This essay was originally published to the writing community Get Your Words Out.
Returning to Old Ideas
Or, how to find motivation after a break
In 2005, I wrote the first draft of what would become my first published novel, Chiaroscuro. While rewriting it over the next year, I got ideas for a few other stories in that universe, centering on some major characters and some minor ones, for a series I named City by the Bay. (Yes, as in, “I want to be there in my city.” I was really homesick for California, y’all.) The next story came easily, and was published in 2009 as Something Beautiful. I eagerly started the third story, which I called Cartography for Beginners. I got about 8000 words into it, and then…
Every few weeks, I opened the file and reread what I had, hoping that an idea of how to continue would pop into my head. I knew how I wanted the story to end of course — I write romances, the ending isn’t the hard part — but how to get there just refused to … pop.
Meantime, I wrote other stuff, mostly novellas and short stories and fanfic. Readers and even my editor asked me if there would be more City by the Bay stories, and I talked about it sometimes in my chats on the publisher’s community page. But not matter what I did, Cartography for Beginners was stuck in a limbo of “I don’t know what to do next.”
Then after three years, I was reading the file again, and like magic, I knew what should happen next. And what should happen after that. And after that. It took a few months of deep focus, but the rough draft was finally finished in May 2011 and Cartography for Beginners was published in 2012.
Currently, I’m working on an idea I originally got in 2016 from an incident between one of my role-play characters and his now-partner, that I’m calling Continuo. I’ve started over quite a few times, and put it aside quite a few times to work on other things–mostly Fidele, AKA the novel that ate my brain. (Fidele ate my brain so thoroughly that a year after its publication I still feel it echoing in my head.) Despite all the setbacks, I do want to write this story–I want these characters’ story to be told.
Sometimes an idea will strike like lightning. I wrote the first draft of Fidele in three weeks, for example. Granted, it was only 38K words then, but it gave me a solid foundation to work on.
But sometimes an idea needs some time to find itself. I refer to it as the “percolating” period, when I set a story aside to let my subconscious work out solutions to whatever narrative problems sprang up.
I don’t believe either method is better than the other — as with most things writing, you do what works best for you, or what works best for that particular story. But if you have an idea that’s been waiting for a long time, or a story that you started but don’t know how to finish, how do you find your inspiration again?
Aside from just waiting, here are a few things that have worked for me:
- Write down your ideas, no matter how big or small. Keep an active, and detailed as possible, idea file, and write down every idea you possibly can.
- Write down the inspiration, the “what if