Shifting Idea Sands

On April 7, 2011, Angie wrote, …While writing a first draft, I find myself constantly having new ideas for the plot that require me to go back and change several details. This becomes bothersome the further into the story I am, and it also worries me that I will lose some of the original integrity of the story the more I do this. What if, after changing a ton of details and scenes to accommodate a new idea, I realize that my grand new idea actually doesn’t work at all? Then I need to go back and change those scenes back, but will most likely lose a lot of my original work in the process.
As much as I try to plan my plot out ahead of time, I am still at heart an organic sort of writer; I discover the story as I move along. How do I keep from ruining my story as I come up with fresh ideas?

I may have quoted this before from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”


How I wish this weren’t true.

In hunting online for the above quotation, I found this on a blog I’d never visited before, but which you may all already know: More quotes, some funny too.

First to answer the easy part of the question, the only part that I can respond to definitively: You never have to lose original work if you start a new version and save your old one. You can name the old one something descriptive or you can write a note at the top of it that tells you what version it is and what made you start a new one. Then you can go back to the old if your new idea isn’t working out, or you can find those parts of the old that you want to re-insert.

I’m a make-it-up-as-I-go writer too, which makes me inefficient, very inefficient. Take the book I’m working on now, possibly the hardest ever for me. It’s a mystery, but it keeps wanting to be an adventure story, a form I’m more comfortable with, so it frequently veers the wrong way. I’ve mentioned before that I wrote many pages and then realized I’d forgotten to include any suspects. I went back to the beginning, putting in maybe too many suspects, but I made the mystery impossible to solve. In one instance, I don’t remember which, I wrote about 260 pages, in the other about 120. Then I wrote 90 new pages and felt lost, so I sent the thing to my editor, who said the problem was the book wasn’t compelling enough. Started again, and I’m now on page 72. It’s going better but very slowly.

Some writers get it right more quickly than I do, and even I do better on some books than on others. Some writers are even slower than I. This may be scant comfort, but writing is often difficult. I slog from confusion to confusion with clarity coming very gradually. Once, after visiting a school and speaking to the children there, I got a letter from one of them that said something like, I used to want to be a writer but since you came I don’t anymore. It’s too hard.

Of course I groaned. I probably shouldn’t have emphasized the problems to kindergartners. (Joke.) But the kids really were in elementary school, as some of you reading the blog may be. If you are, know that the rewards of writing are at least as great as the pain.

Patience is the first virtue a writer needs to cultivate. Skill won’t ever come if we don’t have the patience to develop it.

Don’t marry your first idea or your second, or your twelfth, but don’t divorce them either. They are each links to the final idea, the one that succeeds, which you couldn’t have gotten to without the others.

As for the ideas you abandon, which you’re now saving, they may be useful in another story or a germ from them may be. Our minds are deep lakes. Idea fish swim there and evolve, eat other fish or get eaten. When you catch your old idea that failed in one story and reel it in, it may have changed so much that you don’t recognize it, but the original is there in its belly, like the golden ring that appears in a fish’s stomach in more than one fairytale.

If you worry about running out of ideas, please don’t. We have new experiences, even when we think nothing is happening in our lives. Our brains are not only lakes but also soil, and new experiences are mulch, which our minds turn over and over and reshape, and ideas sprout.

I just reread a wonderful poem called “Skater” by Ted Kooser that captures this instant-by-instant change in us. Here’s a link to the poem: The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that one cannot step twice into the same river (because the water is always flowing). I’d add that the same person can’t step twice into any river because he is always changing.

This is very philosophical, but basically I mean that new ideas and then bungled new ideas and bungled old ideas are inevitable for some writers, like me. We just have to keep going.

Some writing advice urges the writer to write forward always and never go back. You can try this. If you can do it, great. This method worked for me on A Tale of Two Castles, but not on the new book. Write down your new ideas in your manuscript so you don’t lose them and march on. Then pick up what you had in mind in revision.

However, often the people who write this way hate revising because they’ve got such a mess on their hands by the time they type, The End. I love to revise because by the time I reach the last page I’ve worked out most of the kinks and all I have to do is polish – and usually cut.

A few prompts:

∙    Tessa is sitting in a classroom or studying at home when something happens that changes her forever. Write the scene and make it occurrence that changes her a small moment, the change almost imperceptible but real. Then think again; put her back in the same place and make something different but equally significant happen. Repeat once more. Pick your favorite and turn it into a story.

