“Sometimes … the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” –A.A. Milne
Through my career, I have often been asked by newspaper reporters or newbie writers how I get ideas. It is not a good question, or a useful question, or even an insightful question. Most professional novelists sneer at it. Some might even label it “dumb.” Innumerable jokes have been generated by it. When asked, you feel superior and clever. You try not to smile or burst out laughing, if you’re a courteous person. And if you’re a kind person, you might even answer this question with some degree of honesty, especially if the inquirer is a new writer genuinely trying to understand. But if you’re neither kind nor courteous, then you could succumb to the terrible temptation of being flippant, disdainful, or even misleading.
For a long time, I found the very notion of seeking an idea to be laughable. My imagination was teeming with so many plots, characters, and settings that I despaired of finding time to write them all. I had no patience with anyone that claimed to suffer from writer’s block. I felt that anyone lacking in ideas should go and do something besides write.
These days, I’m less arrogant. I’ve learned that you can hit emotional dry holes that leave you empty, too drained or distracted to create. It’s not the same as being blocked–not exactly–but the result is similar, in that you sit at your keyboard but produce nothing beyond a new Pinterest board. I’ve also realized that some new writers feel so timid and unsure that they can’t judge any idea that comes to them.
Fear and uncertainty can kill ideas by draining away all the belief and excitement generated by creativity.
Expectations that are too high can blight a story idea before it barely gets started. I’ve known beginning writers so determined that every word be perfect, so focused on the mistaken belief that their first writing effort would not only be amazing but an instant bestseller that they could not move their project past an endlessly polished Chapter One.
And good ideas can starve and wither when an unprepared writer lacks the skills, experience, or craftsmanship to write them well.
Writers at all stages seek ideas every day, and every day good ideas come to them. Some will make a writer clap hands and chortle with glee. Others don’t look like much at first glance. They get pushed aside, ignored or even forgotten.
But often the best ideas are much like the Milne quote I began with. They are small and quiet. They creep into your mind when you’re paying no attention to them at all. But unlike your grocery list or your promise to walk the dog after supper, they aren’t forgettable. They take your notice, fade to the back of your thoughts, then return. And each time they come again, they’re slightly bigger or they’re better or they shine with a gradual brilliance that finally forces you to look at them, thump them, tug them this way and that, and at last to start testing them for inherent conflict, unpredictability, and marketability.
Milne wasn’t writing about writers when he penned that sentence I’ve quoted. His simplicity of expression, that bell-like quality of purity and the direct thinking of childhood, is what grabs our reading attention and makes us think, Hey now. That’s profound. I’ve pulled this quote from its original context and applied it to our topic without any straining to make it fit.
As writers, what takes up the most room in our heart? The big overblown, over-plotted, grandiose story with a cast of hundreds? Or a story of smaller scale that’s deeper and more complex? Either or none or both?
But the little idea can grow into something large and worthy. Don’t be too quick to judge it invalid. Don’t dismiss it as foolish. Don’t call it silly. Don’t criticize it to death to prevent others from potentially picking holes in it.
Evaluate it by all means. Ideas have to be turned into plots, and that process involves stringent tests and plenty of thought.
But don’t try to make it bigger than it wants to be. And don’t throw it away because it’s only a short story idea and you wanted a novel or it’s in a genre you don’t want to tackle or it’s sweet when you want to be dour and mysterious or moody when you want to write romantic comedy.
Listen to it. Think it over without prejudgment. If it stays in your heart and grows, give it a chance.