A million a week. Maybe not a million, but a lot. I’m constantly getting ideas. For stories, for my life, for my future. As an author, I have more story ideas than I could ever write and I’m sure many other writers have experienced this same phenomenon.
“I’ve got a great idea I’m going to give to you,” says the unsuspecting friend at the cocktail party, the one who thinks he’s doing you a favor by gifting you his precious, precious idea. No thanks.
But what happens when that one killer idea strikes? You know the one that keeps you from falling asleep and then wakes you up at 3 a.m., demanding attention? What do you do with that one?
First, you have to acknowledge the risk. An idea is harmless until you first act upon it, which is risky because chances are it won’t work out. At some point, you’ll abandon the idea, or it’ll burn out on its own. However, you’re going to have to invest in it before you know whether the idea has wings.
If you act upon it, there is an opportunity cost—time and energy devoted to this idea that is not being spent on another. So if you move ahead with the idea, you might be losing out on a better one. But if you don’t, you’ll have to live with that nagging feeling of unfulfilled potential.
Why this idea? What is so urgent, important, or exciting about this idea that you’re willing to sacrifice other ideas at its altar?
What might this idea look like if and when it’s fully realized? Imagine the best possible outcome and then, begin to work backward from it.
How long will it take to complete? Imagine you have unlimited time, resources, and money to turn the idea into a reality. Are you talking days, weeks, months, or years?
What might it take to execute? Is this something you can do on your own or an operation that will need the help of others?
Let’s assume that this idea is the one. What next?
Pick a ship date. If its 6 months from now, add 2 months. If its 6 weeks from now, add 2 weeks. It will take longer than you think and finishing early could become a source of joy, while missing the deadline will become a source of frustration.
Work backward. Think of the project in terms of story—beginning, middle, and end. The beginning and end phases should comprise 25% of your time, while the middle should comprise 50% of it.
Next, grab a calendar. Mark the beginning, middle, and end of the project on it. Now, treat the 3 parts like individual projects. Break the beginning into a beginning, middle, and end, etc. Write down what needs to happen on specific days to keep your timeline intact.
In martial arts, I’ve heard the phrase, “attack the corners.” Another way to look at the concept is the ancient maxim, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is, one bite at a time. When you chip away at the corners of the overwhelming force, you wear it down over time.
Story can be analyzed in concentric circles. Beats make scenes, scenes make chapters, chapters make sequences, sequences make acts, acts make a global story. You can build up from the scene or deconstruct it from the global story. Either way, breaking the idea into manageable chunks gives you the best chance of bringing it to life.
Writers complicate matters. I know because I do it constantly. We’re always trying to make the idea more complex than it needs to be. If you have to explain yourself multiple times to someone who is hearing the idea for the first time, start over. Your idea is too complicated.
Whether it’s an email or a novel, a memo or a memoir, break it down into pieces and do one piece at a time.
My mother made a new sweet potato recipe for dinner once when I was ten, and my brother was seven. It was disgusting. The potatoes got cold, and we weren’t allowed to get up from the table until we had cleared our plates. We sat there, and so did she. Standoff. In the end, we negotiated a cease-fire—one bite only and then, we could get up from the table. My brother and I did it, and although I never admitted this to her, it didn’t taste as bad as I had originally thought. I probably could have eaten more because I started with one bite. But I didn’t because a deal’s a deal.
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