Thursday, August 20, 2009

Holding Onto Your Idea

So you have an idea. Let's start at the beginning. I was in high school. I was a loner, bored, constantly looking for something to hide behind. I found reading the best place to go. Then I realized there was a book missing on my shelf. My book. All I could think about was a teenage girl waking up in the backseat of a car trying to remember how she got there, and wondering if it was for the best. Shiny idea!

So I wrote the book. Then I wrote it again. And again. And again. Then I left it alone for about 12 years, and wrote it again last year - twice. It still needs some major overhauling, but it's on its way to being query-able, or at least somewhere that I'm happy with it. Amazingly enough, through all of these years and drafts, the idea has stayed the same. No, the teenage girl never wakes up in the backseat of a car, but the idea that she's taken against her will, and then decides it's a great thing - that stayed.

Scott's post on Tuesday about Overwritten Prose, and then Davin's post yesterday about Story, got me thinking about initial ideas. Every book starts with one. My idea is usually a setting or an image, and I build a story around it, a huge complicated messy puzzle. I know some writers who begin with a theme or a character. Whatever comes to you, I want to urge you to hold onto it. Davin says:

When I think about what inspires me, most of the time it is a character, or a situation, or some small detail or phrase that I fall in love with. I get that bit of inspiration down on the page, and then I face the problem of shaping it into a story.

Then Scott says:

So my advice is simple: write directly, and just tell the story. Don't be fooled into thinking that you have to put onto paper something that looks like literature, or that you have to reach for grandiloquence with every sentence. You don't. Elegance is eloquence. Strive for clarity and know what you're writing about.

Great thoughts from great minds! First of all, with Davin's comment, we see that there's usually an idea that inspires us to start a story. Then we run into a problem of how to shape that story. His post asks the question of whether or not traditional plot structures and stories are really the way to go, or if we should stick to what we want to tell, no matter how it comes out. I think the problem I've run into with figuring out how to shape a story is keeping my idea interesting for the length of the novel. Easy to do with lots of devices, but oftentimes hard to keep it clear.

Scott hit a chord with me when he said to strive for clarity. I've heard this over and over, but I never thought of it in terms of my initial idea. Covering up my idea in fancy writing, no matter how beautiful or poetic, has never worked for me. I tried to do it twice with my first novel, which is why I ended up rewriting it over and over. I lost sight of my initial idea, lost in the forest of complicated plot structure, fancy time changes and flashbacks, pretty prose, secondary character plots, and on and on and on. What a mess. Where was my idea?

I firmly believe that when an idea comes to me, it generates from my subconscious, gathering bits and pieces of me one strand at a time until it emerges as something shiny and worthy of pursuit. Of course, there are ways to figure out if one should actually pursue these ideas (check out Scott's post, A Good Idea Is Hard to Find), but if I decide it's worth chasing, I write that initial idea down and tape it to my computer desk, or put it at the top of my manuscript so that I can see it every time I sit down to work on that story.

It's about clarity. Focus. This is why I map things out, as I talked about in my three-part post (Don't Dis the Map) on my personal writing blog. Mapping helps me flesh out my idea and keep it in line with everything else that's fighting to come to the stage. It's not so I can stick to a traditional plot and make my work formulaic. If anything, staying focused on my original idea keeps me creative as I strive to help it grow. Sometimes other ideas sprout off my initial idea, but I've found over and over that they are like a mirage, shimmering in the distance. It's best to stick to my compass.

I want to stress that every writer is unique, of course. We all work differently. So you tell me, do you keep track of your initial idea? Is it something you feel can add clarity to your work if you don't lose sight of it? Or is it just a springboard and nothing more?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. Whew. That's some heavy (in a good way) reading first thing in the morning.

    I've never truly given thought to how I begin writing my stories or whether the initial idea remains clear from beginning to end. With the project I'm currently revising, I started with a monthly event for a group of friends and went from there. I had a MC in mind and pretty much knew what was going to happen to him. Then, I started writing and I changed things up just a bit. Still, the initial concept of the manuscript remained the same.

    For the most part, I think my ideas are just springboards. I have yet to write a manuscript that leaps fully formed from my brain. I'm always tweaking things here, there, and everywhere . . . which I guess is all part of the process.

    Now, I'm going to reread your post and let things sink in. It's early here and the brain is not fully awake. Okay, it's almost 7:30 AM, but my brain still isn't fully awake.

    Great post.


  2. Hey, Scott, it's almost 8:30 here, and my brain isn't awake at all. :)

    I try to keep hold of my initial idea and understand what it is. The problem is that first idea is always so unclear that it takes me a long time to really figure out what I'm trying to say.

    When I was in Australia, Kate Grenville (you can get The Secret River on Amazon. It's pretty good) came to our class and discussed her writing process. She said she always starts out with a question, and she tries to gather quotes and pictures and songs and images and anything that relates to the question, so that in the writing of the novel, if she gets lost, she can go back and see her original question and the fragments that support it, and this keeps her focused. She just keeps bringing herself back to that original idea so that she can move forward.

