When You’re Drowning in Ideas
Choosing what idea to work on next can be like flipping through a book full of your favourite recipes. Every new page contains an enticing delight, sparking the imagination and tempting you in its direction. So how do you decide which one to try next?
For me, it comes down to two things: practicality and instinct.
Do you have time to work on a long project? Or will things like upcoming vacations, family celebrations, or public holidays prevent you from getting into a routine? Would a shorter piece be a better option?
Is your current project a struggle? Does the thought of another writing or editing session leave you feeling drained? When this happens, taking a short break to work on something different can both reignite the creative spark and allow you to return to your main project feeling refreshed and raring to go.
Change of Pace
Have you reached the end of a major phase in a project? Is the next phase now looming over you like an insurmountable mountain? A change of pace may be needed to keep things fresh. Some of you may be able to work on multiple projects simultaneously, writing a first draft for one book or story, doing a major edit for a second, and polishing a third. If you can, that’s great. But when I try to do that, I lose focus and all three projects suffer. Instead, I alternate at the end of each phase to give myself a change of pace. After completing a first draft, I’ll switch to editing another project—either giving it its first major edit or working on a later revision—and vice versa.
These simple questions will help you choose what sort of project to work on next. Will it be short or long? Part of the same series or a different one? Will you edit an existing work or start drafting something new?
Now you’ve reduced the choices from a book’s worth to a handful (or two) of bookmarked pages, it’s time for instinct to take over. What appeals the most: some savoury bread with a spicy filling, biscuits to dunk in a comforting drink, or a complex dessert with a dozen layered flavours?
Or, to put it in writing terms, when you consider all the ideas, which ones speak to you the most? If you think about the project, can you hear your characters talking, get inside their heads and sense their thoughts? Can you picture what obstacles and disasters might fall in their paths? If not, or if what you hear or see is vague or disjointed, set the project to one side. If it isn’t clamouring to get out, it isn’t ready to be written yet. You want to enjoy your writing, not wrestle with it every time you start a new page.
Still not down to a single choice? Try a few tasters.
If it’s a new project, plot the outline or write the first page. Does it draw you in, spark ideas for new scenes, or make you want to keep writing? Then this is the project for you.
If you’re picking what to edit next, try reading a few pages (on an e-reader or printed out is best). Can you see ways to improve it? Spot wordy sentences you know how to fix? See better ways to show a character’s actions or emotions? Or perhaps there’s a particular scene you’ve been fighting but now the solution to the problem is clear? Then this is the project for you.
If, on the flip side, you start reading or writing and hate every word, stop, file it away, and come back to it another time. I strongly advise against working on a project that provokes a strong negative reaction. It is one thing to fix a work that is flawed, but quite another to bash it because you’re in the mood for apple pie but the server brought you a chocolate doughnut instead.
When the Cupboard is Bare
Picking which idea to work on can be tricky, but what do you do when the cupboard’s empty and the fridge contains nothing but a lump of cheese and a couple of eggs? Writer’s block can be tough. Conjuring a single sentence can seem impossible when the creative side of your brain refuses to spark. While I don’t have a magic fix to the problem, I have several tricks which can help.
Take a shower, go for a walk, or do some housework
This tends to work best when you have a sense of what you want to write but can’t find the right sentence or chunk of dialogue to get things working. Doing something relaxing or some exercise can both act as a distraction, leaving your subconscious to work at the problem, and boost your energy level. Often, when something is on the edge of your mind but refuses to come, the best thing to do is stop thinking about it. A short break is often all that’s needed to unjam the mixing blades.
Talk/Write It Out
If you’ve written yourself into a corner and can’t see the way out, or if you’ve too many choices on which way to turn next but none of them seem right, it can help to talk or write out your problem. Speak to someone whose opinion you trust or write a PM or e-mail (you don’t have to send it!) Explain what is keeping you from moving forward, work through all the possible scenarios, and ask yourself why. Why is/isn’t this a good option? What can you change to make it more interesting or exciting? Why is your character stuck in a particular situation? What can you change to give him or her a bolt hole to escape through?
Sometimes you need to back up before you go forwards. In order to progress, you may have to mark a prior scene for change first. The solution could be as simple as having your protagonist spot a loose floorboard when he first enters the room (no lucky coincidences to the rescue if it’s always there), or her having a particular skill she demonstrates earlier (no eye-rolling from the reader when she finds herself stuck in a chasm and suddenly becomes a champion rock climber.)
The deeper you dig, asking why, what, and who, the better your chances of hitting on change that will work. And if you do speak to someone or send the email, the other person might reply asking, “but why not have them…?” And that question can often provide the spark which obliterates the obstruction, even when it leads you in an entirely different direction.
Watch a film or read a good book
Enjoying good creative work can engage your own creative side. I am not suggesting you plagiarise another person’s work, but maybe one of the minor characters will catch your eye. Perhaps there’s an extra, sitting in the background, chatting on their phone. Or a servant might knock on a door, drop off some clean clothes, and disappear. Who are these people? What brought them to that spot at that moment? What happens to them next?
