Are you the kind of writer who’s brimming with ideas, but can’t seem to finish a single one of them?
That was me. I had a ton of ideas, and they sounded great for a paragraph, maybe a page, but then they’d just… fade. My work-in-progress would inevitably be consigned to a bottom drawer, never to be finished.
All of my ideas seemed doomed to fail. In fact, my inability to finish work was making me doubt myself as a writer. Until one day, I pitched an idea to a magazine, and it was accepted. Cue panic. Now what?
Not having the option to quit taught me a huge lesson: The problem wasn’t my ideas, it was how I handled them once they appeared.
Inspiration: I was doing it wrong.
Here’s what I learned about ideas, and how to make them stick around for the long haul.
1. Let the Idea Breathe
I’m an ignoramus about wine, but I married into a family that’s very knowledgable about it. The one concept I struggled with was the idea of uncorking a bottle of red wine, and then just… leaving it there. On the counter. “You have to let it breathe,” I was told.
Letting wine “breathe,” whatever that meant, seemed grandly silly. It’s wine, I thought. You’re supposed to drink it, not stare at it.
However you feel about letting wine breathe (I’m still not sold on that), the concept is a useful way to think about your ideas. If you get struck with inspiration, and rush to your desk to write it down, that’s like uncorking new wine and drinking it straight away.
Instead, start writing around it. Freewrite about it (Joe Bunting at The Write Practice has an excellent, and hilarious, post about freewriting here). Ask your idea questions. Get to know your thoughts about the topic. Write your last sentence. Cross it out. Write another one.
Whatever you do, get to know your idea before diving straight into Chapter 1.
2. Write Your Idea’s Elevator Speech
Consciously or unconsciously, there’s an endgame, a point, to your idea. In the case of the piece I pitched to the writing magazine, it was: Every writer is a musician, whether they realize it or not.
Can you find that kind of nugget in your idea? Something that has to be proven, has to be shared? Imagine writing the query letter that’s going to accompany this idea. What would the first paragraph say? Write it down. When momentum starts to slip, stare at it. Get passionate again. Keep writing.
3. Put Your Idea on a Deadline
A deadline makes me wiggle out from under the rock of “someday,” reminds me I can’t quit writing when it’s difficult, and forces me to finish what I start.
Fortunately, deadline-driven writing opportunities are everywhere. Sending query letters, pitching an article to a magazine, an essay to a literary journal, or a book to an agent, puts you on a deadline. The secret is to complete steps 1 and 2 above, and start querying while your idea is still bright and shiny.
If your inquiry gets accepted, you’ll probably have that moment of panic, like I did. What do I do now?
You’ll write, rewrite, stare out a lot of windows, and chew on a lot of pens (just me?). You might write a few drafts. My magazine pitch took seven drafts before I considered it finished.
And you know what? You’ll figure it out.
Do you have an idea you’ve been struggling to finish? How is it going? Share your experience in the comments.