flickr_journaling_vic

Picture taken by Vic on Flickr.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I lost a ton of time this year by trying to bully myself into coming up with awesome ideas, on a deadline, during my daily hourly writing time.

It really, really didn’t work.

And because this wasn’t working, I decided to try some other, gentler brainstorming techniques. And while most didn’t do too much for me, journaling turned out remarkably well.

Here’s what I did.

First, let’s set the stage: I had a draft of a novel I didn’t want to use and a lot of ideas I didn’t like that much.

I wrote a novel for last year’s NaNoWriMo that was, unsurprisingly, not very good. I outlined it a week before I started and didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I stopped at 70,000 words.

And while NaNo was fun, the story was a mess. It had multiple points of view, and one of them–which made up a bit less than half the story–was pointless. The two POVs never interacted in any way. The main villain was a ton of fun to write, but she didn’t really do anything. This left the protagonist to kind of… wander around, do her own thing, and have a small, meaningless little adventure until it got trashed in the climax.

It was not a good story.

The more I dug, the more I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the secondary characters. I didn’t like the backstory I had created. I didn’t like the big reveal at the end of the book. I wanted to throw it out and do something totally different with everything–the characters. The story. The lore.

I needed to do a lot of thinking. I started by trying a lot of things that didn’t work. Then I tried journaling.

What do I mean by “journaling”?

Basically, I just sat down every day during my scheduled writing time, opened a Word file, and wrote about my feelings. I wrote about things like:

  • What ideas in my story did I like? Why?
  • What ideas did I not like? What bugged me about them?
  • What kind of characters do I usually like? What character dynamics do I like? Why?
  • Why did I not like the characters in the previous draft? What bored me?

So on, so forth. I wrote down my thoughts about my plots. I wrote my feelings about my backstory. I wrote about my theme. I wrote down what sort of things I enjoyed and what sort of things I didn’t.

I didn’t not come up with solutions. (But if one burst into my head, great! I’ll take it!) But if I didn’t know what I wanted, that was fine. If I did try to come up with new ideas, I’d just be brainstorming. And brainstorming is good, but I–again–had spent several months being bad about brainstorming. So I tried, very hard, to not pressure myself.

If my thinking aloud naturally, gracefully led me to an idea, I followed it. But if I was just angry and tearing apart my old story and ranting about how it bored me, I just let myself complain, then moved on.

Some approaches worked better than others.

I had never done this before, so I wasn’t quite sure how to do this correctly. It took me a while to figure out some good techniques:

  • I tried to balance “why didn’t I like [something I made]” with “what do I like?” I wasn’t trying to start a pity party. I was just trying to pinpoint why I didn’t like certain things, not insult myself.
  • I eventually pulled all the ideas I liked into a single file and tried to imagine a story that included all of them.
  • Similarly, I played around with how it’d feel if I removed everything I didn’t like from the original story. What was left? What holes were there? Could I fill them with the good ideas?
  • I also wrote down things I enjoyed from my favorite books, stories, and games. Why did I like them? What appealed to me? Why?
  • I tried to fangirl a little. What if I took the ideas I liked the most and tried to make them as big and dramatic as possible? What if they were the crux of the story? What if everything revolved around them? What is the coolest scene I could do about them?

Could I have just laid down and thought through all this? Sure. But writing it down made me process these thoughts more slowly. And, more importantly, it created a record of them. That let me come back the next day, look through my previous thoughts, and analyze them more deeply.

It helped a lot, actually.

For several weeks, this is all I did. I mused. I wrote down my thoughts. On most days, I made no measurable progress at all. I just thought.

But when I started making lists of everything I liked and didn’t like, and started to imagine a story that had all the good stuff and none of the stupid stuff… it started to congeal into a better story. And I started to outline.

It wasn’t perfect. There’s still a lot of messiness, a lot of weirdness, and at least one giant hole in my outline. But it’s definitely better. And there’s a lot more in this story that I’m genuinely excited to write.

And it worked because I wasn’t just brainstorming. I wasn’t sitting down, revving up my brain, and expecting fully-formed ideas to fall out. And because I was just working through my feelings, there was no way for me to slot my days into “success” or “failure.” (And if you’re just brainstorming? Yeah. Ideas you can use = successful day, no good ideas = hurray, I just wasted my time.)

I have a terrible habit of pressuring myself to produce something measurable, quickly. New words! New stories! New ideas! NOW. It helps to have a technique in the toolbox that lets me feel a little productive–I often came up with hundreds (or thousands!) of words of journaling every day–while not actually requiring me to produce!!

So if you fall prey to the same vicious thoughts, give it a shot. It’s like tricking your brain into a kinder, gentler form of brainstorming. Maybe it’ll help!

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Notecard that reads 'Today has mostly been about frustrations and disappointment :('

Photo by Sarah Barker on Flickr.

I’m no stranger to creative slumps. Every year, I crash at least once, wonder why I write at all, and take a few weeks off. It eventually pases, all is well again, and I get back to work.

