Idea Worry

Happy New Year!

I happened across this interesting website that you might enjoy noodling around in. The page I’m linking to reveals the difficulty level of any word: Some of the results are curious. For example, dogged is considered elementary/middle school level, but doggedness is graduate level. Another page may come in handy for naming characters (and children). It’s the Baby Name Uniqueness Analyzer. There’s also a Nickname Finder.

On February 9, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I’m having trouble with ideas. Not just coming up with them, but liking them. It seems that lately, whenever I get an idea, I excitedly write down the possibilities, but then I just drop it. I focus so much on how wrong everything could go. The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

I feel like every time I really start thinking about something and what I could do, I don’t want to write it anymore. I’m just so convinced that it’s not worth it, or it won’t work, or it’d be too hard to write and I’d just get lost.

Any advice? And does this happen to anyone else?

I wrote, I think it happens to almost everyone. I’ve added your question to my list.

Erica wrote, My only advice is to try to write the story before you analyze the story. Aso, maybe it would help to deliberately try to write a really bad story so you can get the criticism out of your system?

And Melissa Mead wrote, Oh yes. All the time/ Sometimes it helps to write something that I don’t intend to show anyone. I tell myself “Okay, time to get this junk out of my system so it doesn’t get in the way of anything else.”

Sometimes it is junk. Sometimes it comes out better than I would’ve thought.

My rule is not to be judgmental about anything I’m writing. Ever. Not even after my story or novel or poem is all written and revised. I’m not allowed to think it’s unoriginal or boring or farfetched or any other withering criticism. Of course I let myself notice if, say, the pace is slow or a character isn’t likable when I want her to be. Those criticisms are narrow and useful. Then I jump in and work on whatever the problem is.

This taboo includes liking or disliking my ideas or my story, which is just another form of judgment.

The reason for the ban I put on myself, as Kit Kat Kitty is discovering, is that harsh judgment makes writing much harder, maybe impossible. Why would people subject themselves to such misery? Instead, we can master archery or cook a stew or weed around the tomato plants–which are impossible to do in a clichéd way, and the reward comes more quickly.

But I want to keep writing.

The ban takes practice. We have to become self aware and notice what we’re doing to ourselves. Gradually, we recognize that we’re self-inflicting before the effects set in. We can put a quarter in a very large jar whenever we catch ourselves. We can keep a log: May 3rd, 11:05 am, called myself stupid; May 3rd, 3:47 pm, called my characters flat. Etc. We can congratulate ourselves when we go three days without having to write in the log.

Because the minute we notice, we have to cut it out.

I’m copying a sentence of Kit Kat Kitty’s worrying here: The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

We can put a quarter in the jar for the word unoriginal and then we can get down to considering our setting without judgment. What could be in the backyard in addition to the swing set? We make a list, naturally: a giant face made of wood that can be stepped into through the mouth or slithered into along the ear canals; a small, two-horse carousel; a half-repaired sailboat. You can continue the list. How can we develop our setting in a way that will support our plot? For example, in revising my Trojan War fantasy I’m thinking about how to make the city precious so that the reader will care about its survival, not just the survival of my characters.

We can take the same approach with the magic system. We pay the jar for wouldn’t make any sense and put the worry in terms we can work with, like consistency or effectiveness. What about the magic system is inconsistent or ineffective? How can it enhance our plot?

Same approach even for the rip-off criticism, maybe even more so. We want to be inspired by the creations of other writers, including books, movies, series, and, though I don’t know much (anything) about them, video games. We want them to plant seeds in our brains. Poets do this quite openly. We write responses to other poems or have a conversation with another poem. We incorporate a line from someone else’s poem in ours (and give credit).

For fiction, we can ask ourselves what in the other writer’s story set off the imitation impulse? It may be something we want to explore ourselves. Or it may be something we disagree with and we want to make our case. Or there may be a flaw that we want to remedy. I wouldn’t worry about imitation. Whatever we come up with will inevitably be our own.

(I thought Ella Enchanted was entirely derivative when I wrote it, because I poured into it elements of everything I loved as a reader. I was sure I was going to be caught, but so far I’ve gotten away with the theft.)

