you write?”

“Novels. Screenplays. That sort of thing.”

“You know, I had an idea once. It goes like this…”

And to the misery of the writer, they are regaled for the next twenty minutes (barring an escape to the bathroom and out the window) by their new acquaintance’s Great Idea for a novel/story/movie whatever.

The problem is that people think their ideas are worth something.

This is a misconception with many sources, one of them being the ass-above-the-collar way movies get made. But some of the blame falls upon writers themselves. They will go on talkshows and say, “Coming up with the idea was half the work.”

The truth is, most of the writing process is not wrangling with the idea. It’s the hard work involved in the development of the idea — the word-by-word unfolding of story, character, setting, theme, and nuance. Nearly everyone can think of a story concept. Here’s one: “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.” Ten words. It took me less than eight seconds to type them. (Meaning I can still type reliably at 75 words per minute — not as quickly as when I was a professional typesetter, but I can’t run laps as quickly as I did back then, either.)

To create a good novel or screenplay takes rather more than eight seconds, yet it is only when the process is finished that one has a creative property. Giving overwhelming credit to the idea is a bit like saying half the work a cardiac surgeon does in transplanting a heart from a donor to a patient is the mere concept of repurposing spare organs — an idea at least as old as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

I’m not going to be too hard here on the motives of those party goers. I know at least some of them are just engaging in the admirable social technique of trying to find common ground. “You have imagination? I have a bit of imagination, too. Isn’t it great?” They are just trying to relate. They may even be thinking they’re being generous by sharing. They apparently assume we writers must not have enough ideas already. They apparently think we’ll be grateful for some, you know, help.

We don’t need the help.

Someone at a typical party is probably not accustomed to coming up with story concepts. Everyone has an imagination of some sort and sooner or later, a concept will pop into their head. But generally it is a rare event. Perhaps it happens as seldom as once a decade. Maybe even once in a lifetime. Because it so infrequent, it may seem huge to them. Worth sharing.

Here is how a typical writer will come up with ideas: They will sit down at a blank computer screen. (When I first started, it was a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter.) For about six minutes, grasping-at-straws ideas pop in and out of their heads. Being accustomed to the creative process, they reject those ideas. They know those glimmers of inspiration are actually non-starters, not worth even an hour of development. At the end of six minutes, the first adequate idea will emerge. They’ll test it out with a few hundred words of scene, or maybe a couple thousand words of background notes. Then, if they have the luxury of doing so, they’ll toss it and try thinking of something better. If they’re under a deadline, they may go ahead and use that initial adequate idea, leaving it to another day to think of something outstanding.

When a truly good idea arrives, they will breathe a sigh of relief, knowing from that point on their job will be so much easier than it otherwise would be.

They do eventually have those good ideas. Good ideas can be elusive, but they happen. They happen with at least some degree of frequency, or those individuals wouldn’t be writers at all.

If you are tempted to share your idea with a writer at a party, please consider this possibility: Your concept is probably the equivalent of the sort a typical writer thinks up in the first few minutes and instantly rejects. Sorry, but the odds are, that’s true.

But let’s say you have outdone yourself and actually have an idea that could be successfully rendered into a novel or screenplay. This is probably the equivalent of the “adequate” idea. Before you mention it, consider this calculation of its value: It may take the writer a thousand hours to write a novel. They may earn ten thousand bucks from the book. (Unfortunately there are quite a few novelists whose books never achieve that income threshold. As figures go, it’s a fair example to use.) That’s ten bucks an hour. How long would it have taken the writer to come up with their own adequate idea?

Six minutes.

One tenth of an hour. A fragment of time representing one dollar’s worth of income to that writer.

If you really want to be helpful, just pull out your wallet and give the writer a buck. Because you will take twenty minutes to describe your idea. In that time, the writer could have had at least three adequate story-concept ideas. You’ve just cost them money.

Last possibility: You really do have a fabulous idea. If so, congratulations!

You still shouldn’t describe it to the writer.

Why not?

Because the writer will still face nine hundred ninety-nine hours and fifty-four minutes of sweat and hair-tearing to flesh that idea out into a full novel. Do you think they want to invest that effort in an idea someone told them at a party?

 

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You Really Have No Idea — 6 Comments

  1. LOL, Dave. I love hearing other people’s ideas (it tells me a bit about them and that’s interesting to me even if the idea isn’t quite as fresh as they believe). I then say, “You should write that.” They almost always says, “I don’t have time/talent/courage.” Then I say, “If you ever do decide to write that story, feel free to ask me for advice on the process.”

    Twice I have had someone say, “I’d rather that you wrote it, since you’re the expert.” I replied (quite truthfully), “The one with the idea is always the best one to write the story. You have to write your story and I have to write as many of the myriad stories in my idea drawer as I can before I die.”

    Yes, they looked peeved. But convinced. And if either one ever contacts me, I will happily give them all the advice they can handle and rejoice with them if the book does well.

    And yes, Hollywood does manage to get the process backward (just saw an interview where Robert Downey Jr said that good writing makes his job harder). But to be fair, we don’t have to herd actors, lighting crews, set dressers, or continuity editors (well…maybe the continuity editor…).

  2. Or the ever-popular, “We can write the book together — I’ll supply the idea and you do the writing, and we’ll split the money 50/50!”

  3. If I’m well lubricated I may point out to the queryer that ideas are extraordinarily easy to find. Turn over any rock and there are dozens. I usually use the alien-come-to-suburbia meme, which can range from Mork from Ork to Superboy in Smallville to E.T. phoning home. It’s not the idea that makes the work. It’s Robin Williams, creating Mork from his own vibrating nervous system, or the puppet guys animating the rubber E.T. puppet, or the comics artists drawing Superboy. It’s the =work= that makes the work what it is. The idea, meh.

    • That one is actually useful, Mary. I had someone chasing me around who wanted me to try some kind of game/process for designing stories. I could think of nothing less interesting, but one time finally got cornered. I had a bit more courage, since a friend of long professional standing was sitting next to me. Turns out the designer had created something for group design of a story, and wanted some professionals to test it out.

      We had to explain to him that the few times writers chose to work together, building the story was not the problem at all. Pros had little use for it. Game designers or scriptwriters, maybe — people building a dungeon together, perhaps. But fiction writers did not need help creating stories.

      Now, a machine that gives you eight more hours in a day to get writing done? We can talk.