Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's The Big Idea?

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, as evidenced by the discussion yesterday. Today's topic: the big idea.

Recently, I've had the scary thought that my ideas, while great, are not "big" enough. So I've been stewing about it. Trying to think of "big idea" books and isolating what makes their idea stand above the rest. I know--you didn't think I was so deep, didja?

Well, I am. I'm like the ocean. No, the Mariana Trench.


So I've been trying to see what makes an idea big. And by that, I mean marketable. Saleable. Oh-freak-an-agent-is-calling-me big.

And I've failed. I've looked at people I know who have sold books. At those who have agents and are waiting to sell their book. At people whose books I've read and yet they have no agent. Then I moved outside my circle of friends and looked at published books. And finally my own work.

And I'm coming up blank--or at least with a lot of conflicting "ideas". So I'm asking you: in your opinion, what makes an idea "big"?


christine said...

Hmm...early morning deep conversations...I don't think its about finding a big idea, really. I mean, yes, you need a storyline that is compelling, with a unique spin - but I really don't think it is about finding "the" big idea. For me, its about finding your voice as an author - finding a way to bring your characters to life in a compelling way and tying all of that into a nice compelling read.

After that, its about presenting yourself to the world at large in a way that makes people want to work with you.

Anyways - that's just my opinion.

Thanks for making me think so early in the morning :D

Lisa said...

I agree with Christine. It's about the voice and the execution more than The Idea.

Because, as Nathan Bransford said on a recent post, most ideas have been done before, somewhere! If anyone says their idea it totally unheard of, well, they haven't looked hard enough for something similar. Because it's out there.

When I first heard of Twilight, I immediately thought of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A mortal girl falling for a vampire? Yeah. That's been done before. But the execution of Twilight is what makes it so compelling. (I would be very curious to see Stephanie Meyer's query letter.)

I think we, as writers, should concentrate on the execution, the voice, the characters, more than that big HOOK. Because concentrating on The Hook might only lead to disaster. What if someone else beats you to it and all you've got is that spin? You're screwed!

Characters and voice first. The Idea, I think, is just a myth. It's all been done before, in some form or another.

Scott said...

Some very wise person did a post about executing an idea brilliantly! Oh, wait, that would be me.

We know there are no new ideas, only old ideas regurgitated endlessly to appease the fickle masses of readers that devour books at a rapid pace.

Any idea you have can be the next big thing!

I agree with Christine and Lisa that "it's about the voice and execution more than The Idea". So, delve back in, ramp your voice up, execute it brilliantly, and keep writing.

Don't fret over your idea not being 'big' enough. If you do, you'll only defeat yourself. You have to believe in you, in your writing, and the fact that you will be published! Oh, and you have to make your execution unique, somehow different, than everything that's out there right now. Geesh, talk about pressure.


Novice Writer Anonymous said...

I have to agree. How many books have we seen out there that try to follow some of the Harry Potter formula? Ordinary boy finds out he's not so ordinary, goes to a special school for his non-ordinariness, meets one girl and one boy whom he instantly befriends. Etc.

It's the execution and the writing that matter. If you can get readers so absorbed in the way you tell the story they'll forget that they've seen similar ideas before because you've brought a fresh and unique voice to the table.

Jaime Theler said...

I don't think it's necessarily about the idea, because story ideas are often nebulous and glorious when you first think them up. So I don't want to know how to make an idea "big." I want to know how to slog through the daily trenches of words and sentences to make the story amazing.

And I'm still trying to figure that out.

L. T. Host said...

I agree execution is important. But I think if you have an idea that's old, and put a new twist on it, it becomes a new idea. It's certainly not the same idea any more.

I think there's theme and premise, which have all been done before, and then there's plot and story, which can be unoriginal, or very original, depending on which way you take it. I do agree that making it compelling will make even the oldest and tired-est idea easier to read, of course.

WindyA said...

Wow, you're so on a roll with all this deep-thoughtedness this week.

Remember your post about believers? I think that is what makes an idea "BIG." Depending on the role a believer has in your life and in your career, that is what helps to nurture ideas. I don't think any idea starts off BIG. Thoughts have to be fed and loved and nurtured to grow.

Marybeth Poppins said...

I'm running up against this very same thing Elana. I love my story, but it's just not working.

It's hard to pin point a big idea. I mean seriously...Twilight...there are TONS of vampire books out there. What makes that one such a big idea?

I guess it just goes back to what the agents say. Every idea has been done. It's just all about how you do it!

Sadly...I just don't think I'm getting it done just yet! I'm sorry you are feeling similar, cuz seriously...this feels awful to me!

Judith Mercado said...

I think it's finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

TereLiz said...

For me, it's all about execution, craft and skill. I have no problem with ideas, with exciting stories and plots, but it's getting that story told in a way that keeps the plot moving and makes the characters sympathetic.

Maybe I need to team up with someone whose craft is much better...

... but I'm not much of a team player.

Icy Roses said...

I guess I'll be the one who offers the dissenting view. :-/

I think it's hard to define what makes an idea "big," but big ideas are definitely important. Maybe the stakes? The characters should have big (apocalyptic or personal) stakes involved. I just don't think that if your idea is boring, even the most beautiful, developed writing voice in the world is going to save it. To some degree, I read stories for good execution, but I mostly read stories for an interesting plot.

