How long should you “compost” your story idea before you start writing your novel?
Trevor posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have been reading your website for a while, and I recently bought your writing fiction for dummies book, and thanks to both, I am more excited about writing than I ever have been before.
My problem is that I am stuck in the idea composting stage I have seen you talk about. The good part is that, whenever my brain has a free moment, it just starts grinding away at ideas, seemingly of its own volition. It does give me hope to know that, given the opportunity, my thoughts default to thinking of story ideas. Ideas that I am itching to start writing, if I could just get them into focus.
The bad part is I know I am not a seat of the pants type, and that I need a mostly complete idea to start. However my ideas seem to melt away and get replaced by the latest and greatest one before I can fully develop them. Sometimes I keep combining ideas until it is so convoluted I canít keep it straight. Then I pull it all apart until I am back at a generic, unoriginal idea.
So, do you have any ideas on how to compost ideas more effectively? I have toyed with the idea of some kind of journal, but that sounds an awful lot like writing by the seat of your pants. Am I just missing the point where I should stop thinking and start outlining? Oh, and I should mention my genre is Sci-Fi / Fantasy and it is usually the world building that is slowing me down.
Randy sez: Trevor, you remind me a lot of my buddy, John Olson. John gets tons of ideas, seemingly without effort. He can spin out a full story idea in minutes. But he has a hard time staying on track and finishing a novel.
That’s a good problem to have, of course. I have the opposite problem. I take forever to come up with an idea. Often, it’s just a piece of the idea and I need to wait for the rest to come — a process I call “composting.” I just write whatever fragments I have on a tablet of paper and stick it in my “Idea File.” Then as more ideas come, I pull out the tablet and add them to the page. It can take years for me to compost a book. Once I start writing, I’m a bulldog and will never let the idea go. I’ll keep working on it until I get it done.
Let me emphasize that both of these character traits are valuable. John’s ability to generate new ideas is worth gold. My ability to see a project through is too.
True story: Years ago, I was nagging John to finish a novel, any novel. I asked him for a list of books he was working on. He sent me a list with ten items on the list.
I gave him a scolding on the hazards of not being focused, and asked him which one sounded most interesting.
He said he liked #4, a science-fiction suspense novel about four astronauts on the way to Mars and an explosion that leaves them with only enough oxygen for one of them to survive the journey.
I told John to write that story and leave all the others for later. John wrote back and said, “OK, I promise I’ll do it if you write it with me.” I called him on the phone to make sure he really wanted to do that, because the idea sounded brilliant to me. We talked for a few minutes and agreed to coauthor the book together.
Within a couple of months, we had pitched it verbally to an editor friend of ours. He liked it and asked for a proposal. By the end of that year, we had a proposal written. Seven weeks after we sent it out, we had a contract. A year and a few months later, the book was published with the title OXYGEN. We won several awards for that book and it really made our names. All because we joined our strengths.
Trevor, it sounds to me like you don’t need much composting time. Spin out an idea, make a commitment, and then start writing. Rather than composting, you need commitment.
You may just find it useful to find a friend you can be accountable to. Or a friend to coauthor something with. Or a friend to play some other role. Friends make the writing business work a lot better.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the day: I mentioned above that John and I pitched a novel to an editor at a conference before we even wrote the proposal. That editor, Steve Laube, is now an agent. Steve’s most recent blog entry is “That Conference Appointment” and it’s terrific. Steve has done thousands of conference appointments, and he can tell you what not to do (which is good to know) and what is critical to do (which is even better).