  3. Scott: It's only 6:30 here, so I beat you on the tired brain deal. Luckily, I wrote this post last night when I was thinking clearly!

    I've never had a novel leap fully formed from my head, either. If that ever happened, I think I'd die of shock.

    You say the initial concept of your manuscript remains the same. That's what I'm getting at, which means you're good at keeping that idea clear in your story. Great job!

    Annie: I agree that the idea can be very unclear at first. I LOVE how Kate does this. It's brilliant to surround that idea with thoughts and quotes and pictures and questions, and keep that in a safe place, unaltered, for review later. I think that would help make things a lot more clear. I get lost A LOT in my writing process, so having something I can come back to remind me of what got me going in the first place is really helpful.

  4. I'd like to say that I hold onto that initial idea, but it is not always true. Sometimes I start in one place and end up somewhere completely different by the time I've worked out the story details.

    Interesting concept on your story you've referenced. How bad would your life have to be to think being kidnapped is a GOOD thing? That's a page turning concept!

  5. Do I keep track of my ideas? Only the good ones...or at least only those that seem good at first.

    I had an idea about a runaway CIA intern that ended up as being a story about a getaway car, told from the car's perspective.

  6. Tess: I'm curious, though. You say you start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. So does that mean that your initial idea doesn't exist at all? I mean, is there a point where you realize that the book you thought you wanted to write is something not worth pursuing, so you throw it out? Or is it just that the initial idea grew into something different?

    Hah, well, one day you'll get to read The Breakaway, I promise!

    Martin: Okay, I'm interested in the CIA intern, hehe. My second novel is about a CIA officer, but he's far from an intern, more like the opposite end of the spectrum. But, hmmm, he is a runaway of sorts! No thoughts from cars, though. That sounds interesting! Talk about abandoning your original idea. I'd love to read that story!

  7. For me it's always different. With songwriting, some songs start with the music, some with the lyrics, and some with lyrics and music simultaneously.

    For FATE'S GUARDIAN, it started with the theme / philosophy of reincarnation, and the progression of lives. I realized that I needed characters to tell the story, so I thought up the tragic circumstances in my MC's childhood, his death, and how it relates to a past life.

    As I was writing, a different struggle entered the mix, and I followed its path. I didn't need to abandon the primary themes.

    It's like driving from NYC to LA. I know where I am going, but may end up changing the route in draft 1.

    Draft 2 is knowing the destination and the route.

    Other works in progress have popped into my head more fully formed from a story standpoint (EARTH'S END, for example, for those of you who are familiar with its premise). there are nuances that I am adding in as I write, but I still have a fairly cohesive outline for how the story will unfold.

    I have many other kernels of ideas in queue, waiting for the time to throw them into the fire and see if they pop. I have a very over-active imagination, and coming up with new ideas is easy for me. Expanding them into complete works before my minuscule attention-span diverts me to other interests is the hard part. That's why I need a set routine.

  8. Rick: Thanks for explaining part of your process! It's fascinating to me to see how others work. I am definitely jealous of your overactive imagination and lots of ideas. Story ideas are rare for me, so when they come I grab them and hold on tight. I like your explanation of driving with a destination, but changing the route. The destination is most likely that idea, so it's always good to have some sort of layout and keep it in sight.

  9. I like Rick's description about throwing the kernel in the fire to see it if pops! That's quite accurate. I often start with just a bit of something......sometimes it explodes into a fluffy puff of wonder and sometimes it is an old maid!


  10. Oh boy, did you get me thinking with this. In my WIP, I think I kept getting confused after the initial idea was expanded. So just now I remembered where I started and I see that it is still there and I just need to remind myself, especially in revision.
    In another story, an abandoned fairytale, I think this will help me return to writing it. I just put a photo of a painting I love and a snippet from the fairytale on my blog and was surprised that people encouraged me to finish it. The snippet is clear as to the initial idea, so I should be able to use your advice from past posts on this blog and map it forward. I just want to thank the three of you again for a truly awesome blog. (and now I must go help my mother and leave this great discussion for the day...waaah!)

  11. I LOVE the idea of taping my original idea onto the desk to remember it. I might just borrow that. It seems like a great way to remember where everything came from, so as to keep it a part of where everything is going.

    Usually, the idea sits in my head until it's grown to a fuller size, so sometimes it is easy to forget what the original thought bubble was. I'm going to work harder on remembering now.

  12. My original idea came out of this passage:

    Hamlet: O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound! Didst perceive?

    Horatio: Very well, my lord.

    Hamlet: Upon the talk of the poisoning?

    Horatio: I did very well note him.

    "Hmm," I said. "Horatio's not exactly agreeing with Hamlet, is he?"

    Though my guiding phrase during the last couple of revisions to the novel has been "Love and Fear," which means enough to me to keep me from taking the story down the wrong paths, which is ever a danger. Without my map, I forget where I'm going. And sometimes, outside forces threaten to push me off my map.

