If you start telling people that you’re a writer, eventually you’re going to get the question.
You know the one.
Where do you get your ideas?
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was, like, a story idea bodega that we could just run down to and pick up a bestselling idea when we need one?
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. But, ideas are kind of magical and they are out there. The key is to be ready for them and to capture them when they show up–without letting them derail the last idea. Because, without fail, I always get a shiny new idea as soon as my current work-in-progress gets hard.
One of my favorite books about the magic of ideas is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. If you haven’t read it, I really recommend it. She has some interesting thoughts about the sentience of ideas that I really love.
The 5 Stages of a Story Idea
For me, ideas have a very definite five-stage progression that lead from the first inkling through a finished product that’s in the hands of publishing gatekeepers (or is self-published.)
Sometimes it takes years for one to get through all five stage.
I’ll use my upcoming release as an example as I go through them with you.
When my 13-year-old daughter, Ruby, was five years old she was obsessed with superheroes. She loved them. All of them. She used to dress up like a superhero by putting her swimsuit on over her clothes and tying a baby blanket around her neck. We called her Wonder Roo and I filed away the idea of one day writing a Wonder Roo story.
Three or four years ago, I went to Los Angeles to the SCBWI conference with my best friend. While we were there, I was really exposed to the idea of picture book writing for the first time. I was especially in love with a talk that Judy Schachner, who writes and illustrates the Skippyjon Jones books, gave on how she comes up with a scrapbook for each of her books before she writes them.
My little idea seedling took firmer hold that weekend: I wanted to write a book about a little girl named Wonder Roo who loves superheroes. I tossed it around for quite a while. I thought it would be a picture book. Then a chapter book. At one point it was a straight-up YA idea.
Two or three years later, the idea for Wonder Roo finally moved from Brewing to Plotting. I started to plot out an idea that I could use as my MFA project for the semester. This happened super fast, because I had deadlines for school. I moved almost immediately from plotting to writing.
I finished the first draft during the semester and spent a few weeks editing it. Those are stages three and four. And then I submitted it to agents–stage five.
So, that’s five stages. While it might seem like the writing part should take the longest–it usually doesn’t for me. Usually, it’s the early brew that takes the most. Typically, I have four or five ideas in the brewing stage at any given time and no more than one each in the others. But not always one in all of them.
At the most, I might have several ideas brewing, one that I’m plotting, another that I’m writing, another that I’m editing, and another that’s submitting. I never have this many balls in the air, but I guess I could. I often have a book that I’m writing and another that I’m either editing or plotting–the tasks use different parts of my brain and I can work on more than one story at a time if they are in different stages.
On the other hand, I’d have a really hard time writing two stories at the same time. Or plotting two, or editing two.
The five-stages of an idea feels, to me, like everyone’s in the pot, just kind of hanging out and marinating. Brewing away. And then someone is suddenly ready to move on up into something a little more heavy duty. When idea is ready to be plotted, it’ll spark. The characters will start talking to me, I’ll starting getting inspiration for scenes.
Let’s take the stages one at a time.
I keep a list of potential characters, settings, and situations. Some of them have been there for decades. Maybe one of these days I’ll find a use for the man I saw from a bus window in the early 1990s, praying on his hands and knees by the side of the road beside his muscle car. Or the brothel museum in Virginia City. You never know!
Every once in a while I’ll take a character, a setting, and a situation, and build an idea. I just collect those like some people collect coins or stamps. Each one gets a page in my notebook. I read over them sometimes to see if anything stands out to me. If I get an idea about one of these little idea seeds, I write it on the notebook page so I don’t forget it, but I don’t let it derail me from more active stories.
If I get a bunch of ideas around something that’s brewing, it’s time to move it on up to the plotting stage.
The first thing I do when I’m ready to move forward with a story is something we call H2DSI around here. That’s shorthand for How to Develop (and test) a Story Idea. Basically, I develop the character, setting, and situation more fully, and then come up with five key plot points. I have a ton of ideas sitting at this stage.
I guess this is like brewing-and-a-half.
When I’m ready to go beyond that, I move into real plotting. I have an exercise I love that helps me get inspired. I really develop those five key plot points. I come up with 30 scenes, which is something I learned listening to a talk Walter Dean Myers gave one year at the Vegas Valley Book Festival.
And then I build a plot board and get my scenes on it.
Sometimes a story will stay here for a quite a while, because I don’t write more than one book at a time. I rarely go this far on more than one book at a time. The brewing-and-a-half stage is the waiting place. I might have half a dozen stories there at any given time.
And then I write. Because I’ve done so much plotting, and my personal style happens to be writing a pretty sparse first draft, the writing usually happens rather quickly. When I’m writing the first draft, I have a long-standing (like decades) goal that’s ridiculously small: I write for at least ten minutes a day.
Really, I just keep writing through to the end. That’s my only goal: get to the end of the first draft. Not necessarily as fast as possible, but with consistent forward motion. This is my least favorite part of the whole process. I love having a finished draft to work on. I’m all about revision. So I just put my head down and make sure I hit my bare minimum goal every day. Most days I write many times more than ten minutes.
Before I get to the editing phase there’s a . . . let’s call it an editing-lite phase. This is where the finished draft rests. Ideally, I don’t look at it again for at least a month. While this is happening, I get more serious about plotting the next thing. Or maybe I start editing something else that’s been in the waiting phase.
Straight up . . . I love editing. It’s my favorite part!
I’m the kind of writer whose first draft is short–sometimes only half or two thirds as long as the finished draft will be. So when I edit, instead of cutting, I have to expand. Some writers are the opposite–they write long and have to cut (sometimes, again, as much as half or a third) to find their story.
There is no right or wrong here. The editing phase is about tightening your story up, making it shine. If I’m going to have beta readers, that happens as part of the editing stage. If I’m workshopping the story, it happens in the editing stage.
After I’ve edited as well as I can, the story goes to submission. In reality, a story kind of rotates between editing and submission some. If the first round of submission doesn’t work, it might come back to edits for more work before going back out. If submission works and I find a publisher, then it definitely goes back to edits again–this time with my editor.
If you’re an indie author, by the way, hopefully, the editing stage is where you hire an editor to help your story shine.
Submission just means sending a story out into the world.
If you’re an indie author, this would be where you actually publish your book.
If you’re a traditionally-published writer or hope to be, you’ll be submitting to agents and/or editors. For a long time, submission for me meant sending query letters to agents. Now that I have an agent and a publisher, it means turning my finished book into them.
There is a huge amount of waiting involved with submission to agents and editors. Weeks, at least. Maybe months. While I wait around for other people to do their part, I go back to the beginning and start all over again.
Always. That’s the key. This system is a perpetual motion machine.