On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part II — The Fear


Last week, I began what I expect will be a series of posts on ideas — where they come from, how we use them, where they lead us.  Today, in part II, I would like to discuss something that we don’t always acknowledge, but that every writer will probably understand to some degree.  To wit:  Ideas can be frightening.  

Odd, isn’t it?  Ideas are the bread and butter of a writer’s professional life.  Without them, we’re lost.  But I can tell you from personal experience that every new idea, while exciting, at times even intoxicating, also scares me just a little bit.  What if it doesn’t develop the way I want it to? What if it’s not such a great idea after all?  What if it is great but I muck it up?  Etc.  Any of this sound familiar?  It’s not that I don’t love to get new ideas, and it’s not that the fear of running out of ideas isn’t the most terrifying thought of all.  I’m just saying . . . Ideas can be intimidating.  If they are for you, too, read on.  I’ll touch on a few of those scary scenarios and discuss how I deal with them.

1.  What if my idea isn’t as good as I thought it was?  This is a question I sometimes ask myself — with a fair amount of desperation — after I have invested significant time planning, outlining and even beginning to write a book.  I’m assuming here that the idea in question has already made it through that preliminary stage where we convince ourselves that it has legs.  We’ve jotted it down, we’ve watched it develop from a single “What if?” into a series of related plot points, characters, and envisioned scenes.  This seems to be the real deal, something into which we can sink our proverbial creative teeth.

But now we’re ready to start writing, or maybe we’ve already written a hundred pages or a bit more, and suddenly the idea seems to have imploded.  It has plot holes big enough to accommodate an eighteen-wheeler, our world makes about as much sense as Kevin Costner’s Water World, and our main character seems to be a Frankenstein’s monster of cliches and tropes, or a barely-masked imitation of someone else’s hero, or both.

Okay, first of all, take a deep breath, or drink something:  A glass of wine.  A fifth of vodka.  A vial of belladonna.  The idea is still good.  Our plotting is still sound, if not perfect.  Our hero is going to turn out just fine.  A good idea does not mean that the book is going to write itself.  This is going to take work, it’s going to demand rewrites and adjustments and all the other things that writers do to turn concept into finished product.

I find it helpful to go back to my notes on the original idea.  (This is why I write down and date everything — I like to trace the evolution of my thinking.)  Chances are, if we have pursued the idea this far, it is fundamentally sound.  Quite often I find that whatever problems I am encountering have grown not out of the idea itself, but rather out of something I have done relatively late in the process to change or “enhance” the idea.  Just as a poor decision made in the middle of writing a novel can derail the narrative, so a poor decision made in the development of an idea can take a project in unforeseen and unfortunate directions.  Getting back to basics — in this case retracing the imaginative process to see where the idea turned sour and reminding ourselves of the basic kernel that first excited us — can get us back on track and “save” the project.

2.  What if my idea is great, but I screw it up by writing it in a way that basically sucks?  Yeah, this is the one that most often paralyzes me.  And paralysis really is the right analogy.  Fear of mucking up a perfectly good idea can be enough to keep even the best writer from putting a single word on paper (or computer screen).  I can’t begin to tell you how many aspiring writers have told me something along the lines of “Yeah, I have a bunch of great ideas, but I can’t seem to get myself to write any of them.  I don’t know what’s stopping me.”  And I always want to say, “Sure you do; you just don’t want to admit it to yourself or me.  You’re afraid.  Right now you have a great idea, but you’re afraid that when you start writing it, your great idea will morph into a bad book.  I know this because I face that same fear each time I start something new.”

Did I mention that ideas are frightening?

The thing to remember in this case — the thing I try to tell myself every time — is that an idea is not like an instant lottery ticket.  Scratching away the surface to see what’s beneath will not invalidate an idea.  If we start to take an idea in one direction and then decide after an outline or fifty or one hundred pages of writing that it’s crap, that doesn’t mean that the idea is useless.  It just means that we need to rethink our approach.  Sure, there are crap ideas.  Trust me.  I’ve had plenty.  But again, chances are that if an idea survives those initial weeks of contemplation that I described in last week’s post, there is at least something good about it.  But we have no guarantees that our first attempt to turn the idea into a book is going to work.  Sometimes writers follow dead ends.  Sometimes fits and starts are as much a part of the process as those smooth writing days we all love so much.  Perseverance is often as important as talent.  I can’t guarantee you that just because an idea is good, our first draft will do it justice.  I can promise you one thing, though:  If we allow fear to paralyze us, we’ll never turn the idea into a book.  And that would be a tragedy.

