Which Ideas to Keep and Which to Chuck?

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Joined
Apr 9, 2016
Messages
1,944
#1
writing-ideas-2.jpg


So we've had a lot of threads about creativity recently, and this is one of the aspects of it that I find most interesting.

And that is filtering through the ideas. Deciding which ones have merit and which ones don't. Both in the sense of fleshing out stories, and deciding which stories to write to begin with.

How do you go about doing this? How much do you test new story ideas before deciding to write them? At what point do you know whether a new story idea is a short story or the start of something epic; the character in a scene a one time spearbearer or someone to keep coming back?

And how much do you make conscious decisions about this, and how much do things just happen? I know some of us have books that started as short stories, but it became clear from reader feedback that there was something bigger there.
 

HareBrain

Bunny of Wonder
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Oct 13, 2008
Messages
9,949
Location
West Sussex, UK
#2
These are good questions, but I find them hard to answer, because so much of it is instinct, or the decision is made over a long period without really being aware of it. I very rarely have ideas for other stories while I'm working on one, but within the main one, I think I try to use ideas that fit with my current plan (or can be made to do so, and clearly the prospect of this narrows down as a series goes on) and seem to provide possibilities for dramatic interest.

the character in a scene a one time spearbearer or someone to keep coming back?
This is an interesting one, because I think it's quite common for an author to think "wow, that guy carried that spear well, and I like him -- let's give him a major role!" I think I've been guilty of that myself, though not as much as GRRM.
 

Biskit

Cat whisperer
Joined
Nov 23, 2011
Messages
667
Location
Sitting in the sun (between the rain storms)
#3
I have a folder with ideas in it - I trawl through when I'm stuck for what to write and see if anything grabs me. At present, there's 700+ files in the ideas folder, anything from just a title because it sounded cool up to a few thousand words. Then there's a folder where I've moved stuff that's in the 10k range as the most promising future projects.
Sometimes one of those idea files will get folded in to a currently active WIP, and each WIP tends to have it's own ideas file where I record anything that occurs. There's plenty of stuff that's never been used, and I suspect a lot of it never will, but I don't bin anything. (Which makes finding things a nightmare.)
 

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 22, 2008
Messages
4,298
#4
For me, the one big factor is time. It's like those pans that prospectors use, filtering the rubbish out and leaving the gold. The question (for me) is always not "Is this idea cool?" but "Could I personally write 70,000 words about this?" which I usually can't answer when I first have the concept. What I tend to find is that the better ideas stay, but the way that I use them changes. Time also helps the ideas that I'm going to keep settle down into their finished form, so that I know where I'm going before I start.

The reason I say 70,000 words above is that's about the minimum for a novel, which is the unit my brain thinks in. Once you've done that, you've got a full book and you can forget about it if it's not going to yield anything further, or keep going if you don't feel that you've done the subject justice yet (or there's more you could do in the same setting).
 

night_wrtr

Non-human Protagonist
Joined
Apr 18, 2017
Messages
369
Location
US
#5
I've had a few ideas that fizzled once I hit around the 2-3k word mark. I'll pick something to write from a batch of ideas and start writing. Whatever seems to make me more excited to write at the time is what I'll go with, and when I hit that 2-3k mark I have either hit something fun, become bored, or realized that its not a well rounded idea because the pieces don't quite fit together, whether it be character, plot, or all of the above.

I have a few of those half finished stories sitting around, but I've also found that what didn't work can be scrapped, but the parts that I really liked can be put into other stories. I took a magic system from one of my shorts and ended up using it as a base for the magic in my novel. I use that as an excuse to at least write through some of the ideas you might have, just for the sake of finding the hidden gems that you can use for later, either by reworking the story, or adapting it for another work.

As far as short v epic, I think that depends. What is the original intention for the story? If you have a short that feels bigger, you can always try to write down a few outline points to see how it might progress. That could give you an idea of the potential without putting in a lot of writing hours.
 

