If you’re anything like me, you have a stockpile of story concepts that multiplies like wet Mogwai. If you’re even more like me, most of these ideas are half-baked at best, and just like our little Mogwai buddies, should probably never be exposed to the light of day. Determining which of these critters is worth taking the time to develop into a full-length work can require some careful consideration, but where does one begin?
For years, I carried a pen and small notepad everywhere I went and would scratch things down as they hit me, but I’ve since switched to archiving these flashes on my smartphone. In the notepad days, I would typically wait until it was full to sift through it and weed out all the obviously bad ideas, but now I just scroll through my notes any time I’m ready to start a new project and see if anything clicks with how I’m feeling. There are several note taking apps out there and they all do basically the same thing, but I highly recommend Evernote. It’s free, has a relatively low learning curve, lots of organizational capabilities, and it syncs across devices and platforms, which means if you write something on your phone, you can pull it up on your computer or tablet almost instantly, regardless of whether it’s Mac, PC, Android, or other. I use it for everything. I’m composing this draft in Evernote right now so I can pick it back up during my lunch break! Whichever method you choose to collect your grand schemes, just make sure to clear out the clutter regularly, or you’ll have a mess of slimy Gremlin cocoons and nowhere to release them when they hatch. Why yes, I am running with this absurd metaphor.
Are any of these good?
Sifting through an avalanche of story ideas can be a tedious task, and you may very well hit a pile of ideas so dumb you stop dead in your tracks. Just remember that not everything works, delete the ones that make you cringe and keep going. Usually you’ll know right away if you want to pursue an idea, but sometimes it helps to set it aside for a couple days and see if it still holds its appeal. If you’re still on the fence after a little time, take it back to the curio shop and get back to inventing.
Is it enough to work with?
Sometimes the potential of an idea doesn’t become clear until another element snaps into place. If you have the skeleton of an exciting plot but no character or settings in mind, flag it and continue through your idea mine looking for something to compliment it. Like a furry little Rambo in a Barbie car, wildly different elements can unite with a spark that gives your piece a unique tone and give your voice a platform all your own. If this method doesn’t yield the results you’re looking for, you can always take the basic concept and use it to guide character sketches, or even write a couple rough scenes. If those results don’t stir enough excitement to get you working, it’s time to try a different approach.
Seriously. Sometimes a title or a situation comes so clearly into focus that we can’t wait to get it on paper, but it’s always smart to do some quick research to make sure someone didn’t beat you to it. I’m not even talking about plagiarism here—there are just so many writers and creators, so many platforms for people to create with little to no editorial input, that you never really know what’s out there unless you search for it. Parallel thinking is an interesting concept, but it doesn’t do you any good as a writer, so avoid being panned as a ripoff artist by doing a little digging before you pour your soul into a story about cute, fuzzy creatures who morph into monsters if they eat after midnight.
What is it?
The best way to approach work on an idea is to understand your ultimate goals for it as a completed piece. These goals will likely evolve over the course of the writing process, but you should know going in what points you’re trying to make, and what you hope your readers will take away from it. It’s also good to know if you’ve got the makings of a flash fiction, epic poem, novel, novel series, or something else entirely. When I first started writing a novel, it began as a poem because poetry was all I had written up to that point, and I simply didn’t have the experience to realize that the concept was much larger than the couple pages of free verse I had scrawled out. I kept returning to it, and eventually the verse became prose, the prose became a short story, the short story became a chapter, and the chapter became one of several in what became a (relatively short) novel. Had I realized from the start what these words were trying to form, I could have approached the entire project with a clearer perspective, and likely produced a finished product much sooner than the several years it took me to compose a readable draft. Not every concept is birthed with a clear intention, so when you find one that speaks to you, keep listening until you know what to do with it. At the end of the day, you will guide your adorable conceptual Mogwai through its transformation into a wild-eyed, mischievous story Gremlin, but it’s up to you whether it becomes a Stripe or a Vegetable Gremlin.
Seriously, whose idea was the Vegetable Gremlin?