3.  I have too many ideas to focus on any one.  Or . . . I’m afraid I’m going to run out of ideas, and if I don’t make the most of this one I’ll never write anything.  I know.  These seem to be opposites.  But to me they’re really two sides of the same coin.  I used to be afraid that I would run out of ideas, and I really did feel that I had to make the very most out of each one, just in case “the well” eventually ran dry.  Then I swung the other way and was so aware of every idea I had that I was rushing myself to develop them all at once.  I had to write all of them right away.  I mean, what would happen if I got hit by a bus tomorrow?

Well, David, then some of your crap ideas wouldn’t get written.

The fact is, as soon as I start worrying about the number of ideas I have rather than about the potential of one particular idea, I am doing myself a disservice.  New ideas will come or they won’t.  Some will be good, some will be ridiculously bad.  All I can do is write the books that beckon to me.  Right now, I am working on the Thieftaker idea.  I am working on two contemporary urban fantasy ideas.  Together, they are more than enough to keep me busy.  If I never get another idea, then fine — I’ll work these ideas until they’re played out, and then I’ll find something else to do.  If two hundred more ideas come to me this week . . . Well, they’ll just have to wait their turn.  I can only do so much at once.  I guess what I’m saying is this:  Devote yourself wholly to the ideas in front of you right now, the ones that speak to you, that excite you, that are firing your imagination.  The next idea will come to you when the time is right, and really that’s all you can ask for.

So what, if anything, scares you about your ideas?  Do any of the scenarios I outline here sound familiar?  I’m at the beach this week, but I will check in periodically to respond to comments.

David B. Coe


28 comments to On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part II — The Fear

  • Hope you’re having a great time at the beach!

    Every so often I do get paralyzed #1 and #2. Mostly because my writing time is limited, what with my day job. I’m not scared I’ll run out of ideas, and like I said last week, I just write new ideas down and file them away. But I do get scared that the idea I’ve spent my precious writing time on isn’t worth it.

  • Chris Branch

    Well, there’s also the fear that you do actually have a great idea and you’ve put the time and effort into developing it into what you hope is a decent story, but that it’s going to take you so long to get it published that by that time some other writer will have stumbled upon and used the same idea! ;).

    Yeah, I know, there are no new stories, it’s all in the way you tell it, etc, etc. Still it’s fairly irritating to see an idea of your own show up in someone else’s book.

  • Laura, I do think that limited writing time would absolutely exacerbate the problems I’ve outlined here. But it sounds as though you deal with this and other issues very well. Keep at it!

    Chris, yes, I can see that as a concern, though you anticipate my response. The fact is no two people will handle the same idea the same way, and while there may be overlap between ideas you’ve had and books you’ve seen published, I’m sure that your take on the ideas would be unique, and commercially viable despite those other publications.

  • David, In my (not too) humble opinion, writers (maybe even more than other artistic types) are driven to alcohol, drugs, panic attacks, and depression because of these particular *what if* scenarios. Painters can paint over a painting, sculptors can blow up the stone, potters can smash the vase on the wheel. Writers, on the other hand, know that we might spend *months* or even *years* on a single project and then find it is full of holes. Meanwhile, the other artistic types are merrily working their 10th next project. I think it is the time element that freezes us. Okay – that’s what freezes me. 🙂

  • David, This hit the nail on the head for me. I always tell my wife that I have WADD (Writers Attention Deficit Disorder). I have so many ideas, and they come at me mid project sometimes, that I easily get distracted. Then I switch to a new project, that’s when the Fear hits me. I have too many projects going at once, and none of them are getting the attention they deserve! Thank you for this article / article series. I am glad that I am not the only one who freaks out about this stuff!

  • Gypsyharper

    Thank you for this post! My current WIP definitely falls under #1. I was merrily writing away and then got stuck, and realized I needed to go back and do some research/worldbuilding before I could continue. Some days I’m making connections and discovering cool new things about my world and I think it’s all going to come together. And other days I look at all my notes and they seem so far away from a cohesive whole that I feel like scrapping the whole thing. I guess my other concern is, as an inexperienced writer, that I might put all this time and effort into developing the idea only to find that it IS a bad idea. I suppose knowing when to put an idea away (hopefully early in the process) comes with experience.

    And yes, that time thing – totally makes me freeze up.

  • I used to think my problem was too many ideas, hence the drawers full of unfinished novels, short stories, and poems. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that my real fear is a combination of #1 and #2. My fear has shifted focus, but still seems intent on keeping me from finishing anything.

    My goal with my WIP is to finish. I’ve been using a marathon analogy to keep myself going: I will finish the marathon, even if I’m the last one and I have to crawl across the finish line. Now I can add “Perseverance is often as important as talent” to my internal pep talks.

    Have a great time at the beach!

