Then, in the middle of the night sometime last week, a new idea exploded into my mind without warning. It involved: 1. an old story beginning I wrote over a year ago and then abandoned, 2. this one element I liked from a television show about a year and a half ago, and 3. a conversation I had last week on our YA Highway retreat. All three of those things came together at once, and I woke up and outlined the whole story from start to finish. (And then put it aside to work on the stuff that's actually under deadline.)
This experience made me realize something: writing is a long game. Sometimes the moment when you first have an idea or inclination is not the moment that you will finish a story. Sometimes you don't finish what you start, ever, but you take pieces from what you start and incorporate them into something else. Sometimes, something that inspires you from a television show will come back in a year and a half, just as inspiring as it was when you first saw it.
You never know when the things you're taking in, or the things you try and fail to produce, will come back into your writing. I think this has several implications for how we as writers should approach things:
1. Don't let yourself hate "failed" works of writing. I have about fifty story fragments in my folder, some from seventh grade when I could still see well enough to write in single-spaced, size 10 Palatino. (Every time I go back to reread, I have to immediately change the font and spacing, which makes me feel old.) For a long time, I hated some of them for how they represented my failure, my failure to finish or my failure to see the problematic parts of an idea, especially the ones I wrote later, when I was looking for an agent. But it's only when I let myself appreciate them for what they are again that I find way to rescue the things I like from the things I don't like, and to use them again later. There's a reason why you wrote every story-- figure out what it is, whether it's this character or that plot element or this setting, and let the rest go.
2. Don't delete things. You may create a huge mess on your computer of files like "Story 2 Deleted Stuff," but if you delete that awful scene between your MC and his love interest firing ray guns at tin cans on Mars, or whatever it is, you may find yourself regretting it someday. Stay organized, but don't delete!
3. Pay attention to the things you like. Your natural inclinations toward this TV show or that type of bed time reading, or the links you click on when you get lost in a Wikipedia wormhole, are worth paying attention to, even if some of them might seem silly to you. Think about why you like the things you like, and make a mental note. This will leave you more receptive to new ideas, and will help you shape the ideas you do have into stories you really enjoy for the long term.
(Side Note: Some people keep a notebook for these observations, but I've never been able to do that, so I choose to use the faulty filing system that is my brain. However, it's recently occurred to me that Tumblr might be useful for this sort of thing-- notice something you like, search for it in the tags, reblog it, and bam, it's stored forever on The Interwebz. Just a thought.)
Basically, what I've learned is: we are playing a long game, here. And if we're patient and accepting and observant, we'll be a lot better off than if we're hastily ditching old concepts or forcing ourselves to finish things that we know don't work or putting too much pressure on ourselves, period.
Also, sometimes ideas really do come to you in your sleep. Who knew?
And so, my question for you is: what have you seen/read/talked about recently that you want to find a way to use later? (For me, right now, it's the quirky town atmosphere of Twin Peaks. I WILL FIND A PLACE FOR YOU, TWIN PEAKS.)