On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part I


As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, the original idea for Thieftaker and its sequels came originally from a footnote in a history book that described the life of one particular thieftaker, London’s notorious Jonathan Wild.  A footnote.  In a book I was reading for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with writing.

Ideas are funny things.  They come from everywhere.  They come unbidden, and will absolutely refuse to come if I TRY to force them.  They can come in any form:  characters, plot points, magic systems, worlds that present themselves to me, etc.  They all begin with “What if?”, but from there they take on lives of their own, becoming as individual as children.  Often they come at the worst possible times; they are particularly likely to show up when I’m in the middle of working on something else, most likely the last book of a series that I really HAVE to write and REALLY don’t want to write.

And so I usually have to jot down the idea and leave it for another time.  That’s much easier said than done.  Because a good idea — a bright shiny new one that makes my heart pound and my mind race with possibilities — will beckon to me from a closed file, or a hand written journal, or a scrap of paper tucked into a drawer somewhere.  It will keep me up nights.  It will absolutely distract me during a work day.

It’s a cliché to say that ideas are the most powerful forces for change in the world.  But like so many cliches, this one is rooted in truth.  Ideas — bad or good — can change the course of history, to say nothing of the course of a career.  But that’s where I’ll keep my focus.  The idea that grew out of that little footnote on thieftakers I read seven years ago has dominated my life ever since.  It has become the focus of nearly all my professional work.  It has consumed my life  — my energy, my time, my hopes and ambitions — ever since it first presented itself to me.  Yet, there is another idea in my life, one that is embodied in a second novel/series about which none of you (except Faith and Edmund) know anything.  I think that idea might ultimately lead to even bigger moments in my career than Thieftaker will.  We’ll see.  

That’s the other thing about ideas:  They offer no guarantees.  They seduce us with whispers of possibility; they dance alluringly across our minds, tempting us, turning “What if?” into something double-edged, so that it’s no longer a creative question, but rather a commercial one.  “What if this is the book that makes me a star . . . ?”

So what are we to do with these creative sirens?  How do we make the most of them?  How do we keep them from fizzling out?  How do we know if they will lead us to something great or to disappointment?  How do we keep ourselves from being paralyzed by the sheer scope of all these possible glories and pitfalls?

I find that I can tell within a day or two whether an idea is the real thing or just a distraction from the other work I ought to be doing.  If a new idea spawns additional ideas and questions, if I find myself making connections with that original notion, if the idea leads to the discovery of additional characters, plot points, narrative threads and the like, then I know that I’m on to something that could lead to a book or series.  “An idea,” Robert Frost once said, “is a feat of association.”  I believe that what he meant is that ideas usually involve bringing together two or more disparate elements into something new and different.  (Like connecting pirates with magic, or a lonely young British ex-pat with a mysterious mirror, or vampire hunting with a Cherokee skinwalker, or even thieftakers with conjuring and Colonial politics.)  But I would take Frost’s quote a step farther and say that promising ideas lead to new associations and connections.  If after a few days a new idea has basically remained static, that usually tells me that the idea is probably not as good as I thought initially.  Also, not surprisingly, I tend to lose interest in those static ideas, and so I usually don’t pursue them as enthusiastically.

What do I do with my ideas?  How do I develop them?  As I mentioned before, I ALWAYS jot them down.  Good or bad, dynamic or static, I write them down somewhere, usually in a word (lower case — I don’t use MS Word, thank you very much . . .) document.  If they spawn new ideas, I add to that document, dating each entry so as to keep track of the idea’s development.  I do a lot of brainstorming.  Those documents are often shot through with questions:  “How does the magic work?”  “Why would Ethan become a thieftaker in the first place?”  “What connections exist between the murder and the political events?”  Sometimes I need days or even weeks to work out the answers; other times the answers come to me immediately.  Sometimes they demand research; sometimes they merely demand long walks lost in thought.

In all cases, though, knowing what questions to ask is every bit as important as whatever answers I find.  The process itself enhances the idea.  Even the most dynamic idea — that ones that lead to a hundred different associations of character, worldbuilding, and plotting — need help eventually.  It’s not that a neglected idea will at some point cease to be “good,” but rather that it might grow stale and too old to feel exciting.  At the risk of mixing my metaphors, even the shiniest ideas can have expiration dates.  I keep my ideas fresh and alive with the question and answer process I’ve outlined above.

