Monday, April 23, 2012

The Wrong Idea About Ideas

The major misconception about story ideas has to do with what they can and cannot accomplish. Let me illustrate with a cocktail party scenario that goes something like this.

Author stands at edge of crowd to maximize observation potential. Since this is a savvy author, her glass contains sparkling water, diet cola or plain tonic with lime keeping the head clear in case anyone even remotely connected with publishing should appear and require sober impressing.

Fellow partier sidles over but is unfortunately anything but a publishing professional. Partier discovers that Author is in fact an author and suggests some variation on the following.

“I’ve got a terrific idea for a novel. Bestseller for sure. How’s about I tell you my idea – you write the story – then we split the take fifty-fifty?”

More than one misconception is in play here. First of all this non-writer underestimates the writing process. Famous sportswriter Red Smith once famously said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

The party guy with the great story idea knows nothing about the bloodletting aspect of the writer’s journey. Worse yet – he does not understand that an idea is not a story.

An idea is only a kernel. That kernel may possess the potential to grow into the next Nora King Mary Higgins Grisham opus or it may not. Either way tons of nurture, strain, frustration, doubt and even bloodletting must be applied between planting and harvest.

A clever idea may be a jumping off place but without the sweat equity required the storyteller is in for a hard fall.

Not only non-writers are susceptible here. I have experienced myself the exhilaration of what I can only describe as a Technicolor idea strike. A story concept or maybe just a scene appears unexpectedly. Lightning in the mind reveals something entirely new and previously unimagined.

“This is it,” I cry out in creative ecstasy preferably where no one is listening. “This is the story I have to write.”

The problem is that I don’t really have a story. I only have an idea and an idea is only a beginning. A story – particularly in the commercial publishing arena – requires a plot with a beginning, middle and end.

At best my flash of inspiration will get me through the opening scene – maybe the first chapter. Without a lot more work the story tumbles downhill from there….

Any editor worth her blue pencil will see straight through the Technicolor bit to the lackluster follow-up. Even if she is impressed by the story start she’ll know there is no second act.

[Excerpted from my book No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells available at]


sandra gardner said...

you are so good! thanks for this, Alice!

Alice Orr said...

Thanks Sandy.. Please forgive me for not being in touch. I am trying to get ready for a workshop upstate plus too many other things. But have no doubt.. I hope to get together with you.. maybe after mid-June when I get back from upstate.. I hope so.