The Shadow Workshop [3]: When is it time to let go?

Part of the 2015 Clarion West Write-a-thon series! Sponsor me, sponsor another writer, or learn more about the Write-a-thon

Writing six stories in six weeks means six ideas, right?

At least, that’s what I thought during my do-it-yourself Clarion West shadow workshop. With a deadline only I cared about, and nobody critiquing the stories but me, I still put in a good faith effort to write six stories. But only one of them ended up being a finished story of the type that I might hypothetically submit for publication somewhere. The others were a collection of scenes and notes and fragments. I kicked them around until the end of the week, then moved on to trying to think of something else.

But when I was at the actual workshop, I did something completely different. If I worked on an idea for a couple of days and it just wasn’t coming together, I came up with a new idea. And if I spent a day on that one and it wasn’t working either, it was time for ANOTHER new idea. Then, if that one failed too, with the deadline looming, I would go into a panic spiral of poking at the first one again, then the second one, then the third one, then casting about wildly for something completely different, something, anything…

And then I’d have something. And it would be a story — maybe not much of a story, but still, an actual story. And I would turn it in.

I learned something I should have already known, which is this: ideas are cheap.

That can be weirdly hard to accept, sometimes. We seem to have a cultural notion that ideas are precious and rare, like jewels. People ask where you get them, or worry about them getting stolen, or try to show them off at parties, like engagement rings. Just look at my beautiful idea! Isn’t it shiny? See how it catches the light?

Maybe this is because we know that magnificent things start with ideas. Before you can build that invention, or write that story, you have to have the idea for it. When you work backwards, an idea that really pays off can look like some divine universal force tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Ah-hem! Here is this thing you need to do. Trust me!” It looks like a straight line of causality. Have great ideas — work really hard — have great thing to show for it.

But ideas are more like cherry blossoms. Beautiful, certainly. But most of them fall on the ground without ever becoming fruit. Nature doesn’t invest everything in that one perfect blossom that’s going to become that one perfect cherry. Nature is profligate. Nature snows down cherry blossoms in abundance, on the general principle that some of them will become fruit, and some of the fruit will become new trees.

From the creative end, the idea that never pays off can look an awful lot like the idea that makes you rich and famous. We revere Leonardo da Vinci for his beautiful drawings of fantastical inventions — but he never actually built any of them. (We think.)

If one idea is failing, it’s okay to move on. There’s going to be a next idea. Maybe the idea that you abandon seemed profound, and your next idea seems kind of ridiculous, but that shouldn’t matter. In order for an idea to be brilliant, you have to use it to write a brilliant story. Which is finished. The finished part is very important.

On the other hand, if you start and abandon ideas by the dozens without ever finishing anything, that’s not going to work either. Because the thing that both extremes have in common, is that you don’t finish writing the story. Did I mention that the finished part is very important?

So how do you know when to give up on an idea, and when to keep on trying to make it work? For me, it came down to recognizing the difference between the idea for a story, and the idea of a story.

What do I mean by that? An idea for a story is something that, when you kick it around in your head, starts to generate concrete story bits: scenes, characters, dialog, plot points. An idea of a story is more like a vague notion of how you want it to turn out. You know, do you want literary prizes, or pulp success? Do you want to write the next Harry Potter, or the next “great American novel” (TM) ?

You can take certainly the abstract idea of a story and start turning it into an idea for a story — when you write something for a themed anthology, for example. But you have to find some way to bridge the gap between “it needs to be about garden gnomes” to “here’s a story about garden gnomes I want to tell” before you have much hope of turning out a finished piece.

For me, the difference between “idea of” and “idea for” could be subtle. I would have all these scenes that I could imagine having written — and, you know, I have a pretty vivid imagination. So it would seem as if these scenes already existed somehow, in the creative ether, and all I had to do was figure out how to write them. And they would be elusive and tantalizing, hovering juuuuust beyond where I could reach. I knew I could write them if only I figured out how — if only I ran at the problem enough times from enough different angles.

But it was like those amazing ideas that come to you in dreams, where they seem like the best ideas you ever had, if only you could remember them. But your sense that these ideas are so fantastic is part of the illusion. You dreamed you had a wondrous idea, which is entirely different from actually dreaming a wondrous idea.

All that said, sometimes it’s true that you can’t write a particular scene right this moment, but you could write that scene at a different moment. How many times should you try to write the scene before deciding you can’t? And deciding that if your plot really requires that scene, you have to change your plot? And then deciding that if you have to keep changing your plot because you keep inventing scenes you can’t write, that maybe you’ve gone wrong somewhere more fundamental, and the whole idea is a bust?

Exactly three times.

Ha, just kidding.

Really, I can’t tell you. It’s something you can get a sense for, though, and that’s where the tight deadlines and real group accountability of Clarion West helped me. With forced practice, I started to be able to tell the difference between an idea that was really an idea, and an idea that was just the notion of an idea.

And that leads me to my topic for next time — Confessions of a Reformed Pantser.