Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ideas for future projects

A previous blog post generated a good question.

How do you avoid getting so interested in these other, new ideas that you lose interest in your current project? That's something that happens to me pretty often.

I always have ideas for future novels kicking around inside my head, but I’ve only been distracted once from the book on which I was working. So this question gave me something to think about.

1. Ideas, like wine, need time to age.

In How to write Fantasy and Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card mentioned that his best work has come from joining two or more ideas that might have seemed disparate at first. My own take on it is that the original idea I have, the seed of a future book, is just that at first – a seed. The new book doesn’t spring fully fledged into the world like Athena from the head of Zeus. It needs to develop.

For instance, I previously mentioned my plan for a story where human conquistadores take on non-human natives – sentient wolves, to be specific. I originally came up with this in 2000 during a college lecture, but that was all I had for eight years – an interesting idea. I thought about it occasionally, but I couldn’t come up with any really different, edgy details to set the wolves apart from those in, say, Tara K. Harper’s novels.

Because I didn’t have that spark, I knew the story couldn’t proceed. So I set it on a mental shelf. I had plenty of other books to work on.

Then a week ago, I realized how the wolves could be different and dangerous – and how their human slaves would be unique too. And it’s the kind of detail which flips the telepathic-companion cliché on its head. I may have waited eight years for it, but the wait was worthwhile – I couldn’t have written this book back in 2000.

Knowing this about myself means that when I get good ideas now, I have to set them on the shelf to develop. If I start writing about them right away, I won’t do them justice. But what I can write about now are the stories that first occurred to me years ago, so it’s an ongoing process. Writers write; they don’t just plan and imagine.

2. Ideas aren’t enough.

I still can’t write the book with the sentient wolves. All I have for that is a fascinating idea – at least, one that I find fascinating. There’s still characterization, worldbuilding and plot to go into it, and I know that those require work. I can come up with ideas while looking out of the window of the subway train; to come up with plots that hold a 120K novel together, I need to sit down, switch my mind from “have fun ideas” to “focus intensively” and start writing.

Ideas are fun. Writing is the tough part. It’s easy to play with concepts, to build castles in the air. It’s a lot more work to describe and define the castles so that other people can see them – and pay for the privilege. So while I’m always receptive to ideas about future books, I won’t buckle down to really sweat over them until their time comes. Knowing just how much work goes into developing ideas is usually enough to keep them in the “potential future novel” folder rather than the “start writing NOW” category for a while.

3. Make sure the current project is interesting too.

If you’re ever distracted by a new idea, to the point where you’re neglecting your current work, try to pinpoint something about the current work that grabs your interest. It can be an interesting time in your world’s history, a character whom you like or hate just a little more than the rest, a climactic battle. Think of what makes each project unique and deserving of your time.

On the other hand, if you can’t come up with something like this, if the current project really doesn’t work, move on. Certain pieces are better off buried. When I was twenty, I wrote a story about unicorns, magical jewels and a princess, and I’m sure I could polish this if I could bring myself to read it.

No amount of kissing will turn some frogs into royalty.

4. Unpublished writers don’t sell unfinished novels.

Nuff said.

5. My critiquer expects me to finish the story.

I wouldn’t recommend this approach to everyone, but after I’ve finished each chapter (and made sure it ends in a cliffhanger and spellchecked it) I email it to my beta reader, who either shows interest, makes me laugh or requests more. Sometimes all. That’s a lot of inspiration to continue.


GunnerJ said...

This is cool because now I'm thinking about the process of a story "coming together," of ideas needing other ideas to click into place and make them all work, and I want to do a post about that. I'm in the position now where a lot of ideas are clicking together...

Marian said...

It's a rare book that can operate with just the one idea. For Dracolytes, I came up with the idea of the dragon religion years ago and started a first draft that went nowhere. Then in 2007 I thought of the twist regarding Skolax, which meant Julon had to be a psychologist... and you know the rest.