Friday, March 13, 2009

Your Ideas Suck...

by Sean Chercover

When you do a speaking event, there are questions you know you’re going to be asked. Three of the most popular asked by aspiring writers (and people who think they might like to give it a go) include:
  1. Where do you get your ideas?
  2. I want to query agents and publishers, but how do I protect myself so they don’t steal my ideas?
  3. What do I do if I get a publisher, but they want me to make changes? After all, they’re my ideas.
Okay, let’s take them in reverse order…

3. What do I do if I get a publisher, but they want me to make changes? After all, they’re my ideas.

Here’s what you do: Make changes.

I suspect that aspiring writers think the process of getting “notes” from an agent or editor goes something like this:

Not so. Not in the publishing world. If you want that kind of helpful feedback, you have to work in film or television. In my experience, the notes you get from an agent and/or editor are not an attempt to make you write a different book, but simply to make the book you’ve written better. These people are expert readers, and they’ve been doing this a lot longer than you. So listen to them. You don’t have to make changes in response to all of their suggestions, but you should probably do so for most of them. Get your ego out of the game.

2. I want to query agents and publishers, but how do I protect myself so they don’t steal my ideas?

I’ve got some very bad news for you: Your ideas suck, and nobody wants to steal them. Not just your ideas - mine too. Everybody’s ideas suck. Agents and editors are not looking for ideas; they’re looking for execution. And nobody can steal your execution, your distinctive voice.

Here’s a little film about Pepe. Poor Pepe didn’t have any big ideas of his own, so he decided to steal some. But they don’t work on his head.

So stop worrying and send out your damn queries.

1. Where do you get your ideas?

I honestly haven't got a clue. I always resort to the standard glib answer that writers give ("I get my ideas in the Ideas isle at K-Mart.") but I really don't know how to articulate where my ideas come from. Yeah, it's easy enough to talk about reading good fiction voraciously and reading newspapers and asking "what if..." questions all the time. But all of this seems inadequate to explain the strange process by which ideas form.

So my question to you is, Where do you get your ideas?


Barbara D'Amato said...

VERY well put. Loved your points 2 and 3.

As to where to get ideas, I think ideas are everywhere. The problem is figuring out which are good enough to use and develop. For that, you have to live with them for a while. Some just fade away.

Libby Hellmann said...

True, Barb. Some ideas that come in the middle of the night seem trite the next morning. Others crawl under your skin and I can't stop thinking about them.

The deal breaker for me, though, is whether I can "marry" one idea to another. If I can, I've got the bare bones of a plot. If not, I keep searching.

John McFetridge said...

Lately I've been quoting Francis Ford Coppola who said, "The idea is the question. You make the movie to try and find the answer."

He then adds the punchline, "You try telling that to the money guys."

I think he's right - the idea is a question. Sometimes it's a big philosophical quetion about the nature of evil and sometimes it's a more mundane question, but the book is an attempt to get as close to an answer as you can.

Guyot said...

My glib answer is always - my muse, a large, black Newfoundland.

What I really want to say to that question is... if you're asking that then you have zero chance of ever being a writer. Zero.

One of the reasons we all write is because we cannot stop the ideas from coming. Sure, there's times when we struggle with executing our ideas, or after much sweat and tears realize the idea was not as good as we thought, but we can't stop them.

Since I was little, I've always sort of walked through life like I was in a movie. I would "see the shot" of whatever I was doing. Feel the tone, hear the music.

And with that came the ideas. I'd hop into my parents car, or else see a guy get into a car, with some odd physicality or emotion, or just some unique car, and boom - I suddenly had the story of that character, or at least that scene.

As writers we all have way too many ideas. Too many to fully realize, too many to spend time writing YOUR idea, too many to ever run out.

Some might be great, some good, and some awful. But we don't "get" them from anywhere. They come to us.

Because we're writers.

I.J.Parker said...

