The Evolving Idea

EvolutionRecently, I received an email notifying me that a short story of mine will be included in an upcoming anthology from Writer’s Edit (www.writersedit.com). I’m always excited about being able to chalk up a successful submission – especially as this has broken a longer-than-usual dry spell for fiction – but on this occasion it also made me think about the journey that story took. ‘Ghost Writer’, the story to be included in this anthology, has the second-longest gestation period than any other idea I’ve ever had.*

I first wrote ‘Ghost Writer’ in 2005. I was still finding my feet as a writer, and ‘Ghost Writer’ was a way in which I blended some of my own perspective as an emerging writer alongside a unique scenario. It also had terrible (read: really terrible) poetry. I still have a copy. And no, you can’t have it. Ever.

I never did anything proactive with that first version, but since 2010 I’ve been trying to bring the idea back to life in several different versions. In total, it took nearly nine years to turn this idea, this one short story that was never above 3000 words, into a successful piece of writing.

For me, there are three lessons to be taken from the nine-year process it’s taken to make this one particular story a winner.

1)       Perseverance is important. I’d often thought about throwing the idea away for good. I’ve done the same with many other old stories from the same period in my career. And yet ‘Ghost Writer’ stayed in my folio as an in-progress. Sometimes, the gut feeling that an idea will pay off once it finds the right words is something you just have to go with, even if it seems hopeless to re-draft yet again. Of course, it doesn’t always pay off. But sometimes it does. Maybe the reward at the end won’t be worth the time put into the numerous re-drafts. But it’s still a success, and still immensely satisfying. Either way, it will have been an immeasurably educational journey.

2)       Ideas often need to evolve before they work. There’s a lot to be said for sitting on an idea for a while, taking the time to work on other projects before coming back and seeing the old content with fresh eyes. Sometimes the break is only a week, but it could also be a year or more. The angle taken by the first version of an idea might be decent, but not making the most of the material. Maybe the story is being told from the wrong character’s perspective. Maybe that middle scene where the characters are drinking and talking in exposition really isn’t a necessary part of the story. Having patience with your own ideas is as important as being doggedly perseverant in working that idea to within an inch of its life.

3)       There’s value in everything you write. Everything can be made into a good story – a good piece of writing. Keep optimistic about your own writing. The day you can’t find faith in your own work is the day you need to step back and forget about being a writer for a while. You’ll write a lot of crap. And some of that crap will be so flawed as to be practically unsalvageable. But maybe there’s a little nugget that can be taken from it. A certain character. A plot twist. A line of dialogue that could lead into a totally new idea. Whatever it may be, that worthless crap just became fertilizer. Grow something from it.

I was lucky in that ‘Ghost Writer’, despite the constant changes to virtually every story element, still kept the same medium and most of the same characters. Sometime it takes a lot more renovation. That novel you’ve been trying to write? Maybe it’s not meant to be a novel. Maybe it’s meant to be a novella. Or a screenplay. Or interpretive dance.

Ideas, whether they’ve been formed over months of rumination or a burst of chaotic energy, always have the potential to evolve. To see that happen, you need to tend to that idea with those three qualities in mind: perseverance, patience and optimism.

Be sure to leave stories of your own experiences with long-running and lingering ideas in the comments below. How long have you worked a certain idea or story before it was accepted? What kind of changes did those ideas have to go through before they found their ideal skin?

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

 

*Incidentally, the longest-running idea I’ve ever worked with is a children’s fantasy novel I first penned about fifteen years ago and was effectively my first activity as a writer – I still hold hope of reviving the material in some fashion. It’s terribly paced, filled with plot holes and has action scenes ripped from a bad anime, but I still love it more than any offspring I’ll ever have.

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