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).
Sheila Deeth says
… and I just wrote a blog post about feeling unable to schedule time to write. Nice to read that different personality traits have different advantages. Thanks.
Trevor, I the same way as you are. I have so many ideas, that it isn’t funny sometimes. However I know I can’t work on a story until I have a few things straight, 1. multiple ideas that fit together with the main idea without changing it or changing it to where I see it is natural for the story. 2. A name for the story, something I can put on a folder in my Macbook, it can change later just somewhere to start. 3. The name of the main character. Once I got that it gets a folder on in my projects folder. However, that is only when I start writing down ideas for the story from my head. All of them, who cares if the contradict it is going to change mostly anyway. When you sit down to work on the story, you will know more about the story then you think and easily cut ideas that don’t work, but sometimes not until late in to the story.
The thing is to know when to start working on the story, for me it is when the story is always on my mind and none of my many other projects are that clear. This could work for you, if you have a lot of projects, but if you only have one then let ideas generate for a little while, but until you sit down and spend a time besides free moments to let your mind wander, you will never really make much progress.
I have to say that I was an idea person, but (YAY RANDY) the snowflake has really turned that around. It was like a map where I set out my idea at the start and built it up with each step in the snowflake. It still takes me a while to write. I go in fits and starts, but I have a path all laid out and I have to make myself walk along it now. 🙂
Also…Randy, I saw “The Hunger Games” and picked it up based on the quotes you posted and your recommendation. I was awake until 1am last night reading. LOVE IT!
Katie Hart says
Trevor, write your ideas down! They can’t melt away if you have them written down, and if you make sure to separate well, it should help with combining too many ideas into one story.
And journaling doesn’t need to be SOTP writing – most often it isn’t. Think of it as pre-outlining. You need someplace to store your ideas before you put them in the outline, and worldbuilding details won’t fit well in an outline anyhow.
Novels are too complex to keep them all in your head for very long!
It’s amazing how this one popped up just as I had a weekend where I told myself to stop getting caught up in which idea is which and just write!
Lois Hudson says
Thanks for your comments about, and to, John Olson.
I’m an idea person; have files full of them. I use computer rather than paper, because it’s easier to pull up and move around. I have three fairly well-developed novels that I couldln’t decide which to focus on (12 chapters in one, 6 in another, just notes on the third) – until I decided to relate them all to one location. Once I work out the time sequence I think I’ll be off and running, that is, writing. Your advice: Choose one and write it does it for me. Thanks.
Michael K. Reynolds says
I’ve enjoyed getting to meet both you and John at the Mount Hermon Writer’s Conference and I wondered how it came to be that the two of you co-authored a book. I still don’t know how that actually works logistically, but obviously it created excellent results for the two of you.
As a writer of historical novels, I have to be careful not to get lost in the compost of research. I am a real history geek, so I have to force myself to put the books down at some point and move onto the writing stage. It’s not easy for me to do!
Trevor, I write fantasy as well, and I have the same trouble that you do with getting stuck in the world building phase. I find if I just think about my ideas without writing anything down I continue to come up with new ideas but they are always full of gaps that need to be filled in. If I try to focus on filling in one of these gaps, I almost always come up with more ideas that are also full of gaps. After a few iterations of this, I just end up with a cluttered mess that I simply can’t manage in my head alone. That is where writing things down helps me out. Here are some of the techniques I use to keep organized:
1. I use mind mapping software to organize my ideas (I use FreeMind [http://freemind.sourceforge.net], which is a free, opensource software application and is really easy to use). This helps me see the overall structure of my ideas in a more visual way.
2. I keep a document named “Glossary” where I organize the various concepts that apply to my world. I do this by adding entries in term/definition pairs, in which I write down as much as I know about each topic.
3. I keep a document named “Notes” where I write down raw ideas that have yet to be organized.
4. I keep a document named “Questions” where I keep questions and inconsistencies pertaining to my story world that need to be answered and resolved to complete an idea. This helps me manage the gaps I find in my ideas more easily.
I’m almost always editing all of these documents at once because as I orgainize my current ideas into the Glossary document, I almost always have new ideas or questions come to mind. Doing things this way helps me keep on track and stay focused on developing my world rather than jumping from idea to idea and never getting anything done.
