Writing Excuses 15.10: Evaluating Ideas
Key Points: How do you decide which ideas to keep and which to drop? One story cooking, others simmering with ingredients added as they come up. Know how the story ends! Interact with your ideas, explore, write them, and you develop the skill to evaluate them. Passion and excitement! What are you most excited about? It’s a different skill, but you need to learn how to force yourself to write. Take the core of the idea and find something you are passionate about. Add your exciting ideas to the pot. Don’t throw everything into one book. Find flavors that work together. Keep track of your ideas, write them down. When you’re struggling with a story, when do you push through and when do you abandon it? Understand why you are struggling. Have the ending, or at least points that you are excited about writing, in mind. Try to make this chapter or this scene someone’s favorite in the whole book. Force yourself to finish books. Make a checklist, what kind of problem is this? Avoid shiny new idea syndrome. Think about your goals. Finishing teaches you how to write.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 10.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Evaluating Ideas.
[Victoria] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Victoria] I’m Victoria.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m out of ideas. Help?
[Brandon] So, we often talk on this podcast about how ideas are kind of cheap. But, let’s shelve that. Like, we’ve covered that idea. That a lot of great… Writers generally can use any number of different ideas. Bad ideas make good books sometimes. So let’s just shelve that. Let’s actually talk about ideas, because I have had, once in a while, an idea that I was really attached to. I’m like, “You know what, I know ideas are cheap, but I want to write this one just because I want to write it.” We have a lot of questions here, because we’re doing questions from listeners this entire year, about how we evaluate our ideas and how do you figure out which ones to keep and which ones to drop?
[Victoria] So I am… I look human shaped to those of you sitting here, but I am actually a six burner stove. This is how my entire mind functions.
[Victoria] Six burners on the stove, only one of those at any given time on high heat with the project that I’m actually cooking with. The other five are all simmering on very low heat as I add ingredients to my ideas. So I actually have a very long cook time before I decide if an idea has legs. By the time it’s time to assess what next goes on high heat, I know enough about the story to be able to tell whether it’s worth pursuing. Now, for different people, these things are different, but for me, I don’t pursue a story unless I know how it ends. I do this because one, I’m very prone to quitting and if I have an ending with my story, instead of looking out at the desert, I’m looking across a field and I know it’s a finite amount of space. I also am convinced, to go back to the food metaphor, that the end of the story is the taste left in your mouth, and that we will retroactively reassess an entire book based on how strong or weak the ending is. I need my endings to be strong so that I don’t lose hope and I want to work with them. So, that is one of the main ingredients that I have to have. When you add that to the fact that a lot of my ideas steep for anywhere from six months to three or four years, then I’ve never actually trunked a story once I’ve started it. Because once I’ve started it, I’ve known enough about it to know that it has the potential to be a book.
[Howard] As someone who, as of this recording, needs to lose at least 30 pounds…
[Howard] The taste left in my mouth was the only thing that remained at the end of the meal… That would be heaven. With regard to evaluating ideas, I… You know that character in the police procedural whose skill set is they’re really good at judging other people? You, dear listener, and me, we sometimes like to think that we’re good judges of people. Or maybe that’s a skill that we want. I have come to grips with the fact that I’m still not very good at it. There are people who I have made the right call on, but there are people who I haven’t. Evaluating ideas is the same way. It’s not going to happen overnight. You have to meet a lot of people and interact with them. You have to meet a lot of your ideas and interact with them. You have to explore them. You have to try to write them. Then, you develop this sense for, “Oh, this idea is a three book idea. This idea is a plot twist.” Where… But both ideas could be expressed in seven words and look the same until you’ve worked at it a lot.
[Brandon] I work very similarly to Victoria with this whole burner thing. Whatever I’m writing on, I often can’t say what the next thing is going to be, with the caveat that when deadlines are tight, it’s going to be the one that I have a contract coming due on. But when I hit that point, and I try to build my schedule… A here is a free slot. You have six months you’re going to be able to do anything. I can’t often say which of the other five projects on the other burners it’s going to be. I get there, and then I decide. While I’m working on my book, sometimes I’ll be like, “Oh, I’m sure I’m going to do this thing next.” Then it’ll change to another one. If I had finished that book right then, we would have gotten a different novel next. Which can be, I know, frustrating for fans, because I’ll tell them sometimes, here are the many things I’m planning to do next. I’m going to do one of these. Some of the ones that they really are waiting for just never come up because I’m not, when I’m trying to turn all the burners up, I look at them all and decide which one I’m most passionate about.