I think something else may underlie the self-attack when we indulge in it, and that, in my opinion, is how daunting writing is. Many arts are interpretive. Actors (who aren’t doing improv) interpret the lines provided by a writer. Musicians (who aren’t jamming) interpret a composition created by someone else. That’s easier! (Or so I think, who is neither a musician nor an actor.) Writers have to do it all: characters, plot, setting, POV, voice. The prospect is scary, so we may put off the work by hobbling ourselves. Better, in my opinion, to look unblinkingly at what’s involved, understanding that we’re imperfect writers and a struggle lies ahead.

There’s this too: we can ask ourselves if something has happened, connected or not to our writing, that has brought on the self-attack. It may be that someone has criticized our hair or our way of arranging the food on our plate or our voice quality. Or we ourselves may have done something, unconnected to writing, that we don’t approve of. If we discover the source of our unhappiness, it may detach from any association with writing, and we may be free.

As for ideas, they’re minor in the process, just raw glimmers that have to be shaped. We can’t know how useful they’ll be until we start delving into them and asking many what-if questions–without judgment.

Meanwhile, we can generate ideas about what we’d like to buy with the quarters that are piling up.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take that backyard setting. Make a long list of what might be in it, at least twenty-five items, some of them direct steals, like I’m thinking of the rocking chair from the old movie Psycho, which would have to be rotting by now. Vary the tone of the items: make some of them normal and cheerful and some creepy or sad because they bring up tragic memories. When you have your list, think about the plot that might come out of using some of them. Ask yourself who lives in the house, who lives next door. Who’s the mayor of the town. Relax. Don’t settle for one particular idea. Write down whatever shows up. No judgment. Let them germinate. No judgment. Imagine a conversation in the backyard. Write it down. No judgment.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” may suffer from harsh judgment herself. When the mirror tells her that Snow White has replaced her as most beautiful, she can’t handle the criticism. All that comes to mind is killing the girl. If she thinks about the other young women who are likely to come along as she ages whom she’ll also have to kill, she probably accepts her serial murderer future. It doesn’t have to go that way! Help her out and write a story in which she evolves. Extra credit if you also manage to give Snow White a personality.

• This is from Wikipedia’s description of the beginning of the plot of the medieval epic poem Beowulf:

Beowulf begins with the story of Hrothgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for himself and his warriors. In it, he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating. Grendel, a troll-like monster, is pained by the sounds of joy. He attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and leaves his homeland to assist Hrothgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf refuses to use any weapon because he holds himself to be the Grendel’s equal. When Grendel enters the hall, Beowulf, who has been feigning sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel’s hand.

Imagine that Beowulf doesn’t attack Grendle immediately. Instead, the two contemplate each other silently for ten whole minutes, each one having ideas about what’s going to happen. Write the internal monologue of each one. Imagine, say, that one is a battle tactician and the other a deep thinker about philosophy.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Fantasywriter6 says:

    Hello:) I’m a fairy tale lover and so, naturally, I’ve always wanted to write a story based on one. However, I very much struggle with creating something original and fresh that has any sensible ties to the fairy tale. With your classic fairy tales(Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) I ask questions at the illogical points, but every answer seems to come from a book I’ve just read. With really unusual fairy tales, I feel as though the stuff that I write just confuses things further and makes no logical sense. I don’t know if this exact question has already been asked, but does anyone have any suggestions on how to create something with logical plot points that still relates to the fairy tale?

    • My advice would be to pick a fairy tale, write out a synopsis of it (either condensing it from the actual story or copying it word by word from another source, which really helps you pay attention to the details), pick out the points you want to use, and write lists. In this case, really long lists, since you want to make sure you get other people’s answers out of your system. Alternatively, make a list of the most basic assumptions about the story you can think of, and change one of those. That way, even if the actual plot is similar to someone else’s, the story will seem different. (For example, if you wrote a Cinderella story with dragons instead of people, it would feel very different from other retellings just because of that, regardless of any other changes you made. Or turning Snow White’s evil stepmother into her evil stepfather. It dramatically alters the story, even if the plot is the same.)

    • Hm… I’ve written a few retellings and have plans for more, so I can give that experience.

      GCL said somewhere in a past blog post (a recent one, I believe, though with my memory it’s like sand through a sieve) that you can take something you Loathe from a fairy tale and fix it. Cinderella is so passive! Why does she always do what she’s told? Cue Ella Enchanted. And Gail spoke about wanting to write a 12 Dancing Princesses retelling, but then she got Two Princesses of Bamarre– and, to my recollection, nobody has ever complained that Two Princesses was not Twelve. So that gives you “change something to make it better” and “it’s okay if you go off course.”

