Monday, September 26, 2011

Choosing a Story Idea

Hey everyone, sorry I've been MIA from the blogosphere for the past week or so. I'm planning on catching up as much as possible, so I'll be going around to comment on posts I missed. Also: the amazing Peggy Eddleman gave me an award! Yay, thank you, Peggy! :D Definitely check out her fun, gorgeous blog if you haven't already.

In one of my previous posts, I talked about how I get story ideas, and I loved hearing from all of you about your sources of inspiration!

For this post, my question is: what do you do with all those ideas once you get them? How do you choose which one to focus on first?

I tend to be pretty good at recording potential stories. When I was younger, I got so excited whenever I got an idea that I didn't bother much with planning ahead. Instead, I'd jump right into writing the opening, whether by hand or in a Word document, and maybe make some rough notes about how awesome my character is.  (Sadly, that was usually as far as I got before I got stuck and moved on to a new, similarly plotless idea.)

Now, I keep track of story seeds in OneNote, which allows me to organize information in a hierarchy of notebooks, groups (which I treat as folders), sections, and pages. I have a separate folder for each story, and that's where I jot down my plot, character, and scene notes. Sometimes I'll find myself daydreaming about a particular story and adding to it that way; other times, I'll think of something cool and then find the story it'd fit into best (or, sometimes, start a new story folder).

So I guess you could say I like to brainstorm for multiple stories simultaneously. That's my way of dealing with the Shiny New Idea Syndrome: start a new file and add bits and pieces to it when inspiration strikes. It's fun to have different stories to think about, and if I come up with a concept I love but is totally wrong for my current project, it's satisfying to be able to find it a home elsewhere.

I like having lots of ideas, but I know it's important to pick one story to prioritize; my goal is to finish a manuscript, and that means choosing one idea and seeing it through to completion. Which brings me to my second question: how do you pick?

I wish I had an answer that was rational and helpful to others. The way I chose which idea to focus on is probably the opposite of what you're actually supposed to do. I mean, most people probably choose the idea they're most passionate about, or is the most developed, right? Here's how it works for me...

How Linda Chooses a Story Idea

1. Inspiration strikes! I have an awesome story idea! Yay! :D

2. *Starts developing plot and characterization, and dreams up a few scenes*

3. OMG it's going to be the BEST STORY EVAR! I even have a plot! So exciting! :D :D :D

4. Oh wait, I've never completed a novel before.

5. First novels usually suck, right? So if I want this story to turn out decent it can't be the first thing I write. :(

6. What to do, what to do?

7. No problem, I'll just have to become a better writer first so I can do my AMAZING STORY IDEA the justice it deserves!

8. *Stashes idea in folder labeled STORY IDEAS FOR WHEN I SUCK LESS*

9. *Thinks up new story for practice novel*

10. *Writes character studies and begins plotting*

11. Wow, I adore my MC! And her love interest! This is so fun! <3

12. Oh no, I like this story TOO MUCH. Argh, this is not supposed to happen! >=[

13. My awesome MC should totally have her story written by someone who knows what she's doing.

14. I guess that means I don't want this one to be my practice novel either. Hm.

15. *Stashes idea*

16. Next!

17. *Digs around in old files for another one*

18. *Blows off dust on old idea*

19. Ooh, this one seems interesting. I think it can work if I add in this one bit from that idea over there and this other thought from a few months ago.

20. Uh oh. The pieces kind of don't fit together.

21. What was I thinking?!

22. Ugh. I'm so stupid! Stupid stupid stupid.

23. *Brainstorms some more*

24. Wait... wait... omg I think I just managed to get them to make sense!

25. YES! I'm brilliant! This is going to be so amazing! Can't wait to write this!

26. But what if I ruin this story with my lack of experience???

27. *Pictures self inadvertently mangling lovely story idea*

28. *Bites nails*

29. *Whimpers*

30. *Glance furtively at stashed ideas*

31. *Takes a deep breath*

32. No! I will NOT repeat the cycle! I'm going to write this story even though I'm hopelessly in love with it and terrified of messing it up. I know it won't match up perfectly to my vision, and that will hurt, but it's ok. The important thing is to move out of this story-choosing limbo, get something finished for once, and learn from the experience.

33. Plus, my story will be awesome!

34. Ok, maybe not. But I'm sure I'll come up with more ideas later and probably adore those, too, so I shouldn't worry about ruining or using up my precious ideas. I can always improve the story later, if, after writing other projects and getting better, I still think it has potential.

35. Whew. I guess this one's the winner, then.

36. That wasn't so hard, was it?

37. Oh wait, I think the hard part will be actually writing...

So there you go, my lovely 37-step process for choosing a story idea. It's a bit ridiculous that I kept coming up with new ideas because I loved the other ones too much and didn't want to ruin them, but at least I've put an end to the cycle. And now I don't have to worry about not having any ideas!

