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Douglas Light

Knives in the Sand

Good ideas are like knives buried on the beach. A day of rigorous digging can turn up nothing. Or you might get poked the moment you step on the sand. And once you’ve found one, you want to handle it carefully, tapping into the mind stream for the good of all including yourself.

Uncovering ideas isn’t luck. It’s a job. And like all jobs, it’s about showing up. You have to hit the beach and put your time into searching. The bad days will outnumber the good, just as with any job.

But discovering—whether by accident or diligence—a sharp idea is just the start. Once found, you have to deftly wield it to carve out a story. It’s a process that requires you to take on three distinct roles, each vital to creating great work.

The first role is fun. It’s being a Lunatic. When developing an idea into a full-fledged story, you have to drop the filters, destroy all worries, and open every door. Go on, let anything and everything in, no matter how absurd, offensive, or ridiculous it is. Pick a direction and set off in a sprint, pointing with your blade of dreams. Realize you’re heading the wrong direction? Who cares? Knowing what doesn’t work can be valuable. It helps you understand what and why something else does work. And being that you’re a Lunatic, you can always turn around and race another way. No one is going to say anything. You’re just doing what a Lunatic does.

Sure, you’ll come up with a lot of useless material. You may end up writing ten pages and have only one good line. But it’s far from a waste of time. In your reckless exploration and subsequent sorting, you’ll find that truths emerge. Glistening, hard, and irrefutable, these truths will serve as the foundation for your story.

Once the Lunatic has cobbled together enough material for a first draft, you have to securely lock him away. Give him his medication, a warm bowl of soup, and tell him he’s done a great job. Tell him it’s time for him to take a nap.

Now is when you call in the Editor.

As the Editor, you have to understand artistry, and you have to know how to nurture it. But you also have to have the backbone to divorce yourself from the manic emotion that fueled the creation of the piece. You have to be vicious about eliminating waste. Take those 100 words you wrote and trim them down to ten. Find the single word that encapsulates what you’re trying to say in ten. With every sentence, every word, you have to ask“Is this needed?” and “How does this add to the story?”

After the Editor has combed through the story more times than can be counted, the piece will be polished and gleaming and ready to meet the world. That’s when you bring in the Salesperson.

Being a Salesperson, you appreciate all that’s gone into creating the story. But you see it for what it is—a product, something to sell. And to sell the product, you have to believe in it. You have to be passionate about it. And you have to know and understand the marketplace. Criticism is part of the game. If someone says the story sucks and offers their reasoning, you smile and thank them. No way are you going to sulk or pout. Being able to take a hit is part of the process. Find the lesson in it, if there is any, and chalk it up to learning. And if a comment is valid, make the refinements or changes needed. It’s all about having the best possible product to take to market.

Finally, once the sale is made and your story is launched into the world, you need to let it go. You’re done. Congratulate yourself. Have some champagne—but not too much. You have to stay clear headed. Tomorrow you’re back on the beach, searching for an even sharper idea.