by Lillian Csernica on February 10, 2014
One of the most common questions people ask writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” A slight variation is “How do you come up with a really good idea?” The answer to the first question is simple. Ideas are everywhere. I’ve been keeping folders full of ideas since I was twelve years old. Ideas are not the hard part. The hard part is the execution. The writing, the rewriting, the editing, the cutting and polishing and tinkering. The patience, the endurance, the determination. Talent is good. Skill is better. And nothing trumps pure luck.
The answer to the second question is more interesting. How does a writer come up with a really good idea? Experience. Putting in the time and effort to achieve both the skill and the perspective necessary to recognize a really good idea when it comes along. Weak ideas can be strengthened. Can it be said that there are no “bad ideas,” just bad execution? No. There definitely are bad ideas out there, made worse by poor execution. For evidence of this statement, I point you to Tangent Online and the reviews of short fiction you will find there.
I write flash fiction, short stories, and novels. That means I write three “sizes” of fiction: up to 1000 words, 1000 to 7500 words, and 100,000 words. Most of the time, the word limit of the market I’m aiming for dictates the word length, so I have to either come up with an idea that will fit that length, or modify a story I’ve already written. (This is one of the pitfalls of writing for theme anthologies. Many editors are also writers, and they keep up with the market reports. They can tell when a story submitted to their ‘zine is one that didn’t make the cut somewhere else.) I’ve recently taken up flash fiction as an exercise in writing short, tight, complete stories. It’s a real challenge, especially when you’re used to having 400 pages as your limit. My short stories range from 2000 words to around 8000. Right now I have one out to market that qualifies as a novelette, weighing in at 12,000 words. So deciding the “size” of a story means I have to reach a compromise between everything I think belongs in the story and the best marketable length. I know based on using Duotrope that there are 24 markets that accept the kinds of fantasy I like to write. So the smart thing to do is aim for a length that fits within the guidelines of those markets.
So how do I know when I’ve got a good idea? Something sparks my imagination. Something grabs me, and the characters start talking inside my mind. There are days when I just hit the keyboard and write like mad, chasing the inspiration. Other days I know the idea needs a little more structure, some thought and preparation, before I take the plunge. The very first short story I ever sold started out as the seed idea for a novel. I did all kinds of research and created the major and the minor characters and I tried to come up with enough complications and subplots to make a book-length manuscript. I had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, the basic idea was still worth the effort. All that research imploded and the result was a short story dense with detail and more effective for the shorter, more concentrated length.
I once heard one of the Big Name fantasy writers say when she had a good idea she didn’t want to waste it. She meant she’d use it for a novel rather than just a short story. Some ideas are bigger than others and lend themselves to hundreds of pages. Some ideas are flexible enough to stretch or condense somewhere between 10 to 20 pages. And then there are the Twitter ‘zines that prove some ideas fit into 140 characters. The best ways to sharpen your instincts for a good idea and the right length for it are simple: Read, read, read, and write, write, write.