∙    This can be fantasy or not. Ivan can be a modern boy or a prince who is buying a present for his dad’s birthday. They haven’t been getting along lately, and Ivan wants the present to bring them closer. Write the scene and its effect on the father-son relationship.

∙    Now let’s change it. Ivan wants the present to show his father how distant he feels they’ve grown, so he picks something emblematic of this. Write this scene.

∙    Bring a third character into the scene, Ivan’s older sister Yvette whose relationship with their father is unlike Ivan’s, maybe better, maybe worse. Write the gift giving again. Then think of yet another way to handle it and try that. Expand either one into a scene, a story, a novel, a seven-book series!

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Gail, I loved this topic so much I decided to blog about it too! (Here) Angie, I totally sympathize with your predicament, and suspect that most writers do. I always love Gail's advice about saving everything you write, because you'll never know when you might find yourself going back to. And I agree with the concept of never being married to one idea in particular, and just being flexible. Thanks for another great post, Gail!

  2. I love using my laptop to write, because I can make copies of my draft and also open up other files where I put sections of the draft so I can try out my new ideas on them. This way, I don't lose anything I've written. How did writers survive before computers?!

  3. I love this post! It's so encouraging- something I needed! I've been feeling stuck and not knowing where to go with a story (and begin a new one that I have fun ideas for) that I haven't written in… uh… a while. Thanks so much, I feel like I can go ahead and write forward! 🙂
    @ Elinor- I am soooo with you there! I love writing on my laptop too (haha, it's soooo old and very slow and internet doesn't work on it but it works for writing!)

  4. This came from Lexi on my website: I know everything about my characters; there are reasons for the jobs I chose for them and backstories that explain their personalities. I just don’t know how much or how to tell my reader. How to you pack in as much information as possible without sounding stilted, and how much is too much?

    And this from Emma–I got a book about publishing with 30 pages of writing contests for amateur novelists, and it's great, except for one thing; almost all of them must be short stories, and all of them have word limits, but I’m a very longwinded writer. How do you deal with word limits, and what details should you cut?

    I'm adding your questions to my list.

  5. So Pochantas' "Just Around the Riverbend" was stealing from Hercalitus! I had no idea!

    Aside from learning that, I love this discussion! Personally, when I come up with a new idea that changes things that came earlier, I try to jot some notes on what needs to change, and keep moving forward with writing. Of course, whether that works depends on how dramatic the change is!

    Replying to welliewalks, it might actually be an advantage to write on a laptop that won't go online–less distractions! 🙂

  6. Your point about our minds being deep lakes in which *idea* fish swim is a fantastic word picture. I love it! We hook an idea, play around with it, sometimes reel it in, sometimes throw it back–but it's still in the pool, waiting to be caught again. I love your advice, and the prompts. Thanks for linking to my post 🙂 Glad you did, doing so brought me here where I've found great advice for all of us, no matter what age–or stage of writing–we're in.

  7. Thank you for answering my question! As usual, your advice is helpful and motivating. I think patience is my biggest problem at this point, and it is a great reminder that it terribly important to be patient with my story until I find what what I'm looking for – while I'm "fishing" in my lake of ideas. 🙂

  8. I'm always changing ideas as I go along. I took a writing class once where tr instructor said you should never edit until you're through with the first draft. Whether this is true or not, it's a rule I follow loosely. My first draft is usually hugely different from the beginning to the end. It makes it kinda hard to think about editing, but once you get going it's not so bad.

    This post was timed perfectly, because I'm just reorganizing my story, polishing the plot and the characters. It's changed so much since the first draft that it's hardly recognizable half the time. The whole mood has changed, and the plot an half the cast. 🙂

    @Lexi – I can't wait for a post on this one! I'm definitely having problems with backstories – I love all the pasts in my current story, and I want to use them all to show how my characters got the way they are. I'm tryin to pick out the important information, but sometimes I think it would just be easier to write an enitre prequel instead!

