Story ideas: Don’t scrabble for them. Dig.

It’s been a weird month, creatively speaking.

At the end of September, I was in serious doubt about the new book I was outlining. I had planned so much, could see certain scenes so clearly, and was so devilishly excited by them– but I had concerns, too. Big ones. Not only questions of POV and first or third person, but ones like: “Does this too closely resemble X?” and “Does too much of this ride on a hackneyed trope?” Instincts mean a lot in the arts, and these questions were enough to give me pause.

So I decided to let the story go. Or at least put it away for a while.

I went into October, then, with no project in progress– nothing I was actively working on, either writing or putting my head to. It was the first time I’ve experienced that since I started pursuing a career as an author.

It felt like this:

via Emily McDowell. And minus the “genius” part.

It was awful.

I racked my brain. I turned to old documents and file folders for interesting nuggets. I freewrote, made mind maps, compiled lists in search of a spark. I studied concepts, picked up books like Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, tried to jumpstart my subconscious.  I preoccupied myself, got out and away from the pressure; I deconstructed books hoping to learn something. But I had nothing.

I began to feel bleak, frustrated. Maybe even panicked.

Then, one day near the middle of the month, I had a REALLY COOL IDEA. Boom. Out of nowhere. I spent the morning and afternoon daydreaming about it, letting it run wild, taking notes. It had merit. I had something, and it felt good.

But by the end of the day, I recognized a familiar problem: though the premise was fresh (as far as I knew, anyway), the setup reminded me too much of other books.

I sighed and I put it away.

As a writer, you’re told everything’s been done before. Still, you burn to be original– or at the very least, not derivative (or anything that feels derivative, even if it isn’t). So I kept going.

Another week of creative purgatory– then, without warning, I found myself latched to an old idea I’d scribbled down months, maybe a year ago, but written off as bland, underdeveloped. But this time was different. This time it fused with another idea, and click– there was the spark.

I worked at it; began seeing scenes; connected more dots; loved it; came up against challenges; dealt with them. I WAS MOVING AGAIN. There was one point when I hit a wall (a big picture, scaffolding wall), but I couldn’t let the story go this time. Not this one, which I couldn’t stop thinking about and didn’t remind me of anything else. I told myself there was a solution; I just had to find it.

And after a few more days, I did.

There are two points to this post. First, sparks are unpredictable, but ideas are always work. You never know when you’ll get that flash of something bigger– but when you do, it is merely a matter of digging the story out. And digging can be done. Like solutions, stories are there; they have only to be found.

Second, however hopeless or creatively empty or absolutely, irrevocably certain you feel that you will never have another idea again, there are always ideas to be had. In less than a month I have seriously entertained plans for three entirely different novels (even if I ended up dismissing two). That’s a lot for someone feeling creatively frustrated.

Stories are all around us. Our job, when we catch a wink of one, is to write it down– and then come back with a pickaxe.

 

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10 thoughts on “Story ideas: Don’t scrabble for them. Dig.

    • Oh yes! Those would be the file folders (virtual and actual) I mentioned. The tricky part is that ideas don’t come fully formed– you just get glimpses of potential story material. So I have sprawling lists of semi-ideas everywhere.

  1. Persistence, even when it feels useless at the time, pays off. I love your final comment about coming back with a pickaxe. Yeah, I know what that’s about. Nicely written.

  2. I find my creativity creeps up on me when I can’t sleep, at around 04:00 and it usually keeps me awake unless I channel it and do something with it. When I’m experiencing an idea drought during normal hours I have found that just exploration through short pieces helps, short story format. From that better ideas usually pop up. : )

  3. Ha, even with an agent you’re still human Julie 🙂 It’s unusual for a fully-formed idea to spring out of nowhere so you’re absolutely correct – if you sense a nugget then you need to dig it out, polish it up, see where it takes you. You speak for us all.

    • Haha, don’t I know it! I may feel even more human since getting an agent, because now it means I’m not just doing this for myself– there are expectations! Mining must be done, and nuggets squirreled away.

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