Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Hitting the Hard Parts: The New Idea

You can thank my new hobby for inspiring the next series of writing posts. I'm learning to play the harp, and it may be the first entirely new thing I've tried to take on in ages. I can read music and play other instruments, but the harp is physically unlike anything I've done before, which leads to some frustration. Each new piece of music I have to learn starts with a great deal of fumbling, and I have a moment when I sincerely believe that this is beyond me and I will not be able to do this. Then yesterday I was playing a piece of music that I'd learned and was doing it fluidly and at tempo, and I remembered that this was the piece that almost made me give up because it was utterly impossible. Meanwhile, I've been struggling with a difficult part of the book I've been working on, made worse by a new idea that's distracting me. I realized that this is all really the same issue. In any endeavor as challenging as writing a book (or learning an instrument), you're going to hit a hard part. How you deal with that will determine whether you succeed in the long term.

But saying "just keep going" isn't a big help, no matter true it is. So, over the next few weeks (in posts every other Wednesday) I'll address some different kinds of hard parts and how to work through them. For the most part, I'm assuming a beginning writer who has not completed a novel and who is not under any kind of contract or on a deadline imposed by anyone else. Some of the same tricks and techniques also apply to more experienced authors because almost every book has a hard part, but the circumstances may be different. Contracts and deadlines may affect the timeline and process, but on the other hand, an experienced writer may have a better sense of when something should be abandoned. I generally recommend that a first-time author actually finish their first book, even if it's no good, unless you get into it and absolutely realize that it was a terrible idea. The act of finishing a book is important, and you don't want to get into the habit of starting a lot of things that you quit when it becomes difficult (I speak from experience).

I'll start with the easiest and best kind of hard part that has little to do with the project you're working on: the shiny new idea. The fun thing about creativity is that it breeds more creativity. The more you write, the more ideas you'll have. This is great, but it can sometimes be inconvenient because those exciting new ideas will strike you while you're working on something else, and that makes it more difficult to finish your original project. It's very common for new writers to have multiple projects that have been started and then abandoned when a shiny new idea that seems even better strikes. Even if you don't abandon your current project to play with the new idea, that new idea can be so distracting that you're unable to concentrate on the current project, and its quality suffers.

There may be times when abandoning what you're working on in favor of the new idea is the right thing to do -- when it's exactly what an editor has said she's looking for or the hot thing in the market that you need to jump on right away -- but most of the time, that new idea only seems better because you aren't actually trying to turn it into a book. It's just an idea, almost like the teaser trailer for a potential story.

What do you do when a shiny new idea strikes you at an inconvenient time? Take a moment to do a brain dump. Write down everything you currently know about that idea. That serves three purposes. One is to preserve the idea so you can work on it later. It also helps get it out of your head so you can better concentrate on what you're working on. And it may show you that the idea isn't either as good as you thought or as developed as you thought. What seems like a full story when you're playing with it in your head may give you little more than a few paragraphs when you write it all down. If you stopped your current project to try to write the new story, you might get a chapter or two into it before you got struck by yet another new idea, and you'd end up with those files and files of uncompleted stories. You may still get new details about the new idea popping up from time to time. Keep a notebook handy and jot down what you think of before getting back to work.

I find that it also helps to have some kind of sensory trigger that gets me into the mindspace for a project. It can be an image, a piece of music, or even a scent. After I've indulged myself in writing down thoughts on the new idea, I can use this to get back into the current project so I can finish what I'm working on.

The shiny new idea frequently coincides with other kinds of hard parts, so I'll address coping mechanisms for those in the coming weeks.

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