Wednesday, April 18, 2012

3 Reasons Why That Idea Isn't Working

by Stephanie Morrill

When I talked on Monday about the difference between the spark of an idea and developing a strong idea, someone asked a wonderful question:

What happens when you get a spark and you put forth the effort to write the book, but then it just...fades away? You lose your interest.

This has happened to me as well, and I'm guessing it's fairly common for writers. I've noticed that, sadly, some ideas work better in my head than on paper. Sometimes ideas just aren't as good as I originally thought, but sometimes the ideas are good and it still doesn't work. When that happens, it falls into three categories:

1. Sometimes the idea is too personal

I have a story I regularly get an itch to write. Nine years ago (this week, actually) my father went through an extremely nasty, extremely bizarre situation with his business partner. I won't go into all the details, but in summary they had a disagreement and it was clear they could no longer work together. When my father left the office that day, his 50/50 business partner had the locks changed and then proceeded to ... well, do crazy stuff that drove away clients. The kind of stuff where you're like, "Is he on something?"

My point is it's a story that has everything. Mystery. High stakes. Jealousy. People taking sides. Money. Gossip. Greed. Heartache. Love triangle. That whole mystique of, "Who's telling the truth? Who knows the real story?"

Because I was working there at the time and, unfortunately, had a front row seat of the company's implosion, this is a story embedded on my heart, but even nine years later, it's still too raw for me to tell. I want to, and I've tried, but it just doesn't work yet.

And when I first tried to write it, it was clearly just too big a project for me. Which leads to my next category:

2. Sometimes my skill level is not ready for the idea.

We are constantly (or should be constantly) growing as storytellers. It's a story that, for whatever reason, is beyond my writing abilities. There are too many point of view characters, or I can't get the tension quite right, or I never can get the story started in the right spot. It can feel like this:


Like I'm a little kid who's just pretending the letters she's typing make sense.

We learn by writing, writing, and then writing some more. There's nothing wrong with setting aside an idea that's too complex and coming back to it later.

3. I don't have a story - I have a premise

A couple years ago I had a book idea that I was extremely excited about. I talked to my critique partner about it, I did some research, I spent a bunch of time on the social security website hunting up names. Finally I decided that I must begin writing or I would go crazy.

I eked out 7 (double spaced) pages before calling it quits. I couldn't even make it through the opening scene! Where was this story headed? What was going to happen? Did my character have a goal?

No, I had nothing. Except a premise that I found exciting.

Now when I come across something like this, I choose from the following three options:

I try to pinpoint what about the story has me disinterested. Sometimes that's easy (there's no romance!) and sometimes I'm in such a funk, I can't think straight - It's just a bad story, that's why it feels boring! It'll never work! I'll never have a good idea again! (Don't I sound fun to live with?)

If I'm just stuck on something and starting to feel bored, I'll either schedule a chat with my critique partner, or I'll pull out Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass or Deep and Wide by Susan May Warren, both of which have a lot of writing exercises meant to deepen your manuscript.

If I have the luxury (like if I'm not on a deadline or if no one is expecting the story from me) then I put it away for awhile. And you never know when a new idea spark will fit perfectly with an old story, when you'll find a way to make it work.

Tomorrow, teen author Rachel Coker will be here talking about historical fiction and the research process. Don't miss it!

39 comments:

  1. My first biblical fiction was one I had to wait years to write, until I'd grown enough to do so. And it took me four years of active writing, unlike all the others I wrote at the same time that took me a few months.

    Even now I have a story I WILL write someday that I just can't yet. It's going to be a consuming one, and I don't have the time or attention to give it right now. But someday!

    And now I'm trying to remember what that of yours was that you only got 7 pages into . . . ;-)

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    1. Well, we're even, because I'm trying to figure out if you'd talked to me about a book you'd like to write but can't yet...