There is, of course, far more to say about turning ideas into books, and I will follow up on this post in coming weeks.  But why don’t we pause here for questions and comments?  What do you do with your ideas?  What problems do you find yourself facing when confronted with an exciting, new idea?

David B. Coe

31 comments to On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part I

  • TwilightHero

    Usually when I get a new idea, I’ll try to figure out how to enfold it into my existing storyline. In a single setting this will only take you so far, but I’m planning a Really Long Epic. With multiple plotlines spanning three continents – all right, two and a half – I figure I’ve got room to experiment a bit. But of course, there are some ideas that are simply incompatible. You can’t have two existentially-based magic systems in one world (well, you can, but it would make things REALLY complicated).

    In any case, whether I can use them right away or not, I’ll usually make a note of new ideas as well. It’s always fun going over old ideas and thinking, how did I come up with this? 🙂 Great post, David.

  • KR1L3Y

    When I get a new idea I add it to my “Possible Book Plots” document. If the idea continues to mature, I start a new folder with a descriptive title and add a ‘descriptive title’ notes document and a ‘descriptive title’ plot outline document. This way I can develop the idea further in a structured way. I currently have 23 “Possible Book Plots” descriptions ranging from a single sentence to several paragraphs. Of these 11 have continued to mature enough to get a ‘Notes’ and ‘Outline’ document, and of these I am only actively working on 2.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay ideas! Lovely, lovely! For me, there definitely seems to need to be a pairing-up of ideas for them to start to really spark. Like you, I keep all sorts of notes on all the different ideas that wink at me, but then it will usually be months or years later when something else cool presents itself to be added on in ways that then make things *really* cool. As an example of this, the bare bones of one of my favorites went something like: Werewolves…in the Jungle! Of course, I’m still working on my first book/project, so readying one of those older, mature ideas for an actual book is probably going to require a lot more idea-pairing, particularly in terms of the details, e.g., I’ve got a character living in the woods, but what did he *used* to do unconnected to the current story idea, what richness will make him an interesting character. Also, I’m working on doing more as TwilightHero is doing and trying to find ways to incorporate cool new ideas into my present project – to not be so stingy with my ideas. I feel like I’ve read a few books that didn’t live up to their potential because the author was trying to save some of the really cool ideas for later books in the series or whatnot. I need to keep the faith that there really will always be new ideas to work with.

  • Chris Branch

    Great thoughts on ideas, David. Regarding new ideas calling for attention while we’re supposed to be working on the “old” idea: this may be another reason why NaNoWriMo works well (at least for me as a non-professional writer). With only a month to work through the idea all the way to its conclusion, there’s not enough time for it to get old, and there’s less time for even shinier ideas to pop up and distract.

    Also I want to take this opportunity to mention that I’ve started reading Thieftaker and I’m really enjoying it so far – truly fantastic execution of your footnote-inspired idea! Hope the pre-orders helped your numbers.

  • T-Hero, I actually think that trying to fit an idea into an existing world would be a great way of separating the dynamic ideas from the flat ones. It seems to me that a dynamic idea would be more flexible, more adaptable, and therefore more readily folded into an existing world. An idea that lacks that adaptability might prove to be less promising. Interesting. Thanks!

    KR, I like the structure of your system, and find myself wondering if that 23 to 11 to 2 ratio would come in as about normal for me as well, in terms of how many ideas actually wind up maturing into something that can become a book. I don’t know for certain, but I sense that my ratio would be about the same.

    “…It will usually be months or years later when something else cool presents itself to be added on in ways that then make things *really* cool.” Hep, I am the same way much of the time. My ideas can take months or even years to percolate into something truly usable. I also like the idea of keeping faith and not “saving” ideas. There was definitely a time when I worried about running out of ideas. Not anymore. My concern now is having enough time to write all the books clamoring for my creative attention.

    Chris, yes, thank you, the pre-orders were enormously helpful. I hope to be able to say publicly just how helpful sometime soon. In the meantime, I’m very glad to hear that you’re enjoying the book. I think you’re on to something re. NaNoWriMo. That compressed time frame definitely imposes focus and discipline, and allows writers to work on the new shiny while it is still both new and shiny.

  • (covers head and runs from the room) NO more ideas! Not right now! NO! LOL

    Yeah. I love the Frost line. In my case it’s more like one really good idea spawns dozens of others and they all want to swim upstream together in a huge mass. Or they all are little children in a big room and they keep shouting “Miz Faith! I’m hungry. I wanna play, I wanna play! I want you to read me a story! I gotta go potty!” Yeah. That one. Controlling them is … rather difficult. Okay, impossible.

