For the past few months, I’ve been posting techniques for generating ideas. Now it’s time to talk about these ideas from a different angle, because sometimes the problem isn’t a lack of ideas, but an overwhelming number of them, or a really great one that won’t let you focus on anything else (…for example, the other great idea you had earlier), or an idea that starts out strong but threatens to evaporate as soon as you examine it more closely. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to beginning authors, getting a Great Idea can be a productivity-destroying monster—and if you’re going to be a successful author, you need to know how to tame it.
The danger of the Great Idea is insidious. It tempts you to work on it immediately. It distracts you from last week’s Great Idea that isn’t yet finished. It wants all of your attention, now, and won’t let go until you give it what it wants. And the last thing you want to do is kill it. After all, you’re a creator! Ideas are the seeds of awesomeness. Without attention, an idea dies. You forget the details, and bit by bit it fades away unless it’s fed.
So, given that you neither want to let your new Great Idea consume your entire brain just yet, nor do you want to snuff it out, what do you do? The way I tame this beast is to open a zoo. For me, it’s a classy little notebook, one of the expensive ones with the elastic to hold it closed and a ribbon for keeping my place. Other authors have files on their computers, or even a box full of slips of paper or index cards. The form is not as important as the function and the discipline in exercising it.
The discipline is this: When you get an idea, write it down. Plot ideas, setting ideas, character ideas, all of them must be written down with your chosen method. Record all the details you can think of, and then put it away and go back to working on your main project. This way, you have given your Great Idea enough attention to survive until you can come back and decide whether it’s actually worth working on.
Because that’s the other danger of the Great Idea. Sometimes, the idea just isn’t as great as it seemed when we thought it up. Maybe it’s cliché, just another brooding vampire in a world that’s got too many already. Maybe it’s all horns and no teeth, and it doesn’t lead you anywhere interesting. The important thing here is that you can’t tell what kind of idea it is until you’ve had some time away from it.
…Which brings us to the second important function of the idea zoo. With some time apart, you can come to the idea with a fresh perspective, and really have a good look at it. That’s why I don’t read through my idea notebook until I actually need an idea—which can often happen in the middle of writing something else, when I need to spice up a character, or a setting, or introduce a plot twist. The idea zoo is a great place for concentrated inspiration.
And someday, you’ll fill up that idea notebook. Well, okay, not if it’s a file on your computer, but even so the size will eventually become unwieldy. When that happens, here’s what I do: When the book is full, and I’m finished with one project and ready to start another, I get myself another notebook, and lay them open side by side. I go through the full one and look over each idea, first by just reading through the whole book, and then more carefully, considering the ideas one by one. As I pore over each one of my Great Ideas, I consider not only whether or not it belongs in the new notebook—because not all of them will be judged fit for preservation—but also whether it fits in well with other ideas. I’ll cluster them together when they seem like they might be compatible.
If there’s anything better than a story with a Great Idea, it’s a story with two or three Great Ideas. Or more.
Here’s your freebie story idea for the month:
A woman decides to get even with her cheating husband—by seducing his mistress away from him.