Tag Archives: Ideas

Why I have a box full of old drafts


Yesterday I argued that you should throw away your darlings and never look at them again. It will probably come as no surprise to you that I don’t really follow that advice.

In my basement storage area I have a large box that contains old printed drafts of my books. There are early copies of my first novel Atlantia, half drafts from Dark Matter, and of course a ton of Surreality material. In the beginning I told myself I was saving this stuff for “security.” Wouldn’t want anyone stealing my ideas, after all. Later on I decided that these artifacts might be interesting to others if I ever became a big name author, stuff that new writers might even be able to learn from. Now I think it’s just a box I’ll have to run through the shredder at some point.

I have binders full of old stories, notebooks with handwritten ideas, original composition notebooks from 7th grade (first time I ever filled one of those things up with my own work), and countless other bits of detritus. And this doesn’t even begin to count my digital files. I have 6-7 drafts of Surreality each separately saved and available in eBook format. They were helpful when I was moving from draft to draft, and I never deleted them.

I occasionally thumb through this stuff, more for amusement than anything else. Sometimes I worry that I had all my best ideas in high school and that the rest of my life is being spent executing them. Looking back at old work provides pretty clear evidence this isn’t true, but it also makes me realize how long some ideas have been floating around in my head.

It’s interesting to see things you intended to put in a story, and never did. I write notes less because I intend to read them back, but more to move a thought to a different part of my memory. I think all of these details, even the ones that don’t make it to final page, inform the writer’s perception of the character. Keenan might have a weird love of Abba (because he’s y’know . . . human), but it’s a detail that might never be officially stated in a book. And yet I can keep writing him in scenes knowing that “Dancing Queen” is playing in his head.

And old work can reassure you that the core of the story is still there, and that you’ve improved upon it in the final draft. I reread the rough draft of Surreality when I finished my final edit. The process of revision can be exhausting, and often leave you wondering if you’ve really made things better, or if you’ve just changed them a bunch. Because it doesn’t always feel as fresh as the creative process, editing can leave you numb and less objective toward the work. Reading the old draft can be reassuring. You can see clear evidence that you kept the bits that mattered, and cut the junk away. Maybe you’ll find something you took out that deserves to be put back in, but more likely than not, looking back can show you that you’re moving forward in a good direction.

And while many old ideas and passages grow stale with time, others can take on new meaning. An idea I would have written one way a decade ago, might be something completely different now. And the converse is also true, something I thought was brilliant at the time can turn out to be a terrible idea now. Sometimes looking at old material shows us things about ourselves we’d rather not remember, blind-spots in our writing that hopefully we’ve matured enough to fix.

I still don’t exactly subscribe to the idea that saving old bits for later is good for writing new stories, but I think there’s a lot that can be learned from having this trove of old info to dig through. Every now and again I think it’s healthy to “take stock” of who you are as a writer, and where you want to go. These boxes of old material might be just the way to do it.

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Fermenting Ideas

Writing, especially regular writing like blogging, requires a pretty steady flow of ideas. There are lots of ways to get new ideas every day, but the easiest way is to consume a lot of information and media, and then to do something with your week. Create something for yourself, or do something physically exerting outside. Anything to keep the ideas flowing.

But some ideas sit with you for a while. You may have jotted them down in a little notebook, or it may have been percolating in the back of your brain for weeks or months on end. Some ideas need a little aging before they’re ready to see the light of day.

I try to keep a few things in my back pocket so I have something to talk about on days I otherwise have little to write about, but that’s a different. The ideas don’t really get any better, they just happen to be on deck.

But other things are really getting richer, like 10 year Scotch. I see something on the news, or out in the world, and it tweaks a little detail of a story I’m composing. Or I make a new connection between two disparate pieces of information that were filed in two different boxes in my head.

As writers we need to be able to do both. To think about something for 5-10 minutes, and then be able to write 500-100 words about it. And we have to be able to think for months or years about the same subject, and be able to feel like the material is as fresh as the day we first thought of it, but with all the rich full body, smooth finish and hints of oak we expect from a really well brewed idea.

The risk, especially if you’re not writing anything down, is that you can forget ideas. Sometimes that’s a good thing, just because you’ve been thinking about something for a long time doesn’t mean it should see the light of day. My feeling is if an idea is really something I should write about, I’ll remember it, or I’ll write it that day.

