Probably the single most asked question I get about being an author. Whether I’m at an author’s event or just casually trying to work the subject of writing into a conversation at the checkout line. I’m not really that bad, I promise, but give me a try. Results may vary.
You would think I’d have a stock answer by now. Mostly I just try to read the moment as best I can and lead with a joke, which almost never works.
A few days ago, I attended the third annual Author Fest at the Waynesboro Public Library. The first year's event came and went without me ever knowing it came and went, and during last year’s, I had a conflict.
This year's was slow. Despite the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. time slot, we had fewer visitors than previous years, according to the returning authors. Slow events are always a bummer in terms of sales but they do have the benefit of a more casual, uninterrupted time between visitors and authors. During the lulls, the twenty-two of us in the dungeon of the event (okay, just downstairs away from the fourteen who got the prime seating upstairs in the library proper) we kept up the chatter among ourselves.
One visitor Matthew Warner – the crazed jujitsu horror master I had the pleasure to be tabled with – and I spoke with at length was a local educator who works with young children. She was born and raised in Romania and very interested in what made us tick as authors. Where do we get those pesky ideas? When did we first discover we wanted to write?
As we talked she shared her great concern. She grew up on the classics – Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, etc. – and she feels the depth is draining out of modern literature in America. Children are reading The Hunger Games instead of Wuthering Heights and works by Stephanie Meyer, but not Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. I can’t disagree with her completely, but I think the bigger picture might be to embrace what these modern works are accomplishing. No writer writes in a vacuum. There’s always a message, even if it’s not a very good one, even if it’s not particularly intricate, even if the writer doesn’t realize they’re putting one there. And, yes, I really believe that. Most important, more children are reading, and for me that was the gateway drug to everything I treasure today.
As an author, my biggest challenge, and fear, is fighting the deluge of material on the market today. Anyone can publish anything. If this sounds contradictory, don't worry, it is. It’s one hell of a double-edged sword. You want your ideas to simmer to the surface, to be read and enjoyed and not overwhelmed by the sheer volume of other work. Being mediocre isn’t going to cut it anymore.
“Where do you get your ideas?”
Like I told our visitor, my problem has never been where will I get my next idea from, but when will I find time to work it into my ever-tightening schedule of existing ideas. You’ve just got to hope that the good ideas area going to stick around and not be drowned out by all the voices of the shallower ideas around them. Stephen King addressed good idea survival once. I think it was in the audiobook version of On Writing, but it could have been an interview. (Note to self: track this down since I refer to it an awful lot.) He's a busy guy but doesn't ever fear he's going to forget a good idea before he can get to it. When its a good one, he said, you don't forget. Hell, you can't forget.
So until the last great idea comes along and it’s the only voice in the room, I’ll keep on juggling, balancing and working through the night to do them all justice.