[Victoria] Well, there’s a commonality coming into play here as well, which is the gut feeling. Which is, of course, very frustrating, because it is of course unquantifiable. It is the fact that we consume enough narrative to begin to feel in our own work when something is ready and when something is not. I just finished a book that I sat on for six years because, even though I had the pieces of it, I knew I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t a strong enough writer. That’s a really hard conversation to have with yourself, because we get excited about ideas. So, I think having this six burner stove or a four burner stove or a two burner stove, giving yourself options, really helps you because you don’t know where you’re going to be at when you’re ready to write that next book.
[Dan] The fact that, for all of us, what it eventually comes down to is passion and excitement, what are you most excited about? You will notice, nobody in talking about how they choose projects says, “Oh, this is what sells.” Right? We always talk about don’t chase the market. Don’t chase the market! Like, there is not a market for any particular genre or style. What there’s a market for is stuff that’s awesome. You will be able to write better the idea that you just can’t wait to start writing. You’ll be able to write that better than anything else.
[Brandon] I will add the caveat there that when a contract is coming due, in a lot of ways, you also have to learn how to force yourself to write… Be passionate about something that you’ve committed to writing. That’s a different skill.
[Howard] That’s a different… Skill set.
[Dan] But you presumably committed to that because you were excited about it.
[Victoria] I was going to say, this is the thing. This is why it comes back to things we’ve talked about already, but it’s why it’s so important that you let passion and what you actually want to write and not what you think people want to read be a guiding force for your entire career, because that’s the only way that you guarantee that when those deadlines come up, you want to write this thing. You’re not writing something that you had no interest in writing because you thought it would sell. Like, you have to make sure that in some way, you have that emotional connection with everything on your burner stove, so that even if you have to move something into that forward spot, you’re not dreading it. Maybe it’s… Maybe you’re really excited about something else, but it’s really important that you have that core fire for everything that you’re writing.
[Howard] Last night, my daughters made me sit down and watch several episodes of a YouTube, Teen Fortress 2 commentary gamer. At one point in the episode, he was doing something funny and they were playing a song… I think it was a love song or something. It was a song I was familiar with, but because of copyright, they couldn’t actually play the song or the YouTube video would get pulled. So he had a cheesy karaoke version of the music playing in the background, and the Teen Fortress 2 computer voice reading the lyrics. This is the difference between execution on a brilliant idea which is going to sell millions of copies and execution on a brilliant idea which never would have gotten out of the recording studio. The song, as read by the computer voice… It worked in the episode, obviously, because we had context. But if you set these two things side-by-side, that is the difference between an author who doesn’t yet know how to really execute on an idea, and an author who does. When people look at the things that I’ve done and say, “Oh, man. That idea was so brilliant.” I shrug and I’m like, “You know what, guys, the idea was not brilliant.” What was brilliant, and I say this patting myself on the back, is that I managed to stretch it out across an entire book, and I drew some really fun pictures, and I made some cool reveals. It wasn’t the idea, at the end of it.
[Dan] Yeah. I, a few months ago, published a novella with Magic: The Gathering. Which, to our earlier point, I was not necessarily in love with that setting, right? Because I didn’t know what it was when I signed the contract. Then I got into their offices, and they’re like, “Well, this character and this setting. Go.” So what I had to do was take that core of an idea and find something that I was passionate about in it. What am I going to be able to do? So, first thing, I made it into a heist story. It was not intended to be one, but they were cool with it, they rolled with it, because that’s what I was excited about. Being able to take those kind of… Victoria talked about adding ingredients to the pots. I had this big pile of ingredients that hadn’t gone in any pots yet, and I was able to throw those exciting ideas into the other job, and then get really excited about it.
[Victoria] Also, talking about one of the most difficult and important things to cultivate in yourself, is the understanding of the kitchen sink, right? That you do not need to take every idea that excites you and put it into one book. It’s about… And I know I come back to the cooking metaphor a lot, but it’s about finding, like, flavors that work together. You don’t need to don’t every seasoning and every spice and every ingredient in. It’s about learning to withhold and say, “This would actually be better on its own as a starlight… The star thing of a different meal.”
