Back in September of 2012, when I was still a newbie writer, I typed “The End” on my first ever first draft. I immediately sent it to a few friends who had volunteered to read it, and then sat back to wait and realized:
I had no idea what to write next.
The problem hadn’t occurred to me until that point. I knew, from being online and seeing more seasoned writers talk about it, that the next step after finishing something was to start the next thing. But I didn’t have any other ideas. I thought maybe that was the one book in me, and I’d never write another story ever again. Maybe I would be happy to just self publish this one and see it in print and that would be my life’s lone work of art.
Then a few weeks later, I was lying in bed in our tiny apartment, my husband sleeping beside me, and the baby in his crib, and I thought…what if Robin Hood were a teenage girl? What would make a young woman so hardened that she would be respected by a group of outlaws enough to be their leader?
And so, my next story was born.
Over the years I’ve heard many authors talk about idea generation. Keeping lists, notebooks, word docs, or what have you, writing down any tiny spark of a story idea just in case it has potential to grow into an inferno. Because that’s how it works. A story doesn’t just happen–at least not for me. Once I find that spark, I have to feed it. I have to be patient, and I have to nurture it until it gets big enough to be a fully grown story.
Some story seeds grow fast. That Robin Hood idea did for me. I wrote and revised it in 2012/2013, and queried slowly throughout 2014 and 2015 (while I wrote the next project). During that time I got another idea for a book that I didn’t attempt to write until NaNoWriMo of 2015. I knew I would need to be a better writer to do it justice, and even then, after more than three years of waiting, the story wasn’t ready. I drafted it, and it had holes the size of a house all through it. That story needed more time to simmer.
Speaking of simmering, Victoria Schwab often talks about how she always has multiple story ideas on the “stove” of her brain. Some, she’s actively “cooking” by outlining, world-building, or actually writing. But most, she has on a low heat, letting them simmer, letting the ingredients–the story spark, the characters, the plot twists–slowly come together in her head, until they’re connected enough that she can actually draft the story.
I love this analogy, because it emphasizes the idea that not all stories come together like Hamburger Helper. Some take time and patience. Nothing against Hamburger Helper, of course. I grew up on that stuff. I’m just saying, some stories come together quickly and are delicious, and others take time and are delicious. There’s a place for every story, no matter how long it takes to grow.
So for me, I now have a note on my iPhone Notes app that is pages and pages of tiny story sparks. Sometimes I’ll go scroll through them and see if anything pops out at me, but more often than not these days, I already know what I want to work on before I’ve finished the last project. As of right now, I’m drafting one story, and I have the next one on a simmer, just waiting for a few little things to come together before I start it.
I’ll close with this story. In February 2015, I met Brandon Sanderson at a signing. He’s always gracious to fans and usually asks if you have a question for him. I asked something like, with the market fluctuating so much and tastes changing, how do you decide which ideas to follow? Which stories to write?
His answer was that for him, he has deadlines and obligations, so he kind of has to find a way to make himself write what he needs to. But if he’s ever not feeling it, he’ll take a few days to maybe play with an idea he’s more excited about, to get him in the zone of being excited about writing. And he said that for me, I should focus on writing exactly that: what I’m most excited about. Because yes, the market is unpredictable and no one knows what’s going to be big next week, let alone next year. So until I had deadlines, nurturing my love of writing was the most important thing.
I don’t think he actually said all that, but that’s what I got out of it 🙂
How do you organize your ideas? How do you decide what to write and when? How do you know when a story idea is ready to be moved from “simmer” to “high heat”?
Thanks for reading, guys ❤