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  2. Oh gosh...I think I started three...maybe four novels (if you count an opeing line) that never made it past chapter one or two at the most. And then the one that I finally wrote needs so much more work it's a little scary. Even though I just finished it a couple months ago, I can already tell my skill has grown.

    Thanks for the great post Stephanie!

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    1. Maddie, how exciting to see such quick progress in your skills!

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  3. That makes so much sense. I have the problem of having a great dramatic, suspenseful, emotional story in my head and having certian sences perfected...but the story has a lot of missing sences in between here and there.
    Thank you! (That picture of your daughter is pretty cute by the way.)

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    1. Thank you :) And that really is her sitting in my desk chair pretending to write a story.

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  4. When I was 10 or so, I used to wonder why novels that won young writers contests were almost always written by 17 or 18 year olds. Now I know (from experience) that it's not because preteens don't have good ideas, it's because actually completing a novel takes a lot of skill and patience and insight that people don't usually have until they're older. It's not that they don't want to write earlier, it's that they don't have the skill to actually finish something.

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    1. Anonymous, absolutely. I had some very creative book ideas in middle school, but I had no concept of how long a novel should be/how big an idea needed to be to sustain that kind of word count. Same goes for me at age 17 too, but I was much closer!

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    2. Exactly, Anonymous. When I was younger, I always wondered why preteens were never published. I made a resolution to be the youngest published author, ever. Unfortunately, I'm already past the age that I would need to be to break that record, but I see now why a lot of published authors are older. It takes extreme dedication to write a novel. I've only just recently discovered how hard writing is. It's not for the faint of heart... but it is worth it.

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  5. first of all I want to say that your last few posts have been really helpful to me. I have a problem with starting novels and never finishing them...and I have a question about genres. Is it easier to write some genres then others? Or does it just depend on the person? I've tried to write fantasy, historical, contemporary...and I can't finish any one of them.

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    1. Tessa, sometimes I think it takes some time to find the genre that works for you. In my early 20s, I really wanted to "evolve" beyond writing teen fiction and write something more serious. I tried really hard but never could get going. Teen fiction just works with my voice and ideas, though.

      Often, what you read is an indicator of where your writing interests lie. That's not always true, since I love historicals but don't write them, but I DO love reading teen fiction.

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    2. is teen fiction a genre? because I want to write that for certain...

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    3. Yep! You'll also see it classified as "Young adult" or "YA."

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  6. Thanks so much, this was great! I need to dig down into my books and pull them out and decide whether they will ever really make it. I have a book idea I've been working on, but I can't exactly...start it...I'm not sure how to begin! I don't think its my level! I think I am going to start something new, my level, my experience and what I like. Maybe that is how I'll begin; not some huge science fiction adventure novel, but a little paperback about a perfectly normal person and their story, like I've always wanted to write.

    Thanks for helping me out!

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  7. One of my favorite things is developing an idea into a bigger story. Though its easy for me to get stuck and not be sure where I'm taking it. I'm stuck in the middle of my plotting currently, figuring out what my character's actions would be, and where they would lead her. I also need to raise the stakes. (yikes!)

    Like in improv, theres a thing called raising the stakes. The idea is you make something bigger, or more exaggerated. Such as rather than seeing a dog across the street, you see a giant, 4 and a half foot german shepherd with a baby in his mouth. You have something much more interesting there, and somewhere to take the story.

    When writing a novel you don't want to be unrealistic, but you want something that will progress the story and keep your readers interest. As well as make the goal more important to reach.

    If that made any sense I don't know. :D

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    1. Leila, it can be very hard to balance the great, unique, eye-catching story idea/premise with realistic things. It can be such a struggle when you want, or need for this to happen, but you also need for it to be believable. I struggle with this a lot.

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  8. Oh and thanks for writing this blog Stephanie! I appreciate your effort in keeping this website up and current! :D Have a wonderful evening!

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    1. Great insights, Leila! And you're very welcome. It's fun :)

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  9. Recently I had an idea for a high fantasy, but I felt it was too complicated. So I've put it aside for later, if I ever write it.

