May 16, 2019 / 2 Comments

…Could Cut Diamonds

At the Writers Coffeehouse this past weekend we talked a little bit about starting a book, which is something I blabbed on about here just a few weeks back.  I thought it might be worth going over one particular aspect of both discussions.
There’s one thing any writer needs to understand if they want to be successful. It took me  a while to get it.  Really get it. 

Ideas are cheap.  Ridiculously cheap.  They’re a dime a dozen.  I’d guess on an average day I have at least a dozen random ideas for books, short stories, screenplays, or television episodes. 

Now, in my experience, beginning writers tend to hit one of two problems when it comes to ideas, and they’re really two flipsides of the same issue. 
One type of writer laments that they never have good ideas.  Yeah, I might have a couple clever thoughts, but they’re not, y’know… book-worthy.  Not like some of the stuff out there. Wanderersor  Middlegame or Black Leopard, Red Wolf or… I mean, all that stuff is so good.  On so many levels.  The ideas I come up with all feel kinda average.  They’re not worth writing about, so I don’t write. I wait for the good ideas to strike.
If I’m the second type, I have too many ideas.  I’ve barely finished writing my third screenplay this month but I’ve already got an idea for a series of epic novels.  Which leads me to a comic book series.  And a podcast.  And a collection of linked short stories. I can barely keep up with all the ideas I have.

In either case, I’m probably suffering from a misconception.  The same one, really. I think anything that goes on the page has to be pure, award-winning gold.  The difference is that the first type of writer won’t put anything down because they know it isn’t  gold, whereas the other folks are assuming it must be gold because they put it down on the page.

Make sense?

The catch, of course, is that most of the stuff that I put down isn’t going to be gold.  It’s going to be rewritten and edited down and polished.  I shouldn’t be thinking of story ideas as gold, but more like diamonds.  When I find a diamond in the wild, it’s a crusty black lump.  They’re not sparkly or faceted, and they definitely don’t look like they’re worth six or eight thousand dollars per carat.  Diamonds need to be cut and recut, measured and examined, cut again, and then polished some more.  That’s how they get ready to be placed in a setting and shown off to the world.
So that first group of writers is tossing out all those black, coarse stones because none of them look like engagement rings.  The second group‘s busy sticking the crusty lumps on gold bands and asking you to pay three months salary for them. 
Hopefully it’s easy to see why neither of these is the right approach.
What’s the trick, then? Is there a way to know which ideas are the good ones to spend time cutting and polishing?  How can I tell if it’s an idea with potential or a bad idea or maybe a good idea but just one idea too many?

Well, y’see Timmy, the ugly truth is… a lot of the time, I can’t tell.  I just need to do the work.  I might go through a hundred pages or a solid week or three of outlining and realize there’s not really anything there.  A fairly successful friend of mine spent months working on a novel.  He got almost 70,000 words into it before he realized… it just wasn’t working.  So he stopped and moved on.

Sure, yeah, he probably could’ve cheated a bit.  Tweaked a few things, maybe tossed out a deus ex machina or two, but in the end it didn’t work because it didn’t work.  No clever phrase or substituted word or literary sleight of hand was going to change that.

I know a lot of folks have trouble accepting this, even though we all understand this sort of thing happens in a lot of other jobs. Chefs come up with cool recipes they never get to use.  Engineers design things that never get built.  Hell, do you have any idea how many unproduced scripts there are floating around Hollywoodthat have Oscar-winning screenwriters behind them?  Every creative person puts out a lot of material that never gets seen by anyone.  We do a lot of work and it gets cut or replaced or just… not used.

Don’t get paralyzed wondering if your ideas are gold.  Odds are they aren’t.  But you’ll find some diamonds in the rough, and once you know how to spot them it’ll be an easier (and quicker) process to find them next time.  For now, take what you’ve got and work with that.  There’s a chance there’s a shiny diamond or two in there somewhere.  If you put the work into them.

Speaking of cutting out excess material, next week I wanted to talk to you about recycling.
Until then… go write.

0 replies on “…Could Cut Diamonds”

I like that metaphor. To extend it a little … sometimes I polish up that black lump and find it crumbles away into dust. I've learned not to let that bug me, and to instead look around for a better lump, one with more solidity ….

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