  13. For me the idea is the seed and often what springs from it looks markedly different than the initial product.

  14. Wow. I feel like I'm smarter every time I read this blog! My writing definitely thanks you.

  15. Shelley: I liked Rick's description, too. My ideas have definitely popped! I love watching them grow. Yes, I've gotten old maids, too, but not very many thank goodness!

    Tricia: Encouragement from others is a huge deal. I didn't think about that! Sometimes sharing our ideas with others is just what we need to get them going and to keep them clear. Hope to see you again, soon!

    Dominique: I'm glad you like the idea of taping it to your desk. You'd be surprised where it gets you. And sometimes it's hard to remember what your original idea was, as you say, if we didn't write it down to begin with, haha.

    Scott: Oh, that's cool about that passage being your inspiration! I love that. And I love that you can pinpoint it, too. Yay for maps! Even the billion revisions I've been through with them. They're as bad as the draft sometimes!

    T. Anne: So if it looks markedly different than the initial product, can you still say that it came from the initial product, or did the idea change so much that it's not even related, and something else sprang out of it?

    Mariah: Haha, smarter from this blog is good! So glad you come by. :)

  16. My ideas have started at many different points. Some from character, some from situation - but the current one I am plotting started from a concept. It has so far been the hardest to plot, because I don't want to change the concept. I'll see how it goes.

    Usually though, whatever the idea, the essence of it remains the same. Other major things might change, but not the idea.

  17. In most circumstances, an idea of mine has been the foundation of clarity in my work. For it to function correctly, everything else needs to grow organically from that one idea, maintaining clarity.

    I guess it serves as both a springboard and the source of clarity?

    Great post. I agree with Scott -- heavy (but very insightful and helpful) reading for today.

  18. Like Tess, I do both. Sometimes it's really important for me to depict the original source of inspiration. In my novel, for example, the main character was someone who i felt like I needed to understand through the process of writing. So, I stayed true to that. Other times, the original inspiration is just a springboard. I wrote a story that was inspired by a woman who found a dead rabbit while jogging and brought it home to bury. I thought that was so strange, that I started writing about it. But, in the end, that played a very small role in the story, and the woman wasn't one of the main characters, although she was important.

  19. Lost Wanderer: I've never started a story from a concept, so I'll bet if it's the first time you've done it - it would be difficult. I think so, anyway, because all the "concepts" of my novels come about from the actual plotting!

    Weronika: My ideas serve as both a springboard and a source of clarity, so I understand what you're saying. I didn't think this post was that heavy, but then again, I wrote it late at night after a long day of thinking about it, so there you go, haha.

    Davin: I think that the more I write, the more I'll have the chance of doing both, as you and Tess say. I've only written three novels total, so that isn't a huge source to pull from for the experience. Short stories seem to be different since they require a lot more focus more quickly.

  20. Mmm, when I get a really crazy idea, I laugh about it and write several scenes, beginning and ending. But most of the time, I don't follow through with the whole thing.

    Still, the novels I do write are generated from ideas that came years ago that I gave up on. But they didn't give up on me. :-)

  21. Icy Roses: I like to hear about success stories with abandoned novels! It's great to hear that sometimes they don't give up on us. That's wonderful!

  22. My initial ideas are usually a "What if...?" So that essential nugget stays the same. But the idea can go anywhere from there.

    I often research to see if my what if has been done, or figure out if my imagination has some basis in reality. Then I like to write a chapter to get to know my character. Then I might outline based on what I think this character might do.

  23. Sherrie: Your way sounds like fun to me! I love what ifs. I often think of my ideas like that, but then answer the what if so quickly that it just becomes something grounded, if that makes sense. I love researching ideas to see if they'll work!

  24. My idea started as "a how would you feel if?" But I kind of lost that in the writing and am slowly finding my way back to it with the mapping.

  25. Great post and so true. I get ideas all the time, but they usually are not an idea for the entire story. I will get an idea for a character or a situation, but I rarely can visualize the entire story from beginning to end (even if rough form). Your posts on mapping things out however, have inspired me a great deal, and I'm hoping that process will help me work through what I don't "know" when an idea pops in my head.

  26. I think that you can do either--Holding onto the original idea or letting it go as the story evolves. I haven't written enough in the novel area to know what I do with that. But in poetry or short stories I've done both.

  27. Alexa: I can see where you started with that and deviated, but I don't think you're too far off, so keep up that planning!

    Eric: Well, mapping is great and all, but I don't think I'd ever use it to process an idea. If that works for you, I think it's cool! I use mapping for after all the ideas are formed and I have a 2nd working draft.

    Lois: I haven't written enough to know what I do for sure, either. For now, though, I like holding onto the idea and using it as my focus.

  28. If a book can be compressed to a single idea, then I would prefer the author to compress and tweet it. If he wants me to read his book, I want to be told a revelation in every paragraph and on the last page not know what I read, not know who I am, but know I am not who I have been.

    My antithesis to a single-idea book is here - a map of the book I am writing and a related post:

    Overwritten or a universe? Provoking with pleasure. Enjoy what you do ;-)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.