Beginning writers often worry about ideas. The question “Where do you get your ideas?” has become a cliché, a question writers hate to answer, and the reason everyone hates it so much is this: non-beginning writers know that “getting ideas” is the easiest thing about writing. The difficulty, if you write regularly, is not getting ideas, but having too many ideas.
Having too many ideas may seem like a luxurious problem, but in fact it delivers to the serious writer a number of difficult challenges:
- You have to select which ideas you will pursue. You won’t have time to write all the stuff you want, and realize all of your ideas — not even all of your great ideas. This is a hard concept for beginning writers with few ideas to wrap their heads around. After you start writing with some regularity, ideas are not the issue — time is the issue. There isn’t enough time in the world to realize all of your good ideas.
- You must accept that you will let good ideas die. The darker side of the previous point is that you also have to decide which ideas you will never pursue. You have to become comfortable with letting not just most of your ideas die, but most of your excellent ideas
- You have to commit to a project. The temptation, when you have many ideas in front of you, is to work on one until it begins to get tiring or difficult, and then shift gears and work on a different project. Writers that do this have difficulty finishing projects. They may make progress on many projects at once, but often feel like they are getting nowhere, that they have very little to show for their tremendous efforts.
- You must therefore sift good ideas from bad ideas, and then rank or prioritize your ideas. This is easier said than done, for reasons that will soon become apparent.
I want to examine the third problem in this post, while touching on the fourth problem — how do you pick a project from your lengthy list of ideas, commit to it, and finish it?
One of the problems with evaluating ideas is that the quality of the idea is somewhat insignificant. You can create a good piece of writing from a bad idea, and a bad piece of writing from a good idea. You can even create a masterpiece from a bad idea, like Shakespeare did with Hamlet (one of the worst, most disorganized plots of any Shakespeare play, and yet what I consider his best play).
Your enthusiasm for an idea is also somewhat irrelevant. Your enthusiasm will flag. What will get you through the terrible slumps — and there may be many — when you hate your idea? Only discipline and commitment.
You may be tempted to think through career or market possibilities. This is always a mistake. Nobody knows what will sell this week. Nobody knows what will sell next week. Sometimes I meet writers who talk about jumping on some trend to make money. When the parade is marching down your street, it is already too late to join the parade. You cannot anticipate trends, you can only be swept up in them. If you already had a vampire novel out, or about to come out, when Twilight hit, then the trend might have worked for you.
Similarly, if you are making decisions about what to write based on some vague notion of what the market expects, you will simply sand the rough edges off of your idea — thus eliminating everything that made it a good idea in the first place.
There is no real way to evaluate ideas in terms of their intrinsic value, since they have none. However, you can evaluate ideas in terms of how useful they might be to you, by asking a few questions of each idea.
- How has it been done before? Almost every idea has been done before. You may need to do some research to determine what lives your ideas have previously lived. This will help you refine the ideas, to develop them in light of their previous incarnations, and make them more “yours.” You may also decide to abandon your idea after realizing it is far less original than you imagined. Research also has the benefit of giving you new, and often better ideas.
Do you think you can do it? If you are confident in your ability to take an idea from conception to completion, then you might want to abandon that idea. When you don’t have to stretch to pursue your ideas, they may end up boring you, and they won’t build your writing muscle. If you want to develop as a writer, you need to tackle ideas that force you to risk something creatively. The more difficult writing becomes, the more rewards you will see when you finally solve your creative problems.
Will this idea generate more ideas? What you really need from an idea is the potential to generate new ideas — a work of art is the culmination of an entire creative process, during which you will need to be generating and discarding and developing a variety of ideas. Sometimes, you will hit on an idea so strong that it is like a miniature idea factory: when that happens, you might have a concept on your hands, an idea that might give birth to and structure to some larger project. That’s what happened to me with Clockfire — I had an idea that I started investigating and developing, and it blossomed into a book.
One simpler way to evaluate ideas is to try to forget about them. If you can’t — if it has been years, and you still keep coming back to the same idea — then maybe there is something in that idea, and maybe you should commit to it.
I usually don’t pursue or begin writing anything (other than notes and a few lines) until I have let a few years pass, and then only if the idea still seems worth pursuing. For some writers, this means creative death. They mourn their lost ideas, which they did not pursue.
I love when my ideas die. This is a simple method of weeding out weak ideas that don’t even interest me for very long, after the initial shine of their newness has worn off.
Committing to a Project
After you have evaluated your many ideas and discarded most of them, you will still have too many ideas. You will still need to start prioritizing them and committing to a select few. A few factors come into play, and can help you decide what projects deserve your commitment:
- External pressures. If you have been given a deadline for a project, then you should prioritize and commit to it. This might be obvious, but I still find myself procrastinating and pursuing more enjoyable projects. Conversely, you have to be careful not to get caught up in the treadmill of your deadlines. You will find yourself completing a lot of minor projects that other people have assigned to you, and not making progress on your large projects. More on this below.
Projects that live multiple lives. Some of your projects will go further than others, and have more of an impact on your goals as a writer. A simple example is a (good) poem. Once finished, it could: (1) be published in a journal on its own; (2) be part of a sequence that is published together as a chapbook; (3) be folded with this chapbook sequence into a collection as one of the book’s sections. Barring other factors, that poem might be worth committing to rather than a poem that you know will not be part of a sequence, etc.