    When Jane Yellowrock came to me, so did Molly Everhart Trueblood, her children, her husband, and her six sisters. And a vamp, his blood-meal, and a cop. And all of them want a story told. Oh. And a mountain lion. And I just goth them all asleep, and now they’re all up and clamouring again. sigh…

  • I constantly have ideas for novels popping into my head and I’ve learned that if I want to get anywhere with a project, I have to just jot down a quick brainstorm in a file, save it, and move on. I hope I never run out of ideas, but it is distracting at times, especially when I don’t have the time to get to them all. Worse when I have an idea saved that I can’t get to for a year or so and another author brings out a work that’s very much like it and it does really well. Argh! I mean, who woulda known sparkly vampires woulda been so popular! (j/k) 😉

    And yes, ALL of them are constantly there still trying to lure me in with candy and promises. I’m getting much better at ignoring them.

  • Okay, Faith, you were saying “Miz Faith, Miz Faith…!” But I kept hearing in my mind “River Rod, River Rod…!” Yeah, when I first came up with the idea for Sephira, Ethan was right there with her, as were Diver, Kannice, Pell, and the rest. Good ideas come in flocks, I think.

    Daniel, I have exactly the same experience and solution. Ideas can be SO distracting.

  • ajp88

    I also date my notes, brainstorming processes. Made them into my Research tab in Scrivener. I always, always have pen and paper on me, so I can take down an interesting name, mannerism, face, or plot idea and then play with it while I should be working or something.

  • sagablessed

    Ideas come to me in dreams. NO, seriously, in dreams or other WIPs. One idea I had was from a dream I was in Scandanavia during the pre-Christian times.
    Current WIP was born out of a previous work yet strangely unrelated, and I have two more that are ready to be written as soon as I get this one done.
    ajp88: When I figure out how work this darn Scrivner…I will post those ideas in the research section.

  • David, I had a giggle at thr River Rod one!
    Yeah. Flocks. With needs and wants and all craving attention.

  • Gypsyharper

    My process for keeping track of ideas is similar to KR1L3Y, in that I write them all down in an ideas file and when they start to grow, they get their own space – although I’m not nearly as organized. I recently created a Scrivener project to house all of my idea fragments, writing prompts, etc. I probably also have lots of old word files, notebooks and scraps of paper that need to be organized so I can find them when I want to. Then anything that grows beyond a single idea or prompt gets its own project. I’m really bad about putting dates on anything – I should really try to be better about that. Sometimes, if I let them sit long enough, ideas that previously seemed unrelated start to connect, which is really cool.

    When I first starting writing again, I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough ideas. Now I have plenty of ideas, so my main problem is the paralysis induced by not being able to decide which one is the best to work on first, followed closely by the intermittent fear that none of these ideas are actually as cool as I think they are.

  • Alex, having the notepad with you is always a good idea, and something I should have mentioned. Thanks.

    Donald, I get ideas in dreams, too. The difference is, when I wake up and start to think about what I THOUGHT was a good book idea, I am shocked by how delusional I am when half-asleep. I envy you the ability to dream decent story ideas.

    Faith, :). Thinking of you.

    Gypsy, I put down the dates because it helps me track the evolution of my thinking. Often I find that ideas for one book will come to me at certain times during the writing of another book, and I like to keep track of such things. Not sure it’s really that important, but it appeals to my OCD side… That paralysis in the face of ideas, the fears of which you speak, are topics I plan to touch on in coming posts. Thanks for pointing us in that direction!

  • I don’t write ideas down often–perhaps I should. If I want to remember them, I associate them with something else, like a trail of crumbs that I can follow back home. I also find that if I really like an idea, it will come back over and over and over again until I can’t ignore it anymore.

  • DavidHealey

    David, I really liked your comment that, “If after a few days a new idea has basically remained static, that usually tells me that the idea is probably not as good as I thought initially.” Some things catch fire in our imaginations, don’t they? William Styron once said something along the lines of, “Any idea that survives the hangover is a good one.” I suppose he was talking about sorting through the static ideas, with a little aspirin thrown in.

