Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sit. Stay. Good story!

In last week's entry, I mentioned Brandon Sanderson's Calamity, which I recently finished.  The book is the third in a series - think Ocean's Eleven teaming up to defeat Evil Superman - and just came out last month.  In the author's note, Mr. Sanderson talks about finishing the book in 2015, and how he first had the idea for the series in 2008.

Seven years, from idea to complete series.  Think about that for a moment.

As writers, I think we're all familiar with the concept of the Shiny New Idea.  Whether pantser or plotter, there are times when something pops into our heads and demands to be written RIGHT NOW.  Abandon all your other projects, it says, for this is the one true story, the one that will sell a million copies and launch you into the ranks of the literary superstars.

Over the years, I've frantically scribbled down notes for dozens of Shiny New Ideas.  I don't think a single one of them has ever played itself out all the way and become a book, not as it first came to me.  And while this feels like another one of those things I should have learned decades ago, it's something I've recently come to understand.

No matter how good or how big an idea is, no matter how much you think the world needs to have this book yesterday, you'll get a better story if you let it sit.

This is something I realized when working on the plot for what will be my next book.  I started taking down notes on this story back in 2014.  I've tried a bunch of different stories that dealt with people traveling from one plane to another; the most recent attempt was the first book I wrote in that same year.  Anyone remember me talking about that?  I took a week off of work to write, hammered out the first draft in about three weeks, and hated it as soon as it was done.

It was hard to convince myself to work on something similar to a book that turned out bad, but the tale of an interplanar journey wasn't one I could just give up.  So I worked out notes for a new book, with a mostly new cast and a different reason for the trip.  This tale was on my short list of plots that I thought were ready to write last year, but I still had the feeling that it wasn't quite there, so I didn't use it.  (Good thing too, as I had the main characters' genders wrong.)

But now, after working away at this thing for nearly two years, it feels like it's finally ready for me to get started.

This is tremendously reassuring.  I've talked about how many plots I've worked on and either set aside or tossed away over the years, and while I've never had a problem with mining old notes for new ideas, I hadn't considered that letting something sit for a while could be part of the process.  The downside to this is that now I wonder how much better some of my stuff could have been if I'd only let it sit for six months or so before starting on it.  Gah.

On the plus side, I recently took three different ideas I'd been working on - one of which I first came up with in 2011, another I started on in 2013 - and sat down to see if I could blend them all together, based on stuff I wrote down at work last Friday.  Did it work?  Yes.  Yes, it did.  All of these ideas felt like they were missing something, but put together, they're something special.

And I never would have discovered that if I hadn't let them sit for a good long time.

So now, seven years from idea to completed series doesn't sound bad.  It makes a lot of sense, to be honest - as tightly-plotted and well-developed as Mr. Sanderson's series was, there's no way he could have done that by hammering out the stories as soon as he had the idea.  And while I don't try to imitate my favorite writers, I can definitely learn from how they work.

Next: if all goes well, a practice story from the interplanar plot, showing how it all got started for the two humans.  If it doesn't go well... I'll think of something.


  1. Recently I read the science fiction novel THE FOLD by Peter Clines. In the afterword, he said that the earliest version of the book was a short story he wrote in college that his professor hated. Many years later, he tackled the story in a different way, got a few thousand words into it, then abandoned it as not working.

    Then he published a book titled 14, and when it was a success, he started planning a companion novel. He said he was talking it over with his wife when he suddenly realized that old idea he never could get to work might fit into the new project.

    I loved reading how the book came to be and how many attempts he made before it reached fruition. It made me realize that the book which failed on sub last year is not necessarily dead, but maybe hasn't reached it's optimum form yet.

    I am now planning to keep the premise, ditch the plot and characters, and start over.

    1. Excellent; I hope that works out for you. ^_^ And yeah, I've recycled ideas and settings and characters from older works, probably a lot more than I realize. I can't help wondering how many things we read are in their Nth version of what the author thought they were going to be.

  2. Mine sat in a drawer for thirty years before I took the manuscript and made it something worth publishing.
    You've put it all together! Now run with it.

    1. ...thirty years? O_o Damn. And I thought sitting on something for four to five years was long. But it clearly worked out for you in the end, so it's all good.

  3. This is so reassuring. To you. To me. To all writers.
    Thanks for sharing this post!

    1. The cynic in me says there's no way "all writers" will read this, but... yeah. But thank you. ^_^

  4. I can definitely relate to this. I'm realizing more and more that my ideas need to sit and simmer for LONG periods of time before I'm even ready to sit at the computer. It can be frustrating, but the stories are always better because of the wait.

    1. It can be frustrating, yeah, especially when some stuff feels like it's crying out to be written. But knowing things will get better for the wait helps so, so much.