    Also, that story idea that you mentioned is too person sounds AWESOME Stephanie.

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    1. Thank you, Allison! I think it could be really great, I just need to get past the mentality of, "They are SO going down. When they read this, they're going to regret how they behaved!" Lousy motivations for writing a story :)

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    2. Lousy, maybe, but certainly understandable! I suspect that is what would be going through my head in such a situation...; ) Good luck with all your writing!

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  10. I have so many story ideas in my head, but I feel hesitant to write most of them because I'm afraid I won't do them justice. I am such a perfectionist that I wouldn't want to settle for anything less for those stories tucked away in my "someday" file in my head.

    My problem is I wonder if I'll ever be ready to write them. :P

    I also love that picture of Mckenna(did I spell her name right?). Soooooooooooo adorable!

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    1. Clarebear, I've gone through times like that too. Actually, the book I'm working on now is a completely different project for me (a dystopian) and there was some blood and sweat that went into my synopsis. It felt HARD. But now that I've accepted I'm going to make mistakes, it's been a lot easier to forge ahead with the story. I can fix them - but they have to be on the page first!

      And thank you! We think she's cute :) It's actually McKenna, but when you throw a capital letter into your kid's name, I don't think you should get too bent out of shape if others make it lowercase. But she will tell you her name is spelled M-c-capital K-e-n-n-a.

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    2. Perfectionism. I have that problem too, Clarebear. I want everything to be perfect when I am writing, which is one of the reasons why the first draft is so hard for me. I want it o be so good, so perfect, that I do not get very far very fast.

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    3. Same with me :) I think I get so attached to my characters that I don't think I can do them justice on paper. They're so like real people in my head, and on paper they always come out too 2D, no matter how hard I try. I want to portray them perfectly, and I'm not satisfied when it doesn't work.

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    4. Oh, I have so much trouble with this! Sometimes I get an idea in my head, and I don't write it down because I'm afraid that if I do I'll get it wrong, and once I've written it that way, I won't be able to remember what my original vision/impression was. It can be very difficult, but I've found that prayer helps. I've also found that footnotes while writing a rough draft can be very helpful (mine is full of them). I'm a perfectionist, and can usually spot when something needs to be fixed (this section is too choppy, this bit of dialog doesn't sound natural, this portion is going on too long, they need to get moving, where is this conversation heading, etc.) and so I quiet my perfectionism by creating a footnote at that spot about whatever I think needs to be fixed and how I might want to fix it. That way I can find it again later when I'm revising things. Sometimes I'll come back to it the next day and I'll be able to fix whatever it was in a way that makes more sense, because I'm able to look at it more objectively, and I know what needed to be fixed (as well as an idea or two for fixing it) from the footnote I left the day before. So far it's worked really well.

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  11. I literally have 18 manuscripts (that I've started) I plan on finishing some day. I know I can finis a novel, but nothing seems to click! Realized yesterday that maybe I need to stop worrying about publishing something and more about writing it for me--even if no one likes the first draft!
    God was sending me a message to chill out. ;-D

    This is a great post!

    -Jess

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    1. Lol, Jess. He sends me those messages sometimes too :)

      It took a long time for me to accept that first drafts, unfinished manuscripts, and books that were not-quite-publishable were all part of the process. Sigh.

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    2. Wow! Eighteen! You must be very creative, Jess. I have four, I think. And that's all I can handle! Way to go!

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  12. Great post!

    Noticed McKenna had on her beauty and the beast tee shirt (you werent joking when you said she really loves beauty and the beast).

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  13. This is the post for me!!!!! I try to start stories, and never finish them. And the premise-with-no-story thing is something I do all the time. Would it be possible for you to do a post on how to insert a plot into an interesting premise? Because I usually put little bumps in the road for my characters, not brick walls.