Anyway, I hope these techniques are helpful. Good luck, Trevor, on getting your ideas organized!
Thanks for the responses and comments,
I think I may have misconstrued my problem a little bit. My issue is not that I can’t pick which idea to focus on; it is that I focus on one idea until I am convinced the story is broken and then give it up.
I have made some progress though since I initially sent the question in. By relaxing on some things I thought needed to be included in the story, it is starting to shape itself better. I am very close to having an initial story question and a place to start.
I think subconsciously I was trying to create THE novel instead A novel. You suggestion is still good though Randy. Perfectionism is still procrastination and the first draft will never be perfect.
Tami Meyers says
I’ve been composting an idea for about eight years, and have started the first chapter at least five times. It’s historical fiction so requires plenty of research, but I’ve also used the time to learn the craft of writing, so I don’t feel that the time has been wasted.
During the eight years I’ve come up with a ton of so-so story ideas, at least three good plots for other novels, and one short story. It’s tempting to start each one and see where they go, but I’m pretty sure they would end up just like the first – eight years of compost and no crop!
Therefore, I’ve committed to finishing the first before I do more than jot down ideas and notes that come to mind for the others. Since I’ve started to write with serious intent to finish this novel before flirting with the others the story is coming much easier. It seems that the more you concentrate on a single project the more the ideas flow, and the better the writing becomes.
Jon Cain says
I definitely have this problem. I have a journal full of story ideas, but I never feel like I have anything developed enough that I can start writing. Usually, I feel like I don’t have the conflict building part of the program down well enough. I always stall at “How do I know what the right conflict is?”
I have to say I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m fairly dedicated to task when I start it, and I usually can keep the ideas flowing, and keep them organized into various notepads on my computer. If one idea sputters out, I set it aside and make sure to fill in holes elsewhere in the mean time.
I also know when I’m letting ideas compost, if my brain begins to wander I’ll take initial notes and memory joggers, but always try to keep my focus at my current project so that those ideas come out first.
You wrote: “I’ve been composting an idea for about eight years, and have started the first chapter at least five times. It’s historical fiction so requires plenty of research, but I’ve also used the time to learn the craft of writing, so I don’t feel that the time has been wasted.”
Thanks a lot for this post. I am composting a historical novel for approximately a year now and recently felt guilty when I decided to leave it for a bit longer and do an easier project (with less research) to learn the craft. Now I feel much better about this. I feared to have wasted and would be wasting time. Now it seems that my decision was rather clever. 🙂
Tami Meyers says
I’m glad my post was helpful. We all need validation from time to time so that we know we’re on the right track, or maybe just that someone else out there is in the same place. It can be a great encouragement, and Lord knows we writers need all the encouragement we can get.
Keep learning the craft and when your season arrives you’ll be ready.
Pam Halter says
I love OXYGEN! Probably read it 3 times. Maybe 4.
I have to compost ideas, too. And I’ve had the luxury to do that. But I have an agent interested in my YA fantasy novel, which I claimed would be done by the end of Sept. so I’m working to meet that deadline. And the thought occured to me that I would not have the luxury of composting as long as I usually do once I have a contract and my novel does so well the editor asks for another book! YIKES!!
Yes, make notes, but get writing. You can compost while you write.
I agree that it is not good for everyone to wait on an idea. For me, I come up with a lot of ideas, but I am not so unfocused as to try and juggle them all-at-once. I just reveal one or two ideas to my audience and only work on one at a time. When my proofreader gets the manuscript, I might start another idea, while waiting for the manuscript to come back for me to make some changes.
Janet O'Kane says
Trevor, I bet you’re an organised sort of person all the time, hence saying you’re not a seat of the pants type when it comes to writing. That’s how I am too, in the rest of my life – I plan everything to the nth degree. But I’ve found another side of me when I write.
I was getting nowhere with my novel because I couldn’t plot it all out, although I had a pretty good beginning and knew the ending. So eventually I just started to write, plotting ahead just enough to write a couple of chapters. It was enough to get me going, and once I realised that the story would come from somewhere I relaxed and it did, but gradually. And now I’ve finished that first draft and am editing it.
Hey, what happened to this blog? I’ve been checking it and I haven’t seen a post in ages.