Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Should You Follow the Siren Song of a New Idea?

By Dori Kleber

JH: 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.


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.


  1. "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."

    This. Many writers forget that NO writing is "wasted".

    If you've lost your passion for your WIP and every time you sit down to write feels like you're being locked in prison, well, maybe you SHOULD chase after that shiny new idea.


    If you find yourself abandoning every project just when it starts to get hard, you've got a problem. You need to buckle down and finish what you start or you'll never get anywhere. Make notes about the new idea, then put it away and get back to work on the "old" one.

  2. This post is SO appropriate to my situation. I wrote the rough draft of two ( yes, I said two) books in a YA series when I heard the siren's call from a new idea. I had to work on it.

    It was a total of 4 months before I got bogged down and couldn't seem to move forward on the new story. My heart and head were with the first series.

    So, I made a U-turn.

    It turns out I like my original stories better than I knew. Now that I'm am working on the revisions this love affair is stronger than ever. All it took was a bit of distance to make my heart grow fonder.

    Leanne Ross ( readfaced.wordpress.com & @LeanneRossRF )

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    2. EDITS

      I'm so glad someone else spoke to this!

      I did my own blog post about this, though I take a more emotional tack...

      As much as the "One book doesn't make you a writer" lecture has truth to it, you HAVE to persevere with books, not just drafting them, but revising them as needed.

      If you give up too soon, you won't persevere with the book that CAN make it BEYOND your (analog paper) notebook or computer.

      At least that's what made me okay with working on Gabriel despite everyone telling me that writing something else was the ONLY answer...

      That said, I will admit that I wish I did draft more new stuff after Gabriel got to a certain statement, but I will NEVER apologize for taking nearly a decade on Gabriel. That book NEEDED that time, even if you take my newbie learning curve out of it.

      Some books NEED more than a single draft/editing/beta-reader pass, especially if you write in a "hard sell" genre such the animal stories I write.

      It's not always about being new and/or inexperienced.

      There are many successful writers who say their breakout book took DECADES before it reached publication.

      So, what should that tell the rest of us coming up under them? (Generationally speaking, I mean!)

  3. I liked this. I have come up with 9 novels since my major WIP got started, bogged, rebooted....
    I won't give up on it but look forward to calling it done and am glad I followed your advice to at least scratch out the other ideas...

  4. Elissa M., I completely agree -- you don't want it to become a serial thing where you give up every time the writing gets challenging. If you lack the strength to push through the hard parts, you won't finish a novel.

    Leanne, I love your story of how working briefly on a new idea renewed your passion for your WIP. I think that can be a nice side effect of exploring something new.

    Harry, I am in the same boat as you, with lots of ideas in the hopper for the next book. FWIW, your method is the same as Matt de la Pena's: write a page, then put it away for later.

    1. Okay thanks again Dori and for introducing me to Matt de la Pena. BTW I got SSSSOOOO wound up one day I scratched out the outline to an entire trilogy about a man who raises a dragon... that's frustration right there.

  5. This post is particularly timely for me. I've got several ideas on the burner right now, and with my Memory Wars trilogy coming to a close, it's time to settle on a new WIP that can keep me going in trad-publishing while my Lady Raven series starts off the self-publishing side of my career.

    I'm genuinely not sure what idea to choose. I'm ostensibly an urban fantasy author, but a lot of my ideas veer quite far from that.