See What Floats To The Surface
One of the more common questions asked by writers starting out in this business is, ‘I’ve got a problem: with so many ideas whirling around in my head, how do I settle on the right one?’
The nature of ideas is that they come and go like last week’s news, rarely hanging about unless you write them down as soon as they occur. (Note to self: practice what you preach; last week I couldn’t be bothered to stir myself and reach out for my notebook in the middle of the night, and an idea went walkabout. All I know is, it was a belter. If it should float your way – grab it.)
The human brain has a great capacity to be attracted to certain things over others. Laughter over misery, comfort over cold, chip fat over limp lettuce… But the subconscious works in ways we can’t explain – or, at least, I can’t. And one thing I’ve found over the years of slaving over a hot keyboard is that there’s a degree of natural selection at work in our heads. It makes sense, therefore, to rely on that inner skill when deciding which direction or choice to take.
What you might need to do is give that internal selector a bit of a nudge now and then, otherwise you’re expecting too much of it. The first thing is to organise your ideas in a way that makes them instantly ‘grabbable’.
Picture if you will, the mind of your average writer (and for this, I use my own as a model, so don’t feel I’m talking about you). It’s pretty much like a wheelie-bin - or, as my wife says - a compost heap. Full of all kinds of rubbish, none of it is recycled and most of it is swirling around and fermenting nicely. To make sense of this pile of festering flapdoodle, you need to sort through it and arrange the good bits into recognisable ‘tags’, so that you can pick them out at a glance.
This is where the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’ from the film industry comes in handy, where a scriptwriter has the length of time it takes to walk from the studio's front door to the elevator to pitch an idea to a producer. It helps if it can be contained in a single line.
Thus, if one of your ideas involves a small boy being abandoned in the jungle, where he is brought up by wolves and befriended by a singing, feckless ape and preyed upon by a nasty but clearly well-educated tiger, you could describe it as:
Small boy, jungle-reared, journeys from man-cub to man-child. Would make a fantastic feature-film!
Okay, I cheated with that last bit (and there’s not a writer alive who doesn’t fantasise about getting a film deal). But I'm sure you get the idea.
Speaking personally, trying to recognise my own ideas in any other way is far too confusing without using this brief kind of tag. But it’s enough to remind me what the idea is about without needing to look at all the detail or the notes I might have made about sub-plots, characters, locations and so on.
Just like the elevator pitch, it relies on a sketch, rather than the full picture. And writing these single-liners down (on separate pieces of paper if you like, to distance them further from each other) allows me to sort through them to see what appeals.
However, don’t rush it. What I do is allow the selection process to work by leaving the ideas to one side for a few days, then going back and running my eye down the list. Doing this, I inevitably find that one will suddenly look less attractive than it once did, compared to the others. So I lose it; dump it back whence it came, maybe saving it for another time.
This is where the brain uses the interaction between the eye and the subconscious, drawing you towards what appeals most, and away from the ideas that feel less worthy.
Repeat, as they say in cookery books, until done, or until you find that the same idea keeps floating steadily to the surface, or your eye keeps being pulled back to one more than the others.
It’s at this point that your writing really begins, because by this time, the creative part of your subconscious will also have been chugging away quietly, giving your initial idea more strands and directions to work on and expanding it into a tangible storyline.
TOP TIPS· Turn each of your scribbled ideas into a single, brief sentence with just sufficient detail to make them recognisable.
· Look at this list over several days. Prune away any which do not instantly appeal.
· By reducing the list, you are forced to concentrate on a narrower range without wading through
too many distractions.
· DON’T throw away your discarded ideas; one day you’ll come back to them - I promise.
Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook: