Where do you get your ideas from?

I love it when writers and artists get asked this question, and I’m always slightly disappointed when they don’t react by taking the interviewer’s microphone and threading it through their nose and out their anus.  It’s the most idiotic question anyone can ask, because writers get ideas the same way everyone else does – they just bubble up while you’re driving or walking the dog or weeding the flowerbeds.  The trick is, I suppose, to know which of those ideas are derivative and shallow and don’t lead anywhere interesting and which of them… well, aren’t any of the things I just mentioned.

The difficult part is capturing these good ideas and sitting down at a desk and developing them.  The immediate problem is of course that any writer’s greatest enemy is him or herself.  We all have, to some extent, an inner voice telling us that whatever we are writing at the moment is shit.  And to an extent that’s healthy – it keeps you on your toes, keeps you striving to ensure your writing is not shit. But sometimes that voice gets so loud it can put you right off.  This is the fourth time I have started this article, because I decided every previous draft was shit for some reason.

OK, you can say it: how bad must they have been?

That’s the first obstacle any writer must overcome:  the fear of failure and the fear of looking ridiculous.  It takes a certain amount of arrogance, a certain amount of chutzpah, to start telling a story and keep going to the end, to believe in your own powers of storytelling.   But the amazing thing is how willing the audience is to help you.  People want to be entertained, they want to believe, they want to be transported.  It’s incredibly easy to underestimate the power of narrative to engage viewers or readers – it’s as if you enable the audience to hypnotise itself.

Back in Film School I was editing my graduation movie, King of the Wild Frontier*, and got stuck on the first scene.  I kept editing it and re-editing it and I couldn’t get it right.  I showed it to a fellow student, the wonderful Sally Anderson, who said, ‘Just stop editing that scene and move on to the next one.’  And I did.  I stopped going back and continually revising the scene, and got to the end of the movie.  When I watched it all in its entirety I had a much better idea of how the first scene was supposed to work (and I ended up cutting the bejaysus out of it, but that’s neither here nor there.)

It was a perfect example of timidity manifesting itself as perfectionism.  I wasn’t trying to get the first scene right, though it may have looked like that – I was putting off finishing the rest of the film.  Exactly the same thing happens to many writers when writing their own projects: they write one chapter and spend ages revising it, or worse still, read it back once and decide it’s shit and no-one will ever want to read it.  And as a result no-one ever does, which is a shame.  The one thing all published and produced writers have in common is that they managed somehow to overcome that inner carping voice by hard work, perseverance, and/or sheer bloodyminded arrogance.

So if you have a good idea for a story, don’t let it wither and fade, and don’t spend forever writing the first chapter.  Start writing it and keep going until you get to the end.  What you do when you get there… is another blog entry entirely.

*It was actually called No Man’s Land. It should have been called King Of The Wild Frontier, but I didn’t think of that title till much later.  However, since the film only exists now on an obsolete tape format, I can call it anything I like.

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