Musings on Ideas and Creative Process


[Be forewarned:  This is kind of a weird post.  It’s as much an attempt on my part to work through issues in my own creative process as it is anything else.]

There’s someone new in my life.

I don’t know much about her; I don’t even know her name.  At least not yet.  But I know that she’s unlike anyone I’ve known before, at least in the intimate way that I hope to know her.  She’s not beautiful in any conventional sense of the word.  Nor does she have an exciting job or really anything that makes her stand out upon first meeting her.  She seems a little plain, actually.

But that’s terribly misleading.  She is utterly unique, and through her eyes I am discovering a whole new world.

Who is she?

Well, I believe she is the point of view character for a new book.  I say “I believe” because I’m not entirely sure.  I’ve had characters come to me before, bearing with them the promise of a new story or book or series, only to have the idea fizzle out on me before anything meaningful came of it.  But this woman is different.  I think.

I’ve already written several posts about ideas — where they come from, how I go about cultivating and developing them, etc.  Here’s one. And here’s another.  If you read that second post, you’ll see that when I wrote it, more than a year ago, I had a new idea that had me all excited.  Never turned into anything.  I have a few pages jotted down, and even the beginning of chapter one.  But as Faith might say, it never really sparkled and I moved on to other things.  Will that happen with this new woman in my life?  It could.  I hope it doesn’t — I’m really quite smitten with her right now.  But we never really know until we start working.

As I said in those previous posts, I have no idea where my ideas come from.  I have talked about the “What if?” approach — the notion that asking “What if?” can often lead to terrific story ideas.  But as often as not ideas come to me unbidden, at odd moments, as opposed to when I’m actually trying to think of something new.  Some of my ideas suck.  I mean really, really suck.  Some of them turn into a series of books.  And occasionally I have an idea that I think might change the trajectory of my career.  Thieftaker was one of those last.  This new idea might be one, too.

I guess the point of all this is not the idea or where it came from.  Rather it’s what you do with the idea once it takes root in your imagination.  I’m not ready to write the story of my new infatuation.  She’s doing everything she can to grab my attention, and believe me when I tell you that she has it.  But I have other work to do — revisions on two books, rewrites on another, a short story to write and yet another novel to finish.  And so I need to find a way to nurture this new creative romance without giving myself over to it entirely.  Let me share with you a Tale of Two Ideas.  The first one came to me in 1999, while I was writing EAGLE-SAGE, the third LonTobyn book.  This was at a point in my career where a) I wrote far more slowly than I do now, and b) I was not yet comfortable with the idea of working on two projects at once.  So, though I had what I thought was a truly terrific idea for a new series, one that I was eager to write because, to be honest, I was growing a bit weary of LonTobyn, there was little I could do about it.  I could think about the new idea.  I could jot down snippets about my characters and plot threads.  But I had to finish EAGLE-SAGE before I did anything else.

That idea, which formed the basis for my Winds of the Forelands quintet, churned away in my head for well over a year, becoming more complex, more complete, and more compelling from an artistic standpoint with every day that passed.  When at last I got to work on the series, it developed into the finest work I had done to that point.

The second idea is that one that I mention in the second post about ideas (see the links above).  The idea came to me in early September ’09, at a time when I actually had a few weeks to play.  I jumped all over it, doing a bunch of research, jotting down notes, and actually beginning the book itself.  As I said before, the idea fizzled, although I just went back read those first five pages of the book, as well as my notes on the book idea.  They’re good, the writing and the idea both.  But I feel like I used up the creative energy too soon.  Or not used it up so much as weakened it.  I’ve said before that I can’t talk too much about a project before I write it.  I liken my creative energy to the fizz in a beer.  If I open the bottle too early and let out the fizz, the idea goes flat and I lose my creative momentum.  I think that works as well with jumping the gun on an idea.  (Extending the metaphor) I need a certain amount of time for an idea to ferment, to create that fizz in the first place, and I think that with this second idea, I didn’t give it enough time.

So, what does this mean for the new woman in my life?  Really, I’m not sure.  (I warned you that this was a weird post.)  I want to jot down some notes on this woman and start working out plot points; I don’t want to forget the stuff that’s coming to me right now.  But I know that I don’t have time to work on her story yet, and I am afraid of interrupting the fermentation of her idea.  There must be a middle ground between, on the one hand, doing nothing and thus risking that I might forget some of these neat details bouncing around in my brain, and on the other, letting out too much of the creative “fizz.”  I just need to find it.

