Give me an idea

Now here’s an old one – I think maybe even from last year. But the idea is one that feels very fitting, given where I’m at with my WIP.

Then again, that seems to go for every one of these drafts I revise and publish.

Not that that’s a bad thing, at all. Just … interesting.


Perusing my Tumblr feed yesterday, I came across this really cool article of 5 writing tips. They’re all insightful in their own way, but the one that stuck with me was #2, the one on not worrying about originality. He talks about shooting down his own ideas for ‘not being good enough’, and having that keeping him from writing, and he also thinks that if you pointed a gun to his head he could have written down those ideas after all.

So here’s what I took away from that: pretend you can’t say no. Pretend you have to produce a proposal for a story, that you have ten minutes to do it, and that it must be original.

My theory is that ‘originality’ is different from ‘original enough’. Originality can come anywhere in the writing process; you might start off with something really original, or you might find your way there further down the track. But ‘original enough’ – what does that even mean? Is there some objective standard you can hold it to? Is there some metric with which to measure an artwork’s originality? No, there isn’t. It’s a yes-or-no situation; it’s either original or it’s not, there is no gradient. I mean you can get into how derivative a work is, like you take Star Wars but set it in prehistoric times and take out all the supernatural elements, oh wait that’s 10,000 BC, my god that movie was –

NOPE. You have ten minutes.

Time is the key. Or, rather, the luxury that times gives you to spend nitpicking your own ideas to death, the liberty to hold yourself to this imaginary, elitist standard of ‘originality’, instead of, like, writing. Take that away and, suddenly, you really have to pick and choose, and you have to do it fast.

And that’s what’s so liberating about ‘unoriginal’ ideas; we know them. We understand what they are and how to use them (or we think we do anyway), and we also know what we do and don’t like about them. We can get them out now, we can use them to fill in the gaps and make something whole.

To me it always mattered what, exactly, was not original enough. Usually it was characters and character relationships, or settings and world-building elements. During my D&D phase I was almost physically unable to think of anything other than your typical faux feudal European High Fantasy setting, where the wizards wore robes and pointed hats and people still used swords in serious combat situations, mostly against ravenous hordes of disposable, interchangeable orcs, and horses were the primary mode of transportation.

It’s like eight minutes now.

The piece I wrote (well, “wrote”) on magic the other day, magic as part of a story, has to do with originality as well: when we think “magic” and if we got familiar with that term from High Fantasy and RPGs (tabletop or otherwise) then the term “magic” implies very specific and narrow things, the aforementioned wizards-in-robes-and-pointy-hats and countless-nameless-orcs and default-faux-medieval-Europe-setting. It does not, for instance, connote a carwash, or a beehive, or a barbecue, or changing the locks because you’ve lost the key to your apartment. And because it lacks those connotations, it could be considered original to have a story that uses magic in one of those contexts.

But then again, with the gun-t0-my-head situation, not only can I take all of these pointy-hatted wizards and shooting-gallery orcs in a medieval setting and craft the skeleton of a story with them – I could actually probably make it fairly original as well.

Because when you’re working with staples, you have two options: play it straighter than a line or throw it in a blender.

Here’s a straight story: orcs are spreading like a plague and overrunning humanity. Some wizard in a pointy hat decides that the answer to this dilemma is to infiltrate the homeland of the orcs and find the tomb of the first orc, using these ancient remains in order to create a spell that will eradicate every orc in existence. However, due to the vast numbers of orcs and the small number of wizards, this will require teamwork, and wizards are notoriously egoistic and competitive. A shaky alliance is formed between a small group of wizards and they set off for the tomb of the first orc, trying to survive both orcs and each other along the way. Will they succeed? Will they be hacked to pieces by orc warriors? Will they all kill each other first, blinded by ingrained competitiveness and self-importance? Or can they learn to put their individual ambitions aside to work together in the face of a greater threat?

Here’s something out of the blender: wizards grow incredibly arrogant and kill the gods, and demons are set loose upon the world with nobody to keep them imprisoned. Wizards are highly susceptible to demonic influence due to their magical sensitivity, which is linked to the power of the gods, and since all the gods are dead their magic is starting to twist and corrupt them. The demons step in to fill the void and we end up with lots of evil wizards being used as artillery by the demons. It is left up to everyone leftover – humans, dwarves, elves and, yes, orcs – to band together and try to fight back; and since orcs combine the strength and hardiness of dwarves, the heightened senses and swiftness of elves and the sheer numbers of humans, they’re pretty much the ultimate fighting force. But due to being disenfranchised and despised by all the races they’re now supposed to work with, the true conflict becomes the question of whether the orcs will fight alongside the humans, dwarves and elves to fight back the wizards and their demon masters, or whether they will use the turmoil to their advantage and finally have their revenge, and a chance to shape the world in their own image when it is reborn from the ashes of this apocalypse.

Neither are particularly great, but they’re solid concepts, each a premise that a story could be built out of. And my point here is that when the pressure is on, you find our more of what you’re capable of – including what you’re capable of conceding. My idea with the ten-minute pretend-there’s-a-gun-to-your-head exercise is a similar one to freewriting: you just let yourself have ideas, whatever they are, and let yourself work with them while the pressure keeps you from being able to sit back and judge them until they slink away demoralised. The idea is to get used to accepting whatever you come up with and going with what’s enjoyable and fun rather than insisting on adhering to some abstract hierarchy of worthiness while generating ideas for stories. The idea is to try and get yourself to concede the right to dismiss an idea just because it’s been done before – so long as you actually like it.

And that’s the important bit: original or not, if you like an idea that you have, having the ability to allow yourself to follow through with it is an important skill to learn. Obviously if you’re looking at selling it then you may want to think about “the market” and stuff, but I hear a fair amount of advice from agents that says, in a nutshell, “fuck trends, do your own thing”. It seems to be more a matter of finding a suitable agent for the kind of story you’re trying to sell than chasing the zeitgeist. I mean after all, much as I complain about Fantasy being stuffy, repetitive and utterly lacking in imagination (for maximum ironic effect), it’s still a successful genre that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Five minutes.

So what do you think? Might be useful? I think I’ll try and put this into practice: every day this week I’ll give myself a ten-minute window where I have to sit down and just have ideas, run with them and at the end of ten minutes have a story premise ready to roll. Depending on how paranoid I feel, I may even share them on this blog. Either way, I’m interested to see how it turns out. The more open to experiences I can be, the more opportunities I’ll probably find coming my way, and I’m all about that. I reckon you kinda need that skill if you want to tell stories with your life.



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