Writers: How do you stick with one idea?

23/08/2016 Uncategorized, Writing 22

Writers: How do you stick with one idea?I’ve been writing since I was very young: I can remember sitting at the kitchen table as a child scribbling away in brightly coloured exercise books, inventing my own worlds and imagining strange races of beings (most of which were oddly reminiscent of the Elves from Lord of the Rings). When I got a bit older I carried on, progressing to tapping out my stories on the family computer in the living room, filling up the My Documents folder with my increasingly more varied tales. These days I’m still at it, sitting at my little desk, which has now moved with me three times and is still my favourite place to write.

But the odd thing is that even though I’ve been writing for so long (I’ve pretty much been inventing stories since as long as I could read and write), I’ve never actually finished anything longer than a short story. By now, in terms of the amount of words I’ve written I should really have finished several novels, yet I don’t have a single complete manuscript.

And why is that, I hear you ask? The honest answer is that I just can’t seem to stick with a single idea. I generally begin each novel attempt in a frenzy the minute a shiny new idea has entered my head, and every time I think that this is the one: this is the idea that will be so compelling it will carry my all the way to the end! And like clockwork, a few days or at the most a few weeks later another sparkling new idea will have caught my eye and I’ll be off again, like a hound after a hare, chasing this new idea and leaving the older one neglected and unfinished.

For example, recently I have embarked on three separate writing projects, and each one is currently in danger of being abandoned thanks to a loss of interest and a flood of new ‘better’ ideas. I managed to get down 20,000 words of a fantasy novel I was writing and had entirely planned out, but when I (stupidly!) read back my draft I couldn’t help but feel that the idea was really just dead in the water, and I don’t feel particularly inspired to carry on with it. I then began another story about pirates, which I thought (and still think) is a super interesting topic (there really aren’t enough novels about pirates, is there?), but when I failed to really connect with my main character I started to feel like it was too much of a struggle, and haven’t really made much headway with it. All the while I’ve been steadily working away at a non-fiction ebook that I want to write, and whilst it’s slowly coming together, it literally seems to be going at a snail’s pace!

So I was wondering how other writers tackle this problem, or if they even have this problem at all. Am I just exceptionally distractible, or is this a common writerly problem? I have a few ideas for how I might try and conquer this, but seen as I’ve been aware of it for a long time and still haven’t managed to finish any longer piece of work, I’d love the input of some other writers! My problem certainly isn’t not writing – on the contrary, I seem to have been writing more than ever lately – it’s sticking with one story.

So here are my ideas:

  • I could start shorter.

Maybe part of the problem all along has just been being too ambitious? Some people can probably jump from writing a 2,000 word short story to a 120,000 word novel, but perhaps I’m a person who needs to increase things in increments. I have thought of perhaps attempting to write a novella before I try, yet again, to embark upon a full length novel.

I did manage to write 42,000 words of a novel for NaNoWriMo 2014, which is the most I’ve ever written on any one project, and that exceeds the length of the average novella, which just goes to show I can get that far at least!

  • I could force myself to commit to one idea. 

This seems kind of an obvious solution to the problem, but it’s just so hard when all those other new ideas are beckoning! But as I mentioned in the last point, my best ever novel attempt was during NaNoWriMo, when the aim is to work on one project for a month, sticking to a daily word count, and this is perhaps the ideal approach for someone like me (basically someone who needs discipline!).

  • I could work on a few ideas at once.

This is kind of what I’ve been doing for a while, by combining my novel attempts with writing my ebook. Unfortunately though my novel ideas keep changing and morphing, so I feel like the best course of action would be to choose two, or at least three ideas and work on those and only those until they’re finished. That would hopefully give me enough variety to stop me getting bored so quickly, but also allow for some progress, even if it’s at a slower pace than it would be if I stuck to one idea.

So, writers, do you ever struggle with this problem? Have you also never finished anything longer than a few thousand words, or do you have drawers and drawers full of your completed manuscripts? What do you think is the secret to sticking with one idea?

