If you’re subscribed to my mailing list, you know I’ve recently released Rumors, a free book for my subscribers. (If you haven’t, you can sign up here, because free stuff is awesome.) Rumors focuses on Crystal, one of the main characters of Weird Theology, and revealing her activities before the first book of the series. Characters, after all, do not exist in a vacuum and have lives before the events of any novel (unless your novel is about an infant and starts from their birth, which would be really hard to pull off well), and I really liked the idea of telling a story about what Crystal was doing before everything went insane.
That idea has been in the back of my head for quite some time, but while I had a lot of the basics in mind, I didn’t really have enough for a full story. I went as far as to sketch out a few scenes, but soon realized that I didn’t have a central narrative arc. This was not the titular idea that wouldn’t go away – that was more of a thought, something to consider.
No, the idea that wouldn’t go away is Jared.
If you’ve read Rumors, you’re already familiar with Jared. If you’ve read Weird Theology, you’re probably wondering who the hell Jared is. Jared is an idea that wouldn’t go away. When I was writing Weird Theology, I kept telling myself “don’t forget to put Jared in. Jared can go here. Okay, you can put Jared in when you back to edit this.” I obviously never did. By the time the first draft of Weird Theology was finished, I had a very tight, focused narrative that had no room for Jared. “No big deal,” I told myself. “Jared can go into book two.”
Then I finish the first draft of Strange Cosmology and, surprise surprise, there wasn’t any room for Jared in there either. At this point, I don’t know if I’ll ever find a place to fit Jared into the Small Worlds main novels, but I had a bunch of notes about Jared, and I found myself constantly wanting to use him, and having to deliberately avoid going off on a tangent because I liked the character concept so much.
Then I realized Rumors was the perfect place for Jared, because he could easily provide motivation for some of Crystal’s actions, and connect a few scenes that I had floating around in my mind. Once I realized that Jared was my missing catalyst, Rumors practically wrote itself. A bit of editing and some amazing artwork later (thank you, Murad-you rock!), and Rumors was ready to go.
I’m sure that most writers are familiar with this scenario. An idea takes root in your head and will not go away until it bears fruit. Sometimes that idea grows into a new project, but other times it isn’t big enough to justify that, and doesn’t quite fit with your current project. Ideas like that should be handled with the care of an unfixed cat in an island ecosystem – it’s something you should care for and love, but if you let it get out of control it could lead to an extinction of the local bird population*, which in this tortured metaphor represents your current work in progress.
*This actually happened. Tibbles the cat is responsible for the extinction of the Stephens Island Wren, and as far as I can tell from a brief Google search, is the only individual organism on the planet single-handedly responsible for the extinction of an entire species. Cats are terrifying. Adorable, but terrifying.
So here are three ways to use those ideas without killing your existing project.
1) Find somewhere to fit it into your current Work in Progress.
This is probably the first thought you’ll have with an idea that won’t go away, and if you can pull it off, it’s the best use for that idea. However, it’s often the trickiest. For example, while writing Weird Theology, I had an idea for an entire magic system built around the use of wood in various forms to grant powers. That idea had absolutely no place in my Urban Fantasy series about gods having physics fights. It could have fit better into another project I’m working on, The Dragon’s Scion, but it would have detracted from the overall science fantasy feel of that series.
When you have an idea that you want to fit into your current Work in Progress, you need to ask yourself “does this fit with what I’m currently working on?” On my end, that was a no for wood magic, but a yes for Jared. However, Jared still didn’t fit very well in the main storyline (although I still think he might have a place in book 5…I guess we’ll see), and so he ended up part of a companion story. You see, the second question is, “can I add this without derailing the entire story?” Jared would have derailed Weird Theology and Strange Cosmology. If you can answer “no” to the derailing question, then you are clear to fit it into your current project. If, on the other hand, the answer is yes, you have to make a choice: do you want to derail the story and add this idea, which would basically mean going back to square one and rebuilding to accommodate your new baby? If that doesn’t work for you, you’ll have to put the new idea aside for later.
