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Jay Lake
Date: 2009-02-13 06:38
Subject: [process] Sticking to ideas in the face of the shiny
Security: Public
Tags:beast, process, writing
elfs, in response to my recent post about the books queued in my head [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], asked the the following question:
How do you keep teh shiny at bay, though?

My biggest problem is getting
an idea and having it so overwhelm my thinking process that it derails the WIP. How do you keep that from happening? Your list would (does) slay my productivity with the neurotic notion that I'll let something fade before I've captured it.

To which I responded:
My big secret? If it fades, it wasn't that shiny.

That's why I stopped writing down ideas years ago. If it can't stick in my head, it won't stick in the reader's head.

I only write the ones that really, really insist. And even then, only one at a time. If the next one is still insisting when I'm done, that's pretty much proof positive.

This is an important point, at least for me as a writer. Long time readers of this blog may recall my four rules guidelines of writing. In the original version (linked from that post), number four was "Work on one thing at a time."

"Work on one thing at a time" is a big part of how I handle the issue Elf refers to. Long before I ever sold a damned thing, I used to believe ideas were precious. I wrote them down a lot, in text files and notebooks, long lists of titles, phrases, images, concepts. Eventually I came to realize that for me, ideas are very nearly the most trivial part of the process. Stop me in a hall sometime and ask me for six story ideas. I can give them to you in about a minute, from just looking around.

Obviously, this depends on your definition of "idea". If an idea has to come with an outline, a character, a plot, a resolution, and a fair amount of detail attached, well, no, it doesn't work the way I described. But I can and have written entire novels based on one brief mental image. Virtually all of my short fiction works that way still. It's like the grain of sand at the heart of the pearl — Fred will grow the story if I just bed him with the proper irritant.

Hence my perception of my own process as having been largely based on unconscious competence. It's long been clear to me that I have no real idea what I'm actually doing when I'm writing, since to me, writing is an extension of reading: I am experiencing the story as it hits the page, with many of the same moments of wonder and anger and tension that you the reader (hopefully) will. This is part of why 99% of the time I write in reading order, no matter how nonlinear or complex the plot and structure might be. I don't write fiction so much as channel it, and enjoy the ride along the way.

Parenthetically, this ties to why the process of working on The Heart of the Beast has been so exciting for me. As I've discussed repeatedly [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], I've much to my surprise developed a stronger sense of conscious control over the fiction and its flow with this project than I ever have possessed before. This in turn gives me a much better set of explicitly supported tools for creating future work.

One way I deal with the shiny of ideas, to point back to Elf's question, is with the cloakroom of ideas. That's me operating metaphor for what I do with cool, shiny things to see if they will stick in my head. I don't need to write them down. Something else cool and shiny will be along shortly — much like drunk drives outside a frat party, there's one every minute. It's ones that stick which count for me. Those I take out and work on, one at a time.

Originally published at jlake.com.

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User: ullikummis
Date: 2009-02-13 15:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This reminds me of a quote from Stephen King to the effect of: "In the end, it is the oyster that gets an irritating grain of sand deep inside it that produces the pearl, not the one that attends endless pearl-making seminars with other oysters."
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A large duck
User: burger_eater
Date: 2009-02-13 19:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I used to be very uncomfortable when writers would talk about ideas. I have, I think, three story ideas currently holding my interest, and one of them I've written three books in that story world, fouth on the way, and one I'm not ready to go near yet.

I've never been someone with a continually churning idea machine in my head, the way you and lwe seem to have. I can, however, come up with them on request, and if they start off sort of dim and unpromising I can almost always manage to find the shiny. It just takes a lot of polishing.
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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2009-02-14 00:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Many of my ideas come to me as I'm writing an outline or story notes; the act of writing seems to generate more ideas.

But...and this is true for me whether I'm doing this or an idea comes from out of the blue...the idea only gets to stick around if it comes bearing the gift of explaining to me how if fits into the WIP.
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User: hkneale
Date: 2009-02-14 04:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Now me, I'm different. I must write the idea down. Ideas bother me and bother me because they're afraid of being forgotten. Even the super-stunning shiny ones can be forgotten.

So when I write them down, they know they won't be forgotten, and they can relax, leave me alone and let me work on the WIP.

There are times I'm flush with ideas and other times I'm dry. It's the nature of my brain and its lack of memory.

Now, I also use the "good ones stick" trick. Sure, I write ideas down, but the good ones will usually remind me that I wrote them down and I can go back for them.

No, I can't dispense with the writing down of ideas. It's not enough that I remember I had a shiny idea. I've got to remember the details. (I forget details from one moment to the next.) Otherwise, I'll go, "Ooh, ooh, I've got a shiny! Now, what was it?"
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