There are no bad ideas.

You might be tempted to think that some ideas are just bad. Not true. Ideas may have just been brought to life prematurely. Before I explain, here are two rules I follow as a writer:

  1. Keep all ideas. Keep them on file. Keep them on speed dial. Often new ideas will arise and you’ll get excited about them. But then when they hit the paper, they stare blankly at you and you don’t know what to do with them. I have a lot of old word documents with play titles with nothing but blank pages. But keep them!
  2. Connect new ideas with old ideas. New ideas emerge.

I was listening to the radio this morning in the car and a song came on. The phrase in the chorus struck me, and as I usually do, I fixated on that phrase and wondered what it would look like if I wrote a play or something based on that idea. I thought it worth exploring.

When I got home, I flipped on the laptop to get down a few thoughts when the car phrase reminded me of something I had started writing many years ago. As I started wading back through old files to find it, I came across another abandoned idea which suddenly intrigued me. I started re-chasing that one and before I knew it, I was working on two old pieces which will become two new pieces for a show I’m writing.

It’s fun when ideas compound on each other. So another axiom I live my writing life by: there are no bad ideas. There are ideas which haven’t come of age. There are ideas which haven’t yet developed. There are ideas which lack the crucial link which will take them in their eventual direction.

But there are no bad ideas. Keep them moving in your mind. One day they will all make sense. Or at least some of them will. I may not outlive the usefulness of some of my ideas.

Input is Crucial for Writing Output

Where do ideas germinate from? Other ideas.

As a writer, it’s impossible to be original, but it’s crucial to be unique. What’s the difference? Being original means attempting something which has never been attempted. Under this definition, it’s difficult to find writing that is completely original because there have been thousands of writers and hundreds of thousands of stories and story-types which have proliferated over the years. There’s more out there today than there ever has been. A true original – someone who pushes undiscovered boundaries – is rare. But the key to writing is to find your own uniqueness. What is it about your perspective which brings a unique twist to that cozy murder mystery? What historical angle are you using to highlight an aspect of a historical event in a new way?

There are endless ways that a writer can be unique because no one has had your particular experiences. The key is to use what you have, use your own voice, and tell the story in an interesting way. Then you can stand out – even amongst the myriad great writers out there today.

Recently, I’ve been reminded that one of the most important aspects of writing which will help you stand out and show your uniqueness is receiving input from other sources. Whether through reading other books, listening to music, chatting with friends, or reading the news, input is crucial in building ideas and taking our writing to unique places we otherwise would not have gone if we hadn’t been actively listening to what’s feeding our mind.

Here’s my example. I’m currently reading MLB historian John Thorn’s fantastic book on the origins of baseball entitled Baseball in the Garden of Eden. I just so happen to be reading this as I’m also working on the sequel to my baseball novel which comes out March 23. Twice this week my novel has taken wonderfully unexpected turns because of something I read in the baseball history. I learned about a young ballplayer named James Creighton, who was baseball’s first martyr. He died at the young age of 21 after swinging too hard. As soon as I read his story, it coupled perfectly with a story strand in my novel and I was off, and amazed, at where the idea took me. I was also a little scared. What if I hadn’t been reading this history at the time? My novel would not have been as rich!

A few pages later in the same history, I came across the tragic story of a black ballplayer named Octavius Cotta, who was murdered for trying to vote in 1871 Philadelphia. It’s such a heart-breaking story and it spoke to me deeply. Within one day of first reading about him, I have already finished a one-act play based on the events surrounding his death. It is, in my opinion, one of the best plays I’ve written in a long time. I would not have written it without reading that book. In addition, this same tragic story will have great implications on my novel as well. There’s a terrific way to bring his story into mine and I’m thrilled.

Two days worth of reading netted me one new play and two new crucial story strands for the novel I’m working on. If I hadn’t been getting this input, my writing output would not have been as good.

Unique and engaging writing is a combination of using your unique experiences and knowledge and coupling them with a continual stream of new input. The mix of ideas will provide lots of fodder for many different writing projects. What kind of active input are you using for your writing?

A Writer’s Problem? Diverted attention

Here’s the problem: I have so many writing interests that I jump around to all kinds of writing projects at the same time.

I should be working on my novel right now. I’m almost done with the first draft, but here’s where my rabbit-hold-kind-of-brain has been at this week. Two days ago, I got an idea for some song lyrics that I wrote. It was completely random, but I guess it’s good to rhyme every once in a while. I had fun writing them and I put them on this blog two days ago. Right about that same time, I had the genesis of a new play, just a title and a very rough scenario which might work. After that had been marinating in my brain for a day or two, I went to see a production of The Glass Menagerie last night. It was a great show, so as I was thinking through Williams’ writing and what it means to me, I got re-inspired to start that play. I decided to zoom in, and like Tennessee Williams, have a static set with only four characters. I’ve written elaborate plays before with many characters, those are especially good for high school productions, I’m attracted to the idea of a character-driven play where I can really focus and develop on just a handful of characters. So this afternoon, I’ve been writing it, my new play, forsaking my novel once again.

I also have another play I’m writing with some students. We  have a mid-October deadline. Plenty of time to procrastinate.

I also re-wrote one of the short plays I’m producing for December.

So, yeah, I’m all over the place. But I think that’s the way I work best. Let the cross-genres and overlapping ideas help each other. I’ll eventually get everything done.

The creative writing process is such a fascinating phenomenon. One word or phrase can turn my head and get my undivided attention. I never know what’s coming next. And that’s actually kind of fun.