DIY MFA Part 6: When Ideas are Cheap

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Photo by Pimthida entitled ‘idea’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Welcome to another discussion of DIY MFA material; this week we’re talking about one of my favorite quotes from Gabriela Pereira’s book:

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to hoard their ideas. They come up with an amazing idea, but instead of getting it down on paper, they hover over it like Gollum with his ring, hissing, “My precioussss.” But ideas alone are not all that special…great ideas are worthless. They’re vapor. They’re air. They mean nothing until you put them into action.

Followed by another great quote:

We’re not born with amazing ideas, so we must train ourselves to generate them on demand…Creativity is a process with logical, repeatable steps.

Once again, Pereira hits a young, naive writer (that’s me, guys) in the face with such an obvious, oddly invisible truth – good ideas are generated by everyone and they’re not once-in-a-lifetime-struck-by-lightning events. Of course creativity is not purely driven by luck or chaos or “artistic insanity” or genetics. Of course it’s something you can develop like any other skill with practice and determination; of course it’s something average people (instead of just drunken, bitter hermits) can develop. The more I read of Pereira’s work, the more I seem to understand that the message is very similar to most other self-help or how-to books: work hard, practice often, don’t give up. 

Part of me wonders if this is just the mantra of the successful, the only ones allowed to write these books, because it happened to work for them, or if there is a kernel of truth in it. Given Pereira’s seven or eight year journey to this book, I feel like there might actually be a kernel of truth; you can see the evidence of her hard work in the blog posts and her word nerd community.

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Photo by Daniele Marlenek entitled ‘Idea’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

So how do we come up with all these worthless great ideas? Pereira is the queen of acronyms; her idea generation acronym is IDEA. Inspiration, Development, Evaluation, Action. Inspiration is really all I’ve ever thought of as part of the creative process – how can I inspire great ideas within myself? Being a scientist, I typically go on crazy research dives to get my inspiration fix (hence all the science poems…). Pereira gives several tips in her book for idea generation on demand, but again insists that idea generation is a muscle to be developed; it is something that is earned by consistent attention and practice.

I want to finish up this post talking about Evaluation – the step before Action (where you actually sit down and DO the writing). In our new perspective, ideas are cheap – but the time to flesh them out fully is expensive (I’m talking novels, not poems). So how do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing so that you don’t split your attention between 13 different ideas and never fully bring one to completion?

Pereira suggests that you begin by writing a short story – a standalone piece from your major work. You can get to know your characters, their motivations, their world all from the comfort of a five pages instead of 250. Give this short story to a few readers – you can even send it off to journals for publication and develop a ‘fan base’ for the story – and apply the feedback you receive to your project.

And, just as important, is to consider if the idea is marketable. Look at other recent works in your genre; you don’t need to try to imitate the market, but looking at what’s fresh will help you get a sense for how your work jives with current readers. All in all, Pereira says that “This is your goal: having someone read your book. Don’t lose sight of that”.

Do you have any tips for generating ideas on demand? How do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing? Let me know in the comments below!

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