Friday, January 16, 2009

Lakeworld and ideas

Yesterday I came up with Lakeworld.

I wanted to create a world that was very different from my usual stomping grounds. Something easy to summarize, but as unusual and distinctive as Mieville’s Armada or Le Guin’s Tombs of Atuan. The result was Lakeworld.

Lakeworld is made up of fourteen lakes of varying sizes, close together in a roughly circular shape. Narrow stone landbridges divide them. Different lakes have different features – the largest, for instance, is home to a herd of plesiosaurs, while another serves as a primary fishing ground/waterfarm for the population. Most of the people of Lakeworld live on its surface, on ships or on the back of a giant beast that nearly fills one of the lakes, though some live beneath the water.

So, why am I mentioning this? Well, aside from the fun of sharing it, I wanted to say something about ideas.

A lot of new writers are worried that someone might steal their ideas. They hesitate to put up parts of their work for critique even in private forums, or are reluctant to mention the details of a story in a query letter. On one occasion, I even read a thread started by a writer who wanted to sell ideas.

Is there a process to go through in which an idea can be pitched for someone else to write?

The reality, though, is that ideas are not just common, they’re distinctive to whoever works on them. Here’s an example:

A woman marries a man inferior to her in both social status and money, because she can't have the man whom she really loves. They have a daughter who, like her mother, falls in love with a man whom she can't have and marries someone else instead. She has a child by the man she loves, but the child dies. She loses the man in the end.

Margaret Mitchell made this into Gone with the Wind. Colleen McCullough made this into The Thorn Birds. Two very different novels, both very successful.

In other words, if you give ten writers the same idea, you’ll get ten or more different stories. The idea never stands alone. The writer will add genre, characterization, plot, theme and style, until finally it will be as difficult to discern the original idea as it is to tell which seed grew into which tree.

And each writer usually generates far more ideas than they can use, ideas that are better suited to their favorite genres and ways of writing than someone else’s ideas will be. So there’s no reason to worry that anyone’s going to steal an idea.

Lakeworld is a good example of this. Right now, it’s a thinly-sketched milieu, and I don’t know what characters are going to use it to enact which plot. The idea of the world itself is only the starting point. I could go anywhere from here – and so could anyone else who came up with this first, because there aren’t that many original ideas in the world. Lakeworld is original enough for me, though, and I look forward to telling a story about it.


GunnerJ said...

A similar pitfall is worrying about "running out" of ideas, which leads to creative paralysis as you worry about "saving up" your "good" ideas for when you're good enough to be published, instead of working on the ideas that interest you know and getting writing practice from it.

colbymarshall said...

I have a notebook full of ideas, and my biggest fear (one of them anyway) is not ever being able to write them all. Is that weird?

Firecat said...

Lakeworld seems like a really cool idea!

I totally agree with your comment that a writer usually generates more ideas than they can use.

Colbymarshall, you're not alone, I have the same fear!

All Roads Lead To Hazard said...

Ideas can swarm like termites. We need to clear the air by nabbing a few and the best way it to share them. I agree!

Marian said...

Colby, I worry about that as well. All these ideas clamor for attention, and I sometimes feel as though I'm playing favorites by picking just one to focus on at a time.

Marian said...

"Lakeworld seems like a really cool idea!"

Thank you, Firecat. :)

The best thing about a fantasy milieu is that it evolves even when you're not writing about it. I know now that one of the smaller lakes has dried out completely. People call it the Pit and they don't go near it.

I don't know why. But I suspect I'll find out some day.

Barbara Martin said...

I engage in a group on Tuesdays called "Two Sentence Tuesday" put on by the Women of Mystery where you put down two sentences from a book recently read or reading, and then put down two sentences you have recently written. It may be from a current work-in-progress or a draft story written some time ago. Two sentences may contain an idea, often it is just a sneak preview of what kind of writing the person is working on. They may be portions of ideas, but any one person reading them will never know the remainder of the story. And any other person could take those two sentences (which I wouldn't recommend) and write a story completely different than the author of those two sentences.

I had Bob Mayer, a NY Times bestselling author, critique my query letter and synopsis. He told me not to worry about putting down the idea in a query letter because ideas could not be replicated. (Just like Marian stated in her post.)

When you come up with an idea, sit down and write a paragraph about it before you placing into a folder. In a week's time or a month go back to review your ideas and see if some new bit comes to mind...if so, write that and place it with the story. Soon, by making repetitive trips into your ideas you may feel compelled enough to get down and write the rest of it.

If you think the idea cannot fill out a novel length story, then consider a novella or a short story where the piece is allowed to be up to 7,500 words and some places even 12,000 words.