Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Magic of 100 - Finding Great Ideas

Today didn't turn out to be as long or grueling as I'd feared, so I did get a chance to rest up a little and can write a real blog post. I also pushed my idea generation far enough to be able to start writing on Old Paint again, but I am still short a detail or two.

Of course, real idea generation takes some effort and concentration. You can't do it justice when you're tired. And frankly, I think many people don't really devote sufficient time to real idea generation. They think as far as they need to, and that's it.

Kate Wilhelm had a wonderful bit of advice for us at Clarion. She said that whatever your story was about, the first idea you come up with for the ending is something everyone else would think of too. The second idea will still be something most people would come up with. The third is something most writers would come up with. The fourth would still be something many writers would think of. The fifth idea is where you start getting original.

Now, I don't know that there is a specific number that works for everybody like that. But the idea is to be the person who puts in that extra bit of effort nobody else puts in.

Many many years later I heard an interview on the radio with a journalist who had written a book about a very successful criminal gang. It was an amazingly innovative and creative organization -- not just for a criminal enterprise but for any enterprise. One of the things he commented on was that any gang member who was in prison was required to use it as a think tank. If you were in solitary confinement, you had to come up with 1000 ideas a day for the betterment of the gang.

When I told a friend of mine who was a working writer and a mother, her immediate reaction was, "Sure, it's easy to come up with so many ideas if you don't have housework, and distractions and kids and dogs to take care of." And she was right: while you might not think of incarceration as an opportunity, the fact is most of us simply can't shake loose that much time in our day.

But we can -- and do -- put ourselves into temporary solitary. However, because we don't have that outside enforcement, we tend concentrate less deeply, and our goals are much lower. Five ideas seems like a plenty high number to most of us.

Five isn't very much. As a matter of fact, I daresay ten isn't much either. Let's face it, that gang chief could have all of his gang members coming up with ten ideas a day, and not be limited to those guys who are in prison. He'd end up with even more ideas, but he wouldn't have the level of creativity.

The reason is simple: there is something magical about super high numbers. Just think about it. When you sit down to generate some ideas, odds are you'll come up with about five or six, and then stop. If you set a goal of more, and you push further, you'll come up with three or four more....

And then you'll get stuck. You may not realize it, but you just ran through the obvious ideas. It usually gets really hard at about ten ideas. If you press on, you'll squeeze out a few more. They may or may not be good, but they will come painfully.

But if you press on a little further, you'll suddenly have a new burst of ideas. These ideas will be rougher and crazier, but one will beget another and you'll rack up another ten or more before the ideas just seem too stupid or silly.

Now, here's the trick. The "too stupid or silly" is actually the wall of the box your thinking is stuck in. You're hitting up against things you would simply not consider at all. If you want to really expand your horizons and think outside the box and get really truly creative, you need to get beyond that.

And that's why a super high goal is essential. If you set a goal of 25 ideas, you'll get somewhere. You'll give yourself some good material. If you set your goal at a hundred or more, you will force yourself to consider those stupid ideas. The awful ones that will just never work. And then you'll exhaust them too, and you'll exhaust all of the stupid aspects of them, and the repetitive variations, until you actually start coming up with ways they could work. And at that point, your mind is wide open, and you can start thinking of things you've never thought of -- good or bad -- and seeing what you can do with them.

You may not be able to do a super long list of ideas in a single sitting, but set the goal anyway. See how many you can get done in the time allotted and then take it up again later.

This method works for any kind of creative ideas you could need: marketing ideas, blog post ideas, flash fiction ideas, character ideas, ending ideas, setting ideas. Ideas for your job, or for losing weight, or for entertaining your cat.

The key is to set yourself a problem, set a high goal, and then go at it until your mind opens up.

Give it a try.

(In the comments someone wanted more information about how this worked, so I wrote a follow up post - a practical guide to the Magic of 100.)


marycatelli said...

I think some examples of issues and idea lists might help make it clearer.

The Daring Novelist said...

Not a bad idea. I do think this subject deserves a series.

I've always been very free form about what constitutes an idea in terms of the lists, which is why I didn't say what you should list. One item might be a whole scenario, the next might say "the butler" (meaning he did it) and then "the butler is a good guy" then "The butler is a spy... a private detective... a delusional superhero... ooo! My hero disguises himself as a butler!" etc

It depends on what else I get done today and whether I have time... on the other hand, I certainly have a few brainstorming lists sitting around on my hard drive.....

DavidRM said...

Some years ago I read the book "Accidental Genius" (I forget the author, unfortunately). The core idea of the book was what the author called "private journaling". How you use a private journal is simple: Write for 10 minutes straight about the problem or issue you're concentrating. No editing. No stopping. If you have to type the same word over and over again to keep moving, that's what you do. The idea is to get past all the accumulated chaff in your mind and push through to the good stuff. Much like what you described. By forcing yourself to keep writing for the entire ten minutes, you eventually push through into new territory. After the ten minutes, you can go back and highlight the good stuff. Or maybe take a break and then do it again.

Coincidentally, I'm at a point right now where I need to go do exactly that. :-)


azarimba said...

Perhaps because I think in terms of cause and effect, I've never tried that kind of solo brainstorming when I get stuck. I have an MS that's nearly complete and needs about 5-15K words to finish it. Your idea is worth a try, Camille! I'm going to go for quantity, this time, and not filter for quality until I've got a whole bunch of ideas written down.

The Daring Novelist said...

David - that's a good exercise, especially one you do before each writing session. It gets you to stop doing things automatically and engage brain first.

But ten minutes is what I'd call and "ordinary" level. The point of the 100 is to take you very far beyond that. An hour or two which forces you bar beyond what you would normally do.

Azarimba - Yeah, it's more useful at the beginning of a project, but concentrated brainstorming is a power tool for any situation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great idea! I am working on a long-term project and, after reading your post, just generated a list of things that would help me to finish it. One of the things I wrote was thanking people whose tips or techniques I found useful or inspiring!-Danielle

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks for visiting, Danielle: Yes, this kind of idea generation works for all sorts of things. (And it's fun.)