It never fails that as I’m slogging my way through revisions of my current work in progress, a fresh new story idea teases me. I’m tempted to drop what I’m doing to follow that shiny new idea to a more tantalizing destination, but I know I have to hold back. I know that once I follow that shiny new idea, I may never finish my current project. Sure, it’s more fun to create new stories. And I don’t want to lose the enthusiasm for writing that the new story idea promises. But work has to come first. I need to finish what I start.
So what is a writer to do? Put it on the back burner, of course. Before you do, however, it might be wise to spend an afternoon jotting down notes related to the idea. Writer Charlie Wetzel writes in this LinkedIn post that it helps to give the idea some immediate attention, then put it away to simmer, as if you’re preparing a recipe. He compares the creative process to cooking broth from scratch, which is an apt analogy. Once you pull together all your ingredients in one pot of boiling water, let give the broth time to mix.
No need to feel guilty about leaving your story idea on the back burner. There are several good reasons for doing that, most notably to allow yourself time to finish a current work in progress and take care of every day responsibilities, like shopping and doing household chores. But leaving the story on the backburner allows it to percolate so all the ingredients come together.
Reasons to use the backburner
Reason 1: The story idea needs more time to develop. When you get that flash of inspiration, the idea may come only as a single scene, a character, a piece of dialogue or a unique setting. Perhaps you come up with an interesting premise or you read a passage from a book. That single piece of information is only a seed, when what you want is to grow an entire garden. Stories are created from multiple seeds that you blend together. That requires time and patience.
Reason 2: The backburner allows the story idea to receive additional seasoning. Like the cooking analogy above, stories require different ingredients. Wetzel believes that while ideas simmer on the backburner, additional ideas from outside stimuli can flesh out the original concept. Things like other books, news articles, an art exhibit, watching a play or TV program – all these things can contribute to your original story idea. Wetzel shares the example of writing a historical novel set during war time. Only after reading about different battles of World War I did he settle on that time period as the setting for his novel. That’s how a back burner can work for you.
Reason 3: You are still working on your story, even though you’re not physically working on your story. The funny thing about backburners is that your subconscious mind goes to work on the idea while you’re doing other things. So while you might be busy with your day job or your current work in progress, your mind is still working out the kinks in your story idea.
“My best scenes and story ideas are always those that emerge from my subconscious. I don’t create them; I just watch them unfold,” writes author and writing coach K.M. Weiland. Her pre-writing routine is worth reviewing.
By the time she’s ready to start writing, more of the details have been fleshed out. By then, you may understand your protagonist better, named most of your characters and worked out several scenes. You have enough details to begin writing it down on paper (or screen.)
Choosing the next idea
Writers are funny people. No sooner do they finish one project that they look around for the next great idea to write about. It’s always a good idea to complete your current project before starting anything new, advises Weiland. But when those revisions are complete and you’re sufficiently rested from your previous work, it’s time to dust off the ideas to determine which story idea to work on next.
Weiland says writers should ask themselves several questions when considering their next story.
- Which idea excites you the most? The more excited you are, the more likely that enthusiasm will carry you through the first draft.
- Which idea is the most marketable? Will readers buy that novel? Will bookstores and libraries stock their shelves? The most marketable stories are worthy of your attention.
- Are the story ideas sequels to current projects? Most likely, those sequel concepts should be given the green light ahead of others.
I suggest asking another question: Which story is the most developed from the pre-planning phase? Do I have a clear idea of the protagonist and their desires and challenges? What is the conflict? How will I grow the tension? How the story will conclude? If I’m able to sketch out the first five or six chapters as well as the closing chapters, then I will likely dive into that story before any of my other ideas.
What if the ideas don’t work out?
Not all story ideas are created equal. Some ideas are not worth pursuing, and after a given time on the back burner, you may have to make the tough decision to let them go. Maybe they don’t excite you the way they used to when you first thought of them, or maybe they didn’t flesh out in meaningful ways as you hoped. It’s okay to dump ideas. There are always more ideas in the pipeline to replace them. I’ve found that by letting go of an unborn idea that never developed, I can make room for another more tantalizing new idea that can develop into a meaningful story.
Back burners aren’t just for cooking. They’re a useful tool for writers to keep track of fledgling story ideas that spring forth from your imagination.