Ideas are Overrated

People often ask writers: where do you get the ideas for your stories? And I say: ideas. Blah. So overrated.

I’ve blogged about this before, but still find myself slipping into the idea-trap. Recently while reading slush-pile submissions for a literary magazine, I found that other writers slip, too. It’s a sure recipe for rejection.

On some level, stories will always be filled with ideas, of course, but when an idea is important, the reason it’s important—its value—is that beneath it, there is a deeply-held emotion. The idea matters on some fundamental emotional level, and it’s the emotion that readers connect with. The books we like most are the ones that speak not to our heads, but to our hearts.

When we think about things (ideas), we’re at least one and possibly many steps removed from the things, themselves. When we think about a moment, we’re interpreting it rather than living it, and when we write interpretations of scenes, readers feel the distance.

Keith Urban
Keith Urban

Recently I posted a quote on a pale yellow sticky note above my desk: “Raw is a good place for an artist to be.” On American Idol, I heard judge Keith Urban say those words to a contestant. Raw. His comment spoke to me as a writer: stop thinking about the song (or the character or story) and feel it. Live it. Sing (write) from your soul. Let yourself be vulnerable. Be real. Be raw. Urban and the other Idol judges do a good job of pushing artists to dig deeper, and in the process, they’ve pushed me.

Years back, when I set out to write novels for young readers, I had no idea that I would have to dig so deeply into my soul—into really raw places—to tell stories. As hard as this journey has been, it’s also rewarded me in unexpected ways. I’ve felt alive. Connected. A raw place is an honest place, and when it comes to writing fiction, honesty is everything.

4 thoughts on “Ideas are Overrated”

  1. This made me think about my experience with PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) last November. We had to come up with one idea for a picture book every day, and I was one of the grand prize winners in the drawing who had an agent look over what I considered my five best ideas. She was quite encouraging, but it turned out that the idea she found least appetizing (because the protagonist was a cockroach) ended up being the one that worked for me. I felt very attached to my protagonist who wanted to see herself on television despite what seemed to be impossible obstacles and her own tendency to go about things all wrong.

  2. Ha! Lyn – I love that! A cockroach who yearns to be on TV but faces (understandably) impossible odds. Hahaha. And thank you for mentioning PiBoldMo. I hadn’t heard of it before. It’s clearly timed with NaNoWriMo, and that makes me wonder: what is it with writers and November? Of all the months, why November? Just curious, really. Not expecting you’ll know, but had to throw it out there. Write on!

  3. I’ve thought the same thing. I would’ve thought that a summer month would make more sense than November, when the holidays are starting and everyone gets really busy. But, what do I know? 😉

    Thank you for a perfectly timed article! Today, I started working on a new idea, and this really encourages me to work hard. Thanks again! 🙂

  4. A new idea…! There you go. Dig deeply beneath that idea, and ask why that particular one is speaking to you and your characters, and perhaps you’ll find in your answer the heart of the story.

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