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Intellectual Currency

21 November 2012

I had an idea when I was shaving this morning. But then I realized I’d better hold off on the idea-having until I didn’t have a razor in my hand — I manage to cut myself even when my mind is completely blank, so I’d hate to see what would happen if I started working out a concept while wielding sharp, tiny knives near my face.

Notice I said working out a concept there. Having an idea means nothing if you’re not ready to start executing it. That’s why I always chuckle when people say “I have a great idea for a book!” Or “I’m an idea man!” Ideas… well, they really don’t mean much. Everyone has them, and they have them all the time. Yet some people believe ideas themselves have tons of value — as if just having an idea is some sort of intellectual currency that will get you places.

An idea for a story is a great thing, but it has no value on its own. Any book, even shitty, nearly unreadable ones, are a collection of hundreds of ideas. The initial idea was what started the author down the path, sure… but on its own, that initial idea has little to no worth. Yet I’ve heard people talk about that initial idea like it was the bulk of the work — as if writing the story was just a formality after they said “What if there were vampires… who were also Nazis?!”

Having a “great idea” and treating that one thing as if it’s… well, really anything at all? That’s like putting a screw into a 2-by-4 and acting like you just built a house.

It’s not about ideas. It’s about execution. That’s how a good writer can take someone else’s idea — or an idea that existed before — and make an entertaining story out of it. Bram Stoker didn’t invent vampires, or even Vlad Tepes Dracula — but he executed those ideas in a way that became iconic and legendary. And he had hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas along the way, each of which he executed brilliantly.

And thanks to that, we got pretty much every piece of vampire fiction that followed. I’ll leave that up to you to decide if that’s a good thing or not.

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Ideas are fun, and they make us feel smart for having them. If I can give you any advice, though, it would be not to stop at having an idea. Why stop when it’s just getting interesting? Flesh that idea out into a concept, then — and this is important — do something with it. No one will pay you to sit around and come up with ideas… but they just might pay you for executing them.

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