But not this year! This year has been terrible. I finished the edit of my most recent project earlier this year. (The edit itself took a year and a half. It was grueling.) Then I started querying. Querying was depressing, so I started outlining my next project. Everything went wrong.

The story I most wanted to work on was missing everything between the beginning and climactic battle–like, you know, a world for the rest of the story to happen in, characters who weren’t the protagonist and antagonist, and a plot. Uhhhhh…

So I tried another story–the sequel to the one I was querying. Nope. I’ve got a theme and a city, but not a plot. That… wasn’t helpful.

Then I went back to a story I wrote during NaNoWriMo. I already had 70,000 words down, so it had to be be easier to fix, right? It was half written! And… no. It was the wrong story, with the wrong villain. How did I even do that? I needed to start over. I probably couldn’t save anything.

And after months of bouncing between these stories, I had nothing to show for it. A stack of notecards, a few outlines on the wall, and… nothing. The year was more than half over and I had nothing to show for it.

So I sat down for my daily hour of writing time, determined to do something. And then that went wrong, too.

I have a bad habit of downplaying any work I do that isn’t “productive” enough.

I have a bad habit. I associate “productivity” with producing words. I’m not the worst about it, admittedly. I think all sorts of things are a good use of my time, even if they aren’t strictly “writing.” I feel good when I:

  • Add words to an outline
  • Create character sheets or worldbuilding documents
  • Edit old content
  • And, of course, just write an actual story.

But I wasn’t doing any of that. None of these stories had plots, remember?

What I really needed to do was brainstorm. And that was the problem. Brainstorming feels unproductive.

When I write or outline something, I can measure my progress: I wrote words. Yay! But if I spend an hour brainstorming, I can’t guarantee I’ll do anything. Maybe I’ll come up with an idea. Maybe I won’t! Maybe I’ll spend hours thinking and not come up with anything usable at all!

And I hate that.

I wrote 200,000 words last year–and now it’s August 2018 and I’ve only written a fraction of that. I need an idea now so I can write something now, and I need to get past the brainstorming and into the actual writing or I won’t produce anything at all this year and–

So I kept settling on any idea–anything at all!–that felt good enough that I could start working on it. Nothing’s perfect, right? I can fix it later, can’t I?

And… no. No. That’s terrible. Why did I do that? Why did I do it more than once? I kept glomming onto bad ideas and, unsurprisingly, deciding they were terrible a few days or weeks later. Then I’d toss them out, feel even more like I was wasting my time, and do it again.

Weeks passed. I was even angrier at myself. None of this was working.

I had to redefine what a “productive use of my time” was.

I needed to stop doing this. But how?

First off, I had to detangle this awful, messy, stupid knot of feelings. I was measuring my worth in a binary way: either I produced an idea, outline, or story and was good, or I spent an hour coming up with nothing and was bad. I was forcing myself to produce ideas on demand and beating myself up when I couldn’t.

I needed to reframe my thoughts. I started by trying to identify what was good about what I was doing:

  • Time spent thinking about a story is useful, even if I don’t come up with a solution to a problem. I should consider a brainstorming session as valuable as a writing session–it’s still time actively spent thinking about a story.
  • Word count is not the only measure of a good or active writer. A day where I spent time working on a story is a productive day. Period.
  • If my current brainstorming style isn’t working, I should try something new. Mixing it up could help.
  • And I really needed to pay less attention to my word counting sheet. I love it dearly, but if I’m brainstorming, I have no meaningful way to record that. It’s just a “zero word” day, which looks terrible. I had to think of another way to feel like I was doing something.

So I gave it a shot.

Little by little, I took some of the pressure of myself.

In my quest to “try other ways of brainstorming,” I started trying techniques I had seen other people use:

  • Journaling my thoughts and feelings about my story
  • Making Pinterest inspiration boards
  • Finding art that reminded me of my world

And because my word counting sheet was making me feel bad, I tried something simpler. I just used a calendar. If I spent any time working on my project, I’d put an X on that day. I was productive that day. No judgement. No word count. Just work = success = good.

It did feel a little silly. These felt like… fluffy things to spend my time on. But it was still better than going “Do I have any ideas? No? Let’s get angry at myself for 30 minutes, then give up and play videogames.”

And for most of a month, I really didn’t do much. I wrote down feelings. I checked off days. I didn’t produce much, but I was sticking to my schedule.

And then things started to get better. I had a few ideas. I started an outline. And I–maybe? Hopefully?–started to find things I wanted to write again.

It’s still to early to see if it really helped, but…

I only just now started making progress, so who knows! Maybe I’m just doing what I did before: making a little progress, glomming on to it, and swearing that this time I’ve broken the curse.

But I do know that throwing down a deadline and forcing myself to make words didn’t help. Demanding that I make ideas, now, within my 60 minutes of writing time didn’t help. It seems kind of obvious to say “Hey, have you tried not being such a jackass to yourself?” but, well, sometimes we miss the obvious solutions.

Honestly, though, if there’s one thing that helped me the most, it was the journaling. I’ll write more about that in my next post, because it was genuinely surprising how much it helped me clear my brain out.

