Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ideas: reduce, reuse, recycle

Sharon Wildwind

Instead of ending with a quote this week, I’ll start with one.

The most common obstacle to achieving a correspondence between imagination and execution is not undisciplined execution, but undisciplined imagination … The artist’s life is frustrating not because the passage is slow, but because the imagination is too fast. … One of the best kept secrets of art making is that new ideas come into play far less frequently than practical ideas that can be reused for a thousand variations, supplying the framework for a whole body of work, rather than a single piece.
~ David Bayles and Ted Orland (photographers, writers, and teachers), Art and Fear: observations on the perils (and rewards) of art and fear.

Reduce the number of saved ideas

The question isn’t “Where do we get our ideas?” The real question is how do we avoid getting too many distracting ideas? We may not do ourselves a favor by jotting down every new idea that comes along.
Ideas are too plentiful. They often distract us from our work in process. That’s a great idea for a play. I should stop working on my short story and write a play instead. This idea would make a terrific poem. Should I stop writing prose and try poetry instead?

 The first issue in idea reduction is, is it a good idea or not to collect every idea? Likely, raw ideas aren’t worth much. If it’s a viable idea, will it reappear until I pay attention to it or is it a one-shot deal where if I snooze, I lose?

Do ideas have a best-before date? I think they do. We grow as writers; the world changes. It’s highly unlikely that an idea I collected several years ago will still resonate now. Every idea saved raises the noise to useful information ratio, making it harder to find the ideas worth saving.

Storage and retrieval is an issue. The real question is not where to jot down ideas, but how to find what we’ve saved? I have about seventy journals that, among other things, contain story ideas. The possibility that I could find ten workable ideas from those journals is nil. There are too many other things in the journals for ideas to pop out at me.

Reuse ideas carefully

I came across a wonderful column by a writer named Jon Gingerich. His opinion is that there are ten common plots that never, ever need to see the light of day again. For details on his ten worked-to-death plots, go here. We can all make up our own lists of story lines we feel have been done to death.

Recycle by building a curated idea bank

So, if we’ve stopped or eliminated saving ideas and are avoiding the never, ever list(s), what’s left?

I suggest we change from raw idea collection to a curated idea bank. Curating was originally applied to museum and archive collections because objects available for salvage and display far exceeded the storage and display space available. The idea of curating information moved to the Internet for the same reasons.

How to create a curated idea bank

Step 1: Jot down ideas in a temporary piece of paper, such as a Post-It Note or index card. Toss all of those papers into a box.

Step 2: At least twice a year --- four times a year might be better --- book half a day for emptying that box. Yes, a real appointment, with the day and time written in our day timers.

Step 3: Discard ideas that now seem weak, flimsy, or have been done to death. Okay, if you’re really nervous about tossing out an idea you may need some day, put it back in the box. If you feel more like flying without a net, toss them out and see what happens.

Step 4: Where you re-record the keeper ideas is up to you, but I do suggest a dedicated idea book. Consider separate pages to each idea. It makes them so much easier to find later.

For the ideas that are still appealing, copy them into your keeper resource, and run them through a brand filter.

Brand contains the core values around which our writing revolves. What traits keep reoccurring in our characters? What values? What outcomes? What settings? I’ve blogged about brands twice before, so there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. If you want more on brands go here or here. If you’re still stuck about what a brand is, send me e-mail.

How does the idea relate to your brand? Where might it fit in your life-body of work? That ties into the idea that Bayles and Orland expressed about finding practical ideas that can supply the framework for a whole body of work, rather than a single piece. It’s not that we plan to write the same story ten times, but it might be that we want to look at different aspects of an idea from ten different angles.

Step 5: Write a 100-word synopsis of how the idea might play out. The secret of avoiding the same-old/same-old that Jon Gingerich thinks we should avoid is called mix-and-twist. Let’s take something from Gingerich’s list. It usually runs something like this: you killed my [fill in relationship], so in this book I wreak vengeance and/or bring you to justice, and likely kill a bunch of other people along the way. How about a mix-and-twist: you killed someone close to me and I mature to a point where I am able to forgive you?

Chances are an idea that won’t stand the brand and mix-and-twist tests won’t go anywhere. We might as well toss it into the idea recycling bin sooner rather than later.

I’m traveling today, coming back from the visit with my writer-friend that I wrote about last week. I won’t be able to respond to comments until Wednesday. Thanks for your patience.


Steven M. Moore said...

Wow! You're really organized. For years, I've just jotted down ideas--settings, characters, plots, writing advice--and kept an ever-increasing list of what-ifs. Now that I'm a full-time writer, I suppose I should organize all this, because I refer to it often, but I'm having too much fun writing!
One thing for sure: either your system or mine or anything in between prevents writer's block--I've never had it.

Sandra Parshall said...

Very helpful, Sharon. I suffer from an overload of saved ideas, and now that I'm planning a new book it's time to do some sorting and weeding.