Friday, 26 April 2013

I've had this brilliant idea....

I saw Chris Riddell for lunch the day before yesterday.  It's always great to see Chris.  He is always so generous and enthusiastic.

Inevitably, there comes a point where we talk about what we've just done, what we are doing now, and what we are about to do - or hope to do.  We talk about ideas.  We both come from a background in cartooning and so I think we both find generating ideas one of the easier parts of the job.

Ideas fall into a number of categories for me.  There are the ones I'm happy to share and there are ones I want to keep to myself for a while.  There are ones I want to try out on someone just to see a reaction, and there are ones I feel nervous about.  The ones I feel nervous about are probably the best ones - they are the ones I care about.

It's tricky talking to other writers about ideas in any case.  Writers find it hard not to take the idea and run with it.  If I mention an idea to Chris he always, without fail, goes off at a complete tangent to the book I intend to write.

But one thing I have learned over the years, is that ideas are as much of a distraction as they are a recipe for success.  It is good to have ideas.  Of course it is.  I'd rather have lots than none.  But ideas are seductive.

The trouble is, an idea is not a book, any more than an idea is a painting or a building.  I have dozens of ideas at any given time.  And that's not counting the ones that I have jotted down in past notebooks or have filed away on my computer.

Any one of these ideas may become my next book, in theory - but in reality many of those ideas will never get further than a sentence or two.  Now some of that is down to the fact that I have far more ideas than I can ever convert to finished books, but it is also because many of those ideas, whilst appearing to be great ideas when said quickly, simply won't support the weight of a book.

Ideas have to be tested.  Even in the plot-dominated world of children's books, a successful novel still has to be about so much more.  It has to be about character for one thing.  And whilst you might have a great idea for a character, that character has to come alive in the writing.

Because any idea could be given to a dozen different writers or artists and each one would take it somewhere different.

Ideas can be beautiful things when they are still in your head or in your notebook, but just saying them out loud can sometimes be enough to unmask them as impostors.  Sometimes they last longer.  These are the worst kind - the kind that lead you on for weeks, up and down mountains until you end up trapped in a jungle or alone on a deserted beach, sobbing quietly to yourself.  Metaphorically, I mean.  Apart from the sobbing bit.

Be wary of ideas.  Appreciate them for what they are.  Work on the basis that you are always going to come up with more and don't cache them for later.  The great thing about a book like Philip Pullman's Northern Lights or Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines, is that they are stuffed full of great ideas.

There is no shortcut to the doing bit of a book.  Sooner or later you need to get writing and see what happens.  Most writers I know - me included - hate writing synopses.  One of the reasons I think we hate them is because we know that a synopsis might kill an idea that we had been cradling for months.

Having said all that, you need to be careful with ideas too.  Don't mention the good ones too early.  Don't send them out ill-formed.  Don't think that voicing an idea casually will trick people into liking it. There are no casual conversations about books with editors or agents.  If you care about an idea, treat it with respect.

And don't ask people what they think of your idea until you know what you think.


  1. Indeed. So many ideas running through my mind and more come and go and then I find ones that I didn't know were there.

  2. Ideas are fun and they keep us moving on, but I think too much is made of them, particularly by people who don't write. I find too many of the things buzz around like wasps