The Idea That Changes Everything

Oh, the work in progress. The struggle, the self-doubt, the flow, the joy: all the myriad feelings that go into taking a seed of an idea and creating a garden of story. My current one is a novel that I’ve been at for nearly two years. I’ve drafted other novel length stories, but this one is the one I promised myself to get all the way through the editing process and make it something of which I am proud (even if proud of actually finishing). So, in the spaces between my work and my life and now also the ones between dealing with the pandemic and searching for my place in this much-needed racial justice reckoning, I’ve been writing. And writing. And writing.

I’ve been scared of finishing this one, because it is requiring levels of vulnerability and self-evaluation and risk that I haven’t yet asked of myself in my writing. That’s a whole other blogpost. But I sub-promised myself earlier this year that I would draft this plot through to the end, let it be whatever it was right now, and go from there. I was doing great, about halfway through, with a good plan for the next quarter and enough trust in myself and the story to take me all the way to the end.

And then I had an idea. Not just any idea, but THE IDEA THAT PROMISES TO FIX IT ALL! (aka the TITPOFIA!)

I was finally in a place for the story to tell me what it needed: I had done the work to get to know these characters and I had reached the point where story could start making demands, sending up ideas from my subconscious that had been marinating for my writer-brain to deal with. The TITPOFIA! is a good one, but it will ripple across the story in such a way that most (all) of what I’ve written will need to change, at minimum, but a lot is probably going to get tossed out.

And that left with me with a dilemma. Do I keep that promise and finish this draft, making the change in the next round, or do I abandon it and implement the idea now? How do I know that the idea isn’t just my brain trying to keep me from the scary work of getting to the end? What, exactly, should I do?!

I needed a method. Something that engaged with both this gut feeling that I needed to write this new idea into the story right now, and the part of me that knows that finishing this draft is a very important practice to my development as a writer overall. So I came up with this: Evaluate, Mind-Map, Draft.

Evaluate

Evaluate the idea. This probably seems pretty obvious. But when I am in the throws of a TITPOFIA!, it can be really difficult to see it for what it’s actually worth. I need to find a way to step back and look at the idea with a modicum of distance. I started asking it questions and demanding good answers.

Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about the thousand and one ideas that come up when you are writing, like potential costume changes (which, in my WIP, can be changed without causing too many or too large ripples). I’m talking about the ones that feel like, when you are done with them, they will have put your story into a close, but parallel universe: similar but not the same.

My question can be boiled down to three:

  1. Does it increase the stakes?
  2. Will it vastly improve the story overall?
  3. Is it in line with the characters I’ve created?

These questions target what is important so that I can know if I should move forward with the idea now, or write it down somewhere and revisit it later.

Does it increase the stakes? If the idea is simply a different way to tell the same story, to me this indicates that I’m using the idea to avoid telling this story. I’m probably afraid of something, and getting to the bottom of that will be a far better approach to moving forward than changing my whole story for something that doesn’t, in the end, add anything to what I’ve done.

On the other hand, if it increases the stakes, then continuing to evaluate the idea makes sense. The stakes your characters face are the sustenance of the story, so an idea that will increase this is probably worth the effort to make all of the changes it requires.

Will it vastly improve the story overall? I’ll leave to you what “vastly” means in the context of your story, but for me, I want to know that this idea isn’t going to improve only a scene or two. If that’s the case, I can save it for later and implement in the next round of edits if it still makes sense to make the change. But if it’s going to require story-wide changes that also make the story better, then I’d be willing to break my promise to myself and rework the story now.

Is it in line with the characters I’ve created? This question is my gut check that this idea isn’t for another story. If my idea is going to radically change the “who” of my story, then I’m pretty sure that I’m trying to start a new story in the middle of the one I’m actually working on. New ideas are great! I get so many while I’m writing. They go on a list, and I might play with them for a little every night before I go to bed, but they are not my work in progress. This is another way that my fear can hide in plain sight and pretend to be in service of the story when it’s actually distracting me from it. Like with the stakes question, it will be better for me to address that fear head on now.

For my current work in progress, the answer was yes, to all three. Emphatically yes to the stakes and the characters, and yes but in a gut feeling sort of way for improvement to my story. So I’m probably going to make this change, but first, let’s mind-map!

Mind-Map

Okay, so I’ve evaluated and come to the conclusion that the story probably needs to change. But what does that mean? Susan Dennard offers us three potential avenues: write forward as if you’ve already changed it, go back and change everything, or toss out the draft and start again. For me, deciding which way to go was leading to me to a dead end. I needed an anchor. I decided to use a mind-map.

I started using mind-mapping as an adult when I got my first Passion Planner. [Side note: I don’t make any money on links. These are things I use (or have used), and I like sharing resources. If that ever changes, I’ll make that clear.] Mind-maps are a way to capture and connect ideas while letting your mind run wild. You write the idea or the topic or whatever and put it in the center and then write out the ideas that come from that: implications, scene ideas, blurts of thoughts, whatever. They are useful no matter what writer style you have: planner, pantster, plantster, or those of us with stories that want to stay feral as long as possible.

The one thing about mind-mapping by hand, though, is the limitations of the size of your page. You could definitely just add pages and tape them all together and that could be a shit-ton of fun. I would definitely do that, if that felt like the best way to work through the TITPOFIA! But for this, I needed something more flexible (read: editable), so I am using Scapple. If you use Scrivener, you probably know about Scapple. It’s super easy mind-mapping software that, so far, hasn’t limited me on how far from the “center” I can go.

So, I dropped the TITPOFIA! into a mind-map file and started spinning out the implications. I started with characters, connecting notes about how the TITPOFIA! would affect them. From there, plot and subplot changes started to become clear and new scenes have appeared as well as old scenes that still work with some smaller adjustments. The TITPOFIA! has raised a number of questions as well as a number of options of how to answer them, and all of these have all been dropped into the map. I’ve been able to map things that will definitely change as well as things that might change, and I was able to do this over days and weeks, rather than feeling like I had to capture everything right now! It’s a living document that I color code to help me manage the things that I have already decided, things I am considering, and questions that are open. With the mind-map, you don’t have to answer every question now, but it will help you see how the idea could ripple through your story and that will put you in a better place to know how to move forward.

A mindmap with tens of entries with connections made in all kinds of directions across the map. Some of the blocks are color coded. The text is too small to read (and that was on purpose, FYI).
This is a fairly organized representation of how my brain thinks.

Going in to the mind-map process, I really thought I was going to decide to change some of the recent scenes I had just finished and then write forward to end as if I had already changed everything, but I realized a lot has to change. Not everything, but one plot thread and one of my main characters are so much clearer from doing this, so I’m actually excited to make these changes, even though it means losing or changing a lot of what I’ve already done.

Draft

So now I’m ready to draft. I know I’m probably starting mostly over, but instead of starting from the beginning from nearly scratch, I am drafting or editing the scenes that will be most impacted by the TITPOFIA! first. I need to wrestle with these changes to these scenes before I change anything else. This is another check to make sure I’m not using this idea to avoid the really hard shit that I’m afraid of, and by doing those scenes first, I’ll be able to see how the TITPOFIA! pans out for real and make sure it is worth it before I change everything else.

Art is not efficient, but our process can be smart. This process is helping me to know the difference between avoidance ideas and quality ones.

How about you? What do you do when you think of a TITPOFIA!?

Cross-posted at creatingcarrie.

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