Ideas: Throwing Out vs. Digging Deep

Ideas are work.

More than once I have started down the path of a story idea and come up against major obstacles. “Ugh, that’s too trope-y,” or “No, that reminds me too much of [other book].” And you know what it’s tempting to do when you hit a big picture snag like that? Write the whole idea off. Because, who wants to waste time developing something problematic at its very foundation?

But here’s the thing.

“Obstacles” can be gotten round. “Problems” can be solved. X has already been done before? Big whoop. What’s new? (Certainly not the grievance that it’s all been done before.) Y is a hackneyed cliché that you’ll eat paste and die before subscribing to? Clichés are as old as time raised your ancestors, but they still managed to invent things. So do we.

My point is this: when you recognize a problem with an idea, that is not just cause for casting the idea away. That is cause for putting the problem under your microscope, studying it, and accepting it as your first creative challenge.

If the core of your idea, if the thing that first sparked it is original and raw and excites you, it is worth breaking rocks for.

What is the spark/heart/core of your idea? The spark is often the first thing about the idea that came to you. It could be a concept, a scene, a phrase, a spoken line. It is the thing from which everything else unfolds. It is the one essential, non-negotiable bone of your story (And here is what has been a recent revelation for me: Especially in the planning stages, most of your story is negotiable). If you can isolate the spark, you can carry it through different permutations until you find the pieces it fits with.

That’s not to say you mightn’t need to put an idea down for a while and let it sit, get some distance and perspective—but if you have your spark, and you can pinpoint your concerns—even the big picture ones—you can creative your way around them. Give them a twist. Come up with something else. Try new pieces on, cast old ones away or rearrange them.

But if the spark of your story grabs you, for fiction’s sake, don’t throw it out!

Dig deeper.

Some things to remember when brainstorming

The phrase “back to the drawing board” should not induce panic or stress. Starting a new project is like being released into the wild: you are free, and the world is yours to explore. Your art can go anywhere, limited only by the bounds of your imagination.

So why can it be SO DARN INTIMIDATING?

As I pass into another phase of idea generation myself (brainstorming not only for the “next” project, but numerous which I could see myself pursuing), I’m (re)discovering key things that enable me to proceed in what can be an otherwise paralyzing freedom. Because they help me, I hope they will also be of use to others.

When brainstorming, remember:

  1. It’s all been done before. And that’s okay. Embracing this can be liberating rather than constrictive. [Recommended reading on this.] [A helpful chart.]
  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Not everything you write has to be toward your best novel yet, or even toward a novel at all. Pressure is crushing. Allow yourself to breathe.
  3. Writer’s block only truly happens when you stop writing. As long as you are writing, you are creating, and the act of creating is more important than whether what you create is good or not. (Hint: if you KEEP creating, even when you have nothing to say, every idea sucks, and you don’t know why in the name of France anyone ever encouraged you to pursue writing ever, eventually SOME of the stuff you make will be good, and you will find your springboard.)
  4. On the flip side of #3, epiphanies tend to occur away from the screen, so it’s also important to spend time not writing. This may sound totally contradictory to the previous point, but it isn’t. Writing is great for digging and jumpstarting and sometimes finding little pieces of your next idea, but often the great What if? questions that spurn whole novels come to us in the quiet moments we aren’t looking for them: washing dishes. Showering. Exercising. When we let our minds wander. So be sure to spend some time in a place your thoughts can unfold without interruption.
  5. When you’re really at a loss, go do something new. The greater our experience, the greater our pool to draw from. If your new experience doesn’t help you today, it may very well feed into another project tomorrow.

Other ideas? Share in comments below!