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Playing the Long Game

Because I've been working on the same story for so long, my brain has been pretty much closed to new ideas. For some people, this is when the new ideas attack them the most-- when they're supposed to be working on something else. And that's usually true for me, too. But for the past year or so, not much has been going on in the way of shiny new idea attacks. I started to wonder if my writer brain was broken.

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.)
Veronica Roth

Veronica is the author of the NYT bestselling YA dystopian thriller series Divergent, published by Harper Collins/Katherine Tegen Books. She's also a graduate of Northwestern University, a Christian, and A Tall Person, among other things.

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  2. Ghost hunting TV crew getting chased and tormented by ghosts. That's being used in my Camp NaNo project. And a lot of found footage film references. I'm a sucker for them. ^^

  3. Wow. Just wow. I've been having similar anxiety attacks -- will I ever have another idea again? I wrote a post similar to yours over at YA Outside the Lines but what you said about paying attention to the thinks we like is exceptionally noteworthy. To answer your question, it's the muscle car in Supernatural that I love. I'm working on a YA series now that features a GTO.

  4. I like your idea for #2. I usually jot them down in a notebook just in case I want to use them later, but creating a 'deleted file' would work. Thanks.

    As for an idea I've been wanting to use, but haven't found a place for it yet is: Mount Rainier and Key West. One I lived and the other I vacationed, both absolutely beautiful. So, at some point, I plan to use them as a setting. Also, Gilmore Girls. I would love to read a YA series that is similar to the TV show.

  5. I'm working on something new now but am feeling like what's next after this. Great advice on how to handle those feelings. And you're right, ideas are all around us.

  6. Yeah, my brain is currently in shutdown mode--we're moving to another state in two weeks, and I'm unable to write a word of anything. I know this makes me a crummy writer for not writing under pressure--but I find that when my life is stressful, I write boring things. It's only when my life is boring that I can write exciting things. Ideas? What ideas?

  7. Dreaming or day dreaming works for me. I was interested to learn that Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson both dreamt their characters: Frankenstein, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I've recently taken up reading the classics, elements of which inspire my writing.

  8. I would have to say a lot of things inspire me. Usually simple things. The shadow and light patched ground in the woods. Or the cool wind tussling in the treetops. That feeling of olden days and not knowing where you're going while walking through the forest. And I never throw anything away. I tend to mesh old ideas. Especially old characters that used to be weak, but when combined they have this different dimension to them.

  9. I wrote the same series for, like, 3 years flat (no breaks) and then when I finished I was so scared I'd never be able to write anything different. Then BAM. Ideas. But that moment of, "Wait, maybe I'm finished as a writer?" was totally terrifying.

    I try and look at everything I do/see with a writer's mind. It's seriously fun. ;) I've always wanted to write something about a mirror world or I just keep watching, reading, listening and one day the ideas will tangle enough to present themselves as a book. Woot!

  10. I'm not sure where my ideas come from, but I'm really into this show called Lost Girl about a succubus in a world where we're overrun with fairies and don't know it. I came up with my own version before I even heard about the show, so it didn't directly influence mine, but I guess great minds and such.

    I do know that I'm inspired by so much, from the t.v. shows I like, to museum exhibits. My first books bad guy came from a creepy fellow I saw while in the Museum of Fine Arts in D.C.

  11. I have been realizing this lately, too, and for the most part it brings a sense of 'Relaxxxx... you're in this for the long haul so stop beating yourself so hard.'

    I have a question for those of you who've been published: Do you feel any measure of relief from the pressure you put on yourself when that book contract gets signed? I know there are serious new pressures then, but is there some sense of, I can give myself permission to stop trying so hard to prove I'm a writer--even for a few weeks of comfort because that milestone has indeed been reached? The long game might seem more tolerable then. :)

    1. My immediate reaction to your question is: not really, at least not for me. There's new pressure you put on yourself-- the pressure for your book to not suck, basically, and then for your NEXT book to not suck, etc. etc. I think the relief from pressure comes from inside you, and you have to learn to get it no matter where you are in the publication process. Yes, getting published is a big change and there are a lot of happy, exciting things about it...but I don't think pressure necessarily goes away, if you're the sort of person who pressures himself/herself. (For me it actually got much worse, but that's a much longer conversation.)


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Item Reviewed: Playing the Long Game Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Veronica Roth