[Howard] On the second night we were in our house, we ran the dishwasher. You said kitchen sink. The dishwasher drains into the sink. There was this gargling which woke me up because it sounded like a voice. This idea came to me that, “Oh, my gosh, you have a family who’s in a house and they think that the house is possessed because the sink is talking to them, and the exorcist can’t do anything and the priest can’t do anything, and the plumber fixes it.” That was the end of the idea. That was as far as it went. This was 1999. Before Schlock Mercenary. Two years into Schlock Mercenary, I realized, you know what, I bet I can tell a ghost story in Schlock Mercenary where it gets fixed by the plumber and everybody is quite upset at that. So, yeah, these ideas, they come from weird places and some of them may seem completely stupid, but… I mean, to the kitchen sink point, I keep track of them. I write them down. You don’t write it down, it’s lost forever and you don’t get to use it.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our awesome thing of the week, because it’s not a book.
[Howard] Whoo hoo! It’s awesome.
[Dan] It is awesome. So, Howard and I and some other local fantasy authors do a Twitch show. We play D&D online every week so that you guys can watch us. It is called TypeCast RPG. We’re using… Right now, we’re doing a campaign called The Gods of Vaeron in Fifth Edition D&D rules. That is me as the GM, Howard Tayler, Charlie Holmberg, Brian McClellan, Mari Murdock, and Ethan Sproat, all science fiction/fantasy professionals. All authors except Ethan, who’s a professor of science fiction. It’s super cool.
[Howard] There’s a thing that happens in TypeCast which speaks well to the topic. I will sometimes illustrate moments from the game. There are moments which are beyond my skill, and I’m just not going to try. But, every so often, I will have an idea, and I need to execute on it in literally a minute and a half. Because if I wait too long, if I draw too slowly, it’s gone. The practice that this has given me in evaluating ideas has been frighteningly effective. Because I have to make the decision quickly. I have to execute to the best of my admittedly limited cartooning ability. Yes, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. But I know what my skill set is and what my skill set isn’t. That’s the sort of thing that I think authors can learn from, in that you have an idea, you don’t need to spend a novel fleshing it out. See how quickly you can flesh it out to determine what it leads to.
[Brandon] So, we have further questions along this line. One person asks, “How can you tell the story that you’re struggling with has potential and that you should push through or if you should leave it and start working on something you like more?”
[Howard] Someone please answer this.
[Victoria] Ha ha ha. I mean, that’s a difficult thing. I always say it’s the same kind of thing along the lines of writer’s block. You need to understand why you’re struggling. There’s a difference between struggling because you’re afraid of not doing it justice, struggling because you’re bored which you’re guaranteed readers are going to be bored then, and kind of like, you need to assess where your mentally at in the process. I will say that some days one of the only things that keeps me going on a story is the fact that I do have an ending in mind. So, coming back to my definitely not prescriptive wisdom, but if you are somebody who struggles to finish things or finds yourself getting lost on the way, I do find that having an ending or at least having mile markers, having things and scenes and moments that you’re excited about in the story, having them not all be in the first act, these are things that help me get from A to B to C to D and so on.
[Brandon] That’s great advice. Having things you’re writing toward, you’re excited about. Another thing, kind of on the flipside, you can do is I try to set down… If I’m feeling bored, I try to step back and say, “How can I make this chapter someone’s favorite chapter in the whole book?” I find that almost always I can find a way to change up what’s going on just a little bit to make that specific chapter a real showpiece for the book. If you can do that for every chapter, suddenly you don’t… You’re not worried about the idea anymore, you’re excited about how this is going. I often say that for newer writers, my experience has been that most of the time, you should use one of those options rather than abandoning the story. There are times to abandon stories, but I think it should be the exception, not the rule. It should happen very rarely. Particularly if you’re new, you just need to learn to finish things. So, learn to make every chapter the most exciting or the most interesting chapter in the book.
[Dan] Definitely, if this is your first book or even your second, just finish it. Because forcing yourself to finish a book that you are maybe not in love with anymore is going to teach you how to stay in love with books. It’s going to teach you so much more about evaluating their validity than we can just tell you over the computer here.
