The Problem with (Too Many) Ideas

There are two kinds of people.

People who think like writers. And people who don’t.

Give a class of fifth graders blank paper and and tell them they can write about anything they choose. Those who don’t think like writers will stare at the page. They will fidget. They’ll gaze into the middle distance, as if to summon an idea from the atmosphere. Before long, the teacher will see the frustration begin to rise and she’ll remind them of the time the author came to school and talked about how ideas are all around us and we must only keep our eyes and ears open to find one.

But I want to talk about those who think like writers. Those students may also stare at the blank page, fidget, and appear filled with angst, but it’s for a different reason. Those who think like writers have no shortage of ideas. They have ideas stacked upon ideas stacked upon ideas. If they are hesitating, it’s because they can’t possibly choose between the many fabulous ideas they have swimming around in their brains.Image result for crossroads

Writers talk a lot about where to find ideas.  (Keep your eyes open. Keep a journal. Listen. Engage in the world around you. Observe the world around you. Read the newspaper. Ask questions. Etc. So on. You know.)

But we seldom discuss what to do about all of the ideas we have.

I’ve been struggling with too many ideas myself this past year. Some folks might be unsympathetic to this plight, especially those who feel challenged to come up with ideas. But, believe me, having too many ideas can be just as damaging to productivity.

That shiny new idea always seems better than the tired old one I’ve been working on for months years.

I bounce from project to project, working on many, completing none.

I can’t decide which idea to tackle today, so I flip through social media and waste a few minutes hours days while I consider which idea is the best one to work on.

When the going gets tough on WIP (Work In Progress) #1, I don’t stick it out. Why should I when I have WIP #2, #3,  and #4 through #47 to turn my attention to?

Let’s talk about what to do when we have TOO MANY ideas.

Triage. I love this word. And the first time I ever heard it applied to ideas was at Picture Book Boot Camp with Jane Yolen. Jane has TOO MANY ideas. You don’t publish over 365 books without having an abundance of ideas. But daily, Jane triages her ideas so that she can focus on THE ONE. She might do this several times a day, but that’s okay. We need to rank our ideas: those that will die without our immediate attention and those which can lounge around a while, waiting for us.

But by what criteria do we make these life-and-death decisions? I’ve identified five ways. Here they are, not necessarily in order of importance.

  1. The idea with a deadline. This is often a no-brainer. You work on the project that someone else is expecting. But just like a student with a homework assignment, it isn’t always what you’re excited about working on. Still, if an editor or agent is waiting, it makes sense to put this idea on the top of the stack.
  2. The idea that won’t leave you alone. These ideas don’t like to be pushed aside. They follow you home from work. They jump in the shower with you (of all the nerve!) They lay awake at night and make sure you do, too. If you have an idea following you around like a lost pup, then you might want to give it some attention. It will LOVE YOU for it.
  3. The idea that is new and exciting. Use caution here. Sometimes the idea that is new and exciting is nothing more than a distraction. But, once in a while, that new and exciting idea is one that can’t wait. To be honest, the idea probably can wait. But your enthusiasm carries some clout. If we’re really, really into something, we’re likely to give it our best attention. If you are passionate about a new idea, at least explore it a little. You’ll know soon enough whether it’s a distraction or your new WIP.
  4. The idea that is almost done. This idea used to be new and exciting. A long time ago. When it was new. And exciting. But now it’s the WIP that has been whipping you for months or years. The thing is, it’s still good, but you gave up too quickly (likely when Miss New and Exciting showed up) and now it feels like drudgery to return to the scene of the abandonment. But, consider the time and energy you’ve already invested. If you just put in a little more time, the results might be amazing. And, even if they aren’t quite amazing, you’ll have a completed manuscript. And that has much more potential than an incomplete one.
  5. The idea that is timely.  Sometimes an idea can’t wait. As I put the finishing touches on this post, which is scheduled for April 24th, I notice that today (April 22nd) is Earth Day. I also learned that this is the 49th anniversary of Earth Day. That means next year at this time, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If I had a brilliant idea for a book plot that centered around Earth Day, next year would be the ideal time to get that book out into the world. If I had such an idea (I don’t), it would have been worth setting aside something else this past year to work on it. In fact, books that will release in the spring of 2020 have already been written, submitted, accepted, and are in the editing process right now. For some ideas, timing is everything.

Having  too many ideas may make it difficult to focus our energy on just one at a time, but look at the bright side. We’ll never run out of inspiration. We’ll write until we can’t write any longer and, perhaps, leave some ideas behind for others to explore. It’s a lovely problem to have.

If you have TOO MANY IDEAS, embrace them. And triage with confidence.

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Michelle Houts
Michelle Houts writes middle-grade, chapter books, and picture books from a restored one-room schoolhouse near her home. She loves reading, mail, farming, and birds. Michelle visits schools and libraries to share writing excitement with future authors. To find out more and to learn about Michelle's 52Letters Challenge, visit www.michellehouts.com
1 Comment
  1. I love the image of all the “lost pups” following me. Who doesn’t love a puppy?