Let Your Old Story Ideas Grow with You
If you’ve been writing for a while, you have some old ideas kicking around.
A while back, the New York Times published an article that talked about if you have a book in you. A small publisher in Michigan conducted a survey of 1,006 Americans and 81% of that group said yes.
If I had taken the survey, I’d easily be able to say yes, since I do have some rather old and unimpressive manuscripts under my belt already. Regardless, since you’re reading this, I bet you’d say yes to that survey as well.
When you’ve been writing for a while, you often end up in a conundrum where you feel like you have more ideas than you do time to write. You end up needing to prioritize the ideas you’re most excited about writing.
Eventually, you’ll come back to that old idea and sit down to write it.
But what do you do with it that old idea?
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.
That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
― Octavia E. Butler
How many months or years has it been since you first came up with it?
When I was 14 or 15, I had an idea for a novel that was inspired by the struggle of being ambitious but growing up in a small town with very, very few exciting prospects for future careers or opportunities in general. The book would follow a group of three friends who each deal with that sense of futility in very different ways; from ambition to depression and everything in between.
Anything about your book can change; give yourself a pass to make large, sweeping changes.
I had a happy ending in mind for some and a bittersweet one in mind for others. But ultimately, I was going to end the book when the protagonist was 18 or so and going off to college somewhere far away. But here’s the problem; this could be an interesting coming-of-age story if done well, but it’s been over 10 years since I cooked up this idea. In all 10 of those years, I wasn’t excited enough about this idea to sit down and start writing it.
I was extremely reluctant to take the novel in a different direction and dramatically change not only the timeline but also the climax of the book. However, I realized that I needed to make some big changes to make this book interesting to readers and interesting to me to get through writing it.
Your mission doesn’t have to be preserving your original vision.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
― Terry Pratchett
When you start working on an idea that you’ve had kicking around for a long time, there’s a persistent desire to enact that idea exactly as you once imagined it.
With writing and ideas for stories, change is a good thing.
With each year that goes by, you’re becoming a better writer. You’re sharpening your writing skills and getting a better understanding of today’s literary landscape.
Subsequently, taking that new knowledge and skills and applying it to an old idea is probably going to lead to that idea changing. That’s okay. It’s a good thing. Let go of that mental vision of perfection of your old vision.
Ask yourself who your audience is. Would they even like your original idea?
It’s the publishing advice we hate to hear, but we do need to have an audience in mind when we’re approaching an idea. If you want to write a book and hopefully sell copies of that book, you need to know what your ideal reader looks like.
Here’s how I recently bridged this. My story idea, at its core, is a mixture of a coming-of-age story and a tale of living with grief. Cheerful, I know. When looking at these two elements, I had to figure out which one mattered more.
Your taste in what you want to write may change with time.
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
Don't force yourself to write something you're no longer passionate about. In the case of that story I just mentioned, I had to make a big decision.
I could either have a coming-of-age story targeted at young adults, or I could have a more complicated story of coping with grief that’s more for an adult audience. In my original vision, it was the former. However, it’s always been my plan to have living with grief be a dominant element as well. Would that really work well for a young adult audience?
It possibly could, but with my entire mental image of the novel, I realized that what I really wanted to do was write something for an older audience.
It could also just be a byproduct of the reality that when I came up with this idea, I was a young adult. Now that I’m finally writing it, I’m very much an adult nestled snugly in her twenties. However, since I have a lot more literary wherewithal than I did back then when I never thought about audiences, I feel like I’m taking the right approach.
Ideas you had in the past might not be as refined as ideas you have now.
If your old story idea is from quite a long time ago, take a good, hard look at it. Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but when you had the idea, did you know much about narrative arcs, audiences, and what it takes to write a novel?
Does the idea still stand strong enough?
Some ideas aren’t going to make it through the test of time. It hurts to think about this, but if you’re serious about publishing, it’s a hard question that you need to ask yourself.
Whenever I ask myself if I should edit, rewrite, or shelf a dusty old novel, I try to decode if it’s the nostalgia that makes me like the idea. When you’ve been sitting on an idea for a long time, it’s almost like an old friend. You have so much fondness for it that it becomes hard to really see it for its literary merit.
Editors and critique partners can definitely help you see through the rose-colored glasses, but when you’re in the idea stage, you want to start working through this process yourself. I definitely did not when I first started writing and was overflowing with ideas that sounded great at the time.
Ask yourself; why haven’t you written it already?
“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings.
Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”
Time is an easy answer. That’s the answer I usually give myself.
However, let’s be frank. When you have a burning desire to write something, you write it. You stay up later. You get up earlier. You start quickly typing out notes and scenes in your phone whenever you have a spare moment standing in line at the grocery store.
You like the idea of yours enough to write it. But why haven’t you started yet?
If you lack the motivation to write it, then that’s probably because you don’t really want to write it. There’s something about this current version of the idea that was good enough for you to remember it, but not quite good enough to possess you with that fiery need to write.
With time, we change. Your ideas and goals as a writer will too.
We become new people, sometimes people who are a bit different from the way we visualized ourselves. This is all part of your journey as a writer.
This is the biggest reason why you should let your ideas grow with you. Let your old idea become something that you’re passionate to write about right now, today. Let your old vision slip away into something that the current you is eager to write and share with the world.
“I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.”