What do you do when new ideas come to you?  Is your creative process as idiosyncratic (neurotic?) as mine seems to be?

David B. Coe

24 comments to Musings on Ideas and Creative Process

  • David, I’m not sure what the RIGHT answer is, but I do know that I’ve talked books to death before they could ever be born. I had an idea for a book back in 2004 that I was so excited about that I told everyone I knew about it. Six years later those people still come to me and say what a great idea it was and why haven’t I written that book? But all of the creative energy was spent in talking about it and I seem to have run the well dry by splashing around in too much when it was new and fresh. Protect the creative energy you have for this new character of yours. Protect it fiercely.

  • Mikaela

    When I started writing I believed that letting ideas stew was good. But gradually I have changed my mind. Now I jot down an rough outline before letting ideas stew, ideally I also write the first 10 k or so.

    The problem is that I have gotten more reluctant to take a break from my WIP and do the outline.

  • And so, my friend, our doppelganger lives continue — I, too, have heard from a new character, although mine is a monstrous fellow with very large teeth. Like you, I’ve learned to be very protective of these new ideas. They have to be tended and carefully cultivated if they are to flower. I find that I do my best work on a very new idea at night before I go to sleep. I just run through what I know, what I think might be the story, that kind of thing. I let it grow in my brain over time until one of two things happens. Either 1) the story/character becomes flat, boring, etc and the whole thing falls apart or 2) the story/character reaches a tipping point where I know that either I write it or I lose it. That’s when I really start the research/outlining/planning process.

  • We were sitting in the stands at the Olympics, watching the men’s round robin curling match. That’s when it came to me and I made a noise of exclamation, the kind where it sounds like “oh!” but the lips don’t part at all. My husband gave me that look, the “what is going on in your head” raise of the brow. I enjoyed the match, but my brain was already churning away.

    I agree that talking about an idea makes it hard to keep the energy of that idea alive, so I won’t say what came to me. If I write it, it won’t be for some time, because I have so many other things on the go, and not all of them Fantasy. But between seeing that match, and the women’s bronze medal match later that week, I found myself very inspired. So when I got home I jotted about three pages of notes so that I could mark what was going on in my head.

    If I do use it, I won’t for quite some time. Writing it down was helpful, though. I have the idea, but I was able to put it out of my head so it wouldn’t distract me from what I’m working on right now. I gave the idea a chance to speak up and have its say. That’s enough; I’ll see how I feel about it when I get the chance to review it in full.

    So in short, I understand completely. 🙂

  • Ed, I’ve had the same experience. I think I struggled with the writing of the second and third LonTobyn books because I talked them to death and then still had to write them. It wasn’t that the books came out badly, but rather that the writing was like pulling teeth, because the energy had already been spent. So yes, I will guard this story. Thanks.

    Mikaela, that’s the other issue. Interrupting one WIP to turn attention to another project can be dangerous for both. Different books/series have different types of energy. Sometimes they mesh nicely, even enhance one another; sometimes they don’t. So yeah, I’m reluctant to drop what I’m doing and delve too deeply into this new idea just now.

    Stuart, not at all surprising that we should have this in common, too. There are points in the creative process where certain times of day will be more fertile than others, and often for me it’s at night as well. Right now, though, this new story is popping into my head constantly. The story and characters are revealing more of themselves constantly. It’s intoxicating, almost overwhelming. And I really do have other work to do.

    Moira, thanks. I think I need to start jotting stuff down, too. Ideally, I’d like to see how the entire story unfolds in my mind before I start the actual writing. I think that’s going to work best with this particular story. And maybe that’s the key — maybe it’s not that my creative process is idiosyncratic, but rather that each idea is — that each new book needs to be discovered on its own terms. Something to ponder.

  • >>idiosyncratic (neurotic?)

    Try psycho. Bat-poop, bonkers, totally out of control.