22 Responses to “Writers: How do you stick with one idea?”

  1. Melissa @ Quill Pen Writer

    I have a USB full of dozens of unfinished stories! Most of these are from when I was younger, but I still have plenty of abandoned novel ideas right now. XD You are not alone!
    I’ve finished several manuscripts, however. For me there isn’t really one big secret to finishing except pure determination. I won’t work on a project seriously unless I’m in love with everything; characters, plot, setting, etc. When I love a story that much I feel like I’ve made a promise to my characters that I’ll tell all of their story. (Another method I use is to combine several new shiny bright ideas, if they can potentially work together, so that I don’t feel torn between them).
    Good luck with your writing! <3

    • Laura

      Well I’m glad I’m not alone in this! I had wondered if I just had an oddly short attention span or something.
      Congrats on finishing your manuscripts! I think I’m just going to have to follow your lead and be really determined to finish, and try and find an idea that I really, truly love. Thanks so much for the advice! 🙂

  2. Michael Tyne

    It could be that one idea isn’t enough for an extended piece of work. Try combining your ideas. My fantasy stuff has never centred on one single idea per book, but rather on a collision of two, three or even four. Often when you bring two ideas together, what happens is a kind of synergy where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. It can be a very exciting process.

    • Laura

      That sounds like really good advice! I think you might be right – my ideas on their own perhaps aren’t developed enough for a full work, so I may try and combine a couple.
      Thanks for the tip! 🙂

  3. nordie @ writing about books

    Perhaps you should not try and limit yourself to some arbitrary length? Write what needs to be written, and it’ll end up the length it needs to be. write down everything you can write for that piece, put it in the metaphorical drawer and take it out 6 months later to do an edit. Quite often you’ll spot the bit(s) that need to be taken out, the bits that need to be added to make it complete, or sometimes that the idea was good, but the execution….needs to be done again and differently.

    You may just find that you have written some shorts that are standalone, some that have some sort of thread, or some that actually, with a little work, can be strung together.

    This is quite “normal” in the SciFi and Fantasy realm – stories by even the “big” authors (Pratchett, Gaiman, Clarke etc) are included in anthology books, even small publications – it allows them to work with an idea that might never become a short story, but they simply need to get the story out

    • Laura

      This all sounds like really great advice! I think I do get a bit caught up in defining what I’m setting out to write before I write it, because I generally have a idea and then decide that it will be a novel or a short story and that is then set in stone as far as I’m concerned.
      I’ll definitely try and take your advice. Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

  4. Annie

    Okay, this is scary. You just described exactly what happens to me when I try to write. I have a new idea every week and can’t seem to write more than a few pages, because by then I’m already tired of it 🙁

  5. Inge

    I wholeheartedly agree that there are not enough books about pirates, so I’m really curious about that one. But I know the feeling! I’m always really excited about my new projects, but somewhere along the way I get new shiny ideas and I get completely distracted. I’m not good at being faithful. I cheat on my manuscripts. :l I do feel like you should push through, but if you’re not feeling it then that won’t help your work either.

    The thing to remember is a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be written. So don’t read back and keep those chains on your inner editor!

    • Laura

      Haha, I’m glad you agree about the pirates! I feel like that’s the one I really want to work on, although I could just mix it up and throw some pirates into the fantasy story I was writing and then I can work on the two at once! 🙂
      I’m terrible for expecting my first drafts to come out perfect, and I think that’s part of the problem – I just get disheartened when I realise that what I’ve written isn’t perfect. I think I’ll just have to take your advice and push through! Thanks for the advice 🙂

  6. Gemma

    I’m afraid I can’t offer any advice, because I have exactly the same problem! I have so many unfinished projects sitting on my laptop… Sometimes though I think that sometimes there’s a right time to write something, and while you might have the drive to start a particular story, the story/ideas/characters might need a little time to settle and grow in your head and the conclusion will come to you. Recently I’ve started looking back at my unfinished short stories and, if I still like the idea, am trying to finish them – the break from it has meant I’m looking at it with fresh eyes and it really helps.

    • Laura

      I really like the idea of stories just needing time to settle and grow, and I do sometimes look back at old stories I’ve started and suddenly get the urge to carry on with them. I really hope we both manage to conquer this problem soon! 🙂

  7. Henry

    I suspect the one-idea solution is a writers skill at interweaving b-stories with conflicts and character growth. I’ve been riding this obstacle for years.

    I believe sometimes it isn’t enough to step away and come back later. It helps to incorporate ideas as b-stories. A story within a story. For example, while pirates are stereotyped as black bearded sailors, I can see how part of a novel would devote several chapters to it in order to convey the idea of contemporary piracy. It would be dull to write a scene about DVD pirating or music CD pirating without the link to bluebeard or a peg leg character with a hook hand and a patch over one eye. And to think somebody like that managed to become a captain of a ship is inspirational.

