A lot of writerly advice tells you, “Just write! It doesn’t matter if you have a good idea, just write!”
Personally, I think this is bad advice.
In my opinion, writing without a good idea is like that joke about the kid who went to the horse stalls and started shoveling horse shit. When someone asked the kid why, the kid said, “With all this shit in here, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.”
You have to have the pony first, or else all the shit you’re shoveling is sweaty, smelly effort for no purpose.
Now, when you’re first starting out as a writer, shit-shoveling builds your writerly muscles. You gain experience, and as I always say, “Only experience makes a writer a writer.” But here’s the deal. That shit you’re shoveling is practice, not art. The art of professional writing takes time, patience, and a dedication to honing your skills.
I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the world, but in America, there is a strange idea that hard work—nothing more, necessarily, just hard work all by itself, entitles you to success. People write their first novel, and put in the work. They’ve written their eighty-or-so-thousand words. So, they expect success.
Not so fast. Just because you worked hard on something doesn’t mean it’s any good. Yeah, you wrote a rough draft, but where’s the editing and the proofreading? Even if you do those things, too, it doesn’t mean that you’re ready to be a professional author.
You need a product that people like.
The first step to writing a work that people like is a good, inspired idea.
It amazes me how many professional writers deride the concept of inspiration. Just look up “Waiting for Inspiration to Strike” on Google and you’ll find article after article about going ahead anyway, soldiering through, even if you only have a crappy idea, or no idea at all.
I think writers think that if you’re sitting around “waiting for the gift of sound and vision,” to quote David Bowie, you’re not really writing. They must think that novice writers are just sitting around all day, drinking coffee in a coffee shop, procrastinating, pretending to be writers, never accomplishing anything, and never getting a word down on paper. Yeah, I admit, this does happen to some people. But the answer isn’t to make the writerly life into an assembly line of words, day after day, typing yet another 1000 words, even if those words are uninspired crap.
Remember the old saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
A lot of modern writers tell you that writing is one hundred percent perspiration.
No wonder so many books are boring, uninspired affairs.
You need a good idea. That’s the foundation of your novel. Yes, it’ll take months of dedicated effort to make that idea into a reality, but you need that germ of inspiration if you’re going to do something worth publishing.
So, take the time to find that good idea. And when it finally comes to you, work like a mofo to make it a reality. Otherwise, it’s all shit-shoveling and no pony.
My husband and I have a saying that comes from a Mitch Hedberg comedy routine: Don’t force the trip.
Mitch Hedberg said:
I was in Ireland. I got to drink absinthe in Ireland. Absinthe is a liquor that they outlaw. It’s supposed to make you trip hallucinogenic-ally. So, I got excited, because I like to hallucinate. So, I started drinking lots of shots of it. But really, it’s just a liquor, so really, I was just getting f****d up. I wasn’t even remotely tripping. After 10 shots, I fell to the ground. I was trying to force the trip. “Why is the floor as low as I can go?” I was just faking it, you know.
He wanted inspiration. Instead, he just got f****d up.
I’ve learned, over time, that when I’m trying to find inspiration, I’ve sometimes tried selling my husband on an iffy story idea. He just smiles and blinks, as opposed to getting excited about the idea. When that happens, I say, “I’m forcing the trip, aren’t I?” He just nods at me. Whenever it’s obvious to both of us that I’m just faking it, I dump the idea and wait for the “trip” to happen.
When the right idea comes along, I get excited, and I push myself to my utmost to write the rough draft, sometimes writing three thousand words a day, because the idea is pushing me to make it a reality. It feels good, like a legal high. And when I get that excitement in my brain, I know that I’ve found a good idea. The writing flows, and when I’m done with it, I know I’ve written something inspired.
When you’re lucky enough to have one of those ideas, you feel like you’ve got the world’s greatest job. Nothing is more joyful, more honest, more exhilarating than making that idea come to life.
So, yeah, waiting on that great idea does take time, and it requires faith, but it feels a lot better than sweating my ass off in a stable, looking for a pony, but only ending up shoveling shit and saying “Look at how hard I’m working as a writer.”