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Tuesday, July 1

Should You Follow the Siren Song of a New Idea?

By Dori Kleber

At some point, just about every writer is tempted by a new idea, and many succumb to its seductive ways--sometimes with less-than-stellar results. Please help me welcome Dori Kleber to the lecture hall today, to share some thoughts on those shiny new ideas, and whether or not you should chase after them.

Dori is the author of the picture book MORE-IGAMI, forthcoming from Candlewick Press. She's been writing for more than twenty years, first as a journalist, and later as a business copywriter. Today, she writes picture books and middle-grade fiction.

Take it away Dori...


Writing, rewriting, revising, re-rewriting. It’s painstaking, and after months—or possibly years—of working on a novel, you can feel bogged down, exhausted, even defeated.

And then it happens: You get an idea for another book. And not just any idea. A great idea. In fact, you’re pretty sure it’s the best book idea you’ve ever had.

Should you put your work-in-progress on hold and see where the new idea takes you? Many in the business say no.

I say maybe.

The prevailing argument is that new ideas lure us in simply by virtue of their newness. Author Matt de la Peña, in a 2013 interview with The Rumpus (www.therumpus.net), cautioned writers to “watch out for the slutty new idea” that comes along when you’re already working on something.

“This other idea comes calling to you wearing just a towel, out of the shower,” he said. “And she says, ‘Hey, you should check me out.’ You kind of want to write that one. It’s new. It’s fresh. You haven’t even thought about it, really.”

We see the attractiveness of a new idea, but we don’t see its shortcomings, because we haven’t discovered them yet. If we start working on that new idea, undoubtedly we’ll reach a point where we have problems. And then, the argument goes, we’ll get distracted by another new idea, and another, and we’ll never finish anything.

But.

What if there’s a reason you’re struggling with your WIP? Maybe what began as a flash of inspiration doesn’t have enough meat, and now you have gaping holes in the plot development or character arcs.

Or maybe you’ve worked on it so long that you’ve lost your passion for it. Do you have to stay chained to that idea, toiling away forever in a “first come, first served” approach to writing, just to prove you have the stick-to-it-iveness to be a novelist?

Why not take three or four writing sessions to explore the new idea? See if there’s something beneath the surface. If your great idea centers on an original world, try to come up with a compelling cast of characters. If it’s a character that’s inspiring you, brainstorm at least three major plot points to form the foundation of a narrative arc.

Then, apply a critical eye to the new idea and the WIP. Which one is the better book? If it’s the old WIP, then go back to it. No regrets, no guilt about cheating with another idea. It’s okay to take a vacation from the same old struggles. You might even find that letting your brain think about a different story for a while will help you find a new approach to some of your stickiest WIP problems.

On the other hand, you may find that your new idea is more than just a pretty face. That’s what happened to me.

In 2012, I was slogging through the first draft of a middle-grade novel that I’d been working on for a couple of years already . . . when I got an idea. For a picture book. Which was useless, because I had sworn off writing picture books to focus on the middle-grade book.

I scribbled the idea on a 3x5 card and tried to get back to my novel. But this idea wouldn’t stop nagging at me.

“Let me just write a page and get this out of my system,” I said. So I did. And I got the feeling it was pretty good.

I spent the next few months polishing that manuscript. Not long after, Candlewick Press bought it. It will be my debut book. And it never would have happened if I had spurned my new idea as an evil temptress.

Taking a break from a novel to write a picture book is one thing. You can finish a picture book in a matter of months and get back to what you were writing. But if you set aside your current novel to write another novel, it could be years before you return to your WIP—or never.

That’s a scary idea, walking away from something you’ve invested so much time in, to experiment with the unknown. But there’s no such thing as wasted writing. If you put your WIP in a drawer and never write another word of it, all the work you’ve done on it hasn’t been for nothing. It’s made you a stronger writer.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s exactly the preparation you needed to take your great new idea and create something amazing.