“I have this GREAT idea!”

I see this so often—most recently earlier today: A “writer”* tells his or her friends, “I have this great idea for a novel! What do you think? If I wrote it, would you read it?”

There’s no way to answer this one honestly as a friend if you’re also an editor. Because my honest answer would be no way, thanks. Unless you were Brandon Sanderson or Dan Wells or another published friend who I’ve talked with about a few ideas in the past—published authors with a track record of turning ideas into readable prose. And even then, those ideas were often only half-formed in those conversations, ideas that grew into something so much more complex and interesting once the friend actually wrote his schizophrenia novel or his chalk-drawing novel or whatever. (I had nothing to do with the germination or the development of those ideas—I just happened to be in the room, physically or metaphorically, when a conversation about what they were working on next happened at some point.)


Ideas are a dime a dozen.

It’s not the concept that matters so much as the execution. Well, I take that back partly. Worldbuilding matters in fantasy and science fiction, that’s for sure. Obviously, or I wouldn’t be giving a whole 2-hour workshop on it this weekend, and we wouldn’t have endless fan conversations about what magic system is better or which would win in a fight, pirates or ninjas.

But even a story with something as awesome as pirates or ninjas needs good execution to make it worth reading (or watching—just look at Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Though that would be an awesome Rifftrax. But I digress). And interesting characters. And a plot that holds up under pressure.

Ideas don’t matter if you can’t write the book (period) and write it well (which will require revisions—too many novice writers think they’ll be the exception because they got away with writing term papers at 3 am on the day they were due and getting an A on the first draft; novels are not term papers). Worrying about whether readers would like the idea before actually writing the book is putting the cart before the horse. If you don’t write it, talking about the idea to all your friends/the internet/that editor you just met randomly on the train is just all talk and no action—especially when the idea usually involves vagaries like a generic romance and “the characters learn that love conquers all, and they learn that bigotry is wrong.” Or “and all the kids learn that friendship is better than bullying.” Or “and they learn that they really do need their mother after all.”

Even Max learned that home was the best place to be. But that’s not why most people have loved Where the Wild Things Are for almost five decades (yes, that’s right–it’s almost 50 years old). We love it because Max makes mischief, because he runs around the house in a wolf costume telling his mother, “I’ll eat you up!”, because he goes on this fantastic journey to the land of the Wild Things where they have a wild rumpus, and because when he comes back home his supper was still hot. It’s the details that make the story a classic—the way it’s written, and in this case, the way it’s illustrated. Sure, Max learns a lesson, if you want to call it that. But the idea isn’t as important as the execution when it comes to making the book linger in the minds of five decades of children and their parents.

If you’ve gotten an idea that grabs you and you think it would make a great book, then write it. And write some more. And join a writing group, and share your actual writing with your family. Tell them about the idea after you’ve let the seed germinate.

You might say, “But what if they say it didn’t sound interesting? Why bother to write it?”

Well, then you’ve got some revising to do if their feedback makes sense to you, don’t you? But it’s your book. Don’t wait until your spouse or your coworker or your running partner with completely different literary tastes says they find your idea interesting. If you find it interesting, that should be enough for a first draft, at least. Because if it’s not, how are you going to get through multiple revisions, the submissions process, and the editing process? Is this an idea that you want to live with for the next several years of your life? Who cares what they think?

Go write it. Let the “theme” take care of itself in the telling of a great story with interesting characters and a compelling plot and worldbuilding. If you executed it well, it’ll find its audience, even if your spouse/coworker/dog walker don’t appreciate a good ninja-pirate love story.

*Usually, said writer hasn’t ever actually written anything, because they’re waiting for the “right idea” to come along before they start.

2 thoughts on ““I have this GREAT idea!”

  1. “But what if they say it didn’t sound interesting? Why bother to write it?”

    If the author doesn’t know the answer to this question, the answer is: Don’t.

  2. Funny thing is that it is only after I tell someone that I got a publishing contract that they suddenly want my opinion on their ideas-like that somehow gives me authority to judge-or they think I might have some connections for them. Neither of which is true. But no matter what, I always encourage everyone to write their book. Just get it written. Period. If someone can get that far, then they stand a far better chance at success than someone who’s ideas remain just that-ideas.

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