Monday, August 25, 2008

A Whole World of Ideas

“Where do you get your ideas?”
This is probably the most frequent question writers get asked. My answer? Everywhere.

Ideas for stories can begin with the tiniest thing. Or, they can fall from the sky, huge and already half-built, right into your lap. All you have to do is look around, and you’ll see them.

They’re in the old woman waiting for a bus, the iron pressing the wrinkles out of a collar, the dog abandoned by its family, the teenager inventing her own words, the kid shuffling to school with hunched shoulders, or the kid standing tall and meeting the world head on. There are stories in all of these things.

A new story idea has been niggling in the back of my mind for quite some time. It partly came from a horrible and vivid nightmare. I woke, shaking and sweating, then stared at the ceiling for the rest of the night because I did not want to go back to it (as I sometimes do). The next day, when the sun was out and I felt a bit braver, I thought about this dream. There were many aspects that would never go into a children’s book, at least not one that I would write. But there were others, tiny nuggets in this realm of terror, that I plucked out, wrote down, and brainstormed. Pretty soon, I had this vivid new idea gripping me by the throat, demanding me to write it. I was in the middle of another story at the time, one that I really wanted to finish, so I made myself set this one aside. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do.

Which brings up another question, one often asked by other writers. How do you deal with new ideas when you’re already up to your eyeballs in another one?

I think the answer to this is personal preference, or how your brain processes things. Some people can read multiple books at a time, and some can’t. Some people like to have several stories going at once, and some don’t. Which are you? I'm a one-at-a-time gal, myself.

But what about this: since you’ve gotten this great new idea, does it mean you have to start writing it immediately? Not necessarily. There’s something to be said for letting your ideas stew for a bit. For the idea I mentioned above, I’m glad I didn’t start on it right away. Aside from the fact that I finished my other project (yay!), that extra time to let it simmer has given it a deeper, richer flavor. The setting has grown. The characters have fleshed themselves out. The main character has taken over, and tells me more and more how this story needs to be told. Rather, how it *will* be told, whether I like it or not. If I had started working on this story right out of the gate, none of this would have happened. And the story would have suffered. So, I think that, from now on, letting my ideas simmer is going to be a regular practice of mine. No matter how hard it is to set them aside.


Marcia said...

I'm one at a time, too.

When a new idea strikes while I'm working on the old, I rejoice, because that means I know what I'll be doing next, and we need an answer to the "What else have you got?" question that agents and editors ask. By the time it gets asked, that new project can be well underway.

I also believe in letting a new idea brew and steep for a while. I do start a notebook for it, though, and jot things down as the idea grows. I find I'm kicking myself if I try to rely on memory, even if I think it's all too wonderful to forget. I must admit that the notebook stays pretty sparse until the current work is done, because I am that one-at-a-time person, but it's a way to connect back to the idea.

Carrie Harris said...

See, you've got much more restraint than I do. I couldn't resist the urge to start more projects, so here I am with not one but THREE WIPs. And yes, they haven't been too tough to juggle, but now the floodgates are open! Who knows how many I'll have this time next year? But maybe I'll try to follow your let-it-simmer philosophy.

Liana Brooks said...

I can't remember a time when I didn't have multiple stories going. Some stories I can't write if I'm not in a good mood (funny ones usually) and so I have one main WIP and several others that I go too to let out some pent up frustration, escape editing, or just have fun with.

I'm near my limit though. So, when I get an idea now, I write a basic outline. Just an idea of what the story is, characters, puns or plot points that are important. And then I shelve the outline in my folder for when I need to start a new project.

At this rate I'll never run out of ideas or books to write!

Jacqui said...

I'm a one at a time gal too. I usually have one WIP going and another one simmering in my head that I indulge in when I need a break. The best thing is when, after the simmering, I take a break from the current "real" work in progress to play around with the new idea; that's usually the best writing in the whole thing.

PJ Hoover said...

Stewing is the best! It gives the idea time to formulate in my mind.
As for how I work, first drafts I try to knock out at one time. Revisions - ditto. But I switch around between revisions of the same project. Maybe go through it twice, put it aside and work on something else. Come back to it.
And I'll never complain about it!

Tabitha said...

Marcia - I also rejoice, because I also want answers for the "what else have you got" question. :) But I'm also torn with the insane urge to write that new story NOW and to hell with everything else. I have to work really hard to let it sit, but I know it'll be worth it. :)

Carrie - I used to work on more than one project at a time, and just recently cut it back to one at a time. I found, quite by accident, that this process works for me. Though it's hard, because when that new idea grabs you, I really want to drop everything and go for it. But I know me, and if I dropped everything when I got a new idea, I'd never get anything done. :) So now I'm a one-at-a-time gal. :) BTW, congrats (again) on your new agent!! :)

Just_Me - I've seen all the WIPs you've got on your blog! :) If that works for you, that's wonderful. If I had that many projects going at once, my brain would explode. :)

Jacqui - I do the same with one WIP and at least one simmering. Sometimes more than one, which can make it hard to choose when it's time to start something new.

PJ - Definitely! I focus on a first draft exclusively, but when I'm doing 3rd and 4th drafts, I find that I don't need as much focus and can play around with other projects. But only if they're also in the later draft stage - the early drafts tend to grab hold of me and not let go. :)

I love hearing what works for everyone! So cool!

Unknown said...

I'm a one-at-a-time girl, until the first draft is done. Once a draft is done and in the revision stage, my mind starts drifting. Then I tend to write the first couple of pages of several, until I find one where I just can't stop.

Tabitha said...

I know that feeling. :) I used to do the same thing after my first drafts. And then I'd never come back to finish what I'd started. It's like my brain would be overrun with ideas, and I'd run off saying "ooo, shiny!" :) Fortunately, I figured out how to stay focused and actually finish a story, go through multiple drafts, and actually polish it. *Then* I let the new ideas take over. :)

Marina said...

I have the attention span of a cardboard box, so I find it very hard to resist the call of a new idea. Hence the lack of actual finished projects in so many aspects of my life. Trying to be strong with the current WIP though.

Tabitha said...

A cardboard box? LOL! I have the opposite problem. When I get focused on something, I can't pull myself away. So when a new focus grabs me, it's really hard for me to let it go and stay with what I need to finish.

Be strong, and you'll finish!! :)

Mary Witzl said...

Tabitha, I get those dreams too, and I know what it feels like, sifting through all the horror-chaff for that one pure grain worth keeping. It's like polishing a gem.

One of our favorite books in this household is Salman Rushdie's 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories'. I love the idea of an endless reservoir of tales out there that can be accessed when we are in the right frame of mind.

I tend to be a one-at-a-time person myself, but sometimes I get so caught up in an idea for a story that I start it anyway, just so I won't forget it. I leave it in my draft folder, then when I'm stuck writing my WIP, I go back to the new draft and play with it a bit.

Tabitha said...

I haven't read 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories.' I will definitely have to check it out. :)

You're so right about the gem polishing analogy! Cutting away all the horrible stuff to get down to that spark of beauty is hard work, but so worth it when you're done. :)