Most of the time, your best bet is to go with the latter. You have no idea how well this new idea is going to work until you actually write it, so you could end up doing a ton of work for no real gain. Absolute worst case scenario, the story ends up with something hammered awkwardly into it (There’s actually an early draft of a chapter in Weird Theology where Jared appeared…and I’m really glad I never showed it to anyone). You need to avoid the square peg in a round hole, if you’ll pardon the cliche.
Reaching back into my childhood for a minute…if you, like me, read and loved the Animorphs books as a kid, you probably remember the two books were the main plot ground to a halt to focus on Helmacrons, a race of tiny aliens that could shrink people down to their size. It was always weird, jarring, and out of place, and clearly there because the writers liked it. Unfortunately, most of the readers I’ve talked to didn’t. My point is, if there’s any chance that your persistent idea would derail the current plot, you should…
2) Write it down and save it.
I have a document on my computer I call “the Bucket.” In the Bucket are all my ideas that would not die. Jared used to live in the Bucket. The wood magic system is still in the bucket with a title, Wicker, that might someday develop into its own story. I have ideas for at least twelve other series in the Bucket. And for all the fun I have calling it the Idea Bucket, that’s a mask for what it really is: a quarantine zone. I write down ideas that won’t go away and put them in there, where they can’t infect projects where they don’t belong.
And I do mean it when I say they live in the Bucket. In my mind, these ideas are every bit as alive as my current works in progress, but they’re growing at a slower rate. I’m not spending more time on them than a few minutes here and there to note down ideas about things I can do with them. Sometimes I realize two ideas in the Bucket work well together, so I merge them into a hybrid organism that continues to live in the Bucket. This is risky in its own way. I won’t pretend I never end up going there to just “jot down a few ideas” and end up spending an hour working on Bucket projects. But at least when I pause to take a break, I can say to myself “Alex, this isn’t a live idea. It’s a Bucket idea. Go write your actual projects.”
This is what I suggest doing with any idea that doesn’t fit into your current projects: Put it in your version of the Bucket. Call it whatever you like, but make it a designated place where you put new ideas that won’t go away. Never spend too much time in your Bucket. Instead, make it somewhere you glance into sometimes, make some notes on new thoughts, and then leave behind. It’s an intellectual petri dish, and if you do it right, you’ll find something magical happens after you finish your current project…
3) Use them as fertilizer for new projects.
So let’s say you’ve managed to safely quarantine your persistent, but unrelated, ideas. That means that, congratulations, you have a much better chance of finishing your active project! You get to edit it, and then start sending out to queries to publishers and agents, or put it together in an ebook and start marketing. Then, and only then, is it time to return to the bucket and see what’s grown there. Sometimes you’ll find things in there that end up fitting with something you already had in mind – that’s what Jared did – and other times you’ll be able to pick a few things out of the bucket and mash them together, or find that one of them is ready to grow into its very own new project.
This is one of the great pleasures of having a Bucket. These ideas have been living in their isolated ecosystem for some time, and they’ve been growing and evolving both there and in the back of your head. Often, you’ll find the ideas you’d left there have grown into something so much better than they would have been if you’d just shoved them into your current project or started working on them right away. Other times, when you look at them with the benefit of time, you’ll realize they weren’t actually good ideas and can safely be discarded.
You’ll note I never suggest that you should abandon your current project to work on one of these ideas. That’s for a reason – new ideas almost always feel more exciting than one you’re already working on. They’re fresh, they’re interesting, and they have limitless potential. There are good reasons to abandon a project sometimes, but if you do it because you had a new idea that doesn’t fit, you’ll find yourself with a dozen half-finished projects and nothing completed, because you’ll always be chasing the next new thing. Just because you had a new idea for people living under the ocean doesn’t mean you should abandon your space opera for it. Finish your project, then go and see what survived the Bucket.
Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Do you do anything else with your random ideas? Do you have your own idea Bucket? Let me know in the comments below! And if you want to see what the deal with Jared is, click here to get your free copy of Rumors!