On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part IV — Blindsides, Gaps, and Spinoffs


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

29 comments to On Creativity and Writing: Making the Most of Ideas, part IV — Blindsides, Gaps, and Spinoffs

  • David? Oh my heavens the spinoffs! Good grief. Sarah and I could write 50 books with the stories we’ve got for some of our minor characters. Some do get blended into the plot (or become the more central plot when we realize that they are more interesting than the plot we currently have).

    I have to admit, when I encournted a gap in my Hell Mary story, I did what Faith said: I killed someone. It moved the plot.

    I have had one reaction to a new idea that I think is a bad one (and I know that someone, at some point, on MW talked about it, but I can’t remember who or when!) I had a great idea–an awesome new character. Sarah and I talked about him, and decided he should go in book two. Book Two. It took us a year or more (more, I’m pretty sure) to realize that I SHOULD NOT SAVE BETTER IDEAS for BOOK TWO! I was afraid we’d run out of ideas (in which case, then I’d be in the Gap), but we haven’t. And now, I think that I should take my best, most exciting, most dramatic ideas and move with them. Whatever raises the stakes the most.

  • ALWAYS getting blindsided. And I have to do the same, devote a couple days to a brainstorming session, building the skeleton, so that I know where the book’s going and I can come back to it later. I’ve got a bunch of those on my various storage devices. If I didn’t get blindsided at least once a book, I’d think something was wrong. 😉 Hope I can get to ’em all.

  • I got blindsided once. I got up and knocked that guy on his butt. Oh wait, this is not about bar fights. Never mind. Yeah, of course I get stuff like that. I don’t run into so much with the gap, because I just end the book. One of the benefits of writing way shorter stuff than most of the rest of y’all – I write five books and get to 300,000 words. You get to five books and you’re closer to 600,000! So since I write shorter stuff and work in novellas too, the Gap isn’t so much a problem for me.

    The others – oh yeah. I make a couple of notes on the blindside and maybe spew a page or two, then come back to my WIP(s). One of those blindsides turned into Bubba the Monster Hunter, which is beginning to outpace my Black Knight Chronicles in sales and fan base, so they can be a good thing. And I have a spinoff idea that I’m pitching to my publisher to take a cameo Black Knight character off on his or her own adventures, that could lead to a minimum three book series.

    Love the names you gave these things. Yeah, like I said, it’ll amaze me if I live long enough to write all the ideas. And I’m young(ish)! But there are sooooo many ideas.

  • Emily, I have taken that road, too — the “Ooh-I-should-save-this-for-when-I’ll-really-need-it” approach — and I agree with you: It’s a bad idea. When a good idea comes, use it. More ideas will come, and chances are they will blend better with whatever work is in progress at that time. Saving ideas is something I rarely do anymore for just the reasons you cite.

    Daniel, I have to admit that I enjoy being blindsided. Yes, it makes writing the WIP a bit harder, and it sometimes brings home for me just how weary I’m growing of whatever I’m working on at the time. But the excitement of that New Shiny — I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

    John, that’s interesting re. the Gap and writing shorter. Now that you mention it, I don’t find that I get stuck less now that I’m writing more UF and coming in at 100,000 words instead of 140,000 the way I did with my epic fantasies. Thanks for the comment. And you’d better write all your ideas — we want to see them!

  • John, I like the names David gave them too. Totally stealing them for my MW posts!

    David, the Gap, the Blindside, and the Quest I can deal with. Early in my career, it was a lot harder, but at this point, not so much. However, that Spinoff thing. Arrrg. I have three World of Jane Yellowrock spinoffs I want to do now, and one in particular that has my heart strings twanging. For me, it’s like being married and seeing my husband’s good looking cousin in the distance. And then lusting after him. It feels *wrong* in a way that is more moral than creative, which is stupid, but feelings aren’t rational. I am ignoring him, but I keep running into him at every turn because we are at the family picnic and he’s there. I’m not dealing with it very well, but I am putting blinders on at this point and writing Jane.

  • I like spin off ideas, but I’ve gotten wary of them since I heard an editor say that they depend on the success of the previous project even if they are only tonally similar. I’m not sure I buy that, but it’s made me wary of doing More of The Same even when I want to, for fear I won’t be able to sell it or that my publisher will have low expectations for it. All I ever seem to hear is Newer! Faster! Shinier! Higher Concept… All of which throws me back on that forcing of ideas, so I’m keen to hear what you have to say about that.

