“So, do you have any more ideas for books?”
I get this question a lot from readers, friends, and family. For me, the issue isn’t getting ideas for my next book (and the next several after that). It’s filtering through the ideas and separating them into two piles:
- true potential
- annoying gnat
There could be more categories, but I’ve chosen to keep it simple. I should also point out that category (1) above does not mean that I will actually write a novel out of that idea. It just means I see potential worth pursuing. Why the term gnat you might ask? Well, put simply, gnats are annoying and always present unless you do something to make them go away. Some ideas are like that—they pop up and try to buzz around in your mind even though they don’t have the potential to be anything more than a distraction from your ideas that have actual potential.
I’m not here to tell you how to sort your ideas. It’s my belief that this is one of those areas where the best process is different for each person. I’m just here to tell you that you should have a process and let you know a bit about mine (in case it inspires your own process).
The engineer in me would love to tell you that I use a complicated process with graphs and charts. Maybe a little C&E and FMEA action. While I do enjoy mixing my technical and creative talents (hence the title Literary Engineer), there are times when I need to rely on instinct that is lightly seasoned with sound processes.
Since my writing career started unexpectedly, I like using a similar serendipitous approach to finding my novel topics. It makes me feel as though I’m moving in the direction I’m supposed to, rather than me trying to force something that isn’t meant to be. In fact, two out of my three published books started as a dream (my other book is a sequel, so indirectly it also came from a dream) as well as my current WIP. I still get ideas from my dreams, but they also strike me at other random moments. For example, I received one idea after a trio of songs played randomly from my playlist. My brain thought, “That might make a good story.”
But how do I know if these random ideas are worth pursuing?
1) Back Burner
My first step is to actually try and put the idea out of my mind. If it goes away, then it was just a gnat. If it stays with me, then I know it might have some potential.
If the idea sticks, then I let it stay in my mind, but I don’t obsess over it. I don’t even write it down in my log of ideas yet.
If the idea has true potential, I find that it won’t be satisfied sitting over low heat on the back burner. Suddenly, ‘signs’ start popping up and work the idea up to a simmer.
If I’m really lucky, an idea will work itself into a rolling boil. When that happens, I find that I can’t stop thinking about the idea. Usually, this is when lucid dreaming occurs (and usually when I least expect it).
I might push an idea into the gnat bucket at any point during the process. Even if an idea tries to build to a simmer, if it’s not something I’m interested in writing I’ll continue to try and block it out. I realize I’m at risk of losing out on a possible bestseller, but I have to enjoy my writing process and be at least somewhat interested in the topics I write about.
I have to admit that my favorite part of the entire process is when lucid dreaming occurs, whether for a new idea or to enhance a current idea. For me, it can happen at any time. I felt a bit awkward in my workout class a couple weeks ago when lucid dreaming took over. We were doing a leg exercise and when I came back into focus the rest of the class had moved on to the left leg while I was still pumping away on the right. Oops.
I’ll walk you through an example. I won’t tell you the specific idea because, well, I don’t like to share. OK, fine—really it’s because I don’t have it all flushed out, and if I start talking about it in detail I might jinx the magic.
Recently my daughter asked me to watch a movie with her. I asked her which movie she wanted to watch, and I was surprised by her answer. I was expecting her to name one of her favorites that I’ve had to sit through about 20 times already, but she mentioned a movie that I’d forgotten she had on the DVR. I had never watched it with her, so I settled in for the show. Not 30 seconds in, my mind said to me, “I wonder if I could do a modern day telling of this story.” Huh. Where’d that come from? I’ve never considered writing a novel that would be a modern-day version of an old tale, so the thought took me by surprise.
Cue the weed-out process.
I watched the movie, forcing myself to not rewrite it in my mind along the way. It stayed with me over the next few days, so I placed it on the back burner. Then the signs started. First, the story was brought up in a show I watch regularly. It wasn’t entirely out of context for the type of show it was, so I tried to push it toward coincidence (albeit with impeccable timing). Then a few days later it came up in a game that I’m testing for my daughter (i.e. making sure it’s appropriate for her age). The game includes some dialogue between characters for quests and in one of these dialogue sessions a part of the story was mentioned. Now that was unexpected—I mean, out of all the myths and tales that exist, what are the chances that this random game would include the story that has been haunting me? Anyone who knows me well will understand that I had to log it as a sign.
I’ve now documented it in my list of ideas and started researching. I’m looking into the original tale and many of the retellings. Lucid dreaming is still happening, working to fill in a plot that would work for a modern-day version.
I realize that my process might seem hokey to some, but it works for me. It’s how I feel connected to my stories. It’s also how I determine which story to write next—I just pick the one that’s about to boil over!
How about you? What does your idea sorting process look like?