Last time, we talked about the act of overcoming apathy and self-doubt and simply writing.
"Well, that's all well and good, PJ," I imagine some of you said, "But what if I have nothing to write about."
Fair point. You need to have some idea of what you are writing before you write. Although I will argue that even if you have no set idea you should just write anyway: some of the greatest moments in your writing can be thrashed out here, and even if they aren't it all still counts towards building those writing muscles.
But I won't beat around the bush: ideas are essential to the fictional writing process. It's the difference between a list of ingredients and a cooked meal, or a bunch of people with musical instruments and an orchestra with sheet music and a conductor. Ideas are by definition not a tangible thing, but you know when an idea has been injected into something. It ties it all together and brings it to life.
Which is why anyone who says they have no ideas for a book are not just kidding themselves, they are flat out lying. The very definition of an idea is "any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity." Or, in layman's terms, being mentally aware enough to understand things in context. To see these very words on the screen before you and process them from squiggly lines to something that has meaning. Basically, ideas are life. You cannot have one without the other.
Ah, but good ideas! That is what we are talking about, right? Well, yes and no. What is a good idea anyway? How is it different from a bad idea? I truly think that there's no such thing as a good or bad idea; all ideas have potential, but they need to be processed, bulked out with logic and - yep - other ideas.
It is this process that sorts out the writers from the wannabes, I believe. True, you are going to get the occasional gifted individual who can get perfectly formed inspiration land on their lap as regularly as a toilet break, but these people are wonderful freaks of nature: once-in-a-generation types. But for the rest of us mere mortals, we must craft our ideas, which come out less like beautiful packages and something more akin to an unexpected fart. Right here is the first and most important bridge you must cross if you should ever wish to become a writer: to take your ideas and process them into something that other people will want to spend time (and maybe money) hearing.
It's not easy. Ideas are so sporadic in nature that you could almost call them random, except they aren't quite so unpredictable: there are things we can do to aid the process. For example, one of my favorite methods is something I like to call 'idea synergy', which is combining two sometimes very different and (on their own) bland ideas into something unique and exciting.
For example, before my novel Tick existed I knew that I wanted to write a fiction book about cats someday. In fact, the original concept of 'Tick' focused on the secret life and times of a cat who's owner was called Simon, and it was going to answer the questions that many of us cat-owners and cat-lovers have about the odd behavior of our feline friends. The working title was 'What Do You Get Up To?'
Now, in concept this is fine. But I was really struggling to lay down the groundwork for a real story here. Why would the reader really care about the fictional answers of a cat's secret life when his owner is not looking? It just sounds like Toy Story but with extra fur, doesn't it? Basically the sound premise lacked a heart, something to give the project shape and make readers care about it enough to pick up and read.
And then, one night - and this is going to sound incredibly cheesy and cliche - I had a dream. My name on signs, with arrows beckoning me to follow. The dream cut out and I woke up just as I entered the room with my name on. Most dreams fizzle away after a few hours of real life but this one really stuck me - partly because I really wanted to know how it ended.
But again, this whole dream was a thumbnail sketch: a neat little idea, but I could hardly sustain it over a novel, right? But then I returned to my other idea of the cat story, and instantly the two ideas melded in my mind: what if someone followed the same kind of signs into the room, and that resulted in him or her becoming a cat?
Mixing these two ideas was like a chemical reaction. They seemingly have very little to do with each other, but the second you imagine how these two disparate ideas might link together, you reach a tipping point and you mind begins filling in blanks for you - if not automatically then at least with great ease.
So this is one method among many on how to process your ideas. There are countless other ways out there I'm sure, but if there is one overarching tip I could give that applies to every style, it is to not overthink things. You do not want to overripen your ideas. An idea that is too meticulously planned out can be useful, but it can also be stubborn and unwieldy when you get the writing process, and you will feel it when your characters and plot seem to be stifled, stumbling from one incident to the next, seemingly on rails. There is a lot to be said for allowing breathing space for anything organic that may come out of the writing as you are doing it.
Apart from that, you really don't want to be a perfectionist about these things. If you spend all your days agonizing over whether your idea is good enough for a book, you will never get anything done. Far better to simply sweep aside your doubts, hold your nose and dive in. Even if it does turn out to be a disaster, it is not a waste: you can chalk it up to being a useful experience.