This weekend, my writing group tried to come up with a name for ourselves. All the famous writing groups have one. There’s the Algonquin Round Table with Dorthy Parker and Harpo Marx. And what about the Inklings with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien? So some of us felt we should have one too. I put forth The BlackRock Writing Group, since we meet in the BlackRock Atrium of the BlackRock building (not to be confused with the building CBS owns). Writing group member, Justine T. suggested The Climbing Ivy Writing Group as the name because the atrium’s lobby is decorated with ivy that climbs up wound steel cables. She felt that ‘Black Rock’ was too reminiscent of the mercenary contractor group, Black Water. But in order to live the writer’s life you must be cutthroat like a mercenary to move from aspiring writer to professional! Our conversation of mimicking great writing groups and coming up with ideas reminded me of a webinar I attended earlier in the week. It was called Better Book Ideas and was hosted by author Joe Bunting.
The focus of Better Book Ideas was to understand what separates professional authors, who are published, from aspiring writers. Breaking it down into four points, Bunting showed that the key in being a published professional writer is our actions.
The first thing professional writers do is Study. Pros study books by authors looking for patterns in style, theme and premise that succeed with audiences. For instance, according to Bunting, there are nine books in literary history that have sold 100 million copies. Bunting uses them as examples to show how these nine books have a similar theme and that is the concept of ‘two worlds’. Books like Alice in Wonderland, A Tale of Two Cities, The Little Prince, and The Wizard of Oz all have the theme of ‘two worlds’; the protagonist who lives in their ordinary world is suddenly transported or goes to a place that is new, unfamiliar or hyper-realized. Studying these nine books is a good way to understand what made them successful and why the ‘two worlds’ concept resonates with audiences. Also according to Bunting, books that have gotten nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize within the last few years have often dealt with death as a theme. So writers should study Man Booker winners and finalists and explore why the subject of death resonates so well with readers. The point is, according to Bunting, successful, critically acclaimed books are written by authors who studied the works of the successful writers who came before them.
Studying leads into the second point: Aspiring writers come up with original ideas, while successful authors Steal them. According to Bunting, an author needs to steal ideas from other books and history. For instance, Shakespeare got the idea for Romeo and Juliet from a British author who wrote twenty years prior. That author stole it from an Italian author who came before him in Italy. Even George R.R. Martin stole the idea of A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) from history. The books are based on the actual War of the Roses. Supposedly, if you study the War of the Roses well enough you’ll get a good idea where Martin’s tale is headed. The idea of stealing is not to just copy something that is successful. You shouldn’t just imitate. Instead, you steal the successful idea and make it uniquely yours by making changes that work for you.
Third, have Interesting Ideas. Simple enough, but the idea can’t be interesting only to you. It has to be interesting to someone else. But how do you know your idea is interesting? You test it like how a scientist tests a theory. Like how the scientist creates a hypothesis, Bunting says the writer must create a single sentence premise, hook or elevator pitch that will grab an audience. A good premise can get you published. This premise should have a named character with a descriptor adjective attached (ex. plucky Jane), a situation the character is in (ex. enters a cave), and the goal (ex. to get the gold pot) of said character. This technique applies to fiction. In memoir and non-fiction , you should show a problem, give a solution and then show it’s application. Bunting says you should go out and ask the opinion of those you trust or people who are interested in your genre if your premise is interesting. According to Bunting, when it comes to ideas, aspiring writers create ideas for themselves. Published authors create ideas for an audience. Now what if someone steals your idea? Don’t fret. The idea is not the best part. Your writing is the best part. The writing of the individual writer is what separates similar ideas. Also if people hate your idea that’s okay. You can change it and move on. Don’t waste time on it. Move to the next idea.
The fourth and final concept on what professional writers do as opposed to aspiring writers; Execute your ideas. George R.R. Martin said, “Ideas are useless. Execution is everything.” What that means is you can have all the great ideas in the world, they are nothing if you don’t put them to page and get them out to the public. Spend a short amount of time planning than actually writing. When it comes to execution, getting the story out of your head is most important. You can always revise later. The process of execution requires commitment. This is an essential part of living the Writer’s Life.
Bunting’s advice on generating better story ideas seem pretty solid so I will try and integrate study and ‘stealing’ more into my writer’s life. Since I already have a ton of ‘interesting ideas’, I simply need to execute them.