Last week I told my email subscribers I’d love for future content to be inspired by the very issues that trip them up or hold them back. Today I’m going to spotlight one of the first responses:
What do you do with the initial ideas once you’ve got them?
This writer continued by saying they’re great about coming up with a brief synopsis and sometimes even an outline but then they get stuck. “I never know where to begin! What’s the best way to start any story?”
Story Ideas Are Gold—Store Them in a System
First let me address at a practical level what to do with those initial ideas.
Not every writer generates a lot of motivating, marketable ideas, so if you have more than one, you’re sitting on a creative gold mine. Take good care of your ideas and you’ll always have options.
Store any and all ideas in a safe place—ideally in a system designed for easy access, one that supports your project’s progress.
Your Writing Pipeline
I suggest setting up a Writing Pipeline, which I’ve explained in another article. Allow me to mention briefly that my Writing Pipeline consists of different folders set up in Evernote marked:
- Final edits
I have two more folders in the same stack that aren’t part of the actual pipeline but feed the pipeline, and those are:
- Notes & Quotes
While Evernote has worked well for me, your Writing Pipeline folders could just as easily be set up in Trello, Google Docs, or any project management app or system you use. But the point is to be sure you have a place to capture, store, retrieve, and develop your ideas.
Initial Idea Development
Let’s say an idea comes to you one morning. You capture it in an Idea folder where you’ve stored several other ideas. Later that evening you review your ideas and decide to develop that one.
An idea needs time to grow and develop. You may want to map out a plot or flesh out a concept. You might make lists, draw mind maps, jot the main ideas or plot points onto Post-It notes, and assemble all that into a working outline.
This is where the writer who posed that question finds him or herself. If we’re at the same stage, we’re staring at files filled with at least a few ideas in early stages of development—with a synopsis and maybe an outline.
Pick Your Favorite Story Idea
It’s time to pick one of those ideas and write.
Not long ago I waded along the edge of a body of water. Scattered across the hot sand were not shells but stones. I picked up a few and gazed at them, admiring the lines that cut across one, the soft red hue of another, and the smooth feel of a flat gray stone against my fingertips.
I showed my selection of stones to a friend.
“I love stones!” she exclaimed. Then she headed out to the water’s edge to find her own choice handful. Others in our group did the same. Next thing you know, we were running up to each other, showing off our favorites, admiring the beauty.
Out of all the stones piled along the edge of the water, we’d all identified our own small selection that pleased us.
In the same way I was drawn to one of those stones more than another—and who knows why?—I sift through my Ideas file now and then, and find myself drawn to one of my ideas more than others.
The same can happen to you.
You’ll read through ideas and for whatever reason, your mind will ignite just a little more when thinking through one idea than it does for another.
And don’t choose one idea over another just because it’s further along. Why invest creative effort on a project that’s developed but void of energy?
If an idea is drawing your interest—if it feels right to you—pick it. Choose the one that grabs you; the one that captivates and fascinates you enough to sustain your interest. If you need to plan or plot it out, sit down and write out a synopsis or map out some chapters as your first step, while you’re feeling jazzed about it.
And then…start writing.
Depending on your personality, you might to start at the beginning of the story and work your way through the synopsis or outline as planned, sequentially.
That’s a fine approach. Sometimes, though, people get hung up on getting their first line or their first paragraph “just right” and can’t move on until they’ve fiddled with it for days or weeks. Or, worse, they don’t even put their first words down because they’re afraid it isn’t the best place to start.
Don’t let your concern over the perfect first page keep you from getting started. If you need to, skip ahead to a scene that unfolds deeper in the book and write that. You can always swing back around later to compose that opening scene.
You need a draft. To have a draft, you have to write. Even if the initial results feel messy and sprawling, that’s fine. You will have succeeded by starting to tell the story. You can always edit later.
Anne Lamott’s One-Inch Picture Frame
Write small. Write chapters or scenes; write paragraphs or just a tiny moment—a snapshot.
Anne Lamott offers practical advice from her book Bird by Bird. Imagine looking at your story through a one-inch picture frame and write only that much of what you “see.”
In a chapter called “Short Assignments,” she says:
[A]ll I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her. (18)
That’s the best way to start any story. Start writing, even if it’s only a one-inch frame of the first scene of the first chapter.
Trick yourself if you must and say, “All I’m going to do is zero in on the smell of burnt toast drifting up to a bedroom from the kitchen.”
Then help us hear the sound of a closet door opening and slamming shut, the thump of a broom banging against woodwork.
Let us feel footsteps on stair treads; turn the corner, and through that one-inch picture frame, show us a sparrow trapped in the screened-in porch, panicked, flapping against the metal screens, screeching like it’s on fire. Write about how the broom knocks over a potted ivy and clangs against the dog’s metal water bowl while the person wielding it shoos the sparrow out the open porch door.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, back up.
Just show us the burnt toast.
Write only what you see through that one-inch frame.
Write one image, one paragraph—even one line—at a time. The scene will come to life and your idea will become tangible. You can build on that scene and take it from there.
Little by little, scene by scene, you’ll be building that story.
It may seem like only a little progress, but it’s enough to justify moving the note from the Ideas folder into that Drafts folder.
After all, you’ve started writing. And that’s what you do with story ideas.
You pull them out, and you write.
Would you like to throw your own question or struggle into the mix? If you’re a subscriber, reply to one of the newsletters with your idea. If you’re not yet a subscriber, sign up using the form at the bottom of this post or in the sidebar. You’ll get my welcome message and next time I send out a newsletter, it’ll land in your inbox. Reply to any of those notes from me with your own question or idea. I’d love to hear from you.
- Ep 114: Make the Most of Your Time with a Writing Pipeline
- How to Generate Ideas for Writing
- 52 Creative Writing Prompts: A Year of Weekly Prompts and Exercises to Boost Your Creativity
- Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. Print. [affiliate link]
- Ann’s Patreon account
- All podcast episodes
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