Sunday, September 11, 2016

How do you handle new ideas trying to pull you away? - Channing Whitaker

I have no doubt that every author’s experience is unique, but I suspect there are more similarities between any two than there are differences. As I’m plugging away at my current project, whether I’m drafting an outline, hammering out the first draft, or editing away, inevitably, I’m plagued by sporadic inspirations for new projects to start which have little or nothing to do with the task at hand.

It would be easy to say “stay focused,” “stay on task,” “keep your nose to the proverbial grindstone” until this piece is finished, before you go wondering off in other directions. But I wonder, in a field built on creativity – fiction writing – is it the best policy to stifle something your mind is sparking on in favor of something you may have grown stagnate about?

I tend to remain excited about my work fairly well from start to finish, but over the course of the many months necessary to take a manuscript from the first ideas to the polished final draft, are any of us without days where we’ve grown weary of the subject? I don’t think I’m talking about writer’s block. Maybe the feeling comes while you’re in the 2nd or 3rd or 10th draft, just a sort of burn out. So where’s the harm in letting your mind wonder in a different direction for a while? Something fresh?

Of course, one such harm might be never finishing. Wandering off and never coming back. Haven’t we all heard 100 books get started for every one that is finished, or some such intimidating statistic? With the lesson to be taken that ideas for a novel are abundant but the discipline to see the novel to completion is much more scarce.

I’m personally faced with the firm possibility I’ll never live long enough to get to all the projects I have on the back burner. So letting those interrupting inspirations go in favor of staying on task might be best. However, while re-writing my first novel I hit a point where I thought the book was too long, but I wasn’t seeing ways to cut without loosing something precious. Then I stepped away and wrote the first draft of a screenplay my imagination was gravitating toward. I stepped away for two or three months.

When I came back to the manuscript, I rewrote a new draft in a matter of days. It was the fastest rewrite I’d done and it cut 20,000 words, right to where I’d hoped the book would be. That draft, plus a few tweaks, was the manuscript which was published. And the screenplay which interrupted the process went on to be produced. In this case, a little time pursuing another creative direction let my mind clear on the project at hand, let me come back with fresh eyes, and let me bring it to the finish line with renewed energy. Plus, the time away wasn’t wasted.

It would seem there is a fine line between productively resting a project while you advance another interest, and simply being at the mercy of your whims with a dozen projects “started” and nothing nearly finished. However, I worry if my mind is captivated with something else, not only does this suggest I’m at a point of not giving my best to the project at hand, but also of letting a fresh spark fizzle before it can grow. That by pushing forward with the project at hand, I’m essentially doing two disservices to my writing career and my creative mind.

Maybe the middle ground is a short tether. Say “ok, if this new idea has me so smitten, I can give it one day, or five pages, I can go pour all my current notions into a quasi-outline, a summery, a character study, or a treatment of sorts, but then I must come back to the project at hand tomorrow.” Maybe a better personal rule would be to allow no interruptions during the first draft of a project – keep yourself on task, no matter what, until at least one complete version of that story exists. After that, while you’re re-writing and polishing, accept it as alright to explore a side idea.

Now I pose it to you other authors. How do you manage new ideas competing with your current project? Do you follow the creativity? Do you ignore it and get back to the work at hand? Or something else all together?


Amy Bennett said...

So far, all my new ideas keep popping up for my series (one of the benefits of writing a series) so I have plenty of material for future books... I just have to remember to keep them in the correct time sequence! I keep a notebook with ideas for future books in the series, but I also remind myself that they might not all make it. Then I'll have ideas for other books in the future!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I'm not sure who wrote this post since there's no name on it, but it's a great topic.