Vaz

We're in the pipe, five by five.
Joined
Jun 7, 2015
Messages
1,301
Location
Liverpool, United Kingdom
#6
All my stories start as a silent movie playing in my mind's eye. I'll often write out the scene I see, and then take it from there.

It's pure instinct on what gets chucked out and what gets worked on. If I leave a story behind and I never see it again, then it was just a passing fancy. The ones that take root with me will often emerge again and again in my mind, even if I've tried to leave them behind.

They're the ones I stay with. The ones I write.

v
 

scarpelius

Well-Known Member
Joined
Feb 19, 2018
Messages
163
Location
Bucharest
#9
I'm a collector.
I keep them all.
After all, there's plenty of space in google docs.
Most of my ideas are half page to 2-3 pages. Some are actual stories, others design docs (I borrow the term from game development, because I first learned how to draft a design doc for games).
One of my story was half done for years, abandoned because I couldn't imagine an appropriate ending. Then one day I stumbled upon it, re-read it and there it was, the perfect ending.
There is no rubbish in my collection, just rough gems.
 

Juliana

Juliana Spink Mills. "No capes!"
Supporter
Joined
Jun 28, 2012
Messages
4,538
Location
Connecticut, USA
#10
I usually know from the start if the idea is a short story or a novel.

If short, I'll type up the basic idea and file it under 'shorts' for when I'm ready for it.
If a novel, I'll try out a couple of chapters, and then file it away if I'm not sure about it.
(I have a lot of story starts beginnings filed away on my laptop...)
 

Phyrebrat

ba-Ba-ba-brat
Supporter
Joined
Feb 13, 2011
Messages
4,132
Location
In your bedroom wardrobe...
#11
I tend not to have ideas I’m not interested in, if that doesn’t sound tautological.

Like others, I have a notes file on my phone and it has things as undeveloped as ‘ten little petals’ to a few paragraphs explaining an idea and its premise, and the very end scene.

Over the past year or so I realise I work very differently than the professionals here in terms of ideas and output. I’m not in the least surprised that @The Big Peat started this thread, he’s a bona fide ideas machine. When he and @Venusian Broon were at mine last year or so, we were drinking and playing video games whilst Peat was working on his story. I marvelled* how he was also talking about other ideas at the time.

Perhaps short stories are easy for me to ‘idea’ whereas I only have 3 other stories in me novel-wise, after I finish SG.

pH
* marvelled in a covetous and peevish way ;)
 
Joined
Dec 11, 2018
Messages
8
Location
California
#12
I also have separate word documents to use for ideas and drafts for potential projects, but for me the decision whether or not to pursue a story depends on the characters. If I discover a compelling character, then I would want to keep writing and see what happens to them next (good, bad, or otherwise!).
 

Steve Harrison

Well-Known Member
Joined
Dec 9, 2014
Messages
196
Location
Sydney, Australia
#13
I never write ideas down. My theory is that if they are good, I won't forget them. Obviously, there is no way of proving if this theory is correct :)

I do have a bunch of ideas I haven't forgotten, and I work on them over time in my mind like mental movies until I think there is enough story for a novel. One of them has been around since the 1980s and I plan to start writing it after I finish my current novel.
 

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Joined
Apr 9, 2016
Messages
1,944
#14
For those of us who often have a bunch of potential ideas hanging around at any one time, how do you pick between them? Is it a mood thing? Or looking for a certain compelling thing (like drmatteri is looking for characters, and hi and welcome to the forum!). Or just plain old "Well that one looks more complete?"

In any case, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who's got a big old folder full of half-started stories and ideas for a rainy day.

One thing I do sometimes is write small pitches for the ideas and try them out on friends. It's not so much that I'm going to follow their votes (maybe I shouldn't have admitted that to most of the people I try the pitches out on ;)) but getting their feedback as to what ideas sound interesting, what ideas sound different, where they'd expect them to go... its really good for clarifying how I feel about each idea.

And I do listen to the votes a little. If an idea gets people excited, it's got legs, that makes me excited. If people are down on it... sometimes I agree, sometimes I'm all "You're wrong and I'll show you why. Just give me something to stop time so I can finally get the writing done."


