Recently, I sat down to work on the novel-in-progress of mine, a book called The Girl in the Cupboard at the moment, and I came to it not with a feeling of excitement…but dread. I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t happy about it either. I also wasn’t surprised about the next thing that happened, which was that I thought up another big novelistic idea and became incredibly excited about it.
This happens constantly to me.
Fortunately, I’m getting smarter about it and I knew what to do: I made many pages of notes for this later idea, and then I put it away and went back to my notes for Girl in the Cupboard, but even as I did so, I knew that the dreaded IDEA ROT stage had happened, and if I wasn’t going to abandon the book…I was going to have to fight my way back from this point.
What is Idea Rot and more importantly, how does it happen? How can it be prevented?
The stages of Idea Rot are pretty simple.
1) I have the BIG IDEA. It is VERY EXCITING. MUCH THOUGHTS. SO STORY. WOW. VERY WRITE. I get very excited. I write a lot of notes, I start writing scenes for it and doing whatever bits of research are needed (Usually, my story ideas come out of my reading, so the research is frequently already done). I babble incessantly about the book. THIS IS THE BIG ONE YOU GUYS!
2) I start writing some pages of it.
3) Unfortunately, I am not a well-functioning writer these days. I don’t know why not. I think part of my brain fell out while I was chasing kids around, and it was that useful bit. The remaining bits aren’t all that useful. So the book is there, in early-stages of being written, but I don’t get to it. So I think about it, I tinker, I make notes.
4) Despite not being a well-functioning writer these days, I AM a working writer, and a decently busy one, when I can get the anxiety and crushing lack of self-confidence out of the gearworks and get the engine running. I try to write a lot of articles and book reviews, because being in the BookRiot world makes me a very very happy person, and I try to be as useful as possible. I don’t do as much short fiction as I used to — non-functioning writer! — but I DO do some, and I try to work on that too.
5) The book is not getting written.
6) The problem is, I BADLY WANT the book to be getting written, because I WANT TO WRITE A BOOK. And I think the idea is too damn good to let die! Plus, I want to do lots of books, and not being able to do ONE is kind of a killer to that plan. I admire and am intensely jealous of so many functioning artists. Big ones, like the people at Pixar, like Hayao Miyazaki and Guillermo del Toro, writers like J.K. Rowling and Joe Hill and many others…but also less internationally-known ones, like many of my friends on Twitter. Perhaps they don’t know how jealous I am of their work and their working habits…but I am.
7) I HAVE GOT to get this book written.
And thus, IDEA ROT has set in, encroaching around the edges like the first hint of green appear on the edges of a loaf of bread that’s been sitting around too long. Suddenly, a number of things happen at once. For ONE, the book idea has now been sitting around too long. For another, each time I sit down and maybe get to work on it, there is PRESSURE. I have GOT TO WORK on it, It has GOT TO MOVE, and it’s GOT TO GET FINISHED. Pressure like that isn’t the best way to work. Third, the dread has set in. I know when IDEA ROT is happening. I know it’ll be just a little bit before the final stage happens, as I mentioned above: I think up a new idea, and I get excited about it and want to abandon this old one, which has become like all the boxes chained to Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.
It’s a lot of boxes, because this has been happening for years and years now. I have a quite-long trail of unwritten novel ideas stretching out behind me. Some of them are still viable and I might come to them someday, in their time. Others have had their day in the sun and are outdated, dead ideas. They didn’t get turned into full drafts (some got hundreds of pages long) which means they weren’t even the best learning experiences. Those are the ones I regret.
So what’s the key to preventing Idea Rot? Well, it’s kind of a no-brainer: it’s just to write every day. That’s obvious advice. People tell you that all the time. But perhaps we don’t always say WHY it’s so vital.
1) It keeps the work moving, fresh, and occupied. An abandoned house feels different than an occupied house which is just temporarily empty. I’ve noted that in a couple short stories, and I believe it. It’s the same with stories. A piece of writing you don’t work on for a day is different in nature and feel than a story you wanna work on but aren’t getting anywhere near.
2) It CHEAPENS your writing. I actually think this is the most important benefit of writing every day, fiction or non-fiction: It cheapens a single day’s work, and that’s great. If you’re doing 2,000 words a day — or whatever your goal is for a successful work day — and you then have a crap day where you only do 500 words, or you the day’s writing falls flat…oh well. It’s no big thing. YESTERDAY was okay and TOMORROW’S okay and so a crap day is just submerged beneath the steady advance of work days. If you only write once in a while, then EVERY time you sit down to work has to produce AMAZING WORK and LOTS OF IT because there’s more pressure on it. That not only puts a crippling pressure on the work and on you (or at least, on me) but it takes all the fun out of it.
3) It means you stay mentally engaged with the work. You aren’t just seeing the work as this big black obelisk in your mind which you occasionally glance at and think “I must work on this” with the reliability of touching a lucky object and chanting the same wish over and over. Instead, you’re engaged with the work. Every day, the work advances, or at least changes, and that means that for the rest of the day, you’re thinking about it a little differently than the day before. And knowing you’re going to be writing tomorrow means you can think about what you wanna do the next day. What happened today and what’ll happen tomorrow. That’s incredibly useful.
When I go for a run, I’m not only aware of how my run’s going today, but how it’ll affect my run tomorrow, and what I want to do tomorrow. 11 Mile day? Fantastic! But tomorrow, I’m only gonna do three really strong miles…partially because I don’t want to risk injury, but mostly because I don’t want to get mentally worn out. That’s my plan. Of course, tomorrow might come along and I feel so superhuman that I go for another 11 mile run, and that’s terrific too. The ongoing thought process is the useful bit, not the decisions. They aren’t carved in stone.
So, being aware of Idea Rot and these problems, and offering the Write Every Day advice, which I clearly fail to follow, what am I going to do about it?
Well, I’m not ditching the book. I’m trying to figure out how to get back into it, how to retrieve the sense of fun and exploration. Part of that has been examining my working methods and figuring out fun ways to change them. Something else is just getting into the book any way I can, and I’ve been doing it with deliberate messiness. While working on this blog post, I’ve always been scribbling a scene from the book in a notebook. I don’t know where it falls, or IF it falls anywhere in the book…but it’s got some of the book’s characters having a discussion and moving around a place. That’s good enough. It’s fiction, it’s these people, it’s informative to me, and it gets me in there. It’s badly written and it may never appear in the book, but who cares. That’s a different day’s problem.