  • Faith, I think that’s a great point. My brother paints for a living and is very, very talented. He works incredibly hard. But he can have five or six paintings going at once, and as you say, does not need to work for months at a time on any of them (at least not months at a time to the exclusion of all other artistic work). That investment we make is a huge factor in all of this.

    Jodie, that allure of The New is so hard to resist. But when I have too many ideas going at once, I find it hard to give any of them the attention it deserves, and yes, that can be totally debilitating. Glad you find the post helpful.

    Gypsy, #1 is something that happens to all of us. That said, I don’t think that the fact of your relative lack of experience means that you are going to mistake a bad idea for a good one. You know how to write; you know what you like to read. If you have this much work under your belt on this project, chances are it’s a fine idea and one that, with a bit of work, is going to be a fine novel as well.

    SiSi, thanks. Finishing should absolutely be your goal. Once the book is done, you can rework, revise, reconstruct, even re-imagine. But without being able to see the whole, all those reworkings become much more difficult. All this by way of saying, “Yes, that.”

  • I can definitely resonate with #1, and the ways of dealing with the problem that you give feel really good to me. When I’m asking myself: “Why did I ever think this was a good idea?” I have to remember that the question shouldn’t be rhetorical. Likely there is something good there and I have to find that again to get a story back on track.

  • The one that gets me the most: what if my idea is great – so great, someone’s already done it better than I can, and because I’m not sufficiently widely read (because I’m a slow reader) I didn’t already know about it. The close corollary: someone else is doing it right now and is better-positioned to capitalize on the idea.

  • I guess I should add that tied up in those fears of mine (especially the second) is the investment of time and skill, and the comparative slowness of my writing based on my available writing time. I’m anticipating the completion of my current WIP more than a year hence. I started contemplating the basic shape of the idea and the plot several years ago (at a time before I was fully conscious of the “steampunk movement” and it’s relative hipness: this is relevant because the current WIP is steampunk-flavored). I expect that by the time I’ve finished, and it’s gone through it’s editing paces, and I’ve shopped it around, and in the miraculous and unlikely event someone wants to publish, it’ll be several more years after that. By which point my inner cynic fully expects the current hipness of steampunk genre will have waned considerably.

    The other thing that drives this fear is a memory from my childhood: I basically “invented” Super Smash Brothers (I called my idea “Mario Kombat” and I had my idea years before the first Smash Brothers title, but I had written a fictitious strategy guide for this fictitious game back in the early 90s in the heydey of Mario 3), but I was a kid and not Nintendo so I couldn’t actually make this great idea happen. Someone at Nintendo was better positioned, in terms of skill and timing and everything, to capitalize. So I come into this fear with some obviously flawed by still powerfully influential experience.

  • Great post, David. My constant anxiety is that my ideas aren’t distinctive, bold or original enough for this increasingly high-concept market. There’s nothing worse than committing to the specifics of a story and starting to feel that the premise itself (the thing which will dictate so much of what happens to the book) just isn’t strong/shiny enough.

  • Razziecat

    Oh, I’ve had all of these! Especially #3. I’ve got pages and pages of stuff on the proverbial back-burners while I work on my current thing. And some days the lure is too strong to resist, and I start to fear that if I don’t develop those ideas they’ll fizzle out; but that takes time away from my WIP. I also have a version of #2: It feels as though this story is too big for me to handle. Too many characters, too many important plot points; and it all came out of a daydream that I had on the train one day on the way home from work…

    By the way, I’ve actually had belladonna (not a whole vial though!) It does a decent job as a painkiller…I believe one of my main characters has some of that growing in his garden 😉

  • Stephen, as I said in response to Chris above (my first comment) everyone is going to handle ideas differently. And as my grad school advisor once said to me when I was worrying about being scooped on my dissertation (scooped, meaning someone else doing my dissertation or book before I managed to finish mine), if you’re worrying about someone else writing your book, you’re thinking too narrowly about your idea. The truth is, even with the exact same concept, your book would be substantially different from a book written by anyone else. Your characters will be different, your dialogue will be different, your descriptions and internal monologue and ultimately your pacing and voice and everything else will be unique. We are all individuals (I’m not….). Stop worrying; write your book. It will be thoroughly yours. I guarantee it.

    A.J., thanks. I know exactly what you mean, and have had that fear myself again and again, particularly when I was working on my epic stuff. A little less now, but it lurks constantly in the back of my mind.

  • Josh, sorry to have taken some time to approve and respond — on vacation; what can I say? As you say, the idea was a good one when you had it. It remains a good one even after you’ve been working on it for a while. Remembering that is incredibly important. Best of luck with it.