  • bonesweetbone

    I’ve been stuck in The Gap for a good portion of my current project. Maybe in a few years I’ll have a better idea of how to approach the problem. As it is, since I’m still new, I don’t have a good idea of when I’m hitting a roadblock or when a story’s just spinning its wheels.

    Right now I’m just focusing on getting stories done and flexing my muscles on the editing process while I find my voice and learn what works for me.

    I have, however, found that The Gap often leads to the temptation of The Blind Side… Thus far I’ve tried putting on blinders.

    Great post!

  • The Blindside is what ususally gets me. To be more specific, the indecision that usually follows a Blindside. Should I use that idea here? Should I wait? Does it really work with this WIP or am I just trying to cram it in to fill a Gap? What if the thing I’m working on now isn’t very good and the new shiny thing is The One? Historically my tendency has been to flit from idea to idea, never really finishing anything. That’s the bad habit I’m trying to break, so your idea of stopping and writing down the idea in some detail may work for me–it’s a good compromise between moving to something new and ignoring something new.

  • I deal with the gap by writing around it or by backtracking and revising. For Kinslayer Winter (revising!) this meant writing another POV character – I meant the scenes from his POV just to be an exercise to help me figure out the plot by seeing it from another angle. It worked better than I meant it to and I ended up with a multi POV book. Another POV character ended up being cut – his scenes didn’t move the plot forward for the reader, but writing them helped me figure out what the MC was doing and why. For the new shiny, I hit a gap at about 10k and just can’t go forward. (Well, I can, but it won’t be interesting.) A few years ago this would have been where I dropped the project as unworkable. Instead this time I went back to what I have written to see why the plot had petered out – Bingo! Not enough conflict/tension in the first few chapters. So I need to go back and enrich them. Specifically, I need to bring the MC into direct contact with the Big Bad instead of just having them pass each other by and lay down more tracks as to who killed the messenger.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I have definitely experienced all of these, and I actually think I’ve experienced them all in science as well as in writing.

    In science, Blindsides tend to come when attending colloquia or conferences and soaking up a lot of new ideas, Spinoffs are generally considered fabulous and can either be tacked on to a current project/paper or, even better, can mean a new paper, and Gaps are fairly evil and may lead to the abandonment of part or all of a project. However, in science there’s a lot more collaboration and a lot higher (hopefully) count than in novel writing – successful scientists need to shoot for at least one first-author paper a year plus additional collaborations, not that I’m terribly good at that system or think it’s entirely sane…

    Funnily enough, I think my last big writing Blindside came while I was attending a scientific conference. It wasn’t a completely new idea, but more a cool excitement/fleshing out of an idea I’d had kicking around for a while. But for me it seems to be this cool fleshing-out of an idea that leads me to be most excited and distracted. After finishing the draft of my WIP, I wrote the first chapter-and-a-bit on that idea and am excited for when I’ll get to do more on it.

    Annoyingly, that idea has *already* spawned a Spinoff idea, and I understand Faith’s comment about a sense of moral straying in the thought. The original idea is *so cool* and I really want to tell *that* story first, but the darned spinoff idea came with character voice and everything – folder duly made and notes duly filed away for later.

    And the Gap I have encountered several times in my WIP, and while it seems like a horrible thing, a failing of my story-telling ability, I think that each time I overcome it is likewise an excellent lesson in packing in good story telling. I had a character who was completely limp and uninteresting -> forced a sense of direction upon her and voila! her’s is now the clearest character and story arc of the book. Then I realized that another character’s story wasn’t really going *anywhere* -> decided to use on of my “cool ideas for later” *now* and yay! things are denser and better and will be even denserer and betterer in the book to follow. So, from where I’m at right now, Gaps seems to be indicators of pieces of the story-telling process I need to improve on.

    Sorry for such a long comment, but yes, ideas have many ways in which they need to be wrangled, and I think that doing so correctly can really lead to our continual growth as writers, storytellers, and thinkers. Along with the others, I will also be looking forward to reading your thoughts on the Quest!

  • I keep a journal/logbook where I stash ideas for stories as I come up with them. Usually an entry or two will suffice to sate my creative mind after getting “blindsided”. And I have the comfort of knowing the idea is still there and waiting for me when I have the chance to get around to it. Right now, I’ve got two other ideas that I believe will be novel-length waiting for time and attention, and one that’s likely to be novella-length.

    Sadly, they’ll have to wait, since I’m moving so slowly on my current project.