      What I like to do is keep the major plot beats– eg I want to rewrite The Frog Princess*. I get a very clear guideline from the story as-is, with the main conflict being a lack of acceptance from the prince’s family, and three or so tasks for the princess in frog form to perform. I can do so much character building work within that range! What kind of a woman do I think flourishes in this setting? What kind of woman do I want to write? How do I get here to slip through these scenes like thread through a needle?

      It’s also, in my opinion, A-Okay to use a book you’ve just read. If it’s a plot point or character archetype you are borrowing, I promise you, someone else did it before the author you’re ‘stealing’ from and someone else will do it before you publish your work! It’s the surrounding differences that matter. Katie W. wrote a great response right here regarding how different one change can make a retelling, and you saw what Gail said in the above post about originality! Don’t beat yourself up. Just write.

      • *The Frog Princess is the old story where the princes shoot off arrows to find their brides and one finds a frog… who of course is conveniently a beautiful princess! I meant to include this in my original post but, well, whoops.

    • An easy idea is to simply set the story in the real world. You can adapt the original fairy tale and characters to suit anyplace (or time period) What if you wrote Snow White to take place during the gold rush in California? Or Cinderella in the 20’s? What about Beauty and the Beast taking place in a highschool? For a fairy tale re-write the possibilities are endless. As many great fairy tale writers do you can entirely change a character or setting. Take Gail’s Fairest for example: In the original story Snow is beautiful and presumably shy and sheltered. Aza is ugly, shy because of her appearance and sheltered because of her looks. Snow had 7 dwarves Aza has a colony of kindly gnomes. In Fairest the evil queen isn’t a stepmother, and the queens jealousy isn’t completely based on beauty. Instead it is all based on music and voice. As you can see your story doesn’t need to have that much in common with the original. Use the original as an outline, giving you the main story line, but use your own imagination.

    • SluggishWriter says:

      It can also be useful to start at the other end: instead of taking a fairy tale and trying to think of new twists on the spot, come up with a completely different setting and characters, then use the plot line from the fairy tale to adjust the world.

  2. Thank you to Gail and this blog! You inspired me to write a story about “What would happen if the wicked queen realized that the huntsman didn’t bring her Snow White’s heart after all?”, and it just became my first sale of 2021.

  3. Hi everyone. Happy new year!

    I write a ton of stories, but they are all super short, my longest was twenty five thousand words. Does anyone have any advice on how to lengthen stories or what to do with stories that are only ten thousand words, about fifty pages.

    • That sounds impressively long to me! More like a novella. Are you looking to write books, or stories like you’d find in magazines?

      And if it’s neither, and you’re just writing for yourself, it can be any length you want it to be. The only reason 25,000 is awkward is that it’s a hard length to sell.

        • That sounds like a decent length for that age to me. I’d put it on my “chapter book” shelf.

          My boys that age are still reading picture books and asking for novels to be read to them out loud. My daughter, when she was younger, was reading books around 50k. So it depends on the kid. If you’re looking to traditional publish, it’d be a hard sell, but if you want to find your own niche and indie publish, you could make it work.

          I read an article by Orson Scott Card once on turning short stories into longer stories. The only place I’ve been able to find it so far is in a collection called “The Writers Digest Handbook of Novel Writing”. Here’s a few quotes from it:

          “Short stories are designed to deliver their impact in as few pages as possible. A tremendous amount is left out, and a good short story writer learns to include only the most essential information–only what he needs to create mood, get the facts across, and prepare the reader for the climax. But novels have more space, more time. When readers sit down with a book, they are committing several hours of their lives to reading it. They will stay with you for much more peripheral material; they expect, in return, that you will provide them with a fuller experience than they could possibly get from a short story.”

          “One of the things that fooled me on that first draft was the idea that if a novel is ten times the length of a short story, it must have ten times the plot. But that is rarely the case… Don’t try to come up with ten times the number of events you usually put in a story… Leave yourself plenty of leisure to explore from character to character, from thought to thought, from detail to detail.”

          “A novel isn’t a half-dozen short stories with the same characters. The novel… must have a single cumulative effect to please the reader. Ever minor climax must point toward the book’s final climax, must promise still better things to come… Novels aren’t built out of short stories. They’re built out of scenes.”

