Monday, June 28, 2010

Snakes, stories and those big bylines

As professional writers, we all know the importance of having a steady flow of killer ideas.

But what, exactly, is a good idea? You know, an idea that will hold an editor's attention, make a reader look twice, keep our bylines out there and our mortgages paid.

To me, it comes down to the grapevine. But wait - I'm getting ahead of myself.

See, when I think of a good story idea - an unlikely good story idea - I tend to think of "Snakes on a Plane." Really. I do. And here's why. When that movie was coming out, I was a features writer at a paper, and it was my job to come up with interesting story ideas each week. Now, I wasn't a film reviewer. And our own reviewer had basically ignored the movie, which was opening that weekend, over other, more highbrow offerings.

But to me, a story idea is simply this - it's what people are talking about. Sure, what you choose depends on the publication you're targeting, but what you're looking for is what people are chatting about or doing.

That will lead you to your stories. You'll find trends. Happenings. Interesting people, places and things that will pique your interest - whether they're fun things like how crowded your local farmer's market is getting, or disturbing things like how dirty and littered your local lakeshore has become.

And that week, I realized that people were talking about snakes. And planes. No, it wasn't the most highbrow movie out there, but it had gained a following long before it hit the screen. I found out there were entire blogs dedicated to the title. Special midnight showings scheduled. And ringtones where you could download Samuel Jackson saying he had "had it with these MF-ing snakes on this MF-ing plane!"

I thought it would would make a great feature - all this hype over a movie title. But the higher-ups at the paper were not convinced. The movie was silly, they said.

Whatever. I'm not particularly wild about snakes or planes, but here's the wonderful thing about ideas. You don't have to think it's a great trend. You just have to recognize it as one. I didn't want to stand in line to see the movie. But I wanted to talk to the people who did.

The editors were finally convinced. So I talked to would-be fans. I talked to a psychologist about why this movie title was so appealing. I talked to a herpetologist, who was dismayed at the hype. The story went over extremely well. Several of my editors were mystified. They shouldn't have been.

Stay interested. Find out what people are talking about. Chances are you'll find your next byline close by.

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