The project you most fear. As noted above, I like to commit to projects that I don’t think I can do. There are problems inherent in this approach, but I cannot think of a better way to grow as a writer.
What have you already done? My curse for many years was that I worked on many projects at once. (My curse now is that I am still finishing those projects, and I have very little time for new projects.) My entire writing life changed when I instituted one simple little rule: I can only work on the book I am closest to finishing. I made this rule for myself in 2008. In 2009, I published my first book. I had a second book accepted before that one was published.
The last suggestion is the one that has worked the best for me. Since I started forcing myself to finish book-length projects in order of what is nearest to completion, I have averaged a published book each year. Before then, I struggled to finish anything for a decade.
Right now, I really want to work on a novel. But I am very close to finishing a book of short stories. And I “owe” a director a screenplay. So: the short stories first, the screenplay second, the novel third.
I try to imagine that I am two people: a writer and that writer’s jerk boss. The jerk boss hat goes on when I make decisions about what the writer is going to have to do, whether the writer wants to do that thing or not.
Now that you have committed to a list of projects, you still face the problem of which projects to prioritize (unless, of course, you are more ruthless than I, and your list is a short one that includes a single project).
I will provide an overview of the system I use to prioritize what I work on when. This is meant to be illustrative rather than prescriptive — your system might differ depending on your writing focuses and goals. You need a system, but not necessarily this system (although you could do worse).
I keep a revolving list of my Top 2 writing priorities. They break down this way:
- A major project, like a book or screenplay
- A minor project, like a single poem or a book review
“Major” and “minor” here just refer to length. As noted above, I try not to commit to any projects I don’t see as significant (“major” projects in their own right). Once in a while, of course, I am a hack for money (but only on “minor” projects).
I try to only work on the major project, and ignore the minor project. If I cannot ignore the minor project — for example, if the deadline for a book review is approaching — then I spend some time on the major project (a minimum of 15 minutes) before I allow myself to shift focus to the minor project.
Sometimes, if the major project is going terribly, I will just put in my time with it and then shift to a more fun minor project. So the major project proceeds faster or slower depending on how many more pressing deadlines I have, or how engaged I feel with the project that week.
Here’s what I’m doing these days:
- Major Project — A screenplay called Edenbridge — this is a priority because I am working on it at the behest of a director, and because of a grant deadline by which I have to complete and submit a sample of writing and an outline.
Minor Project — This post you are reading, obviously. I have prioritized this blog post because I am teaching a creative writing class, and one of the students asked me to discuss this particular topic. This post is one of those “projects that live multiple lives,” in that it will serve as (1) class notes for a general discussion, (2) a more detailed look at the topic to aid that particular student, (3) some material for this website, (4) draft work towards future articles on the topic for freelance publication, and (5) draft work towards an eBook on working productively as a writer (an publishing experiment I want to try).
The important point, and the reason for this system, is that even if I have a lot of other things to do, and even if I am bored or feeling blocked, the major project gets worked on and gets finished.
Let me repeat that. Even if I have a lot of other things to do, and even if I am bored or feeling blocked, the major project gets worked on and gets finished.
Since I force myself to focus on things that are closest to being finished anyway, I make a fair bit of progress. Of course, this is possible only because of all the undirected, random progress I made on various projects in the past.
So, it is something of a false industry. The result is that I am viewed primarily as a poet, even though I write very little poetry, and mostly write fiction.
Nevertheless, how people view me and my writing is not my concern. My concern is writing.
How do you know when you are finished a project?
This is a question people ask a lot. I don’t have a good answer.
I decide that I am finished a project when I don’t know how to improve it any further, and it feels like no matter how much I work on it, the project is only changing superficially, not improving substantially.
This happened with The Politics of Knives. I worked on the book for many years. I felt like I was getting nowhere — not making the book better, just making it different. I didn’t know what to do. I solicited feedback from people, but the feedback all clashed. Nobody had a clear idea what was wrong with the book.
I didn’t know what to do with it. It was publishable, but not what I wanted it to be. I decided, in the end, to submit it to Coach House Books. I had such an amazing experience working with them on Clockfire, and they seemed well-disposed towards me. So I gambled. I suspected they wouldn’t want to publish the book as-is. But I also knew they would read the manuscript and consider it carefully, since they seemed to want to work with me again. My gamble was this: maybe Kevin Connolly would read it and realize what was wrong with it, and like it enough that we could fix it together.
That’s more or less what happened — Kevin suggested cutting out a section of the book where I had a series of single poems. The rest of the book consisted of poem sequences. I saw in a flash that the whole book should consist of sequences, and that I should rewrite each sequence to cross-connect with the others in oblique ways that might not be apparent to the reader.
Alana Wilcox also expressed concern that so much of the book had been previously published (there are odd rules concerning grants to publishers in Canada). She wondered if I had any newer work that I could include.
I realized then that I should pull out half of the book and replace it with new material. Alana was talking about something else, but she was right that the sections had been written too far apart and didn’t feel cohesive. Kevin seemed to get a little concerned at this point, because I started gutting and trashing sections that he considered strong, but then I replaced them with stronger stuff (aside from one proposed section that didn’t work, which he called out).
In the end, I “finished” the book and mailed it away … and then “finished” the book again en route to publication. My first book, Ex Machina, underwent almost no changes during the publishing process, by contrast.
Paul Valery once wrote that works of art are “never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death.” Sometimes you need to accept that you have come to the end of the idea and move on, even if you are not satisfied.