Not all story ideas are winners. But they could be, if they only had that spark of originality and relevance to make them stand out. The irony is that the unique angle you’re looking for may require you to borrow existing ideas from other authors. How does that work, exactly? David Pennington breaks it down for us.
“The ugly fact is…books are made out of books.”
~ Cormac McCarthy
Your idea, as it stands on the page, is likely not everything it could be. Worse yet, it’s likely not everything your audience wants it to be. Writers today are challenged to hit the “publish” button as fast and as often as possible. As writers, our duty is to subtly tie together ideas in a way that is easily approachable and digestible so it leaves your audience feeling better for it.
Where do these ideas come from, and how do you make them the complete, robust gems your audience is craving? It’s time to go cratedigging.
Chances are, you couldn’t point out Gregory Coleman at a party. I’d also bet you couldn’t tell me about his band or any of the records he put out. However, you might have heard of the Amen Break—a ten-second piece of drum work that has worked its way into hundreds of popular songs throughout the decades. Hip Hop, House, Soul, Rock, Jazz—artists from nearly every genre have sampled the Amen Break into their music. Sampling pays homage to the art which came before you by working it into something of your own.
In an ocean of online content of self-publishing, modern writers could do well with a bit of sampling.
Painters sample brush techniques. Architects borrow from nature. Chefs fuse flavors. To find the right work to sample from, you need to listen to thousands of records, study endless paintings, and taste every flavor to know what you have to work with.
In short, you need to get into the habit of cratedigging.
What Is Cratedigging?
I heard it best put this way: “Cratedigging is finding the DNA of a song you love.” The term refers to cratediggers who would take to used record shops on the weekends, flipping through endless crates of vinyl to find rarities, reprints, and the one EP their favorite guitar player released on a different label in the 80s.
Artists should always be looking to build their respective collections, if only to draw the double-helix around the thing they love the most. To do that, you have to embrace the fact that the ideas you’re working with may not be entirely yours. There are eight billion people alive on the planet today, another 100 billion in the ground beneath our feet. Your job is to find the ideas that already exist—the ones you love—so you can enhance your writing with what others have already learned.
Cratedigging for Authors
Record shops are usually a mess, and the internet isn’t much better. For decades, publishers have put out whatever information they want in whatever format suited them best. Each was left to tag and categorize their content any way they saw fit, and no two publishers followed the same protocol. It is up to you, the writer and creative cratedigger, to find the samples your readers crave the most.
Whatever you’re looking for likely isn’t going to flow through a social media feed. Cratedigging starts with a search box and jumping to the fifteenth page of results. Cratedigging is clicking through all of the little blue links at the bottom of a Wikipedia page to see where you end up, and then spending hours reading through hundreds of poorly maintained websites and blogs. Along the way, you are saving links, taking screenshots, and keeping your clips somewhere you can dig through them later.
You’re not looking for answers. In fact, you should end up with twice as many questions as what you started with. Those new questions should follow you to the library where you ask the lonely librarian about the books that aren’t on the shelves, but back in the stacks—where the information is so esoteric no one ever asks about it, so why bother shelving it? You’re doing it to find the choice samples that, combined with your own voice and style, will give birth to something altogether new.
And along the way, your collection grows. Maybe it’s music, or movies, or a pile of links and printouts and newspaper clippings. Keep notes and categorize meticulously. You never know when a sample from today’s fascination will make for tomorrow’s headlining story. Then, through it all, cratedigging is enhancing your collection—organized and neatly kept—so the next generation of cratediggers can flip through it, looking for the DNA of the thing they love.
David Pennington is an author, writing coach and copywriter who is on a mission to improve the way we all tell our stories. He offers direct, often humorous advice that cuts straight to the heart-of-the-matter to help writers, marketers and copywriters tell a deeper, more-connected stories to better convey their message.