Friday, December 26, 2014

Why a “Kick Ass Idea” is Over-rated

I try my best to avoid them, but I still manage to run across those “Five ways to be a better writer and here’s a picture of an unrelated female torso” articles a lot more often than I’d like and sometimes even accidentally read a small amount by accident while desperately clicking the “back” button. The end result of this steady accumulation is acquiring at least a foggy awareness of what people whose only published fiction is the claim they’re an author think is important. I’m definitely worse off for it.
One suggestion that I came across that stuck with me was the importance of high concept and being way-too-clever, or as the colorful graphic put it, having a “kick ass idea.” I’m a metalhead. I watch and participate in death sports. I pick heavy objects up and put them down. I’m all for kicking ass. I don’t want you walking away from this thinking I’m against putting the shoe into it. By all means, kick ass. Just be aware that the place to put the foot into the metaphorical posterior is in the actual writing, rather than hoping some “great idea” that’s almost certainly derivative is going to carry you through even a dozen pages, let alone a few hundred.
Think about it. The “kick ass idea” in War and Peace is that there’s a war and, well, peace. Not exactly mind-blowing innovation, but in the right hands it’s unbelievably memorable. Contrast that to any randomly chosen lower tier sci-fi novel. You might find amazing originality and moments that almost approach “I seriously pondered a deep concept and I liked it,” but it all drowns under the tide of uninspired choice of language, flat imagery, forgettable characters, awful pacing and all those other little things that look so easy when someone else is doing them.

 Yup, it rocks.
Ideas have value, they are important, but in the grand scheme I think they get too much attention. “Where do you get your ideas?” people ask, when they should be asking “Where did you learn to use language like that?” or “What sort of drugs did you do before writing those descriptions?” Those are the good questions, but because the actual craft of writing is not something most readers notice when it’s actually done well, you get a fixation on one small part of the process.
Don’t let your originality end with the Big Idea. Let it start there and then grow like some sort of wonderful metastasis of the imagination. Yes, that means hard work. Yes, that means actually developing technical ability. Yes, that means failure, re-starts, crushing writer’s block, frustration, severe under-appreciation and possibly even learning a little about who you really are. It’s going to hurt, but it’s a good kind of pain. Like the exhaustion of a workout or being hooked up to a battery in a bedroom setting. That kind.
A wise man, or maybe a video game character I forget which, once said “Too clever is stupid.” That’s not a motto for us all. Don’t overreach. Start simple. Who knows where it might go, but don’t try to get there in one giant step.

Aaron Zehner is the author of "The Foolchild Invention" available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.

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