    • My advice would be to add content in between. If your MC’s are running to alert a king you might say, “They ran down the halls as fast as their legs would carry them, they were panting when they finally reached the king to alert him of the approaching army.” To lengthen this you might say: “Anna and Joseph ran down the hard dirt road panicking about the approaching infantry. Anna stumbled on the long run, Joseph forcefully pulled her up and dragged her behind. While they were running a drunkard stumbled across the street causing them to stop and wait. Once the man passed they picked up speed. Time was running out. “Out of the way!” Joseph shouted as they approached the castle, shoving people aside. Dashing down the halls heading to the king’s throne room they shouted an alert, “An army is coming, find the king, the fate of the kingdom is at stake!” Adding more description and action lengthens any story and if you go through and add where the story would benefit the story will become longer. But be careful, if you do this too much your story can come too wordy and there will be no room to breathe.

      • Adding more words slows down the pace/stretches out the action. If you have something like characters running, adding more description will make it seem like they have farther to go. Which may be the intent. It’s just something to be aware of.

          • In the story I’m working on now I wanted to lengthen it. My MC gets arrested and I pretty much skipped a whole time from when she plans the rescue with a young squire from when she actually escapes. So I added to it to bring length and add intrest to the time that was spent in prison.

  4. Something that I try to remind myself of whenever I start thinking I’m being “unoriginal” is that even Shakespeare, considered one of the (if not *the*) greatest writers of all time, based his plays on stories that were already well known! The Divine Comedy was essentially Dante’s fan fiction of Christianity and his favorite author/poet, Virgil. Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid, in turn based his work on the Iliad and the Odyssey! And Homer himself likely based the Iliad and the Odyssey on centuries of oral tradition. So don’t worry about being “unoriginal”. The important thing is to write what YOU want to write.

    C.S. Lewis once said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

    • And, as our own Gail Carson Levine said in one of the other posts about originality (although I don’t remember where) “Complete originality may be impossible, but uniqueness is inevitable.” It’s one of my favorite quotes by her.

  5. Any tips on finding a starting point for a story? Once I have a situation, I have no trouble thinking of what could happen next, but coming up with the characters/setting is hard for me. Most of the stories I’ve done have been fan fiction, although they usually end up wildly different from the original. It just feels like I get stuck when I try to create new worlds and characters. Any help?

    • There’s nothing wrong with using something else as a starting point. The characters in my main series were originally based off of my family members. When I was younger, I used my friends as inspiration. I used one of my friends as a model for two different characters in two different stories, and they ended up being completely different people. One character became a peacemaker who helped everyone calm down, and the other became a rival who constantly bickered with the main character. So, why not start with a fan fiction and then play with it? It’ll probably be unrecognizable by the end.

      Characters, setting, and plot/situation are all closely linked. You can use one to help you define the others.
      For instance, for the book I just outlined, I had some notes saved up about the magic system, and a basic idea (dragonriders are evil). I chose a real world time and place that I’d be interested in learning more about (the southern cone of South America). In research, I discovered some historical events that happened in that time and place that could be twisted into a major conflict (conquest of the desert). Wondering who would be impacted by that conflict gave me both plot and character (a native who hates dragons learns how to tame them, and sells them out to the Colonists, only to realize that dragons aren’t that bad and he has to team up with them to save his people).

      • Good point. It probably would be easier to write it as some form of fan fiction, then pull away from the source material later.

    • Take what interests you. You said you like to write fan fiction so ponder that. Let’s say you like Star Wars- maybe create your own galaxy, use random words to create species and take as much ideas as you can from what you like to read. Like Gail said, it is important to find inspiration from other places. Think about what things cause you to get fired up about, and put those emotions into your original characters. One thing that may get your story moving is give one of your characters a crazy quirk. This will help them stand out from others and get the story moving. One more thing, you don’t always have to create an original world. I love writing historical fiction and find that solid facts can help move me to create fantasy within the real world. The real world has plenty of interesting events too.

  6. FantasyFan101 says:

    I need some help. I am writing a novel, well, wrote a novel, and now I need help fleshing it out. It’s a skinny twig of a thing. I wrote 71 pages, and when I reread it, I noticed that I had barely described the landscape at all! The problem is, I left no space, no tiny niches, for me to fill in with details. The other thing is, I won’t be satisfied with a novella. I want a full novel, but I feel like adding any more scenes would kill my characters. And again, as I look back, my characters really need more personality. I have their form in my mind, but I want to add deeper parts to them. How? Any help would be a miracle.

