Ever been diligently working on your main project, when out of nowhere, a new idea hits? It’s a great idea. You’re super excited about it. You just know that this new idea is way more interesting to write, way more publishable, just so much better than the lump of words you’re already working with. Then off you go writing that new thing and not finishing your main project.
Don’t worry. It’s happened to me too. In fact, for the first six years that I was a writer, I attempted to write every single new idea that came to mind. It took me nine years to finish a first draft of a novel, because I didn’t have a plan in place when the new idea came along.
I have so many zero drafts–that is, drafts that I started writing and never finished–that I have lost count of them all. Even as I write this blog post I have ideas for several other posts that I am just itching to… you know. Just… outline a little bit and… maybe start writing some of them… It happens.
So what do you do when a shiny new idea comes along? You shouldn’t lose your focus on your main project, but you’re so much more interested in this new thing! I’ve learned the hard way that working on every new idea means finishing none of them. So let’s jump right in. This is what I do when every shiny new idea comes along.
Realize that this is going to split your focus.
You already know that if you write this new thing, you may never finish the one you’re already writing. What you need to realize is that there is a switching cost within our brains whenever we try to work on a new task, and the cost is huge. It is actually harder to start a project again than it is to start the first time.
Remember that if you write this new thing, you may end up with several series you need to juggle. If you write this new thing, you will have to start again on the novel you are trying to focus on. If you write this new thing, you’re jumping from world to world and character to character, and you will have to try to remember what their plots are, what the characters have accomplished or need to accomplish, or why you’re even writing it at all. You could mix up places, personalities, and forget lots of details while writing in several novels at once, or you could end up with characters and stories that sound the same.
So first off, know that writing another novel is going to split your focus and take you away from the main thing you are trying to write. It sucks. It isn’t fun. But you have to be realistic about what it means if you give in.
Get it all out of you.
Just because writing a new project can and will split your focus, doesn’t mean it has to. It also doesn’t mean that you will never write that story. Now when a shiny new idea comes along, I get it out of me as quickly as possible. I write down everything I have for this story or character as soon after I have the idea as I can. I need to get it out of my brain and onto some pages.
Our minds are made for having ideas, not for holding them. I don’t suggest that you see that shiny new idea and follow it all the way down the rabbit hole and see if it leads you to wonderland. I’m not saying to begin brainstorming. If you’ve gotten to that stage, you’ve already gone too far.
It is, however, helpful to write down all the details you can remember, at most a few pages, to get the concept or character out of your brain. This way, your brain no longer has to hold the shiny new idea in the forefront of your mind.
Often, an idea comes as a concept. If I can write an entire page about it, it may actually be strong enough to become an entire thing. Here are a few examples of both:
There was once a mage city protected by a wall of sand, blowing crazily like a windstorm. The only way you could join the mages in the mage city was to have sufficient enough power and control over your magic to get past the barrier (over, under, through it).
Not much to go on, right? A cool concept. Maybe someone could turn that into a story someday. I haven’t been able to use it yet, though I had the idea in 2015. It just never seems to fit anywhere, and isn’t enough to make an entire story on its own.
The Three Fates
A girl is cooking in her apartment when a guy breaks in. She manages to get him out, but he’s very angry and keeps trying to get back in.
Suddenly, three people are in her apartment. They have stepped through a vortex in time. They say that they can save her, but she has to come with them right now.
She travels the world with these people. When the coolness of the moment wears off, she later learns that these people are the three Fates of Legend. There are two boys and one girl. The girl has the Sight. I’m not sure what the boys do. One of them must measure out rope, and one of them must cut the rope.
The Fates are not only capable of killing people by cutting their rope. They can tie length of rope onto people too. The Fates each have their own ropes, tied in a circle, around their necks.
The two boys are in a relationship together and they tend to playfully gang up on the girl when it comes to making decisions about who they should save and who will die. They are the Sight’s best friends.
But the girl with the Sight knows a terrible truth; that one of the boys’ deaths is unavoidably near. She doesn’t tell the boys this, as she wants them to have their happiness for as long as they can. Yet she has searched throughout every single possible future, and has seen that this girl who they have now rescued is capable of taking that boy’s place and bringing balance back to the Fates, but that rescued girl must choose that path of her own free will.
I think you can see the difference in quality here. This hints at both a story arc and a character arc for multiple characters. I don’t clearly know anything about the boys beyond the fact that they love one another. I have no idea how one of the Fates of Legend could possibly die or be killed. I don’t know what decides the main character on becoming a Fate or not. Yet the story is there.
Writing out everything I know at the start helps me to keep it out of the forefront of my mind, but also gives me the peace of mind in knowing that the idea didn’t just disappear or get thrown away in favor of my current project. I wrote this idea down in 2015, and the bones of it are there for me to look back on and remember when the time is right to write that story.
Try it out.
If you can write at least a page about the new idea, it is worth exploring in full. One thing I have learned from Author Kate Cavanaugh is to take some time and try a new idea out. Give yourself a day, a weekend, an outline worth of time to figure out if you can actually make an entire story out of your idea. Sometimes, you can’t.
Giving yourself a day per month, a weekend per quarter, maybe as much as a week between projects to come up with a working outline or to build that character out in full is an incredible way to explore that shiny new idea for a finite amount of time while also not letting it derail your most important work.
Remember. You aren’t doing a deep dive. You aren’t going out and trying to write a first draft in a weekend. The point of exploration isn’t to do the thing right now. The point is to see if you could build enough of a story around your idea to do the thing later.
You can also feel satisfied whether you did or you didn’t finish your exploration, because you know whether or not the shiny idea has any real way of becoming a story you can see through to an end.
So that’s what I do when a shiny new idea comes along. Have you ever faced the shiny new idea? What tips and tricks have helped you to overcome the idea and keep laser focused on your one true goal? Let us all know in the comments below!