    I don’t think I come up with cool new ideas very often, but considering I’m sitting on several project ideas without time to write them, I think I’ve nothing to be worried about for now. I guess where the “ideas” problem most manifests is in my desire to write more short fiction, and the rather small number of short fiction ideas to accomodate.

  • Gypsyharper

    I think I’m at a gap-point in my WIP – at least, I hope it’s a gap and not a sign that I should abandon the project. In the past I’ve had a habit of starting a shiny new idea, getting stuck, and moving on to something else. (I’m beginning to suspect that this is because I keep trying to be a pantser, but I should really be a plotter. The reason I suspect this is because the only thing I’ve ever finished a first draft for is my musical, for which I revised the synopsis/outline four times before I ever started writing.) So I’m trying really hard not to just give up. I’ve started doing some research to help with the world building for my WIP in hopes of generating more ideas. And at the same time, I keep a Scrivener project for my new shiny ideas, so I can write down things that occur to me as I go along, but hopefully don’t completely derail progress on the work at hand.

  • I’ve encountered all of these, too. I completely agree with your strategy for Blindsides, David! A version of the Blindside (let’s call it the “Blast from the Past”) hit me hard last year. I’d just finished a version of my WIP and I’d promised myself I’d start working on the second book. But then for some reason (I forget why) I looked at an old short story I wrote for a friend. And I’ve thought about that character over the years, but last year it came back to hit me, hard. And I’ve started giving it more time and energy, but not a ton. Last week I finished revisions to the WIP. Now I’m putting all of my energy into this new shiny, and I’m so glad I gave myself a chance to stop what I was working on and make notes this past year. It’s made writing the piece easier, and more enjoyable, too.

  • Faith, I love that image. I understand the allure of the spin-off and have already started wondering if I could do spin-offs from THIEFTAKER and its sequels. I think a book with Sephira as the hero could be tremendous fun to write.

    A.J., I think you’re right that the one pitfall of the spinoff is that it is so dependent on the parent work, and therefore tied intimately to its numbers. As for the next post, yes I’m interested to see what I’m going to say, too . . .

    Bone, thanks. Glad you liked the post. I think that the Gap can be the most insidious of all of these, even though I also feel that it does lend itself to obvious remedies. Stories stall for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we take a wrong turn. Sometimes the problem is that our ideas aren’t complex or developed enough. Working on short fiction is always a good thing. But keep at the novel, too. Even if it feels like you’re banging your head against a wall, sooner or later you will find the answer.

    SiSi, thank you for the comment. I do think that jumping from one idea to the next is the greatest danger an aspiring writer faces. Every book I have ever written has stalled on me at some point, even if just for a short while. None of this is easy, and the process of actually completing a novel can wrenching. The attraction of the New Shiny is always greatest when the WIP is giving us fits. “There! That one! That story will be easy to write, and far better than this one.” But of course eventually the New grows old and the shine dulls. Finishing a book is such a crucial step in the path to becoming a professional writer, and I say that utterly without irony. Even if that first completed novel isn’t the one you sell, just finishing is so important.

    Sarah, that is terrific. Self-diagnosis, fixing the problem and moving on — that is something it took me years to learn to do on a consistent basis. The fact that you found the answer to your problem that way is very, very impressive. Hope it continues to go well as you move forward.

  • Hep, I always find it fascinating when it turns out that our discussions of writing fiction resonate in a similar way in an entirely different milieu. And I love the way you have overcome your Gap issues and moved on. Yes, those little victories wind up being far more valuable to our development as writers than a seamless, easy writing process would have been.

    Stephen, keeping that journal is a wonderful idea and something all writers should do. As for short fiction ideas, I would imagine that if you were to explore some of your ideas-in-waiting, you might find short story ideas that are connected to the larger idea and that could help you develop some of the details ahead of time. Short fiction is a great way of delving into those future book ideas without “spending” the idea entirely.

    Gypsy, I definitely think that plotting/outlining can help with gap issues. Not that an outlined book can’t also develop gaps. Believe me, they can. But having that structure for the book already established makes it far easier for me to identify where the Gap exists and how I might fill it. Pantsing, as A.J. has argued in several posts, really can make an already difficult task — writing books — that much harder. I bet if you were to outline the rest of the WIP, starting from where you are now and perhaps skipping over the Gap — in other words, outline the part of the book that you know you want to write but don’t know yet how to reach — you will find a solution to your problem.

    Laura, thanks. Glad to know that this solution worked for you (and that you came to it on your own, without any help from MW!) Hope the New Shiny develops as you want it to.

  • quillet

    I really like this terminology.