[Howard] I did an unblocking session, a small group session, at the Writing Excuses Retreat in 2019. It was a delightful session. One of the things that I talked about is that… I’ve been doing this for long enough that I have a checklist. The checklist is there to determine is this an overarching story problem? Is this a scene problem? Is this a chapter problem? Then, is this a me problem? Am I sick? Have I eaten yet today? Do I need to hydrate? Do I need to go get some exercise? Do I need to go back to the well? Have I forgotten to take my medication today? There’s all kinds of things. Until I have… Until I actually acknowledged that there was a checklist and that there were criteria, I was really bad at figuring this out. I’ve gotten much better at it because I get stuck all the time. I think we all, to some level, get stuck all the time. If the only question you know how to ask is, “Does this mean it’s time to abandon the story?” it means, boy, you need a checklist, because there’s a whole bunch of other things that come first.
[Victoria] You need more questions before that last resort.
[Brandon] I… Even in my professional career, I’ve rarely abandoned stories. The one thing that I’ve abandoned most recently was done after revisions determined that revising the book to be as good as I wanted it to be would be as much work as writing a new book. That revision wasn’t guaranteed to succeed. So I shelved that book.
[Howard] And the new book would be better.
[Brandon] And the new book would be better. I shelved that book, but I still finished the book. Right? Finishing things… We have another question here, “How do you find energy to keep a story going after that first spark of inspiration fades?”
[Victoria] I feel so strongly about this. This is shiny new idea syndrome. It is a medical syndrome. I think we have all felt it. There’s a thing that happens either 50 pages, 100, 150 pages in, where suddenly you are like, “Um. This is familiar. I have…” That’s exactly when you get a new idea. Something pops into your head. It’s shiny, you don’t understand it, it’s mysterious and alluring, and you think I should follow that instead. So many writers, especially aspiring writers and authors, dropped the thing that they’re working on to go follow the shiny new idea. It is a trick that your brain is pulling because in order to finish a story, in order to write a story, not only its beginning, but its middle and end, you have to become familiar with the material. As you become familiar with the material, that inherent shine of mystery and elusiveness wears off, potential energy becomes kinetic energy in which something is always lost. So we think, surely if I follow the shiny new idea, that one won’t disappoint me.
[Victoria] It is a way toward madness. It is a way to never finish anything. I think that comes back to finish it. Even if it’s not fabulous, even if you don’t want to revise it, you will learn so much in the process of hitting that finish line.
[Howard] I was a music composition major, and I did not learn this lesson as a musician. I think it may be the reason why I’m a cartoonist and not a musician. Because by the time I started cartooning, I had figured it out. As a musician, I came up with wonderful themes and textures and arrangements and everything was a couple of minutes long. My instructors kept saying, “Give us some theme and variation. Explore this, dig into this. Expand it.” But it’s perfect the way it is! It wasn’t perfect the way it was. I had another shiny idea I wanted to chase instead. Yeah, you listen to an orchestral suite, you listen to the symphonic greats from whenever, there’s a core theme in there that they explored and explored and explored and explored and explored before they moved on to the shiny.
[Dan] I think when you’re in this situation and you’re kind of bored with a story and you want to pursue a new one, you’re trying to decide if you should drop it or not, take a look at what your goals are for that. What are you hoping to accomplish with this short story or with this book that you are writing? Because, first of all, as we’ve discussed, if you’re early career, the purpose of that book is not to sell, right? If you think, “Oh, this is impossible. I’m not going to be able to sell this.” Well, you’re not going to be able to sell it anyway, it’s your first book. Its goal is to teach you how to write your second book.
[Howard] We’re saying that very kindly.
[Dan] Very kindly and lovingly. I had five garbage truck novels before I finally wrote my first published novel. So, think about it. So really what you’re doing, if you’re early career, is you’re learning how to write books. You don’t have to think, “Oh, this book won’t sell.” Or “This book isn’t perfect.” It doesn’t matter, because your goal is to learn how to write. Finishing it is going to teach you how to write.
[Brandon] We are out of time. Howard, you have some homework for us.
[Howard] I have some truly terrifying homework for you. I want you to get a writing implement and something to write on. Pencil, maybe a notebook. Set it next to your bed. Or whatever the thing is you sleep on. When you wake up in the morning, write down everything you can remember about your dreams from the night before. If you can’t remember anything, write the words, “I didn’t remember my dreams this morning.” Okay? Do this for a week. At the end of the week, review the journal, and see if there is an idea there that perhaps you want to explore in your fiction.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go dream.