  • quillet

    I get lots of ideas, and usually write them down longhand in a notebook, partly because I often think better with the intimacy of pen and paper (and partly just because I looooove stationery). I always date them, but they’re not so easy to find later unless I type them into the computer and organise them, which is an on-going chore — but also a process of rediscovery. I’ve had some good ones I forgot all about!

    Oh, and those few times I don’t write down an idea, telling myself things like, “That’s so good, I’ll remember THAT.” I never do. Mind you, it’s usually the ones that come when I’m half-asleep…which may be no loss.

    Unrelated question: When do we get to ask questions of Sephira Pryce? I loved the book, and can’t wait to grill her. …From a safe distance. 😉

  • Like quillet, I usually write down my ideas with pen and paper. I’m not very good at organizing them in any way. I often find a scrap of paper with an idea, or discover something written on the last page of notes I took for work. Sometimes I wonder what on earth made me think this was a good idea, but every once in a while I come across something that gets me excited and sparks other ideas. Getting my ideas organized is actually on my to do list for this summer.

    I also really like the idea of asking questions about my ideas–I’m going to start doing that!

  • Razziecat

    I love new ideas! 🙂 Unfortunately they do tend to distract me from what I’m working on. It’s almost always characters who come to me, sometimes in daydreams, sometimes when I come across intriguing names. These can be secondary, minor characters in an existing story who suddenly demand my full attention, or they can come out of the blue (“who is this person and why is she in my head?”). Asking “what if?” is a good way to get the ball rolling.

    I like to make note of new ideas, either characters or other stuff, in a document, and when I get bored or stuck with a current story, I’ll go back and pick at the new thing and see what else occurs to me. Right now I have several things perking and simmering in the background; I try not to force them. Asking specific questions is a good idea, and one that I’ve been doing (with varying degrees of success) with my WIP, whenever I get stuck.

  • I don’t have anything to add, but I just want to say thanks for another good post. I’d be interested to hear how you (and everyone here) deals with new ideas that pertain specifically to their current project (as opposed to ideas for different projects). I’ve noticed that most of my ideas are about the book I’m currently writing. Sometimes those ideas don’t really feel like ideas at all, to be honest. It’s more like a piece of the puzzle just suddenly fits together, and that’s great.

    Yet… A new idea sometimes means I have to change a great deal of what I already have to get it to work — a few times to the point of scrapping a great deal of what I’d written altogether and rewriting it (because that’s easier than editing it to fit). It’s like the new idea is so great and gets me so excited, but at the same time it’s a bit of a roadblock as well.

  • I always get new ideas while I’m trying to be disciplined on a project (or at school, or in the middle of a paper) and I’ve been trying to just jot them down. Because when I’m nearing the end of a big project I always start to panic – what am I going to do next? I don’t have any ideas! I don’t want to revise this forever! I need something new! – and then I go back and browse my files until something says “Hey! Hey! Look here! I have sparkle!” and the ideas start to flow.
    That’s what happened with what I’m just starting to work on now. I have this tiny tiny file – not even two paragraphs, sketching out the barest outlines of a premise. And now I have 15k words, 8 named characters, and a plot outline. (Plus notes for two potential sequels. – If the world ends when the story ends, it isn’t much of a world. :D)

  • Sorry for the delay in responding, all. Our internet crapped out on us last night. But we’re up and running again this morning, and so…

    Emily, I like to write stuff down, but I also know just what you mean. Even if I try to ignore certain ideas they will come back to me over and over. Those are the ones I know are good.

    David, thanks. That’s a great Styron quote. I actually find it reassuring that some of my ideas DON’T stick, because if they all did, I’d start to wonder if none of my ideas was as good as I thought. The fact that they sort themselves out the way they do makes me feel that the ones that develop really are worth something. If that makes sense….

    Quillet, thanks for the comment. I don’t hand write ideas as much as I should, and I say that because the few times when I have, the resulting books have been pretty good. So I might have to try that more. As for questioning Sephira, I like that idea and might well do a post to that effect in the near future. Thanks for the suggestion. I’m glad you liked the book!

    SiSi, again I find myself wondering about the proportion of good ideas to ones that don’t pan out. (See my response to KR in my first comment.) Do you have any sense of the number of ideas that you like versus the ones that don’t become something bigger?

  • I get new ideas all the time, and I write them down in a Word (sorry, mine *is* capitalized) document. My brain leaps around a lot. So I brainstorm out the idea as much as I can, even if it takes over for several minutes (note: minutes, not hours or days). I figure it’s worth giving the idea at least a little bit of my time, because if nothing else, it’s practice.