But obviously, if you have a big idea and you don't have a good voice or technique, that's not going to get you very far either. Both are important.

Mim said...

At the conference I went to the editors all wanted that high concept idea. That new thing with a twist that is going to rock.

The high concept will get your novel read, but it won't sell it.

I think you need a combination of compelling story telling along with the idea with that unique twist.

I struggle to come up with it as well. I like my ideas, but my husband keeps telling me that they're not high concept. He's most likely right. He's a great trend predictor and idea person, though he says he's not.

Casey McCormick said...

I feel like I can recognize a "big" idea pretty easily when I see it, hear it, or think it. But I can't for the life of me explain what makes it. And big idea is nothing without an equally big execution.

Jessica said...

Wish I knew... I struggle with the same thing.

Solvang Sherrie said...

If I knew the answer to that, I'd have already written it!

Ina said...

Ah, I feel your pain! I have struggled with these thoughts in the past, and for me, it was because deep down I knew my idea was far from Big. So I searched for new ones, and have finally found one that I think is Big. Or at least Medium. Ha.

In my opinion, it's all in the details. Sure, Harry Potter is not the only "ordinary boy discovers magical powers" story out there, but what makes it a Big Idea is JK Rowling's imagination. Aragog, the baselisk, the three-headed dog, the centaurs...these are the things that all come together and form the Big Idea. Whatever your project is, think of ways to make it more specific. Draw on your favorite things, that combined will give the story a flavor that is distinctly YOURS. Anybody can bake brownies, but the twist you put on them and the way you present them is what's going to make people beg for another taste.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I thought I had a unique "big" idea only to find other books with similiar things going on. I suggest taking your ideas and what-iffing them to get as much mileage as you can. Then you write in your own voice, which by the way, rocks. You really have a great author voice from what I've seen in your blogging, your snippets, etc. That will take you far.

Carolyn V. said...

Wow, I love the thought about the voice. I'm going to agree. If you don't have the voice, the book is dull and boring.

What a great question!

Angela said...

I think it's a great deal about voice, but it's also about offering up a surprise--something that the reader doesn't see coming, hasn't ever experienced or didn't expect to happen even after reading a blurb or the jacket copy.

It's about trigging an emotional reaction that the reader did not expect to feel and leave them glad to have experienced it.

Angela said...

Or it's about zombies. :-)

Kat Harris said...

Count me in with those saying it's mostly about voice and execution.

A big idea can't hurt.

A big idea with a new spin will get attention.

A big idea with a new spin executed with a brilliant voice -- you're golden.

L.T. Elliot said...

I think big ideas are just regular ideas in some other writer's brain. I think what will make it "big" is, in the end, the fortitude to stick with it.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

This is interesting. One of the reasons I decided to write a novel, instead of starting another screenplay, was because I was so sick of hearing how screenplays needed to be "high concept" to sell. Then, of course, I realized that novels needed those same big ideas to sell too. I think that is just how the market is. That being said - I think you already have big ideas - maybe you just haven't hit upon the right one (for the right person) yet.

Lisa and Laura said...

I don't think ideas can be big, but I think books can be big. It's all in the execution.

Corey Schwartz said...

Oh gosh. I've been obsessed with coming up with a BIG idea ever since last November when I subbed to Stephen Barbara.

He said I had a great grasp of language, but my picture book wasn't big enough. Did I have anything bigger?

You can certainly have a successful book that isn't big, but if you do come up with a high concept plot, I think you really increase your chances.

MG Higgins said...

I'm going to jump on the voice bandwagon. Some of the books I've read lately, at least the middle-grades, are relatively "small" plot wise but huge with voice.

storyqueen said...

It's the smallness of the idea that makes it big.

Does that make any sense?

The more specific the story, somehow the more universal it seems.

I'm tired. Sorry if it makes no sense.

(I don't think agent-calling-me-big has to mean that the future of the free world depends on one kid.)

I'm sure your ideas are plenty big.

Laura Martone said...

Ideas are important yet, but as many others here have said, so are voice and execution. Maybe you shouldn't worry so much about finding a "big" idea! (whatever that means - hehe)

Laura Martone said...

Oops. I meant "yes" (not "yet") - that's what I get for commenting in the wee hours.

Carrie Harris said...

I think it's not so much finding the big idea as finding YOUR idea. If it's irresistable to you, then you can make it irresistable to others.

Oh, and I finally got around to answering your question. ;)

disorderly said...

Elana, you're torturing yourself. Take a deep breath and STOP IT. :-)

First, don't compare yourself and your work to anyone else. They are Them; you are You. Be honest with yourself and true to yourself, and everything will work out just fine.

Second, everyone who said "It's not the size of the idea, but the execution" is correct. Thousands and thousands of big ideas never make it onto bookshelves, but just as many tiny little concepts, boldly executed, do. Sometimes, all that matters is that a writer had the nerve to whisper (or shout) in print. :-)

Virtual hugs to you!

Major Tom said...

I believe it is equal parts inspiration and execution- you must have both to be worth your salt.
'Big Ideas' come to me in the form of scenes in my mind, as if in a movie, that raise the hair on the back of my neck.
Then it is up to me to begin the back breaking task of translating this epic moment into a coherent conflict and resolution. In my mind, it always starts with a brilliant flash, and some times dies in writer's cramp. But it always begins with that inspirational high.

See Elana's recent blog posts

Recent Posts Widget