    *That’s* how I feel in this stage!
    But isn’t it wonderful? Like trying to hold the wind in your hand or a burning brand against your heart. I envy you today! 🙂

  • Absolutely idiosyncratic, yes. I develop ideas best when I’m alone, wlaking the dog or driving, but they can occur to me at any time and with no clear future purpose. I’ve taken to keeping a not book by my bed for when I wake in teh middle of the night with what feels like an important idea. Sometimes in the morning I’m baffled, unsure of why I thought there was something of value in what I wrote, other times, I feel I really have something important. The other day I woke with a crystal clear idea about what I was going to do with the fairies in the DREAM production I’m directing in the spring… 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    So, my current WIP is also my first, and I am SLOW. From this end, it’s hard to imagine NOT having lots of time to stew over an idea before getting to work on it. I’m trying to learn a lot with my WIP and I want to make it GOOD, but I also want to get it DONE, because there are two or three ideas cued up behind it that I want to be able to explore and play in and at least half-a-dozen ideas cued up behind those. I keep notes on all of them (not as well organized as I’d like). It’s like a bunch of places I go visit in my head sometimes. Sometimes, randomly, I’ll get an extra fabulous THING or dimension I can add to one of them, so I know that letting them sit is turning them into full ideas that can really BE something. But I’m afraid that, as slow as I am, some of them will have drifted away before I get to go play with them.

  • Faith, yes it is wonderful. Nuts, as you say. But wonderful.

    A.J., I’ve grown wary of my dreamed ideas, because more often than not they turn out to be totally worthless. But with this new idea, I had a dream about it, and it has turned out to be remarkably coherent and valuable. This new story has saturated my thought process — I have new ideas constantly. Heady stuff.

    Hep, I think that if you’re main fear is being slow and losing some of your ideas in the long term, then writing down notes is definitely the way to go. The only thing worse than having an idea go flat is losing an idea entirely to a faulty memory. Take notes, and have faith that eventually you’ll get to play with the ideas that are cued up in your mind. Best of luck.

  • David> I have no idea where my ideas come from either–I mean one WIP now came from me looking at my fireplace and thinking about what it would mean to beat someone to death with a firepoker, and have it turn out to be a demon. I have no idea where it came from, other than that moment.

    But I do know I’m okay at working on more than one thing at a time, but not great. I stopped my WIP to work on my other (our) WIP this summer. I wish I’d finished my WIP before the summer, because getting back to it has been way harder than I thought it would be. What should have been a completed draft months ago still isn’t done and its killing me because other stuff is piling up–like articles with deadlines that need to be written. I should have been better about that last year, and I won’t make that mistake again. 🙂

    AJ> When’s the production, ’cause I’d love to see it. Dream is one of my favorites!

  • Unicorn

    Faith – “Like trying… to hold a burning brand against your heart.” Perfectly said! That’s exactly what it feels like.
    My current WIP came at a very inopportune moment. I’m sure my muse builds them in secret before firing them at me at the worst possible moment. I was studying, natural history I think it was, when I read the word “sparrowhawk” and thought what a good name that would be for a very small but very bold character, and then BOOM here was this story.
    I spent a week or so on outlines, sketching out the characters, wanting to be sure that this story wouldn’t disappear. It didn’t. I had just finished working for a big deadline and it came at just the right moment.
    I usually work on two or three stories at once, but one is always the priority – the other two are sidelines, just fun to fall back on when the main one is being stubborn. Ideas only really work out when I’ve finished one of the priorities. And I’ve approached each of my completed works in a different way; some I outlined in detail, others I wrote in complete pantser style for several chapters before doing a bit more outline and then going on. They’re all different. But I too try to guard that creative energy… It’s so easily exhausted.
    As for dreams… isn’t it irritating when characters stomp into your dreams and start hollering at you to wake up because they’ve got this fabulous new idea for the next chapter?
    Thanks for the post. This is an intriguing subject and one about which I can read or write for hours.

  • Emily, as I mentioned in a comment above, I find that interrupting one project for another can be incredibly difficult, especially for the piece that is placed on the back burner. I hope that you’re able to rediscover your rhythm with the WIP. Oh, and if ever we’re in a room together and there’s a fireplace, remind to sit as far from you as possible.

    Unicorn, thanks. Glad you liked the post. And yes, I’m coming to the “every project is different” conclusion, which has the added benefit of making my ideas appear weird, but not me. Self-delusion? Yeah, maybe. But I’m good with that.

