Idea Starters: Mining Your Stash
writing craft | craft | writing for adults
January 16, 2018
Idea Starters: Mining Your Stash
by Andrea Collier
If you are like me, writing can be a series of stops and starts. It is all a part of the process. I have a ton of ideas that may have been great but as I started writing, they didn’t hold my interest. I never fully discard them. I revisit them and try them on to see if they feel right to take on now. The other thing is that over time we may have gathered some information that could make the idea come to life. The more we live the more we know.
Writing can be a cold case business. You could be writing a novel and you paint yourself into a corner because you can’t figure out what your characters would do next. So, like a cold case you put it in that desk drawer of death with all the other abandoned projects. If you are looking for ideas and inspiration to keep writing, go back and re-read and re-frame what you have. You might just have some new insights and ideas to make this project sing. There is nothing better than coming back to a project that you have let marinate. Stepping away doesn’t mean you abandon it. It just means that the breathing room gives you the opportunity to come back with new eyes.
Start by printing out a fresh copy of an old dusty project and take a look. If there is even a germ of excitement in it, see what you can pull out and give new life. Make notes on it. Sometimes you might read your short story and say, “what if the character did this?” Or you may see that the project wasn’t developed enough when you abandoned it. I can’t begin to tell you how many articles or even book ideas I gave up on because it wasn’t the right idea at the right time. But I still have the majority of them. I often come back to an idea I had six months, a year or even a few years later. And remember the idea you work on now doesn’t have to be the original idea. The lead character may change, the location may move—use your new ideas. We often give up on our ideas before they can be fully realized.
I can’t tell you how many times my idea starters and files have saved me. In longer projects, my notes, including background information, character profiles, and little bits of dialogue that came from my initial work are just enough to propel the story forward. My idea starters can help me see that I need to do more homework, and ask more questions. It isn’t unusual for me to get on the phone with an expert or source after looking at my idea file and the real estate that I have gathered for a story.
Don’t forget to look to your nonfiction to feed your fiction. The best nonfiction from top journalists has some character development, scene and tension. These are all the things you want in your novel, too. Also look to your fiction for storytelling structure ideas when developing your own nonfiction. The point is to tell a good, well-developed story, no matter what the genre.
Look at Other Great Writing
I not only mine my stash of work I also seek out work by writers who inspire me. Reading a great long form story in Esquire will give me a million ideas about a long form story I want to tell or even a short story. I keep a list, complete with links to work I want to read. Inspiration always gives birth to ideas. I even read outside of my lane. I love to read science fiction, even though I don’t write it. I always get ideas from reading widely. I recently started doing a deep dive into children’s books to generate some story ideas. And it worked. The point is to be open to what can spark your next project or to move you forward in an existing project.
Read what you have and be inspired to act on your ideas. But never be afraid to look beyond that. There are idea starters around every corner.
Don’t linger too long though. So often we try to force an idea, even when we know it isn’t working. When that new idea feels forced to you, it will often feel that way to your readers and editors. Try looking for an organic flow that comes out of that initial idea starter. Everything you write should ultimately feel like it should be there.
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