For the past several weeks, I have been writing about ideas — what we do with them, the fears they can elicit, ways in which they remain original even when they are similar to the ideas of other writers.
Today, I would like to talk about the timing of ideas, and how I go about making the most of them no matter when they crop up.
1. The Blindside: We’ve all had this one, right? Sometimes while working on one project we are blindsided by another idea for a completely separate project. We don’t particularly welcome the idea at that point; in fact the ideas that come to us under these circumstances can be a total pain in the butt. A case in point: Early in 1999 I was writing the third and final book of my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle. I was, at that point, somewhat sick of the LonTobyn books. I had been living with that world for six solid years, and I was really, REALLY ready for something new.
Or so I thought. One evening, while putting the finishing touches on a scene I’d been struggling with all day, I suddenly found myself in a completely different world, listening to the thoughts of completely different characters and grappling with a “What if?” question that I knew was going to spawn at least three books. (It eventually led to eight; the five Winds of the Forelands books and the Blood of the Southlands trilogy.) It was one of those thrilling moments of serial epiphany when one idea sparks three more, those three ideas spark another nine, and so on. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as jazzed about a new book idea as I was about that one. I had wondered if I would ever come up with another series idea after LonTobyn (that seems pretty silly to me now, but I was young and had only been writing professionally for a few years) and so I was not only terrifically excited, I was also deeply relieved.
But I still had most of Eagle-Sage (the third LonTobyn book) left to write, and I could already feel myself being drawn into the new project. LonTobyn felt old, dull, gray. The Forelands was my very first New Shiny and oh, how it sparkled. For nearly a week, I tried to go back to writing the WIP, but my heart and mind weren’t in it. At that point, I made a decision that, despite my relative inexperience, was pretty wise. I gave in to the new work. I put Eagle-Sage aside for a few days, and I concentrated entirely on jotting down notes on the Forelands. I wrote brief character sketches, described the history, culture, religion, customs, etc. of the world as I saw it at the time, played with a few plot ideas, sketched out a rough map, and, probably most important, made a list of questions I would have to answer before I could actually start writing book one. Only when I was satisfied that I had dealt with all of the most distracting elements of the new idea, did I set it aside and return to LonTobyn. The New Shiny was still there, beckoning to me, but I knew that I had a handle on all the cool ideas I wanted to remember, and I knew that I needed to complete that LonTobyn book that I still had under contract.
That is how I have dealt with the Blindside ever since. I no longer fight with my new ideas. I give in to them. I set my WIP aside just long enough to get myself pointed in the right direction with the New Shiny. Put another way, I satisfy the itch. And once I have, I get back to work on the old project. Because part of being a writer is finishing what we start.
2. The Gap: This is an entirely different sort of problem, and one that I encounter often. I’m in the middle of a project and I realize that my idea, while good as far as it goes, is not enough to sustain an entire book or series. I need more ideas, and I need them now.
This is not quite like trying to force myself to come up with new book ideas (which I will discuss eventually), but it is similar, and it raises the question, “Can we summon ideas, make them come to us at will?” Generally speaking, when it comes to starting fresh with a new project, I find it hard to make myself think of something new. Within the context of a book or series, however, I believe it’s far easier.
I begin, as I so often do, with questions: What does the project need? Is there a gap between my original concept for the project and the way it has unfolded so far? Is there enough action? Is there too much? Does it need a romantic element? Does it need a battle or murder or something of the sort? Are the characters stagnating? Do I need to introduce someone new? Or is it time for a relatively minor character to assert herself and take the plot in a new direction? If it’s a historical, do I need to bring in some new element of the history? If it’s an epic fantasy, is there an element of the worldbuilding that I have neglected and that might spice things up a bit if brought to the fore? The questions are different every time, and only you can know which questions you ought to be asking. But the point is, with this sort of problem the answer often lies in reconciling a) Your plans for the project — as reflected in worldbuilding, background work, character sketches, outlines, etc. — with b) All that you’ve already written. That can sound daunting, but it is really fairly straight forward, and it’s why the Gap is often the easiest of these problems to address.
3. The “Spinoff” Distraction: Now and then, we are taken by surprise not by a completely unrelated project idea, but rather one I would call, for want of a better phrase, a “spinoff” idea. (Faith, I expect you’ll want to chime in on this one.) In this case, the New Shiny is actually an extension of the WIP, and so the first thing you generally need to do is decide whether it is, in fact, a distraction, or instead a new plot point that works well within the book you’re currently writing. If the latter, carry on — you’ve just jumped a Gap, and the writing of your book should be that much easier.
But what if it’s the former? What if the idea you’ve had for, say, telling a story about the life history of your favorite secondary character really has no place in the current book? What if it’s even tangential to the entire series? This happened to me with the Forelands/Southlands books. I mention the Mettai, a group of magic-wielding exiles — gypsies, sort of — in the second Forelands book. I thought at the time that I had come up with a great new idea for another Forelands subplot. But if you’ve read the Forelands books, you know that I had no shortage of subplots, and in this case, the story of the Mettai would have taken me too far afield. And so I set their tale aside and made them central to the Southlands series.
Once again, I rely on questions to determine whether an idea like this one works with the WIP or demands it’s own project. In this case though, the questions have as much to do with the existing project as with the idea: How does this idea mesh with the project as it stands right now? How would it change the WIP? How closely tied is it to the central story arc? Does it enhance that arc, or does it detract from it? Does it threaten to expand the WIP beyond whatever limit on pages, words or even volumes I’ve had in mind thus far? How big a problem is that? Once again, only you can answer these questions with respect to your own work, but these are the types of things you ought to be asking yourself. And if you decide that this is a separate project, then you might want to take a day or two and write out all you can about the spinoff (as outlined in #1) before going back to work on the WIP.
4. The Quest: What if you’re done with your WIP, and you currently have no thought as to what you intend to write next? Once again, is there a way to “force” ideas to come to us? That will be my focus in my next installment of the “Ideas” Series.
In the meantime, let’s talk about this stuff. Do you often get Blindsided? Have you been confronted with a Gap? Are you working on a Spinoff?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net