The Place Great Ideas Come From

I’m going to explore the topics of idea and passion in the upcoming weeks. I am often asked, “Where do you get those ideas for your novels?” Have you ever stopped to consider just how ideas come to us? I’ve heard writers lament on occasion that they just can’t come up with any good ideas for their next book. They “rack” their brains trying to find a new story, or a new twist on an old story (more likely, since it’s pretty true there are “no new plots.”) How do ideas bubble up to the  surface of our consciousness and why those ideas? Is there a way to “bubble up” some great ideas that will make a compelling story?

No Shortage of Great Ideas

I’m not going to talk about ways to find great story ideas; they are all around us. All you have to do is read the daily news and you’ll come up with amazing stories you can borrow and adapt. Rather, I want to focus on the word great in the title of this post. Great ideas. Ideas that can move into rich concepts and themes.

What I’ve been hearing in discussions with literary agents and editors is they are seeing way too many stories that are a string of scenarios and not many true “stories.” As I critique manuscript after manuscript, I find myself faced with plot and not heart. Last year on this blog I did an online course (for the entire year) called Writing the Heart of Your Story (soon, I hope, to be published in book form). Writing stories with heart is a passionate issue to me, and I will venture to say that’s what literary agents are really hoping to come across as they read through one lacking manuscript after another.

Just what is lacking? Ideas? Good plot? Probably not. I’ve read some terrific plots in the novels I’ve critiqued over the years, but not a whole lot have ever gotten me excited or “rocked my world.” But isn’t it plot that really makes a book exciting? Yes and no. You need a terrific, fresh plot. Or a fresh and intriguing twist on a standard plot. The Hunger Games is a twist on Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery.” Harry Potter is essentially Star Wars revisited, which is derivative of many stories that came before it. But even with a great plot idea, a novel can fall flat. And that’s where passion comes in.

Merge Passion with Idea

Maybe you’ve heard people (editors, agents, writing instructors, novelists) talk about passion. But what or whose passion are they referring to? You can be passionate about your story idea, which is really enthusiasm. Don’t confuse the two. I’ve heard clients talk (or write in an e-mail) quite excitedly about their plot, and it might actually be a great idea. But when I dig into the writing looking for the heart of the story, I’m not finding passion.

So, what do I mean by passion? I’m talking about a strong feeling, conviction, belief that comes from within. A belief that this is an important story to tell, an important theme to explore. Or it may have nothing to do with importance. There may be absolutely no theme or point to your story, but it can still radiate passion.

Ooze with Passion

Have you ever read a book that oozes with a passion of storytelling? One of my favorite authors is Walter Moers, who writes insanely crazy stories with the most bizarre plots and characters. Maybe underneath all the madness there are some themes floating around, some “point” he is trying to get across. If so, I think I may have missed those—too busy laughing my head off or turning pages so fast in excitement I didn’t notice. I picture Moers at his computer or drawing on (?) blank paper those wild cartoons that pepper his books. Or typing madly away at his keyboard, his fingers flying fast over the keys as laughter bellows out his mouth in the delight of his story.

Do you ever sense that? That utter joy in storytelling? I was just critiquing a client’s intro to his second novel last week. I loved his first one, and although his profession suggests (highly) he would lack a sense of humor (okay, guess away, but I won’t spill), his wry humor won me over immediately. But it was more than that. Sure, his writing is good, better than many, craft-wise. But I see a lot of good writing that bores me.

As I went through this intro to his second novel, a completely different story than the first, it struck me why I thought he stood out among so many of my clients. It is clear he loves to tell a story. I’m sure somewhere in there, as I go through the book, I will find great plot and themes, maybe even some deep take-home message underlying the book. But that didn’t concern me as I read through the opening pages. I knew, just by being wooed into this story, I would love the book. And if it needs some work, some tightening, revising, restructuring (don’t most novels?), in the end it will be another terrific novel by this budding author.

Which brings us around to the question as to why we write. I wrote a number of posts last year about our concepts of success, and about our feelings of self-worth being tied in to our writing. Our need for validation, our need for an audience. There are many reasons for writing, and many of them are valid. But, for whatever reason we write, we should, I feel, find a way to tap into the passion for writing and bring that out in our stories.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What makes you passionate about your story? And what is it in someone else’s story that excites you and makes their story stand above the rest?

12 Responses to “The Place Great Ideas Come From”

  1. Jessica Baverstock May 6, 2013 at 1:11 am #

    Yes, there are definitely novels out there that don’t have strong theme or plot and yet are glorious to read. There is definitely a special something to them and I think you’ve described it very well.

    I become passionate about stories that are fresh and different – stories I feel only I can tell. I look for the stories that work with my whacky voice and I invest in those.

    I’m hoping this doesn’t sound opinionated/self-aggrandizing. I make the decision to go with stories that I relate to, that I connect to at an emotional/core level and feel I have something extra to bring to it because of my experience or world view.

    This works for me because when I get a little stuck as to how to move forward with my story, I look for a twist that will surprise me and give me that special feeling again.

    I’m one of those writers who has far too many ideas to choose from, so I’ve had to come up with a way to know which ones are actually worth writing about – otherwise I could drown under all these scraps of paper!

