It's my experience that at first, an idea is just an idea. We writers are often reluctant to take these ideas too seriously. Because how many ideas blow through like a windstorm, gripping us for the few days or weeks that it takes them to pass by, and afterward, what do we have? Nothing. No real story. We're afraid to waste our time on such ideas. When I first started writing I just went with the creative winds wherever they blew, but you can start to feel a bit jaded from that. You start to realize these ideas might drop out from beneath you and suddenly stop working. And then no amount of pushing or coaxing will get them to move.
So it's a much better thing to wait for an idea that just won't go away. If it stuck around for the hazing, it should be good for another six months, right? That's where the hope starts. With the little kernel of something that might be an idea--someday.
Writers tend to have a lot of these kernels floating around; we collect them wherever we find them, and sometimes when we're bored or looking for new material, we dump all the kernels out and start trying to fit them together like Lego pieces. We may find to our surprise that this particular kernel is a perfect match to that other piece we found ages ago, so we stick them together and leave them alone. And this is happening with plenty of other kernels, all the time, so at any given point you have all these half-built Lego kernel things in the box. It's impossible to tell which ones will be interesting.
But somewhere in there is one special idea. The Next Big Idea. Only, we don't know which one it is yet. We may have our suspicions. We have our hopes. We may even spend more time trying to stick Lego pieces to this one, because we want it to grow more than the others.
And in the meantime, of course, we're out living life. We're probably writing another novel that's consuming most of our brain sludge. We're putting gas in the car and watching Dr. Who and staying up too late because we drank a coffee at six in the evening. Whatever. We are busy, and busy makes it easier to stay patient.
But even in the midst of all that, there's this wistful kind of hunger in the back of the brain that wants the magic to happen, like a pendent knocking against your chest with every step, and the wistfulness is always going, "now? How about now? Do I get to happen now?"
We wish and we hope. Because we are wishing and hoping so hard, and because we know how badly it can go if we mess it up, we are very cautious about letting that hope loose. The very fact that we want this idea so badly is the reason we resist it. Because if we're wrong about it? That would stink.
But the thing is--that idea is out there. And it is growing. We try to ignore that it is growing. We clip the necessary Lego pieces together and try to set it back on the shelf, but it's growing so quickly that we end up standing there for a long time, building this thing from our pile of kernels, and all the while we keep chanting "it's just an idea. Just a quiet little idea." And we refuse to tell anyone we have it. Because telling others makes it serious. And we are so, so, SO hesitant to take this idea seriously.
But then it comes to a point where the idea just won't go away. When we go to bed, it's there. In the aether moments before shutting down our laptop, it's there. When we're sick of our current project, it's there. And when we drive and when we wake up and when we're supposed to be doing other things, it's there, and we start to get agitated for no real reason other than we have a phantom idea haunting us. And it just won't go away until we blurt, "Fine. Fine! I'll write it already!"
And you give the idea a go.
Sometimes you can arrange this to happen in a really professional way. Perhaps you finished one novel, and after a respectable period of mourning (joke) you're ready to start a new one. Then you can roll your sleeves up briskly and open a new word document and sip your tea and pretend you don't feel super nervous about writing those first lines. About making this quiet little idea into something serious.
But sometimes it is better not to do it in a serious and professional way. Sometimes, it's easier to trick yourself into thinking that this idea is nothing, a little fun nothing, a pet project, a late night indulgence you can shrug off in the harsh light of morning. Because you don't want to scare this idea off. Nothing scares an idea off easier than taking it too seriously too soon. There's a moment of decision, see, when you have to decide if you're going to keep pushing this idea down, or if you're going to ignite the inferno. And sometimes having a late night writing session is a way to test the idea without quite making that decision. At night, an idea is just an idea, a blank page is full of possibility; in the morning, an idea is a heavy thing with weights and balances, and the blank page strains with the burden of them.
So anyway, at some point--maybe late at night--you take this deep breath. And you plunge.
And if all goes well, you keep plunging, maybe for a week, or two weeks; and if it goes badly, you come up the next morning or day having made your decision that no, this idea does not have what it takes. But if it went well, you come up at the end of those two weeks so rigid with excitement that you could scream, and you can no longer put off making the decisions that this novel is here to stay.
And that's when the whole game changes.
Instead of running from the idea, you turn around and start chasing it. Because now the responsibilities arise. There is a level of commitment. There are expectations of genre and wordcount, marketability, contracts, deadlines. Now you have to work to keep the fire hot. The reason it changed, you see, is because after we get serious, it's a whole lot of work.
Once an idea becomes a written thing--once we start putting certain words down in cement--the whole thing starts to sprawl out from that original foundation. You have to start making decisions about which direction you're going to take, and which possibilities will be left unexplored. Sure you can change things in revisions. But the urge is to get it right. And get it right now. To tell the story that's been haunting you, not another possibility of this story. An idea is an idea, but a story is the best possible way to explore that idea, and writing/rewriting/re-rewriting/etc etc etc is digging until you've uncovered the truest way to tell that story.
What was once this kernel became a collection of inter-working possibilities. Then it begins to grow, but like a potted plant grows, with the roots trapped inside the confines of the pot. You're shaping the pot as you go along. You're trying to make the right decisions about this idea because the roots are going to keep growing all the way to the end, and you've got to make sure they grow the right way so they don't choke each other out and kill the plant. These possibilities start shrinking narrower and narrower until you're straining for the one truest possible possibility of them all.
And once you finally get a good glimpse of that truest story, you will spend the rest of the drafting and editing experience trying to drag it out from the depths of this idea. Those true bits will start to carry the weight of things. They will start to ease the work off your shoulders. They will be so true, and so firm, that it will become more and more difficult to explore the possibilities, because there simply aren't possibilities anymore, only truths and less-truths and flat out untruths.
When you finally find that ultimately true story, everything after that is work toward that truth. Quite suddenly the idea is no longer an idea. It comes to feel like an entity of its own.
You could say this is the end, the happily ever after, except in a way, it's not; we writers get to start all over. We begin with the wistfulness and the longing. Again with the kernels and the hope. This novel may not see the light of day--nor the next--but eventually the right idea will come at the right time.
And I think I'll stop there, because that's a whole other story.
Truly and always,