Idea overload

Before I start the post, I want to let you know I’m going to be at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival on March 16th. Details here: I hope some of you can make it. If you come, please let me know that you read about the event on the blog. I’ll be delighted to meet you!

This is a continuation of questions from Ellie Mayerhofer that were the subject of last week’s post: Is it possible to be working on too many stories? I am working on several though there are two that I am mostly focused on (four that I am really trying to work with-there are some others but those four are what I usually work on, but there are two that I work on more than the other two). But then sometimes one of the stories I haven’t worked on in a while will pop a new idea and then there are more that I am working on. Or I will suddenly get a new idea and then leave off the others. I want to really focus on and finish some of my stories… Should I put some stories to the side and only focus on one or two? What happens if I do put everything but one or two to the side and then get another idea? Do I keep working on those, or do I work on my new idea and put off the others?

Idea overload comes up often on the blog. If I advise you to put new ideas on hold until you finish the work-in-progress, the WIP, you may not be able to. The new idea is an itch that desperately wants to be scratched.

Still, the WIP won’t ever be finished if you aren’t faithful to it. Your desire to bring a story to completion wars with the new idea. In this state, you’re a battlefield!

What I do when a new idea blasts in is to write it down in the ideas folder in my computer. I write a paragraph or so about the idea and what I might do with it and then go back to my current story, which usually takes the pressure off the itch. I suggest you try that as one strategy.

If you have more ideas than you’ll ever be able to develop and you’d like to annihilate the new one, try telling it to a friend. Explain it all, every single thing you can think of about it, all the characters, every plot point, exactly what you would do if you did write it. Rant about it. Then see what happens. For many writers, talking about a story kills off the desire to write it.

If you’re writing a blog, give any idea you don’t have time for to the world. Explain it and put it out there. If you’re interested, ask your readers to use the idea and show you the results.

It’s also possible that the new idea came along because the story you’re working on has gotten into trouble. What used to be fun and fascinating has turned into work and you’d rather dance off to something fresh.

This is a real choice. Unless you have a contract for a story, you’re not required to soldier on in misery. You can move on, and maybe the new idea will go better than the old one has. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it, too, will mire down and you’ll be gone, chasing another concept. There’s nothing wrong with this. You may need a year or two of story hopping before you figure out how to stay engaged. You’re going to learn about writing no matter whether you stick to one project or jump around.

The only true abandonment is to stop writing.

And that isn’t a tragedy either. Whether we’re kids or adults, we have a right to try things out. Writing may turn out not to be your calling. The theater may be, or particle physics, or the study of larks.

But if  you really want very much to finish a story, when a new idea comes along I suggest you look at your WIP and see if your enthusiasm for it has waned. Consider what the problem might be. Are you unsure of what should come next? Are you uncertain of what your MC should do in the latest situation? Does it all seem boring?

I recommend over and over on the blog that you go to your notes and write down ideas for your current story, for how to get it moving again. I still recommend that, but maybe there’s something else you can do. When we write our subconscious involves itself and sends our upper consciousness messages in code. A new idea may be a message for our WIP. Examine the newbie side by side with the WIP. Does it solve any of the old guy’s problems? Can you use the new idea in what you’re already doing? Can you incorporate aspects of your new MC into your current MC?

Suppose you’re working on more than one story right now and you also have a list of future ideas, plus three new projects are banging on your brain – step back and look at them whole. Maybe make a chart. List all your characters from all your stories. Write down very short summaries of your plots, like “a quest to find the cure to a dread disease” or “a struggle to prove herself in a friend’s eyes” – whatever. Maybe make each story into a few frames in a comic strip, using stick figures if you need to (I would!). Let it all stew inside you for an hour, a day, a week without much conscious thought. Then look at everything. Do you see new connections? Do you see ways that your new ideas can energize your old ones?

Do you notice that you stop in a similar place in all your old unfinished stories? Can you recruit a new, new idea to get you past that point?

Going in another direction, taking a break from a WIP to try something new may just be what the WIP needs.

Here are four prompts:

• Combine elements of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Aladdin” into a single story. If you think of another fairy tale that can go in too, go ahead.

• Four former winners of the lottery, each with his or her own backstory, whose lives post-lottery have not gone well, form a mutual aid society. Write what happens.

• Put these together in a story: a fairy tale prince, a despotic ruler, a fifteen year old modern girl, the killing of a unicorn in the despotic ruler’s herd, and the discovery of an ancient text. If you have a new idea, you have to put it in this story.

• Danielle has lots of friends. She’s a delight to be with, and she makes whichever friend she’s with feel like the most important, the most fascinating, the most charming person on earth. The problem is, she isn’t reliable. She’s late or doesn’t show up at all, although her apologies are irresistible works of performance art. She meets someone new, who falls for her hard. Trouble is, this new character, doesn’t know her history, is unprepared for her behavior. Put what happens in a story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Story Hopping

On April 9, 2010, maybeawriter wrote, …what should you do if you have too many ideas, and can’t seem to finish any?

