Dig, Dig, Dig for Those Great Ideas

I read a great post today from a writer responding to that frustrating question: “where do great ideas come from?” What she emphasized was that it’s not necessarily about the ideas (they’re a dime a dozen, and you can’t copyright them for a reason) - rather, it’s about the execution. Well, yeah. But this week I want to talk a little bit about ideas. Without actually dodging the issue.

A few people have asked me why we chose this picture to inspire our anthology (in fact, behind the scenes, Kickstarter requested I change it, because it could inspire race-based discourse - bring it on, I said!). Of course, the final choice was down to you all, our readers and writers, who picked it as the best of a weird bunch. I’m the one who found it, though, and got that funny little rush you get when a scene is just brimming with potential story, like an overfull coffee mug relying on surface tension to keep its contents from burning your hand.

This tension is what inspired our “third option” theme: DeAnn and I aren't just writers and publishers - we’re researchers, too. Our squirrelly little brains wanted to get the inside scoop on the ideas the image inspires. What story comes to mind first?…second?…third? What trends will emerge from the submissions: is there an obvious story here? Will it differ by author age, location, culture, gender, and peanut butter preference?

There’s a great little cognitive theory that says the early options will be along the “path of least resistance”: the obvious choices, the surface narrative, the explanatory diatribe. Ideas that trade on easy connections and first impressions, stereotypes and tropes. Ideas that are, basically, flat.

On the other hand, if you push harder, dig deeper at something, and keep asking questions as to how it could develop or why it came to be, you arrive at richer, more developed, more complex associations, deeper world-building, and more realistic characters and interactions. These ideas may trade on wider cultural elements, but they’re also going to be heavily influenced by how the author sees the world, their experiences and perspectives, their memories and knowledge (and maybe research). These ideas result in more individualized and “original” stories - the kind that make your readers ping you on GoodReads begging to know how in the world you came up with such an amazing idea. 

(Of course, it helps if said amazing idea is executed in an equally amazing fashion.)

These are ideas that result in books like American Gods (the culmination of Neil Gaiman’s lifelong obsession with mythology and his experiences as a British expat living in America), Lord of the Rings (the result of Tolkien’s linguistics research flourishing as new languages, peoples, and worlds), and Kindred (based on a simple “what if” idea, enriched with Octavia Butler’s personal experiences and perspective on the world).

It benefits the anthology that we’re pushing writers beyond their first instinct - this way, it’s less likely we’ll wind up with a lot of stories trading on an obvious theme or cliché (not that there seems to be one with this image - one reason it’s such a great prompt!). We also hope it will benefit the writers to work this way, to know that a lot of other writers are looking at the same image and that you need to make your story stand out. To sip through the first few ounces of the picture’s overflowing narrative potential and get right down to the rich, fertile dregs that tell a different fortune to everyone who looks at them.

So get writing - don’t forget the submission deadline is 31 August, just a few short weeks away! 


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