February 25th, 2010

Workshop #1: Ideas

So I’m back to teaching with the very wonderful SWAT program this week, and those who were around for last year’s term will know that I am a bundle of nerves and excitement, and massive lesson-planning.

I thought I would put my lesson notes on Rose-coloured this year, in the hope that we could live that bloggy interdependent dream–maybe you guys would find some of my ideas interesting, and at the same, you might have more/different ones that could help me. Or maybe you will find this boring–either way, let me know!*

I should note here that I massively over-prepare, just in case the class is incredibly surely and won’t talk and I have to resort to lecturing. This has never happened, and I vastly prefer to run a class by discussion, with a few longer bits of explanation from me. In a typical class, I use about a quarter of what I prepared, sprinkled throughtout the hour. It’s a little random, but it works out. Anyway, onwards, any of this material below will come after introductions, a discussion about what they might like to write about, and how to figure that out.

Writers constantly get asked in interviews “where do you get your ideas?” It’s not a very original question, but I am always interested in the answer–it’s rarely straightforward. Sometimes it is–an event in one’s own life or in history that seems like it could be molded into a story, a bad book or movie that the author read that made them think “I could do the same thing but better!”

Sometimes it’s a character you’ve created, and think about, and imagine out his or her life, and then you find an incident in the imaginary life you’ve created that might work as a story. Sometimes you want to capture a feeling you’ve had, a person you knew, a neighbourhood you’ve lived in. Sometimes you want to write a story as a caricature or spoof, as revenge (that often works very poorly), as a love note. Sometimes your idea for a story is to try to write the thing a given audience wants to read: your teacher (this also doesn’t work well, mainly), a publication, someone you want to date.

Sometimes you have no idea where the idea comes from, you just start writing because you’re bored, or lonely, or your teacher told you to, and something comes from nothing and you realize you are writing a story. Sometimes by the time you have a story, you have no idea where the idea came from. The piece I’m currently working on is structured around a set of reworked advertising slogans, but it’s certainly not about them. It’s set where it is because I had wanted to return to a place I’d created in another story, and make better use of it, but the story’s not really about the setting. Now that I’m in the thick of it, I have no idea what led me to these people doing this stuff…though I’m (mainly) glad I got here. It was a long slog to figure out what the story was even about–I didn’t really know before I started writing where I was going to end up.

My point? Is that ideas are what you make of them. I think the only thing an idea needs to be to make it a good one is that it’s something a writer likes enough to start writing and keep writing. The rest will work itself out on the page (well, *the writer* will work it out, but it’ll feel natural).

There are so many good things about being a writer that I don’t like to dwell on the negative, but it does drive me crazy when I meet someone at a party and they say, “It’s great that we ran into each other because I have the best idea for a story/novel/series of 14 interconnected novels.” They have inevitably never written anything before, but after explaining the book to me at length (it’s always at length) they say, “It’s practically written! I have it all worked out inside my head; I just have to get it down.”

“Just” indeed! I would love if the daydreaming out an interesting story to entertain myself on the bus were the hard part, but it isn’t. I have never had an idea work out on paper they way it was in my brain. I’m not every writer, there must be some who can do that, but from what I hear, it’s pretty rare.
My editor, John Metcalf, says, “Form is content.” How you write something isn’t just the petty details of getting it onto paper, it’s the whole craft.
SO! When you have an idea, if I were you, I wouldn’t spend much time worrying about whether it’s a “good” idea–the only way to know if it is would be to try it out. Write a little bit, read it over, see if you like it. See if you want to write any more–that’s the key to knowing it’s a keeper! And if it isn’t, don’t worry–ideas are one thing the human mind is very good at producing. People find them everywhere.

*Um, this post took so long to write that my first class is now 12 hours away, so if you send me good ideas I will work them in next week. Next week I will also plan better.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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