Hi all, Winnie Griggs here.
One of the frequent question non-writers ask authors (including me) is where do you get your ideas from? My writer friends and I have discussed this and we all find this a strange question, because ideas are everywhere - In song lyrics, in a news article, in an unexpected nugget found in research, in movies, in overheard snippets of conversation, even in our dreams. So it seems strange that not everyone can see what we do and begin to play the ‘what if’ game.
Then conversely, there are those folks who tell us they have a fabulous idea for a story and they’ll share it with us if we agree to give them a cut of the take after we write and sell it.
What they don’t seem to understand is that the magic is not in the idea, but in the execution of the idea. Even a high concept, highly marketable premise (Jurassic Park anyone?) falls flat if not executed effectively.
Which is why one of the biggest roadblocks writers face to finishing a book is SNIS or Shiny New Idea Syndrome.
This is how the novel writing process normally works (at least for me.)
I start with an idea that excites me. The opportunities for rich emotion, fun situations, unexpected plot twists and compelling character arcs unfold in my mind with tantalizing possibility. And that excitement carries me through the first 20-30% of my book.
I’ve reached (or am closely approaching) the middle 50% of the book and much of the shininess has disappeared or gotten tarnished. This is where the hard work happens, where I have to dig deep and figure out how to make this tangle of a story work.
And of course, this is when SNIS hits the hardest. Because starting stories is the easy part – it’s the follow through and finishing that’s difficult. It’s while you are slap dab in the middle of your WIP,
procrastinating working through your plot issues, that you are
suddenly hit with an idea for a brand new story, one that has fabulous
potential and that seems so much better than this no-longer-shiny story you’re
in the middle of. The sheer brilliance (shininess) of it takes your breath away
and makes you want to abandon your WIP and pursue something that appears ‘better’.
The SNI is a siren temptress, just waiting to lure you away from your WIP.
And being able to play with a nice SNI sounds like much more fun than slogging through, grappling with the hard work of untangling and sorting out the problems of our WIP. Especially when the SNI will lure you into believing that of course it is the best idea ever and is more likely to lead you to publication/best sellerdom/a movie deal/whatever-your-current-dream-is, than what you are currently working on.
If you give in to this impulse, however, you run the risk of going through the same cycle all over again. I have a writer friend who suffers from this syndrome. She is highly creative, her ideas are so fresh and original, her take on them intriguing. But it never fails that, by the time she gets to the middle, she gets an idea for something ‘better’ and the old project is abandoned for the new one. The result is that in all the time I’ve known her, she has yet to finish even one full length work.
So what is the best way to battle SNIS? Here are a few strategies that might work for you:
- The method that works for
me is to take the time to record this SNI into a document. Set a timer for
20-30 minutes and just go to town. Record everything about the idea that you
know – characters, set-up, scenes, conflict, etc. - remembering to include just
what about it appeals to you. When the timer goes off, or when you run out of
things to write, save your file and turn your focus back to your WIP. I have a dedicated
folder on my computer that holds these files, organized by genre. And whenever
I’m ready to start a new project, I read through these to see what calls to me.
If, later on, if other snippets pertaining to that particular SNI occur to you, repeat the process – open your file, set a timer, type out the new information – then once the timer goes off, put it aside.
- Another thing you can do is take a closer look at your SNI and see if it can be tweaked to fit into your current WIP. The SNI could be your subconscious’s response to some problem you’ve been struggling with in your current project. Or it might point the way to a fabulous twist you could add in. Or a turning point to take your story in a surprising new direction. Or perhaps a subplot that could add depth and richness to your story.
- If the SNI is really calling to you, and if you’re good at multi-tasking, you can use it as a reward for yourself. IF you meet your daily/weekly goals, you can give yourself permission to spend xx amount of time to work on fleshing out the SNI. Just make certain you maintain focus on your goals for your WIP and don’t cheat!
So is it ever a good idea to abandon a WIP for a SNI, either temporarily or permanently? The answer is, of course. And here are a few examples:
- If the SNI is time-sensitive, if it pertains to something currently ‘hot’ that you need to jump on before the opportunity passes, then go for it.
- If your WIP is just not going to work out – either you realize the idea itself is too flawed to make for a fully realized story, or something in the political, environmental or social climate has occurred that makes your story untenable at this time (for instance a terrorist hijacking story right after 9-11)
- If you feel the need to step back from your story temporarily, and your SNI is for a quick project – short story, novella, collaboration, etc) then perhaps going for it as a sort of ‘palate cleanser’ would be a good idea.
HOWEVER, the assumption that the SNI would be a lot more fun to work on than pushing through your problems with your WIP is definitely NOT a good reason to abandon your current project.
If your sole goal in writing is to do it for the pure pleasure of the experience, than of course go wherever your muse leads you. However, one of the marks of a professional writer is the ability to finish a project. – to get through that murky, difficult middle and bring your book to a satisfying conclusion. Having one completed work does much more for your career as a writer than having dozens of wonderful, evocative, intriguing openings.
The bottom line – never be too quick to abandon a WIP for something shiny and new. Whenever you’re tempted to do so, think about the amount of time (always a key resource!), thought, creativity and energy you’ve put into it and would be tossing away. And also keep in mind, that once you started in on the SNI, chance are, by the time you got past the first 25% or so, it too will have entered the murky-middle stage and another SNI will present itself. And now it has the potential to become a vicious cycle where you are always chasing the next SNI rather than doing the hard work of finishing your WIP.
So now it's your turn. Have you ever suffered from Shiny New Idea Syndrome? Do you have ideas for battling it that I haven't listed here? Or do you believe you SHOULD battle it at all, rather than just going with the flow?