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Weeding Through Ideas

Sweetie sometimes tells me that my unfinished story outlines multiply like rabbits. Every other day I come up with new ideas inspired by other books, movies, TV shows, and/or real life. I watch a documentary about a wealthy family ruined by the Great Depression; "Ooh! I should write a historical multi-generational saga!" I see injustice in the news; "Someone needs to write a book about this so people will care." I hear an offhand comment by someone on the bus, and I'm off and running with a romantic comedy that starts with a missed ride and ends up with the heroine's boss pretending to have amnesia....

Obviously, unless I gain the superpower to write entire novels within twenty-four hours, there's no way that all of these fledgling ideas will end up as books. In the early days of calling myself a "writer," this really bothered me. So many beautiful ideas! So many potential projects! I couldn't bear to let any of them go. So I would outline and file them away and swear to each and every one that I'd come back someday, when I had the time and skills to take care of them. It felt like I was abandoning my children at an orphanage with empty promises, then running off to forget about them and make a new family with prettier ones.

But this is the reality: most book ideas will never make it. Most of them probably shouldn't make it. I have a lot of ideas that simply stink. What makes them stink?

1. They have no substance.

A lot of my ideas are based on a single scene or gag. They have no purpose beyond being nifty, and that's a flimsy reason to spend months or years writing a book. For example, I once had a fun idea for a mash-up of genre cliches. A hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart-style detective from space would fly around picking up the stock heroes of different worlds (a chivalrous Regency Romance hero, a strong and silent cowboy, a bubbly Chick Lit heroine obsessed with marriage and shoe shopping, etc.). They would be fully self-aware of their expected roles and invoke every cheesy trope under the sun.

And it sounded great...for about an hour. Then I realized that a parody like this would be better suited for a twenty-minute episode of The Simpsons. Trying to give it substance would bog it down, and trying to write 200+ pages of the same tired gag would be exhausting and fruitless. It was better to forget about it and divert my time elsewhere.

2. They have no direction.

Sometimes I get halfway through a story and realize that I can't do anything with the rest. It's not going anywhere; I can't envision the outcome. Or I can envision the outcome, but it's an unsatisfactory one. There are at least two short stories sitting on my laptop that I completed halfway before stopping to say, "Uh oh." I couldn't give a happy ending to one, and I couldn't come up with any ending for the other. All of the action took place in the strong set-ups; the inevitable resolutions were just sad little whimpers.

This is why I could never be a "pantser" (though I question whether pantsers truly exist, but that's a topic for another time). Unless I can flesh out a definite beginning and an end and I know the path between them clearly, I know it's a bad idea to start writing. The short stories...whatever. So I wasted a couple of days. In the case of WIP-B, though, I wasted six months. Poor WIP-B.

3. They have no room for variation.

A book-length work needs dips and peaks. It needs a brighter and darker shades, faster and slower bits. When a novel is uniformly heavy or light, it gets boring, draggy, and downright annoying. The complete lack of variation from the depressing and cynical is why I hated The Casual Vacancy. On the flip side are novels that read like bad sitcoms—one lighthearted (or vulgar) joke after the next with no contrasting serious bits to give the stories weight.

The other week I started an urban fantasy about fox spirits warring with witches in modern-day America. One chapter in, I realized that something was very wrong. There shouldn't have been anything wrong. It was thrilling. It was sexy and fast-paced and had liberal dashes of mystery and intrigue. And that was the problem. It was all sexy and fast-paced. The premise left no room to stop and smell the roses, to build the world and the characters beyond their shallow roles. So I killed them to put them out of their one-dimensional misery.

Right now, after spending a long time weeding through bad, so-so, and could-be-good-if-I-were-someone-else ideas, I've finally settled on two that might actually work. They have substance, they have narrative arcs, and they have plenty of potential for drama and humor, romance and action. Now the difficulty will be choosing one and sticking to it without being wooed away by ones that look even better.


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