    I have 3 characters in my story. I’ve been trying to make the other 2 characters more interesting as I’ve mostly been writing in the perspective of the character I most relate to (and I’ve exhausted the plot writing this way.) Keeping the timeline that I’ve accumulated thus far, I am approaching these other characters writing solely about them. Rather, how they might feel and interpret scenes already written. I plan to work their perspectives in the story either by cutting away from the main characters objective and alternating their scenes with the second characters scenes, or meshing the 2 together during the editing process. Either way, I expect editing to be a headache. I’m just crossing my fingers that the course these two characters take will eventually intersect.

    Character #3 will surely make my head explode.

    • Laura

      I really love the idea of incorporating other ideas into your main idea as b-stories or sub plots! That’s definitely something I’ll have to try 🙂
      Your approach with writing the perspective of your other two characters sounds really interesting, and I think you’ll probably get some really good results that way! It probably will be tough to edit, but I imagine the effect of combining the three characters narrative will be really worth it. Best of luck with it! 🙂

  8. Michael Tyne

    You’re welcome. I know you’re from the north of England, like me, and I don’t know if you’re a sports fan – but rugby league players have a saying, for when the going gets tough: “make the hard yards”. By which they mean: put yourself on the line and keep moving forward no matter how much it hurts. This works for writers too. And sometimes the material that is the hardest to write turns out to be that of the highest quality. Persevere.

    • Laura

      I’m not much of a sports fan, but I really like that saying! Perseverance seems like the only answer to this problem, and you’re totally right that the hardest stuff to write can often turn out to be the best 🙂

  9. Pamela

    Laura, sometimes it scares me the level of relatability that I find in your posts XD

    I struggle with the same. I feel so insecure every time I see other writers, doing the work, finishing things and being all disciplined, and then there is me, juggling three projects. I’m using the write until you are completely dry and then move on to the next. And I have made some advances, and in spite of the insecurities I have faith that I WILL get these novels out in the world soon.

    But at the same time, I’m plagued with worries about that if I’m taking this long to finish at least one draft, then maybe I don’t have what it takes to be an author. I haven’t finished a draft in 5 years 🙁

    So the last approach is working for me, even though it’s hard, it also seems like the best option. So for now I’m just trying to not to get discouraged by doubts. It HELPS SO MUCH that now I know that I’m not the only one in this particular situation.

    • Laura

      Well I’m glad it’s not just me and that someone else can relate to this! 🙂
      Seeing other writers flying through drafts and talking about all the different manuscripts they’ve finished always makes me feel really insecure too, but I guess the best thing to do is just try and not compare ourselves with other people. I try not to, but sometimes it’s so hard!
      I’m really glad that you feel like you’re starting to make some progress though, and I’m sure you will get all of those novels out into the world sometime soon! I’ll probably just keep ploughing on with the third approach as well and hoping that one of my projects will start to come together soon.
      Best of luck with your writing! I hope we both manage to finish a draft soon 🙂

  10. Cait @ Paper Fury

    I have tons and toooons of ideas, but…I don’t actually struggle to finish projects! I think this is because I’m a really serious plotter, so I spend a lot of time developing my book before writing it. And if I get bored of it developing it — I don’t write it! PROBLEM SOLVED.? But honestly I think it’s really important to force yourself to finish things. You learn so so much when you write “The end” honest!! And it really helps you grow as a writer!! I honestly just go for the “force yourself” method. ? hehe. I mean, you should just do what you think is best, of course! But the unfortunate part about the writers life is that it generally does require a bit of discipline because it’s haaaaaard. And trust me: it gets easier to finish the more you do. 😉

    • Laura

      Part of my problem is probably that I’m terrible at plotting! I find it hard to think of ways to end things, so I tend to just start writing and think ‘I’ll figure it out later’ and it never works out 🙁
      I definitely think you’re right though that I’m just going to have to try and force myself to finish something. I need to start developing some of that writerly discipline I think! 🙂
      Thanks so much for the advice! It’s really helpful to hear from someone who has finished loads of projects and hear how they do it. Hopefully I’ll finish one of my own soon! 🙂

  11. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I’ve only tried starting a couple of different projects, but like you I’ve never finished one. The closest I’ve gotten is when I “won” NaNoWriMo with 50,000 words. But then I stopped writing and every time I think about the project now I think it wasn’t good enough to keep going on it. I want to do NaNoWriMo again, but I’m thinking of doing a whole different book. So, I have no useful advice, just commiseration!

    • Laura

      That’s awesome that you made it to 50,000 words! I only made it to 42,000 words during my one and only NaNoWriMo attempt, but I’ve been thinking of trying again this year, and maybe using one of my current projects to try and push and get my first draft finished. I hope we both manage to finish a project soon! 🙂

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