Did the protagonist or antagonist make a choice you disagree with? What would your POV character have done when faced with a similar dilemma? How would he or she have ended up in that position to start with? Is there a story there? One that diverges enough before and after the key moment to make it unique?
Don’t think too hard. Let the book or film carry you into its world. If you’re lucky, your own ideas will start spinning. Part of you will continue to read or watch, but the other part will take its own road, playing out scenes or dialogue, working away at the bump in your writing road. Before you know it, you’ll be five pages or five minutes further along, lost to what’s happening on the page or screen, but the bump stopping you from progressing will be gone.
Play What If
This can be useful if you’re trying to understand your character or world better. Put your character in a mundane situation, such as going to the market or preparing a meal, then ask yourself “What if…?”
What if she found a gold coin at the side of the road?
What if he dropped the roast on the floor?
How would your character react to this relatively benign occurrence?
Perhaps there’s a romance in your story. What happens to the happy (or unhappy) couple after your story ends?
Write down your answers if it helps. Turn them into a scene or short story. Or you could play it out in your head, toy with it during your lunch break or when you’re stuck doing a mindless task. Either way, you’ll learn more about your character and be better able to anticipate how they’ll react in a tough situation. And that may be the key you need to turn your cheese and eggs into something yummy. (Omelette or scrambled eggs anyone?)
When You’ve Never Baked Before
Do you want to start writing but can’t decide where to begin? Or perhaps you’ve dabbled a few times without getting very far, or your previous attempt ended in disaster? Taking the first step in any circumstance can be tough. The voices of doubt can be crippling. (Don’t listen! Every time your little voice tells you you’re not good enough or you’re wasting time, take out an imaginary fly swat and give it a good whack.) And picking a single story from all the possible stories can seem impossible—never mind the actual writing itself. Here are my suggestion for narrowing the choices.
Write What You Know
This piece of advice is often taken literally. If you’re a vet, have your main character be a vet too, or if you’ve a keen interest in Roman history, set your book in that time period. This is good advice, to an extent, but if I were to follow it, my books would be boring. Plus certain genres don’t lend themselves well to this mantra. How many of us have been bitten by a vampire, cast a spell, met an alien, or ridden a unicorn? In cases like this, the better phrase may be Write What You Enjoy.
If you enjoy a good biscuit to dunk in your tea (or a cookie in your milk), you’ll know a lot about that biscuit or cookie. What it should look like, what it should taste like, its texture and crumbliness, and whether it should have any extras like chocolate chips or raisins, etc. You may not have cooked it before, you may not know the processes involved, but you do know what makes the end product enjoyable to you. It is this knowledge, brought about through your enjoyment, that would make the cookie or biscuit (or pie/roll/pastry, etc) a good choice for a first bake.
The same is true with writing. If you read or watch a lot of stories based in a specific genre, and know it well as a result, it would be a good place to start. You will have a sense (even if only on a subconscious level) of what makes that genre of story work, enabling you to bring those key ingredients together and mix them into any story you write yourself.
Keep It Simple
Whilst it’s tempting to dive straight into a multi-part series or tackle the masterpiece you’ve been contemplating, doing so for a first write has it risks. It would be equivalent to attempting to bake your best friend’s wedding cake when your only previous bake produced a burnt half-loaf. Though the potential reward is priceless, the chances of success are tiny.
Start with a stand-alone book or story, one with a clear and satisfying ending. This will give you a goal to aim for and reduce your chances of getting lost half-way through. You can still tie it in to your series or masterpiece if you want to. It could be about one of the lesser characters, or the back story for a more important character, or a youthful, foolish adventure they once shared.
Work in a sub-plot or two if you wish. Don’t attempt more at this stage. Weaving multiple plots together can be like platting bread: the more strands you have, the harder it is to keep track of them all and bring them together in an enjoyable pattern. Practice will allow you to handle more strands and more complex patterns, but for a first try it’s better to stick to two or three threads and produce a finished work than try for six and create a mess.
Want to have a man-dragon fall in love with a Minotaur? Or perhaps one of your characters disappears, is presumed dead, but is then discovered trapped inside a gem years later?
Go for it!
Both of these are ideas I played with in my early writing. I didn’t explore them to the same depths I would now. Nor did I dig down and ask why these things had happened, or explore the long-term emotional impact. I enjoyed reading fantasy adventure books, so I threw my characters into a scenario where they’d go on an adventure and joined them for the ride.
Some of it was daft, some extreme, and some nonsensical. But I had fun writing it, and I learnt from experimenting and reading it back, seeing what had merit and what came across as pointless or unbelievable. And whilst I’ve never shared those stories, I have recycled several ideas born in them and turned them into stories in their own right.
Writing your first book or story shouldn’t be a chore, it should be a fun and educational experience. Don’t aim for perfection at this stage. You’re not trying to create the perfect wedding cake, you’re putting together a plate of nibbles for a family get together. Sure, there’ll be the annoying relative who always has to criticise, but most people will understand and forgive the imperfections. And once you have their feedback, there’s nothing to stop you diving back in, editing and reworking the rough parts, and producing something better.
So have fun, be creative, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
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