Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Siren Call of the New Story

The first time I can remember it happening to me was during my MA in Creative Writing. I was about 25,000 words into a novel when I had a brilliant idea - for something else. I could see it all ahead of me - the characters, how the story would pan out, the layers and added meaning. It was The One, the book that would get me published.

I went to see my tutor to ask what he thought. We discussed both ideas and in the end he said he thought I should go with the new idea, because I was so enthusiastic about it. Well, call me contrary, but somehow, being told to go in one direction makes me immediately hanker after the alternative. The brilliant idea remained unwritten, the 25,000 words got added to and became The One, the book that got me published.

I'm writing about this now because I've just had a brilliant idea for a new novel. The only problem is, I'm half way through the rewrite of the current book and I simply can't leave it. But the new idea shimmers in the future: it calls to me.

I am older and wiser now. I don't need to ask someone else to know what to do. Every novel I've written has had a moment - usually at the 25,000 word mark - when another idea pops up and lures me into abandoning the old idea. The solution is to write the idea down with as much detail as you're holding in your head (which turns out to be surprisingly little when you have to put it down on paper). Then, when your current piece of writing is finished, you can go back to the brilliant idea.

I've only once been back to my brilliant idea, and that became A Single to Rome. None of the other brilliant ideas have ever been written up. When I go back and look at them I can see what the attraction was, but writing a novel and having ideas are two different things. Most of my brilliant ideas are just that - ideas. They're not stories. A Single to Rome was different because I woke up one morning with the final scene in my head. I wrote it down, then went back to the current novel.

Obviously a novel is a longer process, but I see students do this with short stories. They get so far with the writing, then drop it for another idea. The result is lots of unfinished pieces which can't be used. Remember this: the poorest idea badly written but finished is more use than the brilliant idea beautifully written and unfinished. Resist the siren call of the new story, and finish your work.


Anonymous said...

You are so right, Sarah! I have loads of short stories started but never finished because I've thought of something better. I keep meaning to get them all out and complete them. And I will - one day - but they'll have to wait because right now I have an even better idea :-)

Kate Hardy said...

Excellent post, Sarah. So very true. (My sirens tend to hit at chapter four, then again when I'm meant to be doing revisions.)

BTW, I thoroughly enjoyed "A Single to Rome" - read while on the plane to Rome, so I enjoyed location-spotting afterwards :o)

Nadia Damon said...

Hi Sarah,
I think you're absolutely right here. This happened to me when I was around the 30,000 mark on my first manuscript - which I'm now hoping to get published. I managed to confine myself to writing a detailed description of the idea before going back to my original project. I don't know if I'll ever write this book, but at the time I decided it was more important to finish the one I was working on and I'm really glad I did that now because I believe I've learned a lot about both writing and myself by remaining focused.
Best regs, Nadia

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I think you are telepathic. My WIP has been out with an editor for a month and left me sitting on my impatience. Luckily I have had other projects to distract me but you say, The Brilliant Idea struck. I've written the first thousand words of it. Interestingly enough, I received an email today to say the marked WIP is on its way back to me and I'm expecting to have to do a substantial rewrite. I'm a bit nervous to be honest, not sure if I will survive the comments. However, your advice is useful because I shall shelve the new idea and get back to the WIP, although I am enthusiastic to complete both.

Sarah Duncan said...

Gail - you've obviously got a bad case of sirens going on there!

Kate - Glad you enjoyed ASTR, and Rome of course.

Nadia - Focus is sooo important or we'd never get anything done.

Fiona - Getting feedback just when you've got stuck into something else is painful. Sympathies.

Bethany Mason said...

This is such good advice. I have been struggling with this for most of my life but this year made a pact with myself that I can't start any new ideas until I have finished at least a first draft of whatever I am currently working on. So far it is going well.

Sarah Duncan said...

That sounds a good new year resolution Bethany, hope you can stick to it and get lots finished.