    But sometimes it really does try to take over. Like the UF I’ve been working on, which is still mostly in the planning stages. It started as a webcomic pro-fic (meaning that the creator of the webcomic approved of my writing it) that I came up with years ago. But the idea that started out as something I wrote just for fun took hold, because I fell in love with the character and felt that she had more to say. It’s a backburner project, but I keep getting little ideas on how to improve and expand on the story. So I write them down. Last night I had an epiphany about the magical designer drug that’s going to be causing the main character a lot of problems. That turned into a brainstorming session about what her powers are going to be, and what sort of limits and cost will be associated with them. Now the timing is finally working out well – I’m wrapping up edits/rewrites on my YA HF, so I’m almost at a point where I can give the UF character some real attention. So I think that giving ideas a chance to speak, if only for a little while, can be worth it. 🙂

  • Razz, I have found myself looking for names for a minor character and stumbling across a REALLY good name that I know will be better for a more important character. And yes, suddenly that person appears before me, as if saying, “Oh, are you ready to write about me now?” It’s distracting and exciting at the same time. I also have stuff percolating in the background at all times. Thanks for the commment.

    J.J., I know what you mean. This is one reason why outlining a book can be helpful. I try to keep my new ideas from derailing the old ones, and if I have a blueprint for my work in progress I’m more likely to see a new idea as a potential new project, rather than something that impinges on the current one. Not sure I’m making myself clear; I hope you get what I mean. I will touch on new ideas as they pertain to a current project in a future post in this series. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Cara said, “If the world ends when the story ends, it isn’t much of a world.” I LOVE that. Totally true. And it certainly sounds like the new idea you’re working on has exploded into something dynamic and promising. Best of luck with it. Keep us informed on your progress!

  • Laura, I admire your discipline. I have tried the “I’ll-let-this-take-over-for-a-few-minutes” thing, thinking, as you say, that it’s best to get the idea down on paper so that I can then return to my WIP. Problem is, four hours later I’m still playing with my new shiny, and the WIP is sitting in a corner, surfing the web and sending dark looks my way… It sounds like you’re at an exciting place in your writing; that transition from one satisfying completed project to an enticing new one, is one of my favorite parts of being a writer. Enjoy!

  • I also think the forced delay of setting a new idea aside is a great way to see if it will stand the test of time. I always get super excited about a new shiny idea — the key is whether I’m still excited a month later 🙂

  • I agree, Carrie. It’s those ideas that keep coming at you, interrupting your work day, blindsiding you with new epiphanies when you least expect them — those are the ones that are worth pursuing.

  • I think the ratio that KR mentioned are probably about right for me, although I’ve never really counted the ideas to keep track. My best guess is that I like maybe half of the ideas when I come back to them, and maybe 10-20% of them are ideas that I think are robust enough to be the basis for a book.

  • […] idea? (for the sake of this aside staying short I'd like to reference this blog post for you: On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part I) I tend to call myself spiritual (though that raises more questions than I can answer). Not […]

  • I carry a notebook with me everywhere so that I can jot down ideas as they occur to me. But I find that as an idea builds on itself and becomes something larger – the seeds of a story, a novela, or a novel – that the handwritten method has weaknesses, as I can’t quickly search and cross-reference my handwritten notes.

    So I try, periodically, to transcribe my handwritten notes into an desktop wiki program I use.

    Once an idea is big enough to warrant a novel, I set up a new “project” in my desktop wiki and I pull in my notes and start building character profiles, histories, and whatever worldbuilding I will need, and start interlinking everything. If the idea stays at short-story or novelette-length, then I just keep everything in a word processing document. I haven’t had an “novela” length ideas, yet, since implementing this methodology so I don’t know whether novelas would lean more toward using the full wiki approach or the single word file approach.

    In my current WIP my wiki for the project is something like 50-60 thousand words long (and it is, frankly, pretty bare bones because a lot of the details got stuck in my head and I never got around to writing them down; if I fleshed out the wiki with all the detail I’ve been keeping in the back of my head the wiki would easily double in length).

  • Thanks, Sisi.

    Stephen, it sounds like you have enough material for several books! I guess that original idea was a keeper . . . That’s excellent. Best of luck with it.

  • Thanks. The current WIP is a Stand-alone, but at the same time I have come up with an idea for a stand-alone sequel.