And on July 7, 2010, Alex wrote, My brain runs a lot faster than my hands can type (think race car to horse-and-buggy), and I often change my ideas as I write. I become bored with one idea, get another one, start work on that, and then become bored with the new one. In other words, nothing ever gets done and I have folders overflowing with unfinished work and abandoned stories. I can’t remain true to an idea or story for long, and it’s so annoying! Is there a way to make myself keep working on a story, and stop losing interest in it?

This isn’t one of my problems, but I have a few theories about what may be going on.

You may not have written enough stories to have found one you want to stick with, or you may not have developed the skill to keep yourself happy with a story you’ve started.  The story may not yet live satisfactorily on the page.  I mean satisfactorily for you, no one else.  The solution is to keep writing, new stories, old stories, abandoned stories that you’ve returned to and may abandon again.  You’ll get better and be able to carry a story further, maybe not the very next story, but gradually.

Or the difficulty may be self-criticism masquerading as too many ideas.  The story you’ve begun sours on you.  It’s not going the way you’d hoped.  You suppress the thought that  maybe you’re not much of a writer and leap into something new.  That suppressed doubt is there, though, and needs to be brought out into daylight and then slapped around.  Shut up! you have to tell it.  Story judgment day hasn’t arrived.  I’m just getting started.  I’m exploring this story, and I’m learning how to write (as every writer is, no matter how experienced).  Then soldier on with the original story.

It’s also possible that your story idea isn’t big enough to take you very far.  What interests you may be just one thing, and once you’ve written that, you’re done.  The story isn’t finished, but you don’t know where to go with it, so you hop onto something else. 

Think about whether that something else can fit into the story you dropped.  See if you can meld the two into a larger framework that will accommodate many new ideas.  Suppose, for example, you want to show how one of two sisters always has the upper hand in their relationship.  You write an argument between them, and you prove your point, but it’s just a scene, and you don’t know what to write next, and up pops an idea for a story about the last dinosaur.

Well, what if you put the two ideas next to each other?  One sister finds the dinosaur and the other gets involved somehow too.  You still have the sisters’ problem relationship, but now you also have a dinosaur to broaden the difficulty.  The dinosaur can have its own personality and may prefer one sister to another, for instance.  You’re tootling along with this until it peters out too, and a forest story beckons you.  Can you bring the sisters and the dinosaur into forest?  Maybe this seems like a rambling kind of story, and it may not work in the end, but you’ll still have a longer piece than you usually get.  Then again, it could develop.  Our minds are good at making connections.  While you’re writing the forest part, your subconscious will be putting pieces together.  It remembers a detail from the first scene – a promise the sisters made to each other at the end of their argument – that completes everything.  Or you may think of an even larger story idea to unite the threads.

Here’s another possibility: You’re happily writing when a new idea arrives.  The first story is going well, but the new idea is so shiny and thrilling that you can’t resist it.  If you keep a list of story ideas, as I do, you can jot the idea down including all its wonderful aspects in a paragraph or two, without writing the story itself.  Then return to your first story.  The itch and the tingle are likely to go away because the new idea is satisfied that it won’t be forgotten.  You can do the same thing with your next idea and your next.  The benefit is that you’ll have a long list of great ideas, plus a finished story.

Notes may help, as I’ve written a zillion times on the blog, notes about your new ideas (as I just suggested), about where your old story might go, about how bored you are and how frustrated.  I find complaining in notes enormously satisfying.  Also, in notes you can explore an idea before you start writing to see if you think it’s one you’ll want to stay with.  But don’t use notes to criticize your ideas or deep six them without giving any a spin.  Don’t let notes choke off your creativity.

This may help too:  Imagine an ideal reader who adores your work and can’t wait for the next installment of The Tale of the Lost Dinosaur or whatever.  As you write, think, She’s going to love this.  Concentrate on what she might enjoy next.  And if, in spite of everything, you drop the story, your perfect reader won’t criticize; she’ll simply be eager for your next effort.

Along similar lines, you can talk to a friend about a dying story and see if he has any thoughts that will breathe more life into it.  Sometimes a new perspective will show you your story’s potential.

You might try NANOWRIMO, National Novel Writing Month, link here:  You commit to writing a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and 30th.  It’s free, and the commitment might keep you going, plus the support of other participants.  If you succeed, it’s a tremendous accomplishment.  If you fail, you get much credit for trying.

I don’t think it ever works to chain yourself to a story you can’t summon any more interest in.  If you’ve reached that point, move on and don’t beat yourself up.

In the end, nothing matters if you keep writing, because eventually – but only if you keep writing – you’ll finish something.  I’m sure of it.  And meanwhile you’re living a writing life, that is, a thoughtful, creative existence loaded with deeper meaning.

To people reading the blog, if you’ve had this problem, please weigh in with how you solved it.  If you’re still going through it, you can commiserate with maybeawriter and Alex.

The prompt is to go back to an old story, at least a month old.  How does it look now?  Do you have a few fresh ideas?   Have you been working on something since that you can combine with it?  Write at least one new page.

You can also use my ideas about the sisters and the last dinosaur and the forest, or parts of them, as a story starter (the last thing someone with too many ideas needs!).  Have fun, and save what you write!