    • For adding personality, my advice would be to try changing their dialogue. You can tell a lot about a character by their dialogue. If you understand basically what you want the character to be, try to hear their voice in your head as you’re writing (or reading) their dialogue and see what comes out.

    • Some scattered thoughts:
      With the landscape, instead of viewing it as a separate piece that needs to be added in, try thinking about how you can use the landscape in the scenes you already have. The most obvious way is to add mood. For instance, if the characters are sad, I’m going to share details about the shadows or solitary trees, while if this is a happy scene, the landscape will focus on bright sunshine or brilliant colors. Landscape can also add detail to action: the characters might have to dodge around boulders in a chase scene, or their feet might slip in loose gravel. Even to character: a character with a temper might kick a pebble, while an innocent one could be picking flowers. The little details are what gives the story its sense of reality, no matter how fantastic. They also add to the length.

      This doesn’t work for everyone, but one tool I use for personalities is studying the enneagram system. It classifies personalities into nine types, and then includes useful information like what each type fears or is motivated by. Here’s a link to get started if you’re interested.

      Another tip about personality: look into internal thought. Author Janette Rallison says that internal thought should count for about a quarter of the story, mixed in evenly with the action, description, and dialogue. It really gets into the head of the point of view character and allows them to reflect on what’s happening, so we know why the actions are important to the character.

    • Is the landscape important to the story?

      What do you mean by “adding any more scenes would kill my characters?”

      Don’t be afraid to make big spaces in your story that you can fill in with interesting characters and so on. That’s what rough drafts are for.

    • You have probably already outlined your story, but it can be helpful to do it again. This creates room for you to add in things. Also create a chart of your characters, write down what their personality traits are. Then make a list of things you want them to have and express in the actual story. A tip for giving your characters more dimension is to write a paragraph or short story on the individual people. It can be something as silly as their morning routine or how they would react in Disney World. This can really help you expand a personality because you can see your character in other senarios. Hope this helps!

      • I have what I call the “Pizza technique.” I put them all in a room, give them a delivery menu and a phone, and tell them to order pizza for all of them. It gets particularly interesting if their world doesn’t have pizza or phones.
        Who takes charge? Who makes the call? Who orders what, and why? Do they like what they get? Who messes with the phone and ends up calling Hong Kong? Who tries to take the phone apart?

  7. My books are short also. But when I had that exact same problem as you I read the book, found where the problem started , and then deleted it all.
    When I rewrote it I kept all the same scenes and a lot of the same dialogue, but I made it so I could weave more scenes and more dialogue into the story and make it feel more natural.

  8. Whenever I am writing I always have some sort of moral to push. But I stress over pushing my point too much and causing it to be cliche or under involving it in my story an leaving the reader confused at the end. I tend to end up having a character recite a monologue where their views on something is pushed. I don’t know how to get my points across without it being dry. Any adice?

    • I call it a theme instead of a moral, and it gets integrated into every element of stories: setting, characters, plot, etc. The theme might be hinted at, or maybe even said outright in a few key spots, but you don’t want to preach. People listen and learn much better through stories than sermons.

      For instance, in my Mira’s Griffin, I wanted the theme to be about the value of communication. The theme is reflected in the setting because there are two different species that cannot communicate–and at first believes that the other is incapable. It’s in the characters, once some of the characters learn how to communicate and others don’t. It’s in the plot as the main characters work to teach their species to communicate with each other before they cause a war and kill each other. The main character doesn’t need to stand up and give a speech, because she’s living the theme.

  9. FantasyFan101 says:

    To all people who helped. THX for all the advice. I’m so grateful. I feel like I got to soak up a bucket of sunshine. If I knew you better, I would probably vow to send you free copies of my book. I feel really special.

    When I said adding scenes would kill my characters, I meant that they already do a lot, and making more scenes might have to involve some dumb choice of their own. While I think it’s great for characters to occasionally make mistakes, I don’t want them to look like complete idiots. I could add a couple more scenes, and that would definitely help, but I don’t want readers to think that I added random things just to make up for lack of pages. But come to think of it, a bit extra extra explanation and detail might be nice. My mom is constantly getting confused when she reads my book.

    Again, thanks for all the help.💕

  10. FantasyFan101 says:

    She is. With her, I’ve made a bunch of progress. And my friends help too. My entire family helps. except my brother. He’s a Negative Nancy.

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