    And I've also noticed I like to skip around and think out the most interesting scenes in my head, but when I try to write, I feel like I should go in order, and then I get bored because I want to jump ahead. Is it okay to do your favorite scenes first and then go back and do the rest?

    Sorry, really long comment. Anyways, thanks for this post, and McKenna is sooooooo cute :)

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    1. From a different Anonymous:
      Absolutely! This is something I struggled with for awhile, and then I realized that when I get an idea, I need to write down anything/everything I have for it, whether I intend to go anywhere with it or not, or whether or not it's in order (after all, many stories aren't written in order anyway, and it's easier to write when you know where you're headed). That way, should I come back to it, I'll have plenty to go on. I do it like this: I start a Word document on that particular idea. I write down everything I have on characters, premise, etc. Then I go down a couple lines and write whatever scene is most pressing. I introduce it with this: ~ ,so I know that this is a scene. I do this for all the scenes I may have, and then I drag-and-drop them into whatever order I think they might appear in the story, including the ~ mark. If I come up with a new idea for a scene I add it, and sometimes I'll continue on from one of the scenes where I think it might belong. If I come up with a alternate idea like if the heroine goes out into the forest herself instead of waiting for the hero to get back, I do this: ~(If heroine went into forest by self). So far it's worked pretty well. Sorry for the long explanation ;)

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    2. Thank you! I should try that :) It sounds like something that would work for me.

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  14. "pinpoint what about the story has me disinterested"
    Is it lame that all I saw in that sentence was the word 'pinterest'?

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  15. I've attempted to write a handful of novels since I was eleven, and I only managed to finish one. It was six chapters and I threw it out because it was so awful. Since then, the farthest I've ever gotten in a book is eight and a half chapters. Unfortunately, that book is in a computer file that I don't have because the computer it's on is kind of broken. Whoop-dee-do.

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  16. Wow, I love this list. Yes, there is totally a story that I want to write someday but know I don't have anywhere near the skill or the maturity to tackle, but I feel like I'm ready to jump into a first for me this summer -- writing historical fiction that's not actually fantasy, but is set in medieval Europe. Very excited about that. :)

    Sometimes it takes a while, but I've come to see that improvement is very possible and always worth the (very) (very very) hard effort. :)

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  17. You're absolutely right, Stephanie - sometimes it's just not the right time for an idea! I've had a whole bunch of ideas that fizzled out before I'd gotten past the first few chapters, because the time wasn't right, or I didn't have enough experience/motivation to keep going. Sometimes, you've just got to let things compost for a bit longer. ;)

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  18. I have a question: what happens when all the people whose opinions you respect tell you that your book, basically, 'sucks'. Should you accept that opinion because it was a mutual agreement from your critique peers? Should you stick with it? What if they are right, and the book idea and writing is terrible, but you don't notice? I'm just wondering what your thoughts are. I was so proud of my latest book idea and writing, but it sounds like all the people whose opinions I respect don't like it at all. What do I do?

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    1. Well, I think there are a couple ways to look at this, Sarah. One is to consider the credentials of who is offering the feedback. When you say you respect them, I'm not sure if you mean that you respect them as people in general or if you respect their opinions about reading and writing. Are they your target audience? Have they read very much in that genre? These are good kinds of questions to ask when you're evaluating the merit of someone's poor (or good) opinion.

      The general rule among writers is if you hear negative feedback about an element but no one else agrees, then you're probably fine. But if you start hearing the same feedback from a variety of sources, it probably is something that needs to be addressed.

      One last thing I'll say is that when a critique partner points out a problem with my book, it's often something I suspected. Or it's something that as soon as they say it, I'm like, "Oh! I didn't even realize that!" What I'm trying to say is that it resonates, it doesn't often come out of the blue. Even in my early days of writing, I would argue why such-and-such did NOT need to be changed ... only to realize a day or two later that maybe that element could stand for some revising. So if you're completely shocked by their feedback, it's certainly possible that it's just not their type of book.

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Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!