Right now many of you are cranking out stories for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You’ve got two more weeks to hit your 50,000 word goal. If the words are flowing you might feel an urge to share your idea with everyone and their mom, but now isn’t the time.
It’s hard to stay on the right path when your friends say, “What if, instead, you took your story in this direction?”
My least favorite type of writing has always been summarizing. Whether I was pitching a screenplay or a synopsis for a book, I got too concerned about what producers and publishers were looking for. I hated whatever I put on paper. It felt like I was cutting out the tastiest parts to make it palatable, misrepresenting the material by packaging it for mass appeal.
Writers are always asked where our ideas come from. Our answer is usually a deflection in case potential rivals are listening in. If we told the truth, everyone would be making a play at our game.
Of course we know where our ideas come from, we just want to keep our inspiration in house. We have a monopoly on our muses, exclusivity deals with our delusions, and first rights with our figments of the imagination. Our creativity is under contract. We lie to keep poachers off our lots, to keep talent thieves from ensnaring our rising stars, to leave headhunters scratching their own.
Writers are the rulers of our own entertainment empires. We keep our spark moving through our internal studio system. Non-disclosure agreements forbid us from discussing our process, but today I’m feeling generous.
The majority of my ideas come from Daydream Agents tirelessly pitching their clients. My job is to choose which one I want to spend the next several months with. Writers are really producers deciding which bright ideas to green light.
Hearing Pitches from Daydream Agents
As a producer, I don’t live behind my desk, nor do I need a room full of Evian swirling executives to tell me when a story has potential. I hear elevator pitches everywhere I go.
When I page through the terms of service on my brand new tablet, a Daydream Agent appears in the reflective surface.
Leaning over my shoulder to scroll through the fine print, he smirks. “What if there was a clause that claimed your soul just by tapping the ‘agree’ button, maybe just a fragment of your spirit so you wouldn’t notice it was missing? You go about your routine until you realize something about you was gone. Not a memory, but a sense of understanding.”
Having whet my appetite, the agent earns my business card. We set up a meeting for whenever I’m having trouble sleeping.
Later that day, I’m at the bookstore looking to expand my library, when I overhear a pair of women talking about how a certain memoir ought to be labeled as fiction.
Flipping through the pages, a woman shakes her head at the book in her hands, “Go Ask Alice was written by a psychologist trying to make a cautionary tale for teenage girls. She dressed it up as this anonymous diary to make it more authentic than an after school special. I’m telling you, she wrote a whole series of these. Her next one, Jay’s Journal, was about this dude who got seduced into a Satanic cult. It read like a bad found footage movie.”
Watching the women through the bookshelf, I’m startled to find I’m joined by someone else: a Daydream Agent with a stack of memoirs in her hands.
Snapping her fingers, she turns to me. “What if someone hired a ghostwriter to forge a memoir, but instead of scaring teens straight it kills them with a curse? It’s Go Ask Alice meets The Necronomicon.”
Grabbing the Agent’s shoulder, I shush her. “You had me at a curse that kills teenagers.”
Ensuring this idea has an opportunity to build a rapport with me, we schedule a meeting for the next time I’m stuck in a long line.
That night I’m out at the bar, listening to a group of hipsters talk about the dark side of viral video: gross-out porn, gore memes, and the disturbing snuff footage posted by trolls in random comment sections.
A Daydream Agent slides into the stool beside me. He speaks without making eye contact, like a confidential informant. “What if someone shot a snuff film and a tech savvy viewer set out to exact revenge on behalf of the victim?”
I roll my eyes, “Like in that Nic Cage movie?”
The Agent raises his finger, “This is different, because it turns out the hero’s online allies, the ones helping him track down the killer, are the producers of the original feature. Our hero unwittingly helps them make a second, delivering them another victim.”
I sip my beer like it’s a fine wine. “Sounds complicated.”
The Agent rubs his hands together, “That’s because there’s a twist. Our hero realizes this group has been in the snuff business for some time and according to their pattern he’s slated to be the star of their next production.”
“That’s pretty downbeat.” I cock my head, he has my ear but it’s on the move.
The Agent slaps the bar in a desperate attempt to keep the energy up. “Okay, knowing that he’s marked for death, the hero stages evidence that points the next vigilante patsy to the creep that showed him the footage in the first place. The producers accepts this dummy offering and our hero goes into hiding.”
“Sounds like a novel.” I rub my chin. “Right now, I’m more into producing smaller features.”
The Agent snaps his fingers, “How about a novella? No subplots. No more than nine chapters. We could give it a micro-budget and streamline the whole thing.”
I shrug. “Now that’s something I could see happening.”
A person like me doesn’t get the luxury of going for a run with headphones on. I have to be available to hear pitches everywhere I go.
“What if a boogieman stalked a little girl only to find he was being hunted by her imaginary friend?”
They pitch me in the shower, they pitch me on the John, they captivate their captive audience before I even put my clothes on. They pitch me in my sleep, but dream logic always needs a few dozen rewrites before it ever makes sense. It’s hard to suss out substance from the surreal. I buy the rights to a few visual elements and leave the story to float back into the ether.
My favorite Daydream Agents are the ones that comeback without a callback. I want a fantasy with the confidence to knock on my door after my assistant has told it I’m out. The kind of idea that doesn’t care if I’m working, driving, or in the middle of a conversation.
The best daydreams are the ones I remember without having to write down, the ones with staying power. They’re memorable but timely enough that there’s an urgent need to rush them into production. After all, every author running a private entertainment empire has a slew of summer release dates to lock down.
Ideas are the Easy Part
When readers ask, “Where do your ideas come from?” they don’t realize they’re asking the wrong question. The right one is: “Where do you get the tenacity to flesh your ideas out?”
I’ve been warned that I shouldn’t share my ideas with strangers. I say, why not? There are no million dollar ideas, they’re a dime a dozen. A good idea doesn’t write itself on its own. You still have to write scenes that flow into acts that fit together into something greater.
Hearing story pitches is the easiest part of a writer’s job. It’s putting them into production, keeping them on schedule, and getting a final edit that’s the real challenge. Anyone can say they want to tell a story, it takes skill and dedication to finish it. A good idea doesn’t guarantee memorable characters, witty banter, interesting settings, or good pacing. That’s the real work writers do.