    I got Blindsided by a New Shiny some time ago, and spent a little while writing it down, which resulted in a full plot and some great characters. I’ve taken it no further since then, but every time my current WIP hits a snag or a lull, the New Shiny starts singing its siren call. I’ve resisted so far (because me = ornery), but who knows how long that will last.

    I also had an idea for my WIP that turned out to be a Spinoff, and another idea that I thought was a Spinoff but turned out to belong in the WIP — and not only enriched it immeasurably, but fixed a Gap (and the celestial choir sang alleluia…or so it felt).

    Haven’t been on a Quest, yet, though. It’s more like: so many ideas, so little time.

  • Hey, I just got blindsided today because I’ve evidently been watching too much Outer Limits. 😉

  • A. R. Gideon

    I got blindsided by a dream last week, first time that’s ever happened. The only bad thing is that I wouldn’t be able to work on it for quite some time. As for Spinoffs. Oh. My. God. I have so many it’s not even funny. I have histories, and urban legends, and cultural tales coming out of every orifice lol. I’ve already basically written the bible for the world (something I really hope I can get published at some point if my books do well enough.) I love spinoffs with a passion, I’m the kind of guy that has to know everything about the world. It’s one of the reasons why Tolkien is one of my favorite authors, he didn’t skimp on the backstory xD

  • Razziecat

    Have I ever…? Only all of those. 😉 While I was working on NaNo last year, two new, completely unrelated characters popped up and proceeded to pester the living daylights out of me. I had to forcibly shove them to the backburner to simmer for a while, and every now and then I go back to stir the pot. I don’t want to get too deeply involved with them until my WIP is finished and beaten into submission, plus there are several other things ahead of them, both in fantasy and space opera.

    When I first got back into writing five years ago, I used the space opera ideas for practice. I just wrote like a maniac, thinking, “Let’s see where this goes.” Sometimes when my WIP is dragging its wheels (or stuck), I go to one of the other ideas and play with it for a while. It’s a way to refresh myself, because my writing style for space opera is very different from the way I write fantasy.

    When I do move on, though, I’m going to pick the idea that’s beckoning most seductively ;), rather than go in the order the ideas first came to me. That way I stand less chance of losing interest in the new stuff.

  • Quillet, thanks. It’s funny how ideas that start as one thing often morph into something else — spinoffs that work with the WIP, WIP ideas that turn into something else. Ideas don’t arrive as complete and polished entities. They’re often raw and still developing, and we have to figure out how to use them and when they are fully developed.

    Daniel, it sounds like it wasn’t too much at all!

    A.R., I get a lot of ideas from dreams, things that wake me up in the middle of the night with the thought, “I should turn that into a book!!!” And then in the morning, when I’m fully awake, I realize that my dreams are way, way too weird to ever make for good books . . . Backstory and worldbuilding are great sources for spinoffs, but they are also great for short fiction. Could you turn any of those spinoff ideas into short pieces that you can then sell?

    Razz, all of that makes a great deal of sense and I like the idea of having a WIP that you can turn to for practice. And I totally agree with your last point. I have a book I have neglected for over a year now, because it’s just not speaking to me. At some point, maybe it will. But like you, I’m following my passions right now. It’s more fun.

  • sagablessed

    I had a case of all three these last two months. Had a gap with one WIP, which became a spinoff, that later blindsided me. GRRRRR! So I have set that WIP aside and am working on the blindsided thingee. Frustrating, but I think worth it.

  • Wow, Donald. All three in that short a span? Just wow.

  • Megan B.

    John, I’d love to know more about you writing shorter novels and novellas. I have been getting the sense that they’re hard to sell. Did you make a name for yourself on longer stuff and then start publishing shorter novels/novellas?

    As for blindsides, I handle them the way David does, but sometimes my notes become a scene, and the scene becomes a 10,000 word story before I can put it down. Oops 🙂

  • @David: That’s a great idea, and one that I haven’t given enough serious thought. Thanks.

  • sagablessed

    Yes, David, all three in a matter of a month. I was almost in tears. Love the story but it had to go on a back burner for now. I WILL return to it; just need some distance.

  • Megan, great question. I’d like to hear that answer, too. [Looks expectantly at John . . .]

    Stephen, glad to help!

    Donald, distance can be a very good thing. I’m coming back to a book right now after a year away from it, and that time away has helped me see the book in a new light. Best of luck.

  • […] Making the most of ideas: Part IV – Blindsides, gaps and spinoffs from the Magical Writing site continues the ‘making the most of ideas’ series. […]