  9. I have a question that has to do with Jenna Royal's post… A lot of the time (not all!), my last draft and first draft don't differ a whole lot plot-wise. Is this okay? I'm sure it is, as it depends on the story, but am I not being… like an editor enough? 😛

  10. These came in on the website:

    I'm seventeen, and I just wanted to say that I read Ella Enchanted in fourth grade (I think) and last year I read Fairest (which I loved very very much.) I write too, and my mom got me your book Writing Magic for my birthday.
    I'm usually one of those horrible writers that jump from idea to idea, but this summer I'm trying to stick with one story and actually get it published 🙂 Hopefully that will work.
    I have some questions, but they're pretty unoriginal so you've probably answered them already, and they're probably in Writing Magic, so you don't have to answer if you don't want to:
    I'm trying to avoid having my physical character descriptions be too… clumped together? I'm trying to tie them in with action, but sometimes it just does not come out right, and it seems cheesy. I'm usually not that bad at it, but sometimes it's horrible if I'm having an off day. I kind of have the same problem when I'm describing rooms, it just turns out really dry and boring. I try and just put in the most important details and again, tie it in with action.

    …I forgot my other question, gah. Oh well, I'll probably bug you again later when I remember or if a new one pops up.
    Thank you so much 😀 I'm actually going to my local library and kinda having this… writing editing thing, for children, and only three people have come (one came two years ago, and two came last year) but they were just there because their parents made them.
    Sorry, I babble a lot… wow, this is long.
    –Emma (it's listed as "Em-chan" because I noticed there was another Emma..I didn't want it to get confusing.)

    Em-chan–There's a post on this topic. I suggest you use the Search function to find it and then ask any follow-up questions you may have.

  11. More from the website:

    From Ella: I'm having trouble posting on the blog, so I'll post here: I don’t like revising. I’m the kind of writer that plans everything out before I write. When I come to the few spots that I didn’t plan, I skip over them and go on. But now I’m revising and I have to fill in those gaps, and go back and add details and emotions, but it’s really hard. Any tips?

    Ella–I've added yours to a recent question on my list.

    From Emma: I’m writing what I thought was a children’s book, and I’m realizing it may not be for the age I expected. It involves things like court trials, attacks from other nations, espionage, ect., granted the good guys always win. How much is too much for little kids? How much can the different age groups handle?

    Emma–I’m adding your question to my list.

  12. More:

    From Charlotte: urg! still can't post on the blog! anyway, here's my comment…

    I thought I'd weigh in on the word limits thing because I have had some experience in this. I've done several 500-word stories for the sake of writing contests, and I also had word limits on a lot of the scholarship essays I did the year I graduated high school. The thing about working with a limit is that every word and every sentence counts a lot more than in a longer piece. You're free to get picky with your adjectives, because you want to get ones that give you a strong sense of the setting in place of a long description. I find that my words are a lot more vivid in my short stuff, probably because with something that small, you can easily go over it about 300 times before submitting it, combing out the unnecessary words, changing adjectives around and changing them back, etc, etc. Always keep in mind exactly how many words you're at and how many you have left–Microsoft Word will tell you, and if you print your story off (I do a lot of my best editing manually), write the number at the top and keep track of what you take off and what you add on. Knowing what your budget is can help you decide what you can keep and what needs to go.
    Along that same line, the plot itself obviously can't be that long in a short story. Judging by a lot of the short stories I've read in school, etc, this is more of a genre that focuses on one event or emotion or aspect of life, rather than being a series of events like a novel is. There are a million and one different ways of writing a short story where all the action consists of the protagonist making herself a cup of coffee, or walking around her house, etc. It's what's going through her mind that makes it great. What I guess I'm trying to say is that short stories are more mood-driven than plot-driven–that's why it's a different genre–so the details that don't contribute well to the mood and theme of the story are the ones to drop.
    Hope this helps, and I look forward to reading your take, Ms. Levine!

    As for today's post, I am probably the biggest culprit of idea infidelity. Each new version of my novel is better and more exciting, so I go a head and switch, only to realise that in order to do so, I'll have to rewrite my entire draft…again! Each idea does stem from the one before it, and every time I think I've got the one that I'm finally going to go with… until something better comes along. I definitely agree with the whole "we're always changing" thing–maybe my thirteen-year-old self could have written the draft she was working on and been happy with it, but today's self has higher standards and better ideas. The trick is sticking to something, which I've found comes down to your motivation: if I'm writing because I want to be JK Rowling and make a billion dollars, the stakes are high and nothing gets done. What I've recently been discovering is that I need to write my story not because of what I want to gain from it, but because it deserves to be told and there are people in the world who will be less without it–me included.

    Charlotte–How wonderful–your whole post. I'm going to bring your ideas about short stories back when I get to that question. I don't know how much I have to add to the astuteness of your response.

