I agree that the ability to develop and finish a story is more important, and rare, than coming up with or capturing random ideas, especially since “ideas” can be something as small as a two word sentence from your daughter or the colors on some weird bug that you found hiding out in a teacup in your cupboard. Finding one of those is like finding one brick for a 50,000 brick house. Big whoop.
I also agree that ideas captured in a journal or file of some sort is NOT the only way to start developing a story. Getting a prompt or story parameters, writing to specifications, is obviously a perfect spot to begin as well (e.g. get me a SF story no longer than 6,000 words by Dec 15th that includes a bug). It is, if you think about it, just another type of starter idea. Going from image to story parameters or from parameters to story images–I don’t think the order matters. They’re both aspects of the story that need to be eventually developed. And we all know that stories can start from seeds of all types–character, image, line, issue, setting, problem, technology, AND parameters. What makes a prompt for a real gig powerful is that it pushes you farther down the path from one brick to house. It does this because a huge part of getting a story written depends on making decisions, getting specific. And on getting the motivation to buckle down and finish the thing.
I’m also going to bet that for all writers MOST of the elements (dialog, plot, character, setting) of any story are generated during the pre-draft planning (including research) and drafting–during the actual writing. Not by continually ransacking idea files like some people do their closets, trying to find pants, shirts, and shoes that will make an outfit. Like most anything else, we generate things (ideas in this case) only when they’re needed.
It’s true we have to care about and believe in what we’re writing. But I don’t think how any story gets started is significant. Partially because no matter how big the initial idea, it’s still small compared to everything else that must be generated. But more importantly because I think just starting is the key, whether that’s motivated by shot of zing or a deadline or whatever. I say this because I’ve found that zing strikes me more when I’m on the move working.
So if the vast majority of captured ideas are never used, why observe and capture at all?
Here are my personal reasons.
1) Because when I fail to consume new sights, people, ideas, and experiences, I tend to keep using the same things over and over in stories–lines, descriptions, plot turns, etc. Doing this actually helps me see new possibilities and go beyond my current ken.
2) While I forget most of what goes into the file, I don’t forget everything. When I’m working, the context of the story often evokes memories of some of these things I’ve captured.
3) Because when I’m on the lookout, I tend to see more. And current idea captures are a great source for random juxtaposition for the current project. I’m writing a story, go on a walk, and see in the snow a raccoon splayed out spead eagle on the side of the road like it’s been sacrificed, its belly torn open, the cavity completely hollow, four thin, almost translucent, ribs rising to the sky. There is some blood, but not much, and where it has fallen the snow is Valentine pink. There’s nothing else around the animal but a multitude of bird tracks and a few dark strings of disconnected and frozen gut. Because this signals story idea to me, I stop and pause to get more details. I write them up, look a bit closer, sketch it. And the impossible to imagine random detail goes into the current story to work its magic.
4) Because being on the lookout just brings more zest to my life. The universe offers up a small wonder or dread to me, and if I’m trying to be alert, I’m more apt to see it, cherish it, if only for a moment, and go my way rejoicing.