The Poisoned Well

Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s rare to see an idea so great that it can transcend actual writing. Everyone you talk to has a great idea for a book. Few of them will ever write it. Writing isn’t about ideas. Writing is about writing.

I’ve got notebooks full of ideas. I write them down as they come to me. I jot down pieces of dreams as I wake up from them. It’s rare that I ever get around to writing them. Why? Ideas are easy. I can sit down at my laptop right now and think of something to write. I can do it on command, without a prompt, at any time or place.

I have a theory about ideas, and that “well” from which they spring. When you first start out writing, you are an idea writer. You think of scenarios and you write them. But you don’t really become a good writer, a good storyteller, until you have used up all those obvious scenarios and realize your idea well is poisoned by all the writers who have come before you.

Once you’ve realized that your ideas are tainted, once you stop relying on ideas and start relying on writing and its processes, you uncover something special.

Don’t worry about original ideas. Worry about original execution. I hate to use too many examples from the horror genre, but everyone will tell you vampire stories are done to death. Literary magazines and anthologies will tell you not to bother. Yet, every horror writer I know has taken a crack at vampires.  I’ve got one. It’s got an original twist, which is exactly what every writer with a vampire story says.

The vampire hasn’t been an original literary idea since the 19th century.  Everyone thinks of Bram Stoker and Dracula, but it was derivative, too. The originator of vampire fiction is The Vampyre, written in 1819 by John William Polidori. Every suave, sophisticated vampire owes its genetics to Polidori. For extra trivia points, you should know that Polidori wrote The Vampyre during a rainy weekend that also produced Frankenstein. Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron, along with his personal physician William Polidori. They told ghost stories. Lord Byron jotted down some fragments based on vampire folklore. Polidori ran with it. The rest is horror history.

As we all know from bestseller lists and box office totals, the vampire idea well has not run dry, despite everyone’s best attempts to empty it. Every year, there are more vampire novels. Every year, there are more vampire movies. Every year there is a Twilight, a True Blood, or a 30 Days of Night.

When you know a water source isn’t any good, you have to treat it. You filter it, toss in iodine tablets, boil it, or use whatever other process you need to make that water drinkable. That is writing. Your well is poisoned by a million other writers who got to the well before you did.

It’s what you do with it from there that makes your story tastier than the rest.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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