Thursday, July 3, 2008

In the Pursuit of an Idea

copyright Kim Smith 2008
Recently, I was out of town on a business trip. No great thing but for the fact that I had horrible trouble with the airlines that was supposed to move me from point A to point B. The long wait times (two different days!) gave me plenty of opportunities to think about situations and writing and what worked and what didn’t.

For most beginning writers, the pursuit of an idea wide enough to carry an entire book is a big deal because many agents and publishers say “make the story universal, make it something that is timeless”. Most beginners (some who are not as well) take this advice seriously. They want to do everything right straight out of the gate.

I know many established, multi-published authors who take the idea that flashes through their mind and keep building on it “off the paper” for extended periods of time. Some have even developed their characters, their settings, or their plot for years in their pre-planning. But, for some of us, this simply won’t work. I happen to be one of these other writers, the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sorts. This post is not for the writer who can create for extended periods before writing their first word, but rather the ones who cannot.

As I sat in the airport contemplating writing something (anything!) because my heart felt that I had put it off too long trying to make it into something useful not wasted, I remembered William Faulkner.

He is quoted as saying, "Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him"

So I am here to tout the news that it is okay to write out the idea on paper, not carry it around in our heads, go forward, dive right into the story by writing a few thousand words. It is okay to turn those few thousand into a few thousand more in an attempt to see if it will go anywhere, only to discover that you do not have a story. Yes, I am an advocate of broken beginnings, saggy middles, and books with no hope.

Why, you ask, would I do such a thing? Why would I encourage writers to write anything less than their best, and most well-thought out work? Waste paper, muddle a mind?

Because writers write. That’s what we do, that’s who we are!

Beginning writers (especially) need to keep poking the muse to see what she has to offer up. When we censor our writing mind, and toss out ideas before they have a chance to be developed (because someone says “that won’t work” or “that’s been done before”), we get into a mind-set that hobbles our creativity.

Let that weak idea flow! You may have a short story, not a novel. You may have a character sketch, or a mood piece, not necessarily a short story, but that is perfectly fine. You still have something to write. Something that moves your writing life forward a little bit more than yesterday. Along the way, you will know when it is right, when it is something that can be stretched, or developed, when it will go into a bigger piece of the puzzle, and who better to know such as that? It is your story to tell, your character to develop, your plot to pursue.

After returning from my business trip, I walked the grounds of Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. I smiled when I felt the urge to write hit me. I didn’t tarry either. Maybe ole Will was standing somewhere under one of those huge, old trees in the avenue, waving at me—(laughing, probably) telling me to go, go, go at my fierce determination to wrestle something out in the name of writing. Telling me to be free in my methods, my failures. I had a small amount of success, churning out one small story. Thanks, Will.


Anonymous said...


Author Faith Sullivan (The Cape Ann, Gardenias) said something very similar to this when I saw her recently at The Loft Literary Center.

Every one has their own way of doing things, but it's possible to hinder the process by thinking too much. (I call it procrastinating!)

Unknown said...

I'm really enjoying reading this blog.

A agree with what you are saying. When I first began my first novel, I spent 6 months on the first chapter! I thought I had to make it perfect before going on to anything else and I was stuck. You can read about the whole unfortunate incident on my blog if you wish. Short story is, I finally realized that I needs to sit down, come up with a story line and knock out the first draft - then go back and polish it up only after the first draft was done.

I'll be stopping by this blog more often. Thanks.

Marta Stephens said...

You’ve touched on something everyone experiences.

I find it amazing that in the first 2-3 years after I began to write, I managed to complete 2 novels, 3 novellas, and several short stories and flash fiction. Granted, I've had to rewrite all of them BUT, I think it validates your point. In those early years, I did write from the heart--had no idea if I was following form or not. The important thing was that I was getting my thoughts written down.

Now I struggle through every section I write because I know what and how to do it, but the words don't always materialize. (sigh)

Good post, Kim. Chad, glad you stopped by. Look forward to seeing you here again!

Kim Smith said...

Thanks y'all. I just think it is so important to keep going. Once you let your inner editor take over, you will have a hard time getting the words to flow. At least that has been my experience.

Happy Fourth to all~~!!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Kim, I've been on vacation, so am late responding, but I loved this article. I wrote my first seven books before getting obsessed with "doing it right" vs. "writing from the heart." Sure, I've had to edit the hell out of them, but the stories were sound and still work. And I had the best time of my life doing it that way.

Kudos for pointing out this very important lesson.