  13. Wow, I totally thought I commented already. Appears not…
    I'm one of those who just write as I go, and rarely stop to change things once I've started (unless I stop completely). It's kind of a pain though, because I used this method on my last NaNo that turned into a mess. And now I am trying to sort out that mess by the end of the summer…we'll see how that goes.

    I read a quote from an author once (sadly I can not remember which author it was at the moment) who said that are minds are like wells. Wells full of ideas. And sometimes when writing a novel we empty that well- sometimes to the bottom. But never be afraid, because though it may take some time, the well will eventually fill up again. I agree with this statement wholeheartedly.

    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine. 🙂

  14. From the website:

    Just wanted to say, thanks Charlotte! that's very helpful!
    And thank you too, Gail, I look forward to your post!

    hi sorry about asking another question. but can pleeeeze tell me what section you put my question about imagination. i keep looking but i always get stuck on where to look on your blog.

    p.s i still have not found my writing niche that i have lost since the past years.

    please and thank you

  15. @Grace – good luck with sorting out your NaNo novel! I love the quote you posted – how true! I don't often have trouble with the idea well drying up, but when it does it's encouraging to know that it will fill up again.

    @Welliewalks – I don't think that sounds like a problem either! I sometimes wish my editing process could be that simple! My stories change all the time, and so does the plot. It can be wry rewarding, and also intensely frustrating!

    @Charlotte – I have the same problem with coming up with better and better ideas. Right now I'm working on a draft that I really like and I don't really want to change much. Although that might change when I get a new idea!

  16. From the website:

    Still can't post on the blog, so here's my question.

    My MC in the real world is kidnapped by some strange-looking people. They kidnap him to protect him, but my MC doesn’t understand that at first so he should be freaked-out by them. The problem is, the characters who kidnapped him are good so I have a hard time making my MC dislike them. How do you make the main react realistically?

    Lexi–I can't answer about your particular story, but I'll discuss the more general question.

  17. From F on the website:

    It seems like I can't get my comment to show up on your guestbook, either (this is the third time I'm trying, haha).

    I hope it doesn't end up as two/three comments with differently-worded same-content…that would be lousy, and spam….


    I really liked this week's blog topic! I always save everything I write, old versions and the new versions, and I was very pleased when I first bought my copy of Writing Magic and found out you did the same! I find it's easier to keep a track of how the story changes if you have all the different versions with you.

    I also had a question I wanted to ask, about beginnings. I checked out your previous posts on the subject, and though the 3/Nov/10 post answers my question somewhat, it's still a bit more broad that what I was wanting.

    My question is, do you think each beginning should be written so that it demands attention from the very first line? Or is it all right to slow ease into the action after introducing the setting and character, etc.?

    You see, I just starting rewriting my novel and thought I'd try getting my first 200 words (of the beginning) critiqued to see how good or bad it was. The feedback I got was that there was nothing in the first 200 words that grabbed the readers' attention. Things really begin to happen in my first chapter around the 500-word mark, and I was wondering whether that was too late. But it's not like it's complete drabble, either – the first 500 words introduce the MC, her character, and the ring she wears which is important for the story later on.

    I'm all for working to get a snappy, immediate beginning, but I was wondering what you thought about this. :/ If it's any help, my novel's a sort of historical fiction set in a completely fictional kingdom.

    F – Haven't heard your voice in a long time! I'm adding your question to my list.

  18. From the website:

    I just wanted to say your blog is amazing! I can't seem to post on there, or I would, but I have followed all of your posts and they have helped me so much that I've never even had to post a question! That is, until now. I hesitated to write this because it makes me sound like a baby, but I need your advice. Here goes…

    So I showed my English teacher the novel I wrote, and she wrote “Weird!” because my characters were so odd. The rest of the day I felt sick as “Weird!” echoed in my head. I knew she was right. It sunk in. All I can think of when I write now is “Weird!” What do I do? It hurt, but I still love to write. I don’t handle criticism well (can you tell?) Should I give up on writing and find a hobby where you don't need to be critiqued, or do you have any advice on being less sensitive? Your advice would be so helpful!

    Ashlyn–I'm mad at your English teacher! She was insensitive, and, worse, unhelpful. I hope you don't stop writing, and you haven't demonstrated to me that you don't take criticism well. If she'd given you a useful critique you might have handled that perfectly. Grrr!

  19. Hey, I was just wondering – is it ok to change a lot when you're writing a series? I mean, what if you write a sequel that's awesome, and them you have a brilliant idea that's even better, except it involves changing the already-published prequel?

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