A lot of people never succeed at becoming writers.
This is not so surprising. Some people don’t have the discipline or the drive. Some people discover that their real passions lie elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the twists and turns of a person’s own individual life path.
However, there is a different kind of failure when it comes to writing—one which I cannot dismiss so easily. To someone like me, it’s shocking. To most people, it is taken as a given. Yet it kills more writing careers—potential stories, articles, and books—than any other phenomenon.
It is perhaps the only real failure that ever occurs in writing, because it is the only failure that can prevent any future success.
I’m talking, naturally, about the failure to even try.
An Idle Thought
Let’s get one thing straight: nobody ever asks me for writing advice*.
I’m not famous enough for that. Oh, I’ve mastered a few tricks of the trade. I’ve studied hard to get as far as I am now, and I know a few true things about how to write great stuff. But I am not the one that gets the upcoming question asked of him, time and time again, at conventions and conferences for writers.
But I’ve seen the question asked countless times of established professionals, and I’ve heard pretty much every answer you can think of.
What question am I talking about?
That would be, “How do you come up with ideas?”
And the answer given is always revealing of the writer’s process. Some recommend writing exercises. Others encourage the questioner to have faith in their own ability. Or, if the writer being interrogated is Harlan Ellison, he answers as follows:
People ask me where I get my ideas. I always tell them, “Schenectady.” They look at me with confusion and I say, “Yeah, there’s this ‘idea service’ in Schenectady and every week like clockwork they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas for 25 bucks.” Every time I say that at a college lecture there’s always some schmuck who comes up to me and wants the address of the service.
But no matter how the writer tries to answer the question, the questioner always replies the same way.
“But I don’t have any good ideas.”
Finding Them in the Wild
And these people are not exclusively confined to big events and professional workshops. They are all around you, in your home, your workplace, your school, your supermarket, and (likely if you’re reading this blog) your maximum-security prison cell.
How many people do you know who have secretly, or not so secretly, toyed with the notion of writing something, only to throw up their hands and say that they have no ideas.
They give up before they even try. And that’s appalling, especially to someone who knows the rewards that come with writing. When people hide behind this excuse, it makes me want to slap them.
And it wouldn’t be so galling if there was even a mote of truth to it. I may not yet be a full-time professional author, but I know this much: you do have ideas.
Yes, I mean you, the person reading this right now.
And there’s no point in pretending that you don’t. I’ll prove it.
Ask yourself this: have you ever daydreamed? If you have, then ask yourself if, in your daydreams, you have ever encountered a world that was in any way different than the real world you live in?
What’s that? You have! Well then, you, sir or madam, have ideas. You have visited a plane of existence that differs from our own. And even if that difference is only marginal, it is still enough to write down. After all, literature is full of all kinds of books, from mind-bending science fiction, to everyday realistic fiction, to nonfiction. Each of these has its place and its writers. And you could be one of them.
The Real Problem
When people say they have no ideas, what they mean to say is that they have no ideas that anyone would want to read, or watch, or listen to.
This is a common fear, and is not anything that cannot be overcome. Because this also is not true. Oh, you may believe that none of your ideas are worth speaking, but that is a delusion. And I would argue that this delusion is more cultural than psychological.
Because in Western culture, there are a lot of proven archetypes, and our conception of what a “good idea” is depends on how neatly it fits those archetypes. It is not so in other parts of the world, where culture, for one reason or another, is more willing to take a chance on something original.
Examples of this are not hard to find.
Taking a Lesson from Anime
There is a reason why Anime and Manga from Japan have become popular in many non-Japanese territories. At first glance, they may all look the same to an outsider. But those familiar with these media know that their chief appeal is the explosion of variety within. Anime caters to every imaginable taste, and, as such, will always find an audience.
Whether the story is about a child who solves criminal cases.
Or a soap opera revolving around a tennis prodigy.
Or a powerful princess who vanquishes evildoers by throwing her tiara at them.
Or a boy whose forehead contains an interdimensional gateway through which monsters spill onto the Earth.
Or a comedy about a hero whose primary weapons are his highly prehensile nose hairs.
All of these ideas have their fans. All of them managed to strike a chord with someone—a lot of someones, in fact. And that’s in spite of how outlandish or paradigm-shifting these ideas were.
You think you only have bad ideas? Anime shouts back, “There are no bad ideas.” And it continues to reach new fans as it marches across the world.
I don’t want to hear it anymore. Not from you. Not from anybody.
You have ideas. Not every one of them is going to be developed, and some will come easier than others. But they are there, and they are waiting. So if that phantom novel you’ve been meaning to write is still up in the air, what harm can come from trying to flesh it out? If you can’t write the first chapter, then start by making an outline. If it ever stops being fun, then you have my full permission to quit. But I won’t forgive you for not trying. Even if you’re really contrite about it.
And if you can try enough to get it begun, you may be surprised at how easy the rest can be.
Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom.
*There is one person who asks me for writing advice, but since he never takes it, I can’t really count him.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…with questions.”]