When a great idea isn’t enough


Inspiration without perspiration?

Sean McMullen|4  January 2015

I call this the Eureka phenomenon, and I bet you’ve experienced it at least once in your life.

Imagine it’s New Year’s resolution time and you see a poster of a very buff body promoting your local gym. What better way to turn your life around, you think. By the next day you’ve joined the gym and are eyeing off the heaviest weights, imagining your own reinvented physique on that poster in a month or so. So you grab the biggest barbell, and…well, that afternoon you’re at the doctors with a sprained back and a demolished fantasy.

So what does this have to do with writing? More than you might think. You’ve just come up with a stunningly original idea for a novel—Eureka! You’re positive it’s going to be the world’s next mega hit and you’ll need a body guard to protect you from adoring fans. This idea is so hot that you won’t even tell your best friend and you’re thinking about hiring a copyright lawyer.

Sound familiar?

Okay. Maybe, you’ve never had anything published before, but that shouldn’t matter, should it? And you haven’t actually written a lot, but that’s on your list of New Year resolutions.

So you start work on your ground-breaking story, then re-read it the next morning. This is when the Morning After syndrome hits. You realize that the characters all look the same, the setting is so sketchy that it could be Narnia or Bon Temps, and you have three pages of setup that are so boring you give up reading them half-way through.

What went wrong? You don’t have the creds, but then neither did Beatrix Potter when she thought she would write about a rabbit named Peter, J.R.R. Tolkien when he wrote those words ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’, or Ted Chiang when he thought how cool it would be if the Tower of Babylon had literally reached a sky made of blue rock.

Was your idea a loser? Probably not. Think back to the first day at the gym example above. That sought-after athletic body in the poster took months of hard work to develop, starting with learning the basics, putting in the right groundwork, learning about nutrition and so on.

A great story idea and dreams of a better body have a lot in common. Most authors will tell you that it’s hard to get any story right first time, so you take their advice and do a rewrite, spending a couple of weeks putting in hooks at the start, humanizing the characters and giving the readers enough visual cues so that they can imagine the setting. Now your mother loves it, your father at least finished it, and your best friend only checked Twitter three times while reading it.

Then the unimaginable actually happens — an editor actually buys it. Yay! It gets published, but when the reviews come in they are along the lines of ‘Great idea, but the writing lets it down.’ Depressing.

A great idea, indifferently written, puts something on your CV that you really can do without, so how do some people start with a hit? Potter, Tolkien and Chiang were naturally gifted storytellers who already had excellent writing skills when they started out. Don’t despair, however. Storytelling technique can be taught, as can English expression. Most people who start with a big hit have generally had years of practice in private before going public. If you’re still not convinced, no problem, start submitting now. Just remember that people may not see you at your best, however, and that everything that gets published will go onto your CV and contribute to your reputation, for better or for worse.

You can’t build the Tower of Babel on weak foundations, and Chiang certainly didn’t.

A great idea is certainly an important part of a hit story, but on it’s own it won’t get you very far. Structure, character development, tension, story arcs, world building, writing style, dialogue skills, descriptions, writing hooks … the list goes on, but these are the foundations which will carry your great idea, and you need to get them right. There are hundreds of how-to books and workshops out there. Reading even a single ‘How to’ book will help you start building the structure to support your story idea.

Catching Up With Yourself

So what to do with that really great idea that is a bit too big for you to handle just now? My first pro story, The Pharaoh’s Airship, was a joint winner of the magazine’s readers poll. Next came my story of a Roman time machine, The Deciad, which won a major competition, then won an award when expanded into a novel. Following this was The Colours of the Masters, about a woman who records the playing of Beethoven, Chopin and various other pre-phonograph greats of music. This story made it onto the Nebula Awards preliminary ballot, was nominated for Australia’s national SF award, and was republished loads of times.

Was I just naturally talented? No way! I had spent the five years before my first sale writing for amateur magazines and fiction competitions. I also read all the award winning stories and ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies to work out why the best was the best. My idea was that I needed to develop a good writing technique, rather than sending out stories that might sell on the strength of the ideas alone, and in spite of very average writing.

Like building muscles, improving ‘writing technique’ takes time. Save your best ideas for when your writing can do them justice, BUT … like working out in the gym, you have to work at it every day.

Exceeding Your Best

This brings us to another problem that often lies in wait for talented beginners. How do you follow up on a work that really blows people away?

The Colours of the Masters was very popular with reviewers and readers, so much so that I wondered if this story was going to be my best ever, and that it would be all downhill from then on. As it happened, I actually won my first award with my next story, While the Gate is Open. My personal best – so far – was being runner-up for the Hugo Award in 2011 with Eight Miles.

The lesson is that it is very rare for someone’s first story or novel to be their best work, even if it seems like that at the time. You are very likely to become a much better writer and storyteller with experience, and to write far better works than your early hits. Besides, in ten years most of today’s big hits will have been forgotten. While George R. R. Martin’s 1970s stories Sand Kings and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr are still remembered as classics, ask anyone to name one of his works today and the reply will almost certainly be Game of Thrones.

Going Public

Would you hit the beaches after a week in the gym and expect universal admiration? Unless you had pretty impressive natural assets in the first place, probably not. Your first stories are like your first days pumping weights— they’ll form the foundation of greater achievements to come.

A host of writing techniques have to be developed to support your ‘brilliant idea’. If you have the skills already, fantastic— write up that great idea. If not, start training. Now. A killer idea will not write its own story. Edison’s comment that “Genius [like writing] is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration” is still as true as it was in 1902.

Generally, it’s risky to start your career with an ‘big idea’ story that stretches your writing abilities too far. However, if you’re talented enough to achieve success with a ground-breaking first novel or story, don’t panic and think you’ll be a one-hit wonder. Remember, your best is probably still to come.



2 thoughts on “When a great idea isn’t enough

  1. Penn State

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch! “No one can wear a mask for very long.” by Seneca.


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