We can accomplish nothing in life without an idea. However, before we can successfully act, we must have a clear concept of what we are trying to accomplish, a concept that goes beyond the basic idea itself to encompass the entire endeavour. This may sound obvious, but the point is this: using ideas is more complicated than having just one and then vaguely trying to do something with it.

Small Spiral Notebook ith words: Story Ideas Are Just the Start

To succeed as a writer you need more than just a notebook full of story ideas. You also need a clear idea of where you are going with your writing.

Many writers, for example, have plenty of ideas for stories and novels; yet never manage to do anything with them. Their work falters for want of a central, organizing, and motivating idea of what they are doing and why they are doing it. They write, not for well-understood reasons, but because they think they like the work, hope to make some money, and yearn for fame or respect. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that there are other enjoyable things to do, far easier and more reliable ways to make money, and fame is famously elusive. They fall by the wayside. As it happens, thinking, hoping, and yearning are not powerful enough reasons for doing anything, let alone tackling a tough long-term project that requires hard work and dedication.

This idea for this post came to me when I stumbled on an old goal scribbled on the inside cover of a small, very decrepit, 25-cent spiral notebook.

GOAL: to become a commercially successful fantasy author and makes lots of money. I will write big fat entertaining novels. Learn not to fear the size of a work.

(What can I say? Modesty has never been one of my strong points!)

The notebook is at least twenty years old and goes all the way back to the earliest days of my writing efforts. The pages have yellowed and become brittle. It is falling to pieces. Yet it bulges with scores of ideas for novels and short stories. The trouble is, my writing went nowhere in those days because I had no concept of what I was doing beyond that simple hastily scribbled goal and a notebook filled with story ideas.

Writers falter because they lack a set of deep convictions, a philosophy, to guide their work and provide the powerful motivation necessary to keep going. My struggles during the years that followed the scribbling of that goal had more to do with developing just such a philosophy than with writing novels. It was a search for workable ideas about writing.

We are wise to draw our motivation from our own unique set of emotionally important ideas. In other words, we must follow the impulses of our own deeper authentic selves. Pleasant work, money, and fame are usually ego or false persona goals borrowed from the society around us. We have learned that we are supposed to want these things. Nevertheless, since these things are not emotionally important enough to us (although we may think they are), they lack the power to keep us going when things get tough. Our own authentic emotionally important ideas are what really matters to us, and it is among those ideas that we will find the motivation we need.

What does this mean? It means writing about whatever it is that makes us upset, or that thrills the hell out of us. What do we hate about the world around us? What do we want to share with others? How do we want to influence people? If it matters to us, it will motivate us. We must make it part of or writing philosophy to work our genuine worldview into whatever we are writing. Of course, the strategy requires that we know ourselves well enough to grasp what truly matters to us. That is why succeeding at writing should be viewed as both an occupation and a journey of self-discovery.

Along with motivation, we need a thorough understanding of the creative process. Without such knowledge, the normal setbacks of writing (and there are many) will seem baffling and discouraging, perhaps even overwhelming. Confusion over what is happening will put us at risk of falling into despair and giving up the chase. When I mention “the creative process” I do not mean technique or style, I am referring to ideas like nuanced themes, incubation periods, images of wide scope, and so on. While it can sound quite fancy, none of this is rocket science, and anyone can learn the important aspects of creativity if they are truly interested.

Working out what matters to us and studying the creative process can accompany the writing process itself. In fact, seeing writing as a “package deal,” rather than mere scribbling, is a good idea and highly recommended. Our own particular version of the package is our unique philosophy of writing.

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12 thoughts on “Ideas Are Key to Writing Success

  1. Bravo! What it comes down to is the question of what’s important enough to you, for whatever reason, to keep you focused and motivated. That also gets at what I find disturbing about people who need prompts because they have no ideas of their own. That’s fine for beginners, if only to get them in the writing habit and develop their skills in expanding an idea. But if you’re not engaged enough with the world to find yourself full of ideas, you’re never going to be a writer.

  2. Do you struggle with perfectionism? It’s debilitating for me at times. I also go through these low points that threaten to derail my project.

    In honesty, I love bringing an idea to paper (or screen) because I like laughing as well as other making people laugh. Beyond that, I’m not sure where the hell this is going. But, I enjoy doing it and I’m broke, so I guess I’m doing it for a noble reason…

  3. I had a feeling you would enjoy this post, Catana. You are an excellent example of the idea-driven or idea-centred author who also has a personal writing philosophy to tie it all together. Linking ideas to being “engaged … with the world” is a great way to think about where story ideas come from and how the elements of a writing philosophy are hammered out.

  4. Yes, I do struggle with perfectionism, but over the years, I have developed a philosophical attitude towards writing that allows me to avoid getting hung up.

    The best remedy I ever found was the English concept that you can “overwrite” a piece. There are two aspects to this. First, you can actually make things worse by being too fussy. Second, the type of work you are doing, or the remuneration offered for it, may not justify the outlay of time and effort. To put this in an American context, would it have made sense to write high-quality prose for the old pulp magazines? Editors did not require it (would probably have laughed, in fact!) and the pay was only one cent per word. Always keep in mind that there is such a thing as “good enough.”

    Another useful concept comes from Leonardo da Vinci’s remark that “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Since this is always the case, why not spare yourself some aggravation by abandoning it a little sooner!

    Last, but not least, ask yourself if your desire for perfection is really an ego problem, the desire to surpass all others and be a glowing “beacon in the night” to the global writing community. This sounds silly, does it not? You do not want to look silly, do you?

  5. Very good, Thomas. I have some of those types of notes written down in old spiral notebooks around here as well. It hasn’t been quite twenty years, but its getting there. There’s a lot of differences between then and now, but I think one of the big differences for me is quite simply maturity.

  6. Great to hear from you, Dan. Maturity sure does make a difference. I’m much more patient and thorough than I used to be, and the broader outlook and deeper understanding I acquired with age add to everything I do. When I look back on those early writing efforts, I find myself muttering that old saying, “If only I had known then what I know now.”

  7. My desire for perfection isn’t really a *desire*. It has more to do with being raised by overly-critical and highly judgmental people. I think it’s just a natural cause and effect thing. When people are never happy with anything, it’s passed on to a host. I’m trying to get past that. Ego is a foreign concept to me…

  8. Adam, it sounds like your perfectionism is really a fear (or anxiety) of making mistakes. Perhaps your fear comes from a remembered anticipation of unpleasant disapproval if you don’t get everything just right. My troubles with perfectionism arise from my own desire that everything always be as good as I can possibly make it, before I let it go. It’s all about self-respect, earning a sense of accomplishment, and an honest desire to impress others in order to reinforce my sometimes shaky sense of self-worth. I use the devices outlined in my earlier reply to help me let go at the right time.

    As a rapid-cycling manic depressive, those low points you mentioned in your first comment are a way of life for me. I find that depression is not an obstacle to work, but it does make me think that what I’m doing isn’t very good. As a defence, I’ve learned to suspend judgement until the depression cycles past and I can be more objective. Usually the work proves as good as anything else I do, sometimes better in that it is more sincere and heartfelt.

    All of these devices and defences constitute emotional literacy. I understand my urges and feelings and can properly manage them. Years of cognitive behaviour therapy provided the battleground where I learned how to do this, although simple maturity also played a large role.

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