‘Too many writing ideas’ is a frequent issue. Several writers have been in touch about writing that grows out of control. One mentioned ‘the spiralling complexity of WIPs’ (beautifully said!); others mentioned ‘finishing projects without getting distracted by new ones’, and ‘digging yourself out of rabbit holes’.
I suspect that these issues have a shared underlying thread, and it’s all to do with having a wonderful creative brain! I feel your pain, as I’m also plagued by this problem. Without planning, my plots have a way of bifurcating like sprouting trees. Exciting new ideas can seem more promising than the current one, especially during the unsure mid-project stage.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by multiple options, and run out of steam with your main project.
What’s going on here? And what might help? Read on for some practical suggestions, including fragments vs projects, containers, one-in, one-out, and industry-standard idea testing. In a future blog, I’ll cover the specific technique of working backwards, which I find helpful with both advance plotting, and later structuring of a sprawling draft. But first:
Appreciate your creative brain
You’re a creative, so it’s only natural that you spark ideas nineteen to the dozen. It’s how you’re wired. ‘Too many ideas’ are a symptom of the wild imagination that lets you invent new worlds, and see into characters’ heads! So although it may frustrate you from time to time, do celebrate what’s wonderful about this. And know you’re not alone.
At the same time, ideas are just thoughts. If you’ve ever done meditation, you’ll know how jumpy and prolific thoughts are. They may be as ephemeral as bubbles, but they can still take hold of you. Brain scans can now even show trails of thought, when the fleeting gives way to a little journey. See this fascinating neuroscience study mentioning ‘thought worms’. It suggests that we experience on average 6,200 thoughts a day.
6k thoughts a day! I find this statistic so helpful for robust thinking about ideas. Ideas are cheap! It’s the execution that really counts. Since you have limited time, only a tiny handful of ideas are worthy of your full, committed attention. So it’s good to start making a distinction between fragments, and full-blown projects.
Gather writing ideas as fragments
Keep an ‘ideas’ folder for fragments. They may be useful later. Anything that keeps jumping up maybe need further exploring. 99.99% of items can be parked in your folder.
Initially, recognise these fleeting ideas as fragments. Don’t yet give them the status of fully fledged projects. Reserve project status for ideas that have ‘legs’ enough to go the distance. If something starts to obsess you as a new idea, try interrogating it to see if it’s robust (see below). This ‘fragment’ step should help you gain more control over the overwhelm of too many ideas.
Identify projects as a commitment
Projects aren’t a casual undertaking. You can be working on a novel or script for years! So pick very carefully.
With some projects, while I’ve felt ‘committed’, in truth, I wasn’t viewing them with the same commitment as (say) a client job with a deadline. With those jobs, I’d push through, come what may. My own projects were somehow more optional.
I decide to learn from what worked for me with client projects. I now treat personal creative projects in the same way, with a project code, a job ID, and a time allocation in my diary.
Do you have a process that helps you to keep serious commitments in other areas of life? What’s different about them? Do you use contracts? Accountability partners/bosses? What are the stakes that make the commitment non-negotiable? How can you harness this effect to your creative work?
One WIP in, one WIP out
It’s easy to become over-committed and unrealistic about the number of projects you take on. After one particularly exhausting year, I woke up to the fact I was simply trying to do too much.
I was balancing five big projects at the same time, and working an unhealthy number of hours. It took a few months of stress to complete projects in the pipeline, and shrink the backlog to something more manageable: just two projects.
Now, I have a “one-in, one out” policy, so things don’t keep getting added in a fit of naïve optimism. This has really helped with focus and productivity, as I’m not constantly switching between many different jobs.
Try container lengths for stories
I have a background in broadcast writing, where people write to a given slot length, eg a 15’ short story or a 30’ or 120’ script. This ‘container’ idea is really helpful, as the space isn’t limitless. The length will force decisions about plot and complexity.
Your idea might be epic 200k novel-shaped, a 2k short story, or a 10k novella. Each format has a different sense of shape, rise and fall for the reader. Long formats lend themselves to multiple story strands and many characters. Shorts typically just have one or two, as you don’t have space to do justice to lots of plot strands and and characters.
Film and TV writers often use A, B and C story strands to handle complexity. This is helpful for fiction planning, too. A container can also help give you a sense of scope during writing. I was once writing a 15’ short radio drama, and realised I was up to 12 scenes and only halfway through the story arc. Clearly, it was going to be way too long, and I quickly cut a whole narrative strand.
A container makes you much less precious about structural editing! And you may find your novel idea is actually a short story or novella.
Practise short projects before diving into long
I’m always amazed when writers jump straight into novel writing, without preparation. It can be really helpful to work with short forms, as they need tremendous rigour, and you get a good sense of different story structures in a short time.
Creative constraints are also great for helping your technique to grow, as they can offer a playful way to exercise your problem-solving muscles. My ‘nanonovel’ form [https://method-writing.com/how-to-write-a-nanonovel-with-random-writing-prompts/] takes five minutes, and lets you experience writing a complete story shape. I found writing these very useful as a fun technical exercise, and learned a lot about form.
How about experimenting with narrative shape by writing some nanonovels, then building to 1k and 2k shorts, then a novella? Short forms are just as rigorous as long fiction, and they’re a great way to practise storytelling techniques and structure, without the long-term commitment of a complete novel.
Test for good ideas
Hopefully, by now, you have a dose of healthy caution about new ideas. Now, you need a way to test those that persist, to see if they have strong potential.
Screen storyteller Erik Bork provides a useful tool for for testing ideas in his industry book The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage or Fiction.
Bork’s advice is: don’t commit to an idea until you’re sure it has hit all the elements of a viable industry project. He uses the acroynym “PROBLEM” for this, which stands for ‘Punishing, Relatable, Original, Believable, Life-Altering, Entertaining and Meaningful’.
The book goes into detail on each element. A key takeaway is to choose a ‘high concept’ idea that sounds original, relatable, fresh and enticing as a one-liner.
Can you write a compelling one-liner about your idea? Test it out on others. Would they be excited to see the film? Is the concept clear? If not, it’s not strong enough. Dig into the idea more, change it up, test whether it’s robust enough to go the distance. Bork offers some super-valuable suggestions here.
Write a movie loglines
A film one-liner is called a logline, and is crafted with exceptional care. The website www.logline.it says: “A logline is like a teardrop. All the power, beauty and emotion, distilled into a single potent sentence.”
See this helpful breakdown of the elements of a movie logline on Logline It. It may help you to work out the missing ingredients.
Plot vs pantser
The easiest way to stop your plot from being derailed is to plan it well. If you’re a pantser, this is tricky! This topic needs a blog of its own, covering strategies from dramaturgy and writing backwards.