What is it that makes some story ideas more attractive to us than others? I'm sure that many of us have had the experience where we've started work on a perfectly good book, only to be suddenly sideswiped by another idea that we have to write about. Kathy Evans mentioned the phenomena in her blog this week and it's also something I touched on during my own creative dithering last year.
I've heard Sara Grant talk about finding the heart of your story, the emotional imperative that will keep you working on a project even while the logical part of your brain is screaming at you to "give up and get a proper job!" And I think it's this emotional pull that characterises the new idea that comes out of nowhere and whisks you away.
Being carried away on an idea is a wonderful creative moment, but for me, the problem is its unpredictability. I must have gone through seven or eight ideas for a new novel (all of them interesting and commercial) before I stumbled upon the one that became my work in progress. I found the process of moving from idea to idea to be quite frustrating, because no matter how good the concept was, I couldn't quite muster up the enthusiasm to start writing the book. Presumably, that reticence was due to me not finding the heart of the story – once I had my final epiphany, I was able to start writing the book straight away.
I hate the down period between books, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it means I've just sent my previous book out on submission, which is a time fraught with its own stresses. Secondly, because I have a rather overactive brain, and having a project on the go helps distract me from worrying about something else (generally submissions). And thirdly, I dislike that moment where another writer asks what you're currently working on, and you have to say "Oh, not much. Just dabbling with stuff, you know." I started to tell people that I was "between books," though it sounds like a euphemism for being unemployed. How do you define a writer who isn't writing? To my mind, that person was a failure who wasn't using their time effectively.
However, I read an article in The Guardian last week by author Andrew Simms, whose new book Cancel the Apocalypse argues that our route to avoiding global catastrophe is simply to do less – work less, consume less and stop expecting endless financial growth. In the article, he takes inspiration from nature by talking about "the importance of fallow time: no ecosystem can be 100% productive all the time." And perhaps that's a good way to characterise that time between books – a sort of mental equivalent of crop rotation.
Rather than beat myself up and ask why I couldn't have thought of that perfect novel idea first, perhaps I should consider that I couldn't have thought it up at all without going through those initial stages. In fact, I saw that process at work yesterday when brainstorming with a colleague on a publishing project. It took two or three failed concepts before we hit upon the one that caught both our imaginations, and then we started generating ideas so fast that I could barely write them down! The small downside with the brainstorming session being so successful was that it consumed my whole lunch hour, which is why you're not seeing this blog until now. But if creativity was predictable, perhaps we wouldn't find it so fascinating?