My files are full of “story ideas”, snippets of dialogue, descriptions, clippings from newspapers and magazines. Most will die of old age before making it into a book or even a short story. Because ideas are really the easy part. Anyone can have an idea. Go on, I dare you. Have an idea for a book right this second. I’ll even give you a starting point – what if all the birds in the world suddenly disappeared? Now you think of one. Share it with me in a comment if you like.
Okay, so you’ve had an idea. Excited yet? Feeling like a best-selling author? Of course not. An idea is only a stray thought that catches a writer’s attention. The hard part is turning that stray thought or exciting concept into a page-turning book. Which requires that you create believable characters to live in your new world, give them strong reasons of their own for doing whatever they do – you wanting them to behave a certain way isn’t enough. Then make the background equally real. The challenge of doing all this has a strange effect on writers. Here’s what happens. You sit down at the keyboard, all set to work on your wonderful idea. That’s usually when another, even more exciting idea jumps into your head. You won’t be able to focus on the first story for thinking about the possibilities of this second idea. I’ll call this Distracting Idea Syndrome or DIS. The syndrome strikes every writer every single time. What separates the true grit writers from the one-day-maybes is how they handle attacks of DIS. My way is to scribble down a few notes to remind me how great the Distracting Idea was, then go back to work on the first idea. If the Distracting Idea is really as great as it seems, it will hang around, bubbling away in the back of your mind until it bursts out like a geyser, fully developed and ready to go. If it’s only your mind’s way of handling performance anxiety, it will fade quietly away and you won’t give it any more thought.
Lots of writers worry that editors or readers will steal their ideas, but you know what, there are more ideas floating around in the air than there are hours in the day to write them down. In workshops I’ve given 30 writers the same idea, or starting point, to write about. And the result is 30 story outlines so different you’d never know they sprang from the same seed.
So go ahead, have as many ideas as you want. Write them down. Then choose the most promising one, the one that keeps your mind churning at night and pops into your head at odd times of the day. The one where you can “see” the people involved and their world. That’s the one you sit down to write. Expect DIS to strike. Laugh in its face. And keep writing.