Thursday, February 27, 2014

Can A Writer Have Too Many Ideas?

Five years ago, one of the reasons I thought I might be able to write fiction was that I was good at generating story ideas. Not necessarily the big stuff like plot points and midpoint reversals, but all the little stuff necessary for fleshing out a story and keeping the reader entertained. My ability to transfer these ideas to paper might be excruciatingly slow, but coming up with ideas has never been a problem. Unfortunately, focusing too much on the idea generation part of storytelling can get you into trouble.

When I first started writing fiction, I had no clue how many ideas were required to fill a three hundred page book. Back then, “three hundred pages” seemed staggeringly large, so I spent every spare moment dreaming up new stuff to put into my story. Turns out I overestimated the number of ideas I needed. So when my first manuscript blew past seven hundred and fifty pages, I had to dive in and rip out a ton of plot threads, subplots, and all sorts of miscellaneous events.

My problem stemmed from the way I approached writing. Instead of thinking of scenes as highly focused sequences of events that propelled a story forward, I thought of them as containers into which I could dump all my ideas, whether they fit together or not. After all, I had all these ideas just lying around and it seemed a shame not to use them. Besides, I also felt that by stuffing as many ideas into each chapter as possible, no one would notice my less than stellar prose.

Of course my chapters were sagging messes.

Eventually, after reading a great many blog posts and books on writing, I learned that a scene’s purpose should be narrow enough that it can be described in a single sentence. Maybe a couple of sentences for an entire chapter. My early chapter descriptions were little more than bullet lists. Once I learned to narrow a scene’s focus, my writing tightened up considerably, although this came at a cost. I had to remove lots of those “great little ideas” I spent so much time dreaming up and toss them into the maybe-I’ll-be-able-to-use-this-in-the-future pile.

Sometimes it’s tough to kill your darlings without shedding a tear or two. But my writing is better for it.

So tell me.  How hard it is for you to give up those little darlings you stuff into your manuscript?


  1. I think I have the opposite problem, which is why my books tend to be so short. (I don't think I could hit 100,000 words to save my life.) Care to share some ideas?

  2. It was tough at first, but it gets easier when you see increasingly positive responses to your stories as you trim the fat.

    Have I ever told you about plotting backwards?
    Try it next time. Start with the end and then work your way back, noting what necessary event would have to come before that, and before that... It sounds strange, but it totally helps you stay focused on the important stuff. :)

    1. Sounds good, but it's still hard to get rid of those little bits I love, even if they don't fit into the story.

  3. Like Alex, I always write short. Novellas are, thankfully, becoming popular again - I read it in the newspaper, so it must be true.

    Don't delete anything. Keep them and use them in the next book!

    1. My next book will be less than 300 pages, so it should be a lot easier to write in an appropriate amount of time. At least that's what I hope. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Yup, I have the same problem. I have a bunch of deleted scenes and bits of scenes with cool ideas. I stuck them in a folder to use somewhere...sometime.