But that’s a post for another day!

Within the writing world, you sometimes run into people who are obsessed with finding The Best Idea Ever. These are the folks who write posts like:

  • I’m terrified to talk about my story because someone will steal my idea!
  • I have an idea for a story that’s so good that it’s guaranteed to get me an agent!
  • I keep abandoning stories because I want to find The One Idea that is guaranteed to be a success!
  • And, of course, everyone’s favorite: “I’m an idea person, but I hate writing, so I think someone should write my idea for me and split the profit 50/50!”

These people believe the idea is all that matters–that their idea will get them published or that their idea is worth something. Sometimes you even encounter writers who are afraid to write at all until they hit on the best idea.

And all these people are getting hung up on the wrong thing. A good idea won’t get you published.

First thing’s first: having a good idea for a story DOES matter.

Ideas aren’t completely worthless. It is good to start with an idea that’s unique or underrepresented in some way. A fantasy that involves a dumb barbarian, an archer elf, and a drunk dwarf on a quest to destroy the Lord of Darkness is probably extremely cliche. Everyone on earth has already seen Harry Potter, and there are now two decades of “So-and-so is a [fantasy creature], in [fantasy creature] school!” stories. Overdone ideas are hard sells.

Does that mean they can’t sell? No, of course not. That’s the whole point of this post!

And if you have a unique, interesting twist for a story, then awesome! That’s a great starting point, and it may very well help you sell your story.

So that’s good! But it’s not enough. That one beautiful idea won’t get you published. And even if your idea is kind of overdone? That doesn’t mean you won’t be.

You see, I have an absolutely shocking truth to share with you.

What actually gets you published is the quality of your writing.

Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t warn you! You should have been sitting. I’m sure you’re all beside yourselves with shock now. It’s all right. Take a moment. Relax. Let that settle in.

Yes, unsurprisingly, the thing that agents actually care about is the quality of your writing. And “writing,” in this case, refers to the five zillion skills any talented writer has to juggle. Grammar? Absolutely. Excellent word choice? Yes! But also pacing, plotting, characterization, and an understanding of the genre they’re writing in. And more! Writing is complicated!

And let me tell you: good writing can make anything good.

I’m sure you can think of books that are popular, that have a lot of readers, and that have an extremely common story at its core. Heck, just look at the entire trend of fairy tale retellings: yes, they’re generally a mixup of Common Fairy Tale + Interesting Twist, but part of the challenge of that genre is taking a familiar story, with familiar themes, and making it new.

A really good author can take an idea that you’ve seen a million times and make it genuinely engaging. Their characters are just that dynamic, or their worldbuilding that gripping, or their tension that absolutely page-turning. If you reduced their story to a one-sentence summary, it might not sound like a completely groundbreaking concept–but it’s still good.

And, sadly, the opposite is also true: a bad writer can ruin a good idea.

So you have a really awesome concept. That’s great! But maybe your characters are flat. Maybe your pacing is terrible, and you spend thousands and thousands of words on scenes where no one learns anything and nothing happens. Maybe you struggle with words, and your story is riddled with grammatical errors and strange word choices.

No one–no agent, no publisher, and no reader–is going to say “Well, the underlying concept is cool, so I’m going to read this absolute mess of a book anyway!” It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to find an agent, a publisher, or if you just want to self-publish. A good idea is not going to give you a golden ticket to success if you don’t have the writing skills to back it up.

For that matter, two people can start from the same idea and write totally different books.

And if you’re one of those souls who worries that someone’s going to steal your ideas, stop. Just stop. It’s fine. Idea theft generally isn’t a thing, but even if it were, it doesn’t matter.

A villain could steal your complete and final draft and do harm to you, sure. (That also doesn’t really happen, but whatever.) But no one can really steal an idea.

And that’s because of what I said above–an idea fits in a few paragraphs. A story may be 100,000 words. Can you just imagine how many decisions someone has to make to write 100,000 words? You have to write dozens and dozens of scenes. What happens? In what order? How are those events described? What details are included? Which aren’t? What characters are in those scenes? How is the world set up? How is the tension described?

I mean, just look at writing prompts! Do you think everyone who uses the same writing prompt ends up with the same idea? I attended a writing group just this weekend where everyone wrote about “Two people meet for breakfast.” We ended up with a paranormal fantasy, a thriller about someone getting kidnapped, and a romance about two old flames. Do you genuinely, sincerely think that two people can write two stories that even vaguely resemble each other unless they’re working from a full-novel outline and the same batch of character/worldbuilding notes?

And no, of course they can’t.

In the end, good ideas are nice. But it’s only your writing that matters.

That’s basically it.

Your agents, publishers, and readers are not going to settle down with their Kindle and read your ideas. They’re reading a novel. And in the end, that matters: your writing. Your skill. Your craft.

So don’t let yourself get hung up on ideas. They’re the sprinkles on top of the cake–but they don’t do you a ton of good if you don’t know how to bake one.