    Razz, sorry to have missed your comment. I know the feeling of something being too big to handle. The truth is, if I didn’t break down my projects book by book, scene by scene, chapter by chapter I’d be overwhelmed every time I tried to write. If I can do it, you can, too.

  • @ David: Oh, I totally get you, and I try to live and write by that. I don’t let the fear stop me from writing, but hey, I’ve got to acknowledge the fear is there. (I’m substantially more likely to let the fear stop me from submitting, but I’ll worry about crossing that bridge when I’ve finished writing it.)

  • Yeah, they all sound pretty familiar. Usually, I’m finished writing a piece and am beginning to delve into revisions when I hit the, “aw man, I spent months on this and it’s crap, I just know it,” part. The one that hits me a lot is that I have so much waiting on my drive and more ideas all the time that I won’t be able to get to them all before I keel over. But I think the biggest, and also related to the last, is the fear that I’ll never go anywhere, my work will never get out there and my dream will never be realized before I die, which is actually the one that pushes me on. The more I get finished, the more I get out there, the more likely I’ll get picked up.

  • Stephen, that fear (re. submitting) is fodder for a different set of posts.

    Daniel said “The more I get finished, the more I get out there, the more likely I’ll get picked up.” Yes, this. So this. The way to get past ALL the fears is to do the work and get send it out. Lather, rinse, repeat. Keep at it, Daniel. Your time is coming.

  • How do you *know* something is crap? How do you knonw it’s not? I’m working on my first WIP, am as yet unpublished. It’s huge, over 100,000 words, in draft 3. I know stuff needs to be cut, but what to cut that won’t destroy the basic themes? Or should I make it two books, even thought I haven’t finished one yet, let alone sold anything? What if I’ve overcomplicated it and need to throw it all out and start totally from scratch? God I can’t do that, I’ve spent 3.5 years on this thing. What if it– well, you get it. Sometimes “what if” is terrifying rather than enlightening.

    Take today. I’m poking through my browser Favorites because the current chapter revisions are horrible! Constant second guessing, wondering which critters are right and which just don’t “get” the characters, wondering how the hell I’m going to pull this off without pulling out my hair. *sigh* Maybe I will resort to flower arranging after all. 😛

  • Owllady, this is where we draw upon two things that we’ve talked about in the past here at MW. The first is developing your internal editor (use the site search to find articles on this), which can help you distance yourself sufficiently from your own work so that you can read it with a critical eye. And the second is finding beta readers (again, use the site search) who you can trust to tell you what works and what doesn’t in your novel (or novels). I understand the fear your expressing here, truly I do. I came to beta readers later in my career than I should have. But there are ways to judge the quality of your work before you ever have to show it to an editor or agent.

  • Megan B.

    “Well, there’s also the fear that you do actually have a great idea and you’ve put the time and effort into developing it into what you hope is a decent story, but that it’s going to take you so long to get it published that by that time some other writer will have stumbled upon and used the same idea!”

    Oh my gosh, yes. If I find the smallest idea of mine in someone else’s book or movie, I have a moment of panic. Then I calm myself by picking out all the ways in which it is different, and in which I handle it differently. Still, I would hate to be seen as unoriginal, especially when I know I thought of it on my own before ever reading that other book. 🙂

  • Megan, I probably should have given this more attention in my post, given how many folks have mentioned it in comments. I remember when Winds of the Forelands came out and many reviewers commented on how similar it was George R.R. Martin’s work, and how I must have written it after reading A GAME OF THRONES. Of course, I had not read Martin’s work, but that didn’t matter. So I know what you mean. But as I’ve said before, no two authors are going to write the same book; your work will be utterly your own. Calming yourself is absolutely the right way to go on this.

  • I have to go with Megan on this one. Every time I have a new idea and start writing on it, I start thinking, Wait, this is too much like Firefly, it’s too much like LonTobyn, it’s too much like Brothers Karamazov, it’s too much like, it’s too much like… At which point I get overwhelmed and feel extremely unoriginal and dejected.

  • J.J., all right. Wow. Okay. I think I need to write another post just about this stuff. I’m off this coming week, but will address it the week after. Thanks for the comment.

  • Um, David you don’t have to keep replying to the same worry, but me too right now. I recently had an interesting sci-fi novel idea and then read an agent’s blurb on an upcoming sci fi book and wondered if agents would think I was imitating that other writer. I wondered if I should even bother writing it (even though there are some clear plot differences). Luckily, I had other ideas, so it wasn’t a totally paralyzing thought. But still… I wonder if it’s like when you’re thinking of buying a new car and suddenly all you can see are those cars on the road, or when you name your child and then hear the name at every playground around town. 😀


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