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Should You Follow the Siren Song of a New Idea?

Writing, rewriting, revising, re-rewriting. It’s painstaking, and after months—or possibly years—of working on a novel, you can feel bogged down, exhausted, even defeated. And then it happens: You get a new book idea. And not just any idea. A great idea. In fact, you’re sure this idea is a hundred times better than your current project.

Should you put your work in progress on hold and see where the new idea takes you? Many in the business say no.

I say maybe.

MORE-IGAMI. Text copyright © 2016 by Dori Kleber. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by G. Brian Karas. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

MORE-IGAMI. Text copyright © 2016 by Dori Kleber. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by G. Brian Karas. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Column by Dori Kleber, author of MORE-IGAMI (May 2016, Candlewick
Press), illustrated by G. Brian Karas. She was an award-winning journalist
and business writer before embarking on her career as a children’s book
author. Learn more about Dori at www.dorikleber.com.

Dori-Kleber-author-writer

The prevailing argument is that new ideas lure us in simply by virtue of their newness. Newbery Medal winner Matt de la Peña, in a 2013 interview with The Rumpus, cautioned writers to “watch out for the slutty new idea” that comes along when you’re already working on something.

(Writer's Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)

“This other idea comes calling to you wearing just a towel, out of the shower,” he said. “And she says, ‘Hey, you should check me out.’ You kind of want to write that one. It’s new. It’s fresh. You haven’t even thought about it, really.”

The conventional writing wisdom is that with a new idea, as with a new lover, we see only the positive, because we haven’t spent enough time with it to uncover its pitfalls. If we start working on that new idea, undoubtedly we’ll reach a point where we have problems. And then, the argument goes, we’ll be lured away by another new idea, and another, and we’ll never finish anything.

But.

What if there’s a reason you’re struggling with your WIP? Maybe it started as a flash of inspiration but has never developed a full-fledged plot or characters. Or maybe you’ve worked on it so long that you’ve lost your passion for it. Should you stay chained to your WIP, toiling away forever in a “first come, first served” approach to writing, just to prove you have the stick-to-it-iveness to be a novelist?

Here’s a compromise: Take three or four writing sessions to explore the new idea. See if there’s enough beneath the shiny surface to make a complete story. If you can already picture the original world where your story takes place, try to come up with a compelling cast of characters. Or, if your idea is centered on a single, compelling character, brainstorm at least three major plot points to form the foundation of a narrative arc.

Once you’ve spent a little time fleshing out the new idea, apply a critical eye to the new idea and the WIP. Which one is more promising? If it’s the old WIP, then go back to it. No regrets, no guilt about cheating with another idea. You might even find that, after a break, you have renewed energy and new approaches to try.

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On the other hand, if you’re convinced your new idea is more than just a pretty face, put the WIP aside and devote your energy to the new project. That’s what I did.

A few years ago, I was slogging through a middle-grade novel when I got an idea—an idea for a picture book. That was useless, because I had sworn off writing picture books to focus on the middle-grade book. I didn’t want anything to distract me.

I scribbled the idea on a 3x5 card and tried to get back to my novel. But this idea wouldn’t stop nagging at me. “Let me just write a page and get this out of my system,” I said. So I did. And I immediately knew the story was worth developing.

I spent the next few months rewriting, revising, and polishing that manuscript. That story became my debut book. Thank goodness I gave my idea a chance, rather than spurning it as an evil temptress.

In my case, it wasn’t a huge risk. I knew I would only need a short break from my novel to see how the picture book idea played out. But what if your idea is for another novel? It could be years before you return to your WIP—or never.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)

That’s a scary idea, walking away from something you’ve invested so much time in, to experiment with the unknown. But there’s no such thing as wasted writing. If you put your WIP in a drawer and never write another word of it, all the work you’ve done on it hasn’t been for nothing. It’s made you a stronger writer.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s exactly the preparation you needed to take your great new idea and create something amazing.

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