How long do people take between having the initial idea and starting to write it? Go for it right away or let it mature for a little, see if you remember it a week later?
 

Juliana

Juliana Spink Mills. "No capes!"
Supporter
Joined
Jun 28, 2012
Messages
4,538
Location
Connecticut, USA
#15
For those of us who often have a bunch of potential ideas hanging around at any one time, how do you pick between them?
Sometimes I write a couple of chapters and try them out on my long-suffering critique group. Other times, by the time I've written those couple of chapters I know it's not going anywhere — maybe I like it, but not enough to work on right now; or I like the concept but don't think I can pull it off (not quite 'me').

How long do people take between having the initial idea and starting to write it? Go for it right away or let it mature for a little, see if you remember it a week later?
Sometimes I jot down the first ideas immediately. Usually, though, it bounces around in my head for a while maturing. I also cannibalize bits of old concepts for new ones—the thing I'm working on now has aspects of several projects that went nowhere, but somehow came together into this one.
 

OHB

Crazed Writer
Joined
Jan 5, 2019
Messages
11
Location
somewhere in time and space
#16
For those of us who often have a bunch of potential ideas hanging around at any one time, how do you pick between them? Is it a mood thing? Or looking for a certain compelling thing (like drmatteri is looking for characters, and hi and welcome to the forum!). Or just plain old "Well that one looks more complete?"
For me, it's whatever one has a beginning, middle, end, and characters with fully fleshed-out personalities. There may be more than one idea that meets those criteria, and then I pull my hair out trying to decide which one to go with.
How long do people take between having the initial idea and starting to write it? Go for it right away or let it mature for a little, see if you remember it a week later?
I came up with my current WIP sometime in 2006, but didn't start writing it until December of 2011. (I'm still working on it because, for several years, I worked 13 hours a day/7 days a week and didn't have time to write.) I like to let the idea sit and accumulate scenes and characters before writing it. That may take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. If nothing ever comes of it, then I may just consider it a dud and delete it from my ideas file.
 

The Bluestocking

Bloody Mary in Blue
Joined
Feb 20, 2014
Messages
1,331
Location
The Afterlife
#17
For those of us who often have a bunch of potential ideas hanging around at any one time, how do you pick between them? Is it a mood thing? Or looking for a certain compelling thing (like drmatteri is looking for characters, and hi and welcome to the forum!). Or just plain old "Well that one looks more complete?"
Erm... I make one my main project while filing away notes etc on the others that are percolating in the backburner.

Also, are the characters already living and breathing so I can follow their adventures and write it all down?

One thing I do sometimes is write small pitches for the ideas and try them out on friends. It's not so much that I'm going to follow their votes (maybe I shouldn't have admitted that to most of the people I try the pitches out on ;)) but getting their feedback as to what ideas sound interesting, what ideas sound different, where they'd expect them to go... its really good for clarifying how I feel about each idea.
I do this with my writing group. And also slip in a mention to other friends here and there to gauge the reaction. It doesn't dictate what I'll write next but it does give me an inkling about whether the idea has appeal to readers or not.

How long do people take between having the initial idea and starting to write it? Go for it right away or let it mature for a little, see if you remember it a week later?
15 years to build my storyverse and gain enough life experience, confidence and skill to start typing out the words on the screen. Once I had my storyverse down pat and a huge cast of characters talking to me, the story ideas just started flowing.

Some ideas just have legs that run by themselves (see my recent little kitsune novella subbed to Tor and my current Road-Trip-To-Hell novella WiP), others need a lot more research and planning (see my "all-female Magnificent Seven meets Wuxia meets Gangs of New York" story idea I'm developing), others need to be filed away to be fleshed out more (see the rom-com idea I have bubbling away at the back of my brain for a while now. It took a handful of months for the name of the heroine and the opening line to appear.).

In short: it depends.
 
