Funny thing about this creative business. Some ideas are best executed quickly; hit ’em and ship ’em while they’re hot. Others require a lot more time.
Besides telling which project is which, the trick is to let an idea sit for a while without any interference. It’s that watched-pot analogy at work.
Journalists will tell you all about deadlines. I sure can, from all my years of hanging around newsrooms. Most newspaper types navigate a network of these deadlines. We know when an issue is supposed to hit the press and work backward from there. Page designers have a deadline. Editors have several. Photographers have some, and reporters have a few. We always know when we’re getting close to deadline when we hear the managing editor behind us, racking his shotgun. Everything’s time sensitive, no extensions, no grace periods, no manana.
Even in my online freelance work, deadlines are a fact of life. True, some of the steps — page makeup and printing — are gone but a deadline is still a deadline.
Best work I ever did as a jornalist was a series of stories that, I think, got me some award or other. But I went away thinking, if I had just one more day to develop this and one more page to fill, this is really gonna be good.
As important as those deadlines are, they sure get in the way.
Crock pots and microwaves
But some projects don’t lend themselves well to deadlines. They just need time to develop. Rather than throwing them in the microwave you’re dumping them into the crock pot.
I’m thinking about longer, more ambitious works here. Great works of fiction. Outstanding musical compositions. That fantastic sculpture. You start with an idea and … then what?
That’s when it gets good.
If the idea’s not time sensitive, you can dump it in the crock pot. Or better, write it down somewhere. Put it on your long-range to-do list.
Then forget about it.
That’s when the cool stuff happens. The idea starts to grow.
You’re always working on it. Sure you are, only no one knows. Maybe not even yourself. It sits in your subconscious, where all the creatures in the attic have their way with it.
The old-school way is to give this project its very own file folder and add any supporting items or anything pertinent and interesting. Let the whole thing sit, give those creatures something to play with, and pull it out after a good slow roast. Somewhere along the line some sort of structure and a gazillion ideas have sprouted.
(Of course, since we’re trying to keep a paperless office and quit killing so many trees, you can probably figure out a digital version of this. Electrons and disk space can be killed with impunity.)
But this aging thing is why so many writers like to have a time lag between first and second drafts. You hammer out that first draft at a dizzying pace and let it sit for a month or two. Stephen King says he gives it a minimum of six weeks, during which time he works on something else — like a short story. I tend to go with the Biblical time standard of 40 days and 40 nights. That’s close to six weeks.
But that’s when I’ll take the manuscript out of hiding, blow the dust and cobwebs off and attack it with my red editing pen. Or whatever the digital equivalent is these days.
I remember reading something in a high school English class. Some prolific writer of the day — I can’t remember who — said she lets those loose ideas and concepts “roost in my head.” After a sufficient roosting time she’s writing like mad. Off her explanation I’ll assume that’s her first draft; subsequent work takes a lot more time and care than that.
But with that roosting/slow roasting time, I find it’s best to just plain forget about the whole thing.
Just keep it off my mind.
Those attic creatures do their best work when I’m not hanging around trying to supervise.
Would you read “A Bunch Of People In Boulder?”
When King worked on The Stand, he had some 500 single-spaced manuscript pages and realized he’d written himself into a corner. His Superflu survivors were in Boulder, Colorado trying to rebuild a decimated society, then … what? He had no clue.
But this problem — call it a form of writer’s block as if such a thing really exists — threatened to derail his project.
If it wasn’t for that 500-page investment he probably would have quit.
He tried everything to save it, and nothing seemed to work.
He’d take long walks, trying to untangle the mess he’d created.
It wasn’t until another long walk “when I was thinking of nothing much at all” that a solution started to take shape — what’s wrong with blowing up half the major characters and sending the rest on a no-chance quest into the enemy’s lair to take their stand?
Not only did this get the story moving and give him a way to end the novel, but it became the theme and the title. Got to admit, “The Stand” sounds a whole lot better than “A Bunch Of People In Boulder.” Which book would you buy?
King says this piece of an idea came so quickly and so unexpectedly he ran home so he could write it all down. He was that afraid of forgetting it.
Memos from the creatures in the attic
It’s stupid how that works. I’m one of those guys who always carries a pen and index cards with me, and those great project-moving ideas always seem to come at me when I can’t get to those tools.
Like when I’m on the bicycle dodging trucks and crazy people.
When I’m hiking up some mountain where I need both hands and maybe a flashlight.
When I’m in the shower or swinging that weed whacker around in my front yard or (ewwww!) cleaning out my refrigerator.
When I’m talking to someone and it would be impolite to stop everything while I jot that idea down.
When I’m not thinking about it.
That’s when those creatures are manically working. Their timing may be inconvenient, but I’ll take their memos anyway.
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Talk to me: Do those great project-moving ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them? What do you do when that happens? Share in the comments.