Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writer Fears: Do Ideas Have Shelf Lives?

Today was an off-day in my writing because I had one of those experiences I rarely like to have: after a burst of inspiration, I revisited an old idea of mine that has been sitting on a shelf in my mind and collecting dust with all the years it's been since the characters first came to me. Even though these characters were very familiar to me and the words came easily as I wrote about them, I started to wonder. Is revisiting old ideas healthy? After an idea has already proven to be an incomplete short story or novel, is it worth the time to pick it back up and try to reinvent it in some way? Or is doing so just another form of procrastination?

When I think about it rationally, I don't know how I should feel about revisiting old ideas. None of my ideas are ancient, but some are bordering on the five-year mark. Sometimes I wonder if I should just let them go and forget about them if, like a bad relationship, they just aren't working out. After all, I have dozens of ideas swirling in my head, and I know that only a fraction of them will be written (and even fewer published, if I ever get published at all) within my lifetime. Sometimes I think it might be best to trim the excess, both in my mind and computer files, with those ideas that can be revisited all I like but will probably never become the stories I want them to be. (Yes, I'm a pessimist on many levels, so I know that notion may seem harsh and hasty to some.) But something always stops me. Maybe it's simply a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I can make all of those ideas and incomplete drafts work someday.

The optimistic side of me likes to think, "There's a time and a place for everything," and I like to apply that to novel drafts when I'm experiencing my darkest days as a writer. Maybe the idea that isn't working now will be different in a few months' (or years') time. Maybe some ideas are like puzzles: you need to take time away from them before you can come back, sit down, and put them together, slipping the pieces together as if there was never a problem in the first place. But then the pessimistic side of me (cunning little minx she is) whispers, "Some puzzles aren't meant to be finished."

I already know that some of my ideas have shelf lives, whether by my own hand or circumstances I can't control. For instance, I have a vampire novel draft I was working on two years ago; it has since been shelved indefinitely even though I still love the premise and characters so much that I feel an ache in my chest when I think about leaving that story behind forever. Why did I shelve it? The market was crammed to the breaking point with vampires, and I knew that mine would just be lost in the crowd if I tried to release it out into the world. Readers tire of trending concepts, and many begin to avoid those same trends, no matter what good novels may come of them. By the time I started working on the vampire novel, agents were already sending out signals to "stop with the damn vampires already." It didn't seem wise to continue with something that would just be shot down before it ever had a chance to fly.

Then there's the thing I dread most: when I query agents, what will happen if my manuscript doesn't stir any interest and incurs flat-out rejections all around? It's a bit painful to think about even in my imagination. Does that mean I should edit and rewrite and do more work on the novel, or should I shelf it and work on something new? What to do in such an instance? A part of me says to "trudge on and make it work," but people who want to be commercial authors oftentimes don't have the luxury of continuing work on that manuscript they love. Sometimes they have to move on, no matter how much it hurts.

I guess it all comes back to this: write the stories you love. But sometimes you have to be logical and wait a little bit for certain stories. I'm impatient, and I want them to work now. Deep down, however, I know that I'm not ready. After all, if I were, would I have written this fear- and doubt-filled blog post?

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