Last edited:

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 22, 2008
Messages
4,298
#18
I don't know what makes me favour one idea over another. I don't think it's external events: both The Pincers of Death and the unpublished fantasy novel I've been working on reflect recent events - one as parody, the other seriously. In both cases, the setting is big enough to incorporate the story, if you see what I mean.

Generally speaking, I'll only write one book at a time, in the sense of actively putting down words. If I do work on two at once, one will be the focus and the other will be "mucking about".

I don't tend to pitch ideas to anyone else, really because I think that many ideas - my ones, at any rate - could work or fail depending on the approach and the writing. I'm never quite sure what to do with raw ideas: I tend towards the view of letting them ferment in my brain, without exterior input. However, I see a lot of threads from new writers effectively asking "Is my basic idea any good?". The only answer I can usually give to that question is "Can you make it any good?"

How long do people take between having the initial idea and starting to write it?
Often quite a long time. The last entirely new thing I wrote had been kicking around in my mind for several years, but it only really came together when I started writing it. Until then, I'd had an idea of spoofing cyberpunk and Philip K Dick by writing a book where it turned out that every character was the same guy. Very soon after starting it, I realised that I wasn't up to writing that and that the joke wasn't strong enough to sustain a novel, and so it changed into something more sensible and, I think, better.
 

Dan Jones

Free Omar!
Supporter
Joined
Nov 14, 2014
Messages
2,726
Location
Here, Now
#19
I find ideas a very tricky business; in theory coming up with ideas should be the simplest part of being a writer, but they don't come very easily to me.

Like Phyrebrat, I marvel at Peat's abilities to conjure up very neat specs for stories which almost seem fully formed, and yet they fall out of The Big One like water. It's an enviable talent.

Not to say I don't have any ideas at all, otherwise I'd never have written anything at all. I've found that most of the bigger stuff I've written (novellas and novels, and even some short stories), have come when I've been given some sort of brief, however nebulous (for the record, I believe nebulous briefs for stories are much more conducive to creativity than overly prescriptive ones, which is a problem that has emerged in the Sekrit Santa activities of late).

In fact, I think of everything serious I've written, only my current WIP has been created entirely "from scratch" by me without an exterior brief or outline. Which is kind of neat as it's a story about the creative process itself.

When the ideas do start to percolate, it does take me a good deal of thought to determine whether the idea can be extrapolated into the sorts of themes and further ideas I'm interested in. And some things inevitably fall by the wayside when they fail this (entirely subjective and abstract) test.

And I do listen to the votes a little. If an idea gets people excited, it's got legs, that makes me excited. If people are down on it... sometimes I agree, sometimes I'm all "You're wrong and I'll show you why. Just give me something to stop time so I can finally get the writing done."
I don't tend to pitch ideas with others. I think I'm fairly good at being critical about my own work and ideas. Like most posters here, I can't work with something if it bores me. I do definitely have a very, very strong sense of "You're wrong and I'll show you why" though! And actually, I think most ideas can be wielded into marvellous stories if the author has sufficient skills and interest.

Whichever one I’m most likely to get some money from, frankly.
You're such a mercenary, Jo! It's an interesting point though. I think if I was commissioned to write something (ie if someone like Marvel approached me to write, I don't know, a Hulk novel, or something like that, then certainly I'd write it and get paid). But when it comes to my own ideas and my own worlds, money is less important than what interests me. I'm making a loss on Man O'War currently, but so what? I'm still proud of it, and it's gotten me some attention elsewhere. But I don't think money should be the sole arbiter of ideation, not by a long chalk.

I'll have more of a think on this on the Money thread.
 

The Bluestocking

Bloody Mary in Blue
Joined
Feb 20, 2014
Messages
1,331
Location
The Afterlife
#20
I marvel at Peat's abilities to conjure up very neat specs for stories which almost seem fully formed, and yet they fall out of The Big One like water. It's an enviable talent.
Try standing in the shower for a while and letting your mind drift. Works for me. That or swimming laps.

Something about being immersed in water triggers the part of my brain that generates ideas. It could work for you too?
 

Similar threads

Top