Usually I check in with my longer term ideas in the morning and evening commutes. This can involve visualizing a scene, or incorporating a new piece of information, or debating when I should actually start writing something down. The rest of the day I’m focused on the particular day’s work, but the longer term idea is never far from the surface.

Admittedly I don’t stop and think about this process much. This is just something that’s kinda in my writer DNA. Ideas fall into the two hoppers of long term and short term naturally. But occasionally it can be a good idea to examine your writing process, just to be aware of how you work, and maybe make adjustments as necessary.

In that spirit, how long do you think about ideas before you write them down?

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When it’s okay to use the drawer

Personally I’ve never been a fan of “the drawer”, the place where an author puts a piece of work they think is not ready for the world to see. If I’ve worked on something, it’s because I want to put it out there. It may be in various stages of “development” but it’s not shelved, filed, archived, whatever.

I heard an interesting idea though from Meg Wolitzer, in an interview for the Nerdette podcast last summer. She’s a writing teacher and advises her students to write 80 pages of their novel, then stop and read what they’ve got. She advocates reading in a place different from where you write, even on paper rather than on technology.

The goal of this is two-fold, to learn about the book you are actually writing, and to decide if it’s something you want to finish. You may have set out to write about one thing, but a plot point a character or anything else you’ve been finding interesting may have dragged you in a different direction. The goal is not to force the book back into submission of your original idea, but rather to learn about what you’ve actually been doing, and to write the rest leaning more in to that path.

Wolitzer says 80 pages not 100. A 100 page project feels like a project you need to finish, and one that you have to keep working on despite how you may feel about it. 80 pages is something you can feel proud about, it is an accomplishment, and it’s far more material than a literary agent would read to decide if they like  a book or if it’s working. If you can’t get the book together in the first 80 pages, you’re not likely to get it together in the next 80.

I have probably about 10 novel ideas floating around in my head, and am trying to decide which to work on next (after Surreality is released). I could see giving the couple of most likely candidates the 80 pages treatment then deciding which makes the most sense to work on, based on how the draft is going, and how it meets my expectations. My current draft of Dark Matter is a good example of taking a goal to it’s finish, without stepping back to think if it’s working. It’s a 200K work that wants to be 125K and can only really be fixed through complete rewrite. That’s a lot of effort, and potentially something that can be avoided.

Now 80 pages is a fuzzy term to me so how about 25,000 words? That’s a quarter of a 100K word book or half a NaNoWriMo. You can write 25,000 words in a month at 833 words a day so it’s not a ridiculous pace. And a month of time really isn’t all that long if writing is a life-long project. Maybe 20K? Something substantial but easy enough.

And if it isn’t working as a novel, you can always tweak it and make it a novella for minimal effort.

This model doesn’t see the drawer as the place where stories go to die, but rather the place where they germinate until they are ready to be worked on. And a drawer full of 80 page books is a lot less tragic than 300 page ones.

Once you start writing something, can you put it down if it’s not working?

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Where do you get your ideas? (Fiction)

Common answers to the question asked of all writers: “Where do you get your ideas?”

  • I keep writing until something happens, then I cut all the stuff in between.
  • Dreams. Be happy I only remember about 10% of them.
  • Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • An actual conversation between me and my spouse.
  • My dog.
  • Some time after beer number three.
  • Some time after coffee number twelve.
  • Between 1:00am and 4:30am, if I have the language skills to get them down on paper.
  • In the shower.
  • On my commute.
  • Right before I fall asleep, gone before I wake up.
  • Sitting on the love-seat staring at my wife talking, knowing I should be listening (not that often I swear).
  • Staring at the books in my office.
  • Sitting in long meetings.
  • Listening to Shostakovich.
  • During the sermon when I should be paying attention for my Going Deeper post.
  • On long walks.
  • On the porcelain throne.
  • A story I head on NPR.
  • An article I read in Publisher’s Weekly.
  • Wandering randomly on the interweb.
  • Sipping hot chocolate on a cold, snowy, blustery winter’s night.
  • Childhood experience.
  • College experiment (not what you’re thinking).
  • Watching my friends.
  • Honestly I have no idea.


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