To those writers who are just now taking the craft seriously, one of the toughest skills to develop is idea generation. Aspiring writers usually feel perfectly competent in their ability to write whatever you want them to write about, so long as you tell them what it is.
But how do you make something from nothing? Where do you look for new material and how do you transform incoherent sparks of inspiration into a cohesive whole?
For some writers, doing this means keeping a writer’s notebook. Whenever and wherever they are struck with an idea, they whip out the notebook–a physical pad of paper or a phone app–and they jot it down. Then when they are struggling for a story, they go to their notebook and see what they haven’t gotten around to writing. Or maybe they browse the most recent ideas and try to find a consistent theme or point of view begging to be elaborated on.
For other writers, keeping an idea notebook is a waste of time. I recently watched a Q&A session with author Stephen King. Someone in the audience asked whether he had a list of ideas he wanted to work on and he said he thought keeping an idea notebook was only useful if your goal was to immortalize bad ideas. For King, if an idea is truly good, if it just needs to be written, it won’t leave. It will get thrown around the brain, perhaps pushed to the back, hidden for a while. But every so often, the idea will pop back up as fresh and interesting as it was the first time. The more it pops up, the more you can be sure it’s a good idea. The stories that get written choose themselves.
I’m more inclined to agree with King’s approach, to let stories and essays grow organically until they simply must come out. I know that personally it’s much easier to let something roll around in my head until it’s nearly complete. By the time I sit down to write it, I have a good idea of where it’s going and what I have to do to get there.
But I also recognize that people work in a variety of ways, and perhaps for some it’s ideal to have a visual on every little topic they’ve ever toyed around with, however shitty or brilliant it is.
Whichever approach you choose, the most important thing is putting those ideas to work. It’s not the idea that counts.
It’s the execution.