A sinus and ear-infection germ has been working its way through my household, and last week it was my turn to get it. So I’ve been sick, hacking and coughing, and sleeping poorly. One of the side-effects of being sick is that I tend to remember my dreams. The combination of sleeping lightly and waking up often just happens to put me in that liminal space between conscious and unconscious thought.
I’m telling you this because I dreamed up a story. I’m sure some of you are groaning as you read that, and justifiably so. I’ve had a few dreams in my life that felt like stories to me, right up until I tried to turn that vivid-but-vague dream imagery into an actual outline on the page, and was forced to admit that it didn’t really work. Dreams are often interesting to the dreamer, but that doesn’t mean they organize themselves neatly into the shape of a narrative, or that the feeling of the dream can make it onto the page.
The Irrational Excitement Phase
The truth is that I dreamed up some elements of a story, and as I wrote them down, I found myself naturally filling in the bits and pieces. I dreamed of dragons that were actually extra-dimensional, Cthulhu-esque monstrosities, and an ancient king who had managed to trap the Dragon Queen deep in the earth. I dreamed about the deep caverns where the dragon’s psychic echoes reverberate and create all sorts of monstrosities, and a vaguely witchy woman who was hell-bent on getting down there and releasing the dragons once again.
As I wrote that down, I came up with protagonists, a pair of siblings descended from that ancient king, who had lost touch with their roots, but still had stories passed down in their family. All of it is wrapped in Arthurian legend—the ancient king as Arthur, the witch as Morgana, the Grail as the macguffin with the power to unseal the dragon. Then I started thinking about the back-stories of these siblings…
This is one of my favorite feelings when it comes to writing. I start with the core of a story, and it spreads out like a web in front of me, as fast as I can write it all down. This is the feeling that many writers get, that the story is being transmitted directly to their brain from somewhere else, that the block of stone knows the statue inside of it, if only the sculptor will listen and strike the right places.
I like to call this the “Irrational Excitement” phase of story creation. At this point, the story is small and vague, and every new idea feels like an epiphany. There are tons of things that are undefined, so it’s easy to grab onto those threads and come up with exciting new ideas.
This phase is “exciting” because new pieces of the story feel easy to create. There are no broken parts. There are no difficult problems to untangle. There’s just the most fun parts of the story, and not enough detail to cause problems.
This phase is “irrational” because it feels like those problems will never come.
The Intractable Problems Phase
Of course, they do. Stories, especially novel-length stories, always run into challenges and roadblocks.
As I fill in more and more of the pieces, the characters and settings and back-story and motivations, certain things come into conflict with each other, other things remain unclear. I can’t come up with a satisfying idea to fill in a particular blank. Bits are too tropey or boring.
This is the nuts-and-bolts, getting-stuff-done part of writing. It’s the part that consists mostly of solving one problem after another, and it can get exhausting. It seems like this is the place, mid-book, when the finish line still feels impossibly far away, where many writers hate writing the most.
It can be really hard to push through this phase, but once you do, you approach the end and get that extra burst of motivation that comes with actually finishing the thing.
That’s why new ideas are so dangerous at this phase.
The Danger of Jumping Ship
When I’m deep in the Intractable Problems phase of Story A, the brand-new idea for Story B is incredibly appealing. I’m elbows-deep in all the problems of Story A, while Story B is this lovely little vague sprite with no problems whatsoever. I can just pull the threads and come up with new embellishments, one after another. It’s easy. Surely Story B must be a better story altogether.
Of course, that’s just an illusion, a trick of perspective. It’s important to remember that Story B is too young to have sussed out all of the difficult bits yet. With time and care, it will grow into an adult story, with its very own special problems to be figured out.
This is why there’s so much advice out there for authors that begs them to just finish their stories. Successful authors understand this cycle, and how appealing Story B feels. They’ve felt that draw before, and probably succumbed to it once or twice. But they’ve also pushed through the Intractable Problems phase and gotten to the finish line, and they understand that as bad as it sometimes feels, all those problems are actually completely tractable.
Some people get in a vicious cycle of following those shiny new ideas while leaving the old stories behind right when they’re at their most frustrating stage of development.
Harness That Energy
Over the course of years, I’ve developed the belief that the energy of the Irrational Excitement phase can be channeled for good. Jumping into a new story you love is one of the best feelings you can have as a writer, and you should absolutely enjoy it! When that new idea is delivered into your brain (or arrives in a dream), immediately jump on it.
When I had that dream, I hurried to write it down. Then I spent an hour or two turning it over in my mind and expanding it. I came up with a few characters, some back-story, and a couple of proto-scenes. I outlined some of the things that I thought should happen later in the story, not worrying too much about how to connect those dots. By the end of that time I knew I had enough material to actually make a story out of, and it would probably have to be a novel. I had expanded the ideas enough that I could just start to see the hints of some problems that would have to be figured out.
Then I set it aside, and I worked on blog posts and Razor Mountain. It was a fun burst of creativity, and it was extremely productive. I got to enjoy that “new story feeling,” and I wrote down enough that I can pick it up later. But I have other projects that I’m committed to, and that means I can’t write a new novel right now.
That creative energy is a fantastic thing to harness, but it’s important to control it rather than letting it control you. For me, it helps to remind myself that every single story I’ve ever written felt like that at first, and pretty much every one of them had some point where I had to struggle to figure out how to finish it.
Not only that, but I can use a new story as a carrot to dangle in front of myself when the going gets tough. “Just keep writing Razor Mountain,” I’ll tell myself. “Pretty soon you’ll be done, and then you can work on that dragon story you were so excited about. Or one of the other fifty things in your brainstorms folder.”
Indulge, But Limit
In short, indulge in those new stories, but only for a little bit. Savor that burst of creative energy, and harness it at its peak. Don’t let it distract you from what you’re already working on. If you get those story seeds down on paper, they can be surprisingly patient, and you can pick them back up when it’s time for the next project.