I am coming to see that there are two main skills a writer can and should have: the ability to generate exciting and plausible ideas, and the ability to execute them. This is hardly a world-shaking revelation on my part. In fact it's rather obvious. But it is a new way of looking at things for myself so I thought I would share it with you.
While reviewing books I have noticed that some writers can take a ripper of an idea and then run it into the ground with atrocious writing. Conversely, a startlingly obvious or unoriginal idea can be elevated to brilliance by its execution. I need hardly give examples--you'll undoubtedly be thinking of your own while reading this. (OK, I'll give one example: this is the second time this week I shall espouse Bill Bryson but I am currently listening to his biography of William Shakespeare in which he writes eloquently, brilliantly and humorously about how we know diddly-squat about the world's most famous poet. This would undoubtedly turn into a cold fish of a book in the hands of a lesser writer.)
For the last few years while working earnestly on becoming published I have spent much time on technique: the sound and structure of a good sentence, grammar, vocabulary and punctuation. I'm rather pleased with the result though I hope for greater improvement in the future. I fear this may mean I will have to start reading and appreciating poetry, as I have heard from several quarters how reading poetry can improve your writing. For some reason I dread the prospect. Poets are so miserly with words, and gosh, how they make you concentrate!
I have read books on setting and character and dialogue and taken much of this into consideration. But the one thing there seems to be a dearth of in the literature of how to be a good, or even great, writer is how to generate ideas. Perhaps this is because there is no way to instruct someone on how have one. So-called writing exercises provide ideas and then ask you to run with them: these are exercises in execution, not idea generation. Stephen King in his wonderful book On Writing instructs the reader how to go about uncovering a plot once the initial idea has been had, but not how to have the idea in the first place.
I have never had an idea for a story out of the blue. They have always arrived in my head after I have said to myself, "Right, for the next five minutes you are going to think of a story idea. Go." And I don't do this very often because gosh, it's hard. I'm not talking about the ideas for the second or third book in a series, mind you. Those are easier as the initial spark has been had and I am building on an existing world and characters etc. But an honest-to-god new story. And when I do think of an idea it's almost always the very beginning of a story and would only cover the first third of a book, or as much as you would read in a blurb. Having a whole idea, including the ending of the story, is elusive to the point of major frustration.
The only course of action, I have decided, is to practice having ideas. GOOD ideas. I am going to tell myself more often, perhaps even once a day, to think of an idea. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it, ordering yourself to be creative? But I have little to lose and much to gain, so it is worth a try. I shall inform you of my progress.
Which do you struggle with more, the creation of ideas, or their execution?