But since my method is probably not too helpful to anyone else, here are some recent blog posts on the topic by other writers:

So, what about you? Do you work on multiple ideas simultaneously or just one at a time? How did you decide which idea to focus on? Feel free to leave me links to other blog posts on the topic!


  1. Uh oh, definitely not a good cycle! I would say don't pay too much attention to that whole "first novel is supposed to be bad" thing, though I'm sure that's easier said than done. Writing a novel should be fun, right? I guess some people prefer the "have written" to "am writing," but personally I thoroughly enjoy the writing process itself. I may not have any plans to publish the first novel I wrote, but I loved writing it and I learned an incredible amount from doing so, and I don't regret a single anguished word. It all has value to me, and that's more important than whether it's publishable. I would say just forget the publication and editing and post-writing stuff, and just buckle down and have some fun. :D

    As for ideas, I definitely like to focus on one at a time. Anything more than that and I start to feel too separate from both to really get anything accomplished.

  2. Haha, I'm actually not worried about quality for publication reasons! I guess I have this perfectionistic streak that pops up every once in a while, and even though it's just for myself, I still hate the thought of writing something crappy. :P But yeah, good point that I shouldn't worry too much about the other stuff just yet, nor put all that pressure on myself. Thanks for the reminder to have fun with it. :D

  3. I focus on one thing at a time. That tends to put other ideas to rest. However, the one story that persists and grows while I'm working on another novel will usually become my next book. Right now, I'm nearing the end of a first draft of a novel. Another idea has been flitting in my consciousness for a long time--mostly I toy with it and ignore it. But now, it's coming together in my mind. It will be the next thing I work on. But I owe to the first novel to finish and edit it before I let the shiny new idea take over. I'll just keep a notebook of ideas/thoughts for the shiny new story.

  4. LOL ~ You crack me up. Especially with your "when I suck less comment." Funny thing is, I know how you feel. I have much the same process as you, but I am not nearly as organized with all the folders and stuff for my different ideas. You are amazing!

  5. Oh, I know exactly how it is! I save all my best ideas for when I'll suck less... but hey, this 37-step process sounds totally familiar, so I guess I'll do the same as you and take the plunge :)

    You totes make me laugh, Linda :) I love this post!

  6. Ha! I love your 37 steps. :)

    I tend to do similar things-- I get an idea, flesh it out a bit, then stick it in a file until I'm done with my current WIP (because my SNIs always come at the worst possible times). Then, the problem is which one do I love best and want to write next? I usually write out a few scenes and do some character sketches. One idea almost always sticks out more than the other, and I know it's the one I need to write next!

  7. Oh gosh, THIS THIS THIS.

    This is exactly my entire "writing" process right here. I'm always, always afraid of "messing up" a brilliant idea with my mediocre writing skills, so I plan plot twists and craft cool characters, and then store the idea away for when I'm good enough to write it.

    Then I either repeat the process with the next great idea, or force myself to write a novel I'm only ho-hum about for "practice" while dwelling the previous idea. The "first novel is supposed to be a practice novel" advice -- while undoubtedly true -- is really the bane of my writing mindset.

  8. LOL, you are too cute. Although, I do understand exactly where you're coming from. I have this constant fear that I'm doing all the things I don't like in fiction within my own writing, and I want so badly to do my idea and characters justice.

    But I don't have the restraint you do though to save it for a rainy day. I think part of it is that I don't get that many ideas at once, so I'm in constant fear of never having another new idea ever again. So I can't afford to "save" anything for when I'm better. That and I'm a pantser who doesn't plot, which means I almost always jump in right away. Yes, this does mean I often get distracted when Shiny New ideas pop up, but I usually focus on one thing at a time.

    I don't have much completed to show for this kind of impulsive decision-making, but here we are. :)

  9. Hah! Oh, Linda...

    Your process killed me. I loved it.

    I was always afraid of killing my ideas, too. I think that's why it took me so long to finally commit myself to writing my first book. I toyed with the concept for a year before I let myself venture past the first few pages (that later changed, anyway).

    Of course, now I'll write anything that comes to mind. I have a growing file of concepts, and I love adding little snippets here and there. I won't go full throttle on an idea until I'm done revising this one, but I'm excited to branch out!

    Great post! :)

  10. I admire your ability to stay focused! :) I think I need to learn from you and be better about committing to one story. Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with your projects!

