How Do You Choose?

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light-bulbs-1822112_1920.jpegI've heard people say they have so many ideas they don't know which one to write. Having a lot of ideas is great, but it can also be a form of procrastination or indetermination. Don't get caught in a trap of endless idea generation that means you never write.

Here's what works for me when choosing ideas. I'll address different categories of writing.

Magazine Piece Ideas

I've sold over a hundred and fifty short stories and articles. If I'm in the midst of writing a story and another idea comes to mind, I open a file write down my ideas and save it in a folder labeled Story Starts or Article Ideas. Then I get back to the original story. When I finish my first draft of the piece, then I can move on to a new idea or an unfinished story or article.

But let's say today I have no stories or articles in progress--just ideas. How do I choose? I look at my ideas. Some may feel "meh." (At least at the moment.) Others may look interesting, but I'm missing something to make it compelling and I'm not sure what, so I set it aside. Another idea is intriguing, so I start writing. Why look for other ideas if this one looks good? Go ahead and write it. If no ideas grab me, I look at editorial calendars and theme lists. I may have something already written that fits or need minor adjusting, or this outside input may be the missing inspiration I need for an idea on file. Or it may inspire me to write something totally new.

It helps me to finish stories by knowing these things:
1. The main character's problem
2. How he/she will solve the problem
3. Something of the character's personality
4. Setting

For most articles, some research will be required. What information can I find? Are there books on the topic? Good internet sources? Good articles written for adults? Interviews? Diaries? While I'm looking at this material and taking notes, I ask myself, "What will be the focus on my article?" "What will be especially of interest to kid readers?" Sometimes the research will point at another idea, which goes in my idea file.

I've also done interviews for articles. That takes preparation too. Finding someone interesting to interview, arranging the interview, preparing intelligent questions, taking notes on their answers and taking pictures. If allowed, I tape the interview. My notes might include details about the person and setting and observations about what they do as well as direct quotes. Then I have to look over my notes, perhaps listen again to the interview, look at the pictures, and start organizing my article. I find it helpful to make a mini-outline after I've written a piece to see if it works or needs rearranging. (I'm not an outliner.)

When I'm done with the first draft of a story or article, I can move on to another idea. Giving the draft a week or more to settle while I work on other things helps me come back with fresh eyes to do editing. After that, I share with my critique group and do another rewrite (or two or three) before submitting.

TIP: If you never finish any stories or articles, you'll never have the satisfaction of a complete piece. Nor sales.

Picture Book Ideas

Picture books are usually going to take a lot more work to get right than a short story. I have to be really motivated by the idea. Does that mean I jump in and write it? Often, not. I might look and see if there are similar books out there on the topic. If too many, then it's not a good topic to write unless I have a fresh twist. I might abandon the idea or throw it in an idea file.

I may need to do some research on character or setting before I begin to write. What will work the best for this story idea? Who will be the right character for this story? I have to think of character names that fit. I might do research on objects or an experience I want to include in the story.

Sometimes ideas come almost full blown. I lie down at night and keep thinking of the story. I wake up in the morning and the story is nagging me. I may not want to get dressed, eat breakfast or do anything, but get to the keyboard. Does that mean the picture book comes out perfect first time? Absolutely not! But it usually means I'll get a first draft written in a hurry.

Again, all my picture books go through revisions before my critique group sees them. They may go through several rounds with my group as well. Sometimes I get a professional critique, too.

TIP: Write to the end, even if you don't like your first draft. You'll learn something by doing so.

Novel Ideas

Novels are a big commitment--usually a number of years for me. I have to know the main problem, have a character, and have an idea how the problem might be solved before I write anything. I have a number of novel starts--a page or two or even a chapter--where I didn't know enough and couldn't get going because of it.

Ideas I'll develop into a novel have to have a theme that resonates with me. I've discovered that many of my manuscripts deal with the theme of facing fears. Having a theme helps provide a partial roadmap for the story.

These story ideas may be inspired by past experiences, by the voice of a character, or by a predicament I've read about or imagined. I start with the one that is tugging me most.

I try to finish a draft of one novel manuscript before starting another. However, sometimes a new story is pressing me so much, I work on two projects. Of course, at any time, I may stop and make notes on a new idea that I'll attack later. While writing that first draft, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my characters are doing, do any necessary research, and keep plugging away until I reach the end. Once I have a completed draft, I may let it "sit a spell" and work on something else so I can come back to it with fresh eyes for revisions.

Just like with the other forms of writing, my critique group gives me feedback.

TIP: As a pantser (versus an outliner), I find the use of a story timeline or story ladder helps me keep track of the who, where, and when of each of my scenes and chapters.

Assigned Writing

Sometimes writers are asked to write on a specific topic which means they didn't have to find the initial idea. This often includes a deadline. But I'll leave that discussion for another time.

Does It Matter Which Idea I Choose?

Eventually. But I've found all writing, helps develop my writing muscles and skills. I find the more I write, the more I want to write. Picking an idea and going with it will get you in the habit of writing. So, don't agonize too long over which idea to develop--write!

I love this quote from John M. Cusick, "Writers, your job today is to sit down and start. Finishing, getting better, getting through it--that will happen on its own. Just start."


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