The complaint about the dreary and repetitive questions from prospective book buyers is familiar to all authors. On the whole, a talking event with questions and answers beats sitting all by yourself at a table, waiting for someone to approach you with a stupid question. When promoting, you are at everyone's mercy. Period.

Dana King said...

Guyot has it. You're tripping over ideas just about every minute of every day. (If you're paying attention, that is.) The trick is to narrow this ocean of raw material into ideas YOU can work with.

My Beloved Spousal Equivalent had an idea for a story the other week. Explained it to me and asked me how I'd write it. I said I wouldn't, because it wasn't the kind of story I could tell well. (Sort of a LIFE ON MARS time travel thing without the crime elements.) A few changes, and it might be, but this sounded like a story someone else should be writing. Someone who had a clue about how to tell it. Her, maybe.

Keith said...

I get most of my ideas by seeing what I write.

Sean Chercover said...

I.J.: I'm not complaining about being asked the question - I'm grateful that people come out to see me at all - I just have no idea how to answer it.

John: I like Coppola's answer. But there are many different ways to approach a given thematic question. Still, it beats the K-Mart answer.

I agree with you guys that ideas come all the time, some good, some less good. But Guyot - you are a hard man. Zero? That's pretty harsh.

Oh, and before FizzWater gets here, I might as well just stipulate that I am a dumbass.

Guyot said...

Okay... if you are stumped as to where to get ideas to write, or wonder where ideas actually come from, then I guess you do the an outside chance at becoming a bad writer.

Guyot said...

"then I guess you do the an outside chance..."

Yeah, becoming a bad writer like myself.

The correction is: "do HAVE an outside chance..."

Sean Chercover said...


Mark Combes said...

Think about Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea." At its most elemental, it's a story about an old guy that goes fishing. But clearly it's more than that.

I recently read McCarthy's "The Road" (suggestion: Don't read this novel before bed - I don't think I'll ever go in a cellar again) and the "idea" here is pretty simple. Father and son try to survive. But clearly it's more than that.

So, for me, it's not about the "high concept" (which I think new writers feel they need to have) it's about the people in the story and how they react to the "stimuli" in the story.

Sara Paretsky said...

I've always thought people ask where we get our ideas because they think our ideas are somehow better than theirs because our ideas translated into a written story. Usually that question comes, in tone or with context, that make me think the person wants some re-assurance about their ideas. And I try to suggest that everyone has good ideas, that the real issue is what makes an idea become a living story--which you can only do by setting characters in motion.
(Of course, sometimes the question comes from my old co-workers, or the religious zealots in my hometown, wanting to know what kind of weirdo would have ideas like mine...)

scgreen said...

I think the best ideas come when you're not expecting them. The last good idea I came up with stemmed from misquoting song lyrics.

David J. Montgomery said...

I think Guyot's being a little harsh. For new writers, staring at that blank page and having the guts to write down their ideas is a challenging thing. Sure, a lot of people ask questions like this because they're lazy and looking for a shortcut. But I think some of the others are just looking for a little reassurance.

Mark Raymond Falk said...

I know one place I DON'T get my ideas from--the drunk sonsofbitches who say things like, "You're a writer? I've got the perfect idea for a book. A guy walks into a bar, and ..."

I believe there HAS to be an emotional connection between the author and the subject matter, but more importantly, the author and the protagonist. I like to think I can see the characters on page that are forced there by people trying to write something they think other people will think is cool, even if it isn't anything they really care about.

It's hard to fake believing in ideas on the written page.

Picks By Pat said...

I used to get my ideas by going through the garbage cans of my fellow writers, but after a couple of dog bites (and a restraining order), I stopped.

Now I get my ideas from the newspaper, and my trouble isn't a lack of's too many ideas! I have rough sketches for several books that should keep me writing for the next decade...if I can execute.

Cool videos!

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

I'm actually a career criminal and all the horrible things I write about I've really done.

Sean Chercover said...

"The Confessions of Jon Jordan" - coming to a bookstore near you.

I like it.