    I think you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head and I look forward to reading what everyone else has to say on the subject. 🙂

  2. Ryan Urie May 6, 2013 at 7:56 am #

    Thanks for a great post. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around passion and enthusiasm as well in hopes of writing something heartfelt, rather than merely clever.

    I think that what makes passion so difficult is that it’s so very close to fear. When I write something and I feel utterly confident about it, I know that I probably didn’t take any real risks or expose myself in anyway. When I’m terrified to let my writing see the light of day, when it makes me feel completely vulnerable, that’s when I know I’ve said something true and vital and as little as I like to show it, it’s usually better received.

    I think this is why it’s so much easier to write clever plots and witty banter than to write something with passion, because writing with heart means exposing all our fragile feelings, flaws, and weaknesses. We put ourselves on the line.

  3. Susannah MacDonald May 6, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    Great ideas as usual. You make some important distinctions, especially as to writing with passion. I’m in the middle of a manuscript for an up and coming project, and I have to listen to some inspiring Baroque music to stop the ego pitching in and changing my words. Of course it is still a ‘dump’ at this stage, but it has to be a dump with passion and without that internal editing that goes with such a mission.

  4. James M. Copeland May 7, 2013 at 5:15 am #

    As always C.S. I enjoyed your post. I hardly know where to begin with passion. In some areas of my work I feel the passion that is present but as of yet I have not learned how to make that passion happen. When tears come to my eyes I know I have met the mark I was searching for, yet I hardly know how I reached that point. Thank you for the stirring!
    Regards,
    James M. Copeland

  5. Geoffrey Gudgion May 7, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    Good post, thank you. And thanks for all the others that arrive by email, are read and appreciated, but so rarely trigger a response.

    Passion. It was easier in the first book, because I had this burning issue that was fighting to land on the page. It is harder in the second, but I’m discovering that as characters take flesh on paper (and in my mind) it is their passion which ignites my own and turns a plot concept into believable substance.

    It’s iterative, but when a dry outline acquires that passion and momentum, it is very, very exciting.

  6. Pamela May 7, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    thank you for a thought provoking post, I look forward to the rest of the series.

    I’ve necver had a problem finding ideas; as you noted, they are all around us. I have never asked anyone if they can ‘feel’ the passion in my writing, but have had comments on the passion I share when I rread excerpts or discuss the storyline. Now you have aroused my curiousity to find if the one transfers over to the other.

    Thank you.

  7. Beth Havey May 8, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    You are making me think, CS. I know I am passionate about the topic in my current novel,
    but HOW am I conveying that passion and are my characters pulling my reader in? There certainly is a difference between enthusiasm and passion–and the difference must lie in the very arrangement of the words on the page. I won’t be there urging the reader to keep going until she or he too is alight with the passion I feel. It has to be there exploding from each sentence.

    Thanks, Beth

    • L. michael Black May 8, 2013 at 10:13 am #

      Thank you for this enlightening post. Writing skills are of secondary importance, in my opinion, but important. Having something profound to write about is where the rubber first hits the road. Yes, we are surrounded by worthy subject matter but we must remove our “blinders” – most frequently our faulty intellects, egos, warped belief systems, etc. Being able to see with the “third eye” – our view of the world as only the heart can reveal – counts for a lot when it comes to being creative. Since no two people interpret words or events the same way, a process of intellect, our writing must touch the heart, the seat of the soul, through enthusiasm and passion.

  8. yogesh May 9, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Ideas come to me from just about anything. Sometimes I pick a character from a novel and put him/her it in another novel. Sometimes I correlate incidents from two novels and try to create a new incident by merging both the incidents.

    Although writing is something that emerges from one’s heart, there is no harm in discussing an incident or a character with people who are not into writing. A wonderful insight can come up during a late night discussion with your friends and BANG. There comes something that can become a landmark incident of your story.

  9. Lilian Gafni May 13, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Thank you CS for a great post. I have appreciated all your excellent posts and learned a ton of good advice. This post is like the frosting on the cake.

    Without passion I couldn’t express myself or write one line. I have to care for the characters. I bond with them and put myself in their places. I also dig deep down and transmit any of my life experiences then endow my characters with it, or vice versa. I also believe that to have passion a writer must have compassion for all, and put himself or herself in the character’s mind or thoughts, or in a live person’s place and circumstance. Sometimes I do experience the writer’s block or a passing doubt here and there. I then think of characters who are in need for their lives or livelihood which puts an end to my fears about my writing.

    Thanks again for a stimulating topic

    • cslakin May 13, 2013 at 10:52 am #

      Thanks for sharing that. I feel that way a lot, since characters are the whole point of my novels.

  10. cslakin May 13, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    I mentioned in last week’s post how some authors seem to exude a joy of story telling. One of my favorite books of all time is Wind in the Willows. There is so much joy of language and story telling in that novel that is more than 100 years old. I have the annotated version next to my bed and am loving reading all the related details to this story. I believe when the author really loves telling a story, that passion comes out in the telling. Just reading Grahame’s description of how the river tumbles downstream is sheer delight.

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