Thursday, September 29, 2011

I have a great idea...

My non-writing friends tell me fairly often that they're amazed that I can keep on coming up for ideas for novels. I'm not sure why people pick up on this particular aspect of writing, because just about any writer can tell you that the ideas are actually the easy part.

Ideas are everywhere. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas are in every news programme, in every magazine, every journey and every chat with friends. It's getting the right idea that's hard.

It has to be something that your agent will be happy to sell, that your publisher will like, and also your publisher's marketing department. It needs to attract booksellers and the press. In this market, it needs to be catchy enough to be able to be described in a sentence or two, and yet complex enough so that it's not a barefaced cliche. Preferably it will lend itself to the perfect title and type of cover, too. If it has a nice marketing hook that the press can latch on to, that's even better.

It also needs to be something that you, the author, will be happy to live with for about a year at least while you're writing it, and then not be sick of it when it comes time to promote it. Probably it will appeal to your core themes, the sort of thing that you tend to write books about and which you come back to again and again and again. I know that there are lots and lots of ideas out there that are good, but for me, an idea that zings has to touch, in some way, my core themes of identity and perception. Otherwise, I won't be interested in writing it.

That's why it hardly ever works when someone comes up to you and says, "I've got this great idea, you can use it if you like." It might be great, but it's not your idea. Therefore, it won't work. I usually suggest to the person that maybe they'd like to write it themselves; if it appeals to them, they'll do a much better job with it than I ever could.

Some ideas seem good at the time, but then when you get down to working with them, when you start getting your hands dirty, you discover that actually they're not very good at all. Likewise—though it's much rarer—sometimes you have an idea that seems so blatantly obvious that everyone and his dog will have done it already...but they haven't. It's up to you.

Some ideas are really good, but you've put them in the wrong place. I've given my characters the wrong jobs before, for example. The jobs were awesome, they were really great to write about, except they just didn't fit.

And some ideas, you come up with when you've had a few too many glasses of wine. You scrawl them down and your handwriting is nearly illegible. The less said about those ideas, probably the better. I found a Post-It with "STAIRCASE" written on it the other day. I have absolutely no clue what it means, but I do remember that it seemed like utter brilliance at the time.

Best and worst of all, ideas don't come on demand. You have to wheedle and coax them. You have to catch them while they're not paying attention, by watching them out of the corners of your eyes. You can wait and wait and think damn, I'm never going to write another book again, and then BOO! They'll jump out at you and get you in a headlock until you can't think about anything but writing them.

Those are the best kinds of ideas.

Check back on Sunday for Anna's post.


  1. I have to say, thank heavens for my iPhone - I often get ideas when I'm supposed to be going to sleep and of course there's never any pen and paper to hand (plus it's dark). So I grab the phone and send myself an e-mail, because if you don't write them down straight away, they disappear. I do try to write more than 'Staircase' though, LOL! You've got me intrigued now, wonder what that could have been?

  2. Yes, that mine is working over time now :-)Each one of us would come with a difference twist...

    So true about ideas...


  3. I don't know what the staircase was! If either of you want to write a novel about it, I would be quite happy to cede that idea to you.