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Earlier this year, I had an idea for a fantastic novel. It was going to feature a post-apocalyptic society with polygamous marriages, a planet plunged into eternal night, monks . . . and unicorns.

However, the idea occurred to me while I was knee-deep in agent revisions for my novel, so I didn't have time to even jot down a rough outline. Instead, as I revised, I began to sock away every cool idea I could into this nascent plot. Star-crossed romances. Twins torn apart. Encroaching daylight. Panic. I told several friends about this book. They seemed excited, and I couldn't blame them. UNTITLED DYSTOPIAN UNICORN NOVEL was exciting stuff.

Weeks passed. I sent my revisions off to my agent, took a week off to get some reading done, sat down to write--and wrote something else.

This has happened to me several times now. Shiny new ideas will come calling while I'm engaged with the blood, sweat, and tears of the revision process. These half-formed books are often much cooler than the novels I end up writing. In fact, they're fairly bloated with cool ideas. What they tend to lack are appreciable plots, or recognizable characters. They're like empty shelves on which I place everything interesting thing I read about on wikipedia, or see on TV. Like Kowloon Walled City. Or Paro Therapeutic Robot Seals.

I've become resigned to never writing most of these books. These days, I consider them more placeholders for real projects than projects in and of themselves. When we're deep into a draft, or revising, it's normal that ideas occur to us. After all, the world is a fascinating place, full of awesome raw material that any self-respecting writing would love to stick in a book. But cool ideas aren't really the stuff of novels. They're more like the spice that makes a strong book even tastier. And a really strong book can only hold so much awesome and still have room for a plot, anyway. 

Of course, perhaps some day I'll return to these ideas--remix them, reuse them, marry them to an interesting protagonist and see what kind of trouble they make together. Maybe one day UNTITLED DYSTOPIAN UNICORN NOVEL will even see the light of day. But for now, I'm fine with letting them sit on the back shelf of my mind. How about you? Do you have a pile of placeholder novels you would love to write, but haven't?
Phoebe North

Phoebe writes stories about aliens for teenagers. She loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and doesn't believe you should ever have to choose. She is the author of Starglass and Starbreak, both from Simon and Schuster.

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  1. Wow, I've had this slightly scary, crazy sci-fi/dytopian idea lingering for a couple of years. I've written lots of notes, planned characters and settings but it never felt like the right time to right it, not to mention the fact that it doesn't fit anything else I write at all! Thank you for this post which just made me realise what this idea was all along :)

    1. No problem, Sarah Kate! It was actually pretty liberating when I realized that I didn't HAVE to write these books. I mean, someday, maybe, if I want. But they could just be fun ideas I play with, too. :)

  2. I'm currently knee deep in my first draft of my first novel ever...than I heard that Taylor Swift song Eyes Open and suddenly I had this whole new idea for two books that are better thought out than the one I'm working on now. The plot and characters fit perfectly and I can visualize the whole thing, even how it will end! Not like my current WIP which I'm struggling to form a plot for. I love my WIP so I'm going to have to set the new idea least for now...l

  3. I do the same thing, which is why my "Idea" file is ridiculously long. They're all cool concepts (magic systems, characters, etc) without plots or real conflict. Maybe someday they'll get written.

  4. Ha! I love it. I have a lot of ideas that swirl around. I was in the middle of revising a different novel when my current WIP came to me. It wouldn't let me go, so I put the other one on the shelf.

  5. Omgosh, that unicorn image is the EXACT SAME ONE that was on my very first diary, when I was in fourth grade. It had a lock and key and everything. And I still have it, obviously.

  6. You are so right: "Cool ideas aren't really the stuff of novels." I've figured that out myself ... the hard way ... by trying to write a few. They inevitably fall apart. I'm lucky if I figure it out before I invest too much time.

    But I really like your a post-apocalyptic society with polygamous marriages, a planet plunged into eternal night, monks with unicorns idea. I think it's awesome.

  7. That sounds like a great idea for a novel, even if it is a placeholder. I know one writer friend who would love "UNTITLED DYSTOPIAN UNICORN NOVEL"

    I do have a placeholder project, which I posted on my blog. It started off as this YA love triangle story between a shy, awkward boy, the girl of his dreams, and her cute, quirky BFF. Then tragedy strikes and it shifts to...something. I know what I want to do with it, but I just can't figure it out yet, so I went back to my original project. I'm fairly confident I can finish this one.

  8. That does sound like a pretty neat idea for a story - though maybe not all in the same book. I have the same problem with trying to pack my current YA series (first book is thankfully done) with all the cool ideas that come to me. In my case it's faerie lore I've been dying to put my own spin on, a varied assortment of things to do with childhood, and every neglected original fantasy character that might fit. I'm realizing that though I want to pack all these things into one series, they just won't fit with the current plot and characters. While some might eventually get their own books, others will unfortunately have to remain just really cool ideas.


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Item Reviewed: Placeholder Projects Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Phoebe North