  11. Haha, I like the idea of organization a lot, but I'm afraid I'm usually not so great at sticking with it. :P But yeah, I can't wait until I get better at writing! Glad to hear you can relate, too. :)

  12. Hehe, thanks Rida! Yes, take the plunge with me! We can cheer each other on. :D

  13. Ooh, that sounds like a great process for dealing with SNIs. :) I do find myself drawn more to some story ideas than to others, but I'd have a hard time picking just one favorite. I think I need to learn to be less greedy. :P

  14. Omg, seriously! It's so scary to try to write a story idea you love, isn't it?? Crazy how similarly we think!

    I'm glad you decided to go ahead with working on an awesome idea instead of a ho-hum one, though. Your idea is brilliant, and I can't wait to see how it turns out. I bet it'll be great! :D

  15. Haha, I wish I saved my ideas out of restraint! It's mostly because I lack confidence. :P I think it's cool that you can stay focused. And you do have other ideas! Like the luck demon one. Didn't you say you might return to that some day?

    I'm sure you'll do an awesome job on your WIP! You've put a lot of thought into it. :)

  16. Thanks, Carrie! :D I so agree that it's hard to commit. It's awesome that you finished your project! Hope revisions are going well. And yes, adding snippets to various ideas is a lot of fun! :)

  17. Lol.  See, when I wrote my first novel, I didn't know it was supposed to suck.  I was completely in love with it and the characters, but as I grew in my craft I realized it *did* suck and no matter what I tried I couldn't fix it.  Standing over that novel's grave was a very sad day.  But I got better for it.  After that, I would come up with tons of ideas and write them all down, flesh them out, maybe write a page or two, but they never went anywhere.

    Then came the idea for a book way outside my genre, and I thought, "hey, it'd be a fun experiment."  I don't know if I ever thought it would go anywhere, but man, did I find my niche after all.  I focus on one story at a time now.  I can't even edit one and write another at the same time.  Little tidbits might come to me, and I'll file them away for future books, but at the moment, I'm lucky to have only one project bouncing around my brain.

  18. Oh, my goodness. That was HILARIOUS! And rang so true! I really, really loved it.

  19. Deborah the Closet MonsterSeptember 28, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    I can barely manage what's going on in my life as it is, so I like sticking to one idea at a time! I can handle one fiction and one NF project at a time, that being said; there's no confusion between those realms.

    Typing that makes me remember people asking me questions about studying languages in college. "But don't you get confused, taking them all at once?!" No, as it happens, Russian, German and Swahili are just not that similar. 

    I love your 37-step plan, but I think I'll love it even better when it's a sweet memory of how things used to be. ;)

  20. Thanks for sharing your writing journey! I love these kinds of stories. I'm so glad you found your niche and know your writing process better now. :) I'm looking forward to improving and getting a better grasp of what works best for me!

  21. So envious of how many languages you know! That's amazing. :D Very cool that you write both fiction and non-fiction.

    And yes, I'm not letting myself start another project until I finish this one, no longer how much I think I suck! :)

  22. I do the exact same thing with OneNote for organizing story ideas. :) It's so easy to create a new page for an idea . . .

    My process resembles yours. LOL.

    I've never tried working on more than one idea for long. I tried rewrites and a first draft, but I find it's too difficult to keep switching from story to story. I like to really embed myself in a single world and focus on that alone.

  23. I've never tried One Note...sounds like a good program though. I should take a look. Thanks.

    When I get a new idea, I write it down in the notebook I always carry with me. I just write the basics and let it stew for a while. If, after a few days, I've forgotten about it, it wasn't worth it. However, if I do remember it and my stewing has come up with characters and motives then I'll open a new doc on my computer and start sketching some scenes out.

    I go back to my WIP. If I'm still thinking about my new idea when the WIP is finished then new idea becomes my next project. Some ideas have stewed for years before becoming WIPs. Good things come to those who wait?

  24. Ohmygoodness, that's hilarious! Usually I have one story that takes over and everything else gets pushed aside. I too keep my ideas in a folder although I haven't used OneNote- I might have to start using that now.

    The Warm Fuzzies Blogfest is coming up- I hope I'll see you there!

  25. I've missed you, Linda! I hope all is going well.

  26. I'm trying to remember my lack-of-process the first time I chose a story idea to write. I remember I had a very vivid scene pop into my head. The story built itself around that scene. I forced myself to keep writing to the end, no matter what. 

    While I'm writing a story, I keep all my other ideas in SpringPad. I have tags called StoryIdea, PlotIdea, CharacterIdea, CharacterName, SettingIdea, and SceneIdea. If a particular idea is WAY COOL! I use that as motivation to finish the draft I'm working on now. When I'm looking to write a new story, I peruse through all my Ideas and come up with something. I have hundreds waiting in the wings to be used. The cool thing is that my stories now use much more than a single idea.

    The funny thing is that on my first story, the one that started with the vivid scene, after writing and editing it I decided the story was stronger without that scene at all. So that vivid scene is back in the SceneIdeas waiting for the right story.

  27. Love your idea for tagging all your ideas! I only organize my notes by story and not by individual elements, and I think I should consider doing that too so my file is easier to browse through.

    Also, that's a very efficient use of your vivid scene! It might even sprout multiple stories. :)