Writer at Work: Tending to new ideas

Probably one of the most exciting parts of the creative process is the very beginning. Finding a shiny new idea that’s calling to you. Dreaming up all the places you could go with it, the ways you could write it. The possibilities are endless! And you haven’t yet had a chance to realize that this amazing plot twist or that awesome character development won’t make sense or would be too over the top or the many other considerations that come into play once you get down to the more practical stuff of writing a story other people will actually want to read.

It’s been a while since I’ve been there. Oh, I’ve been jotting down the ideas that come to me, but I haven’t gotten to really play with one since early last year, when I started plotting the book I wrote right after The Way We Fall (a book which you will hear more about when/if it sells). Because after that, I was revising The Way We Fall, and then I was writing and revising the sequel (which doesn’t count as a new idea because I conceived it at the same time as the first book) and revising the afore-mentioned other book and the Japan book (which I roughed out in 2009).

But now… Now I find myself with the time to start seriously considering what I might work on next. I think there must be a part of my brain that recognizes when I have time to really contemplate new ideas, and when I don’t, because I’ve gotten a couple of really sparkly ones just in the last week. The kind that make me cackle gleefully as I consider them. 😀

The trick is getting them from sparkly idea to draft-ready outline. A lot of my ideas never make it that far, even the really shiny ones. I find that a major part of my process is letting my ideas percolate, poking at them and stirring them and seeing what else floats to the surface, waiting for the pieces to fit together.

Unfortunately, it’s a part I don’t have much control over. I can’t make an idea be ready to be written, and when I’ve tried to force things, the story always turns out half-baked. It’s like trying to make yourself fall in love with someone–how often does that work out? However, over the years I’ve found a few methods of encouragement:

Take in material related to the story idea. Nonfiction to understand parts of the idea I’m not terribly familiar with–e.g., I read several books about viruses and epidemics while the idea for The Way We Fall was percolating. Fiction with similar story lines or themes–e.g., before I wrote The Way We Fall, I read books like Albert Camus’ The Plague and watched movies like 28 Days Later. All of this gives me a sense of what’s possible (that I might not have known about), what problems I might have to work around, what’s already been done, and what hasn’t been done that I wish was. (One of the characteristics of the virus in The Way We Fall arose out of my frustration with a certain comment element of zombie epidemic stories, for example.)

Seek out musical inspiration. At the moment I have eight iTunes playlists for story ideas that have been percolating, some for several years, but aren’t ready to be written yet. (Some quite possibly never will be ready, but oh well.) Listening to music that I’ve started to associate with the characters and themes of a developing idea can help get me in the right mood to brainstorm in general. I’ve also found that songs can reveal things to me about an idea that I hadn’t considered. I’ll start listening closely to the lyrics, and realize what the singer’s describing is the perfect motivation for the villain, or a wonderful conflict for the developing romantic relationship. For example, there’s a scene in the Japan book where the main character dances on her own under the stars, which would probably not exist if Ben Folds Five’s “Magic” had not been one of my go-to songs when I was brainstorming.

Look over my older unused ideas. A few years ago, as documented here, I started an index card box of all my unused ideas and idea tidbits. When I want to nudge a new story idea closer towards being ready, I’ll often flip through those cards and see if anything strikes me. Sometimes I’ll notice the current idea is similar to an earlier idea I also really liked, and merge them together. Sometimes I’ll come across a character who’ll make a great new addition, or an angle I hadn’t considered that suits the new story really well. The Way We Fall is written in journal format partly thanks to one of those index cards. (Maybe I would have arrived there anyway, but it wasn’t until I looked at that card that I knew how the story needed to be written.)

So those are my main tricks. For those of you who are writers or other creatives, how do you encourage your new ideas to develop?

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