  • Tdancer2

    Notebooks. Big ones, small ones, boldly colorful ones, and shy understated ones. When I get a new shiny idea that I’m not able to work on right away I give the idea it’s own notebook and jot away. Sometimes I’ll scratch a broad outline, sometimes a detailed character description, and sometimes just some dialogue said by I don’t know who. Until I’m actually ready to begin the project I don’t review what I’ve written and I’ll usually spend some time on the project before hunting down the notebook muse. Usually, once I crack her open, all the sparkling ideas come rushing back and I get excited about the idea and the project all over again – just in time to make it come alive on the page!

  • When a new idea strikes I have to at least get a sketchy outline typed up. My ol’ memory isn’t what it used to be and I can’t trust it anymore to keep the info handy for recall. Plus, if I don’t get it archived, I’ll keep dwelling on it, which distracts me from what I was working on.

  • I actually have a notebook set aside for this new project, Dancer. But I have to say that I hadn’t planned it out as methodically as you do here. This is brilliant. Mind if I borrow your approach?

  • Pea,
    the Midsummer show is in April and will feature a guest lecture by the god-like Peter Holland.

    Unicorn, I hope this isn’t a surprise, but you know “Sparrowhawk” has been used before, right? In Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful the Wizard of Earthsea.

  • Yeah, Unicorn, I was going to email you offlist later and tell you the same thing. It is a great name, and it’s not as though no one is allowed to use it ever again. But you should keep in mind that LeGuin used if for her trilogy.

  • Sarah

    It’s weird how ideas arrive. I can never tell which ones will grow and which ones will be stillborn. I had an image – no plot, no character, just an image in my head literally since I was 16. Every once in a while it would bob to the surface looking for a story. This month I finally found a story for it, spurred by a call for short stories.

  • Squeak

    I really should invest in more notebooks. Instead, I write on scraps of paper and have a set of file drawers that I use for ideas. This method works well for me because the end result has the captured bits of inspiration out of sight and out of mind so I’m not tempted to linger.

    If I want something visible, however, I use sticky notes and make use of the generous space at my computer workstation that at one point was intended to be used for a whiteboard. Most of this space is crowded with multi-colored notes that start with “What if…?” and are passing thoughts that strike me, but haven’t developed into fully fleshed out stories. I go to this board for inspiration.

  • Sarah, I think it’s incredibly cool that this image has been coming to you for so long and that you finally found a story for it. That’s amazing.

    Squeak, yes notebooks are cool. Bound leather journals are even cooler. But I love the idea of having a “What If?” board. Every writer should have one. Seriously. I need one in my office. Thanks for the idea.

  • Unicorn

    Oh no! I can’t believe I missed the connection between LeGuin’s wizard and my heroine. I did read the first of the Earthsea books and I fell in love with it, way before I even got the idea for my WIP, but I never actually made the connection. Oh deary me. I’ll keep that in mind, though I’ve no idea what I can do about it, since Sparrowhawk is just the perfect name for this particular character. And apart from the name there’s really no resemblance between LeGuin’s wizard and my heroine. I suppose I might be able to get away with it. Thanks for pointing it out, guys, I’d never have noticed!

  • Unicorn

    Oh, and by the way, I love the idea of the What If Board, Squeak. So many of my What If ideas have disappeared…

  • Unicorn, as I say, there is nothing to stop you from using the name. If it’s perfect, then go with it and trust that your story and character are unique and will stand on their own.

  • Razziecat

    This is a very timely subject for me. I have copious notes on a “what if” idea, an extensive outline, worldbuilding notes, and all. I think committing all this to paper/computer burned out the idea, or at least leached out some of the passion! Makes me sad because it’s the most complete outline I’ve ever done, but I lost the excitement. I tend to be easily distracted by shiny new ideas, too (I have several things going at once).

    I like the idea of separate notebooks for each new story idea. Something about writing by hand in a new notebook or a new legal pad just makes the words flow. Perhaps I can re-ignite my excitement for my story by doing some old-fashioned, ink-&-paper scribbling.

    On names: New names that come to me often spark story ideas. I try an internet search to see if anyone else has used it. If it’s very well-known, there’ll usually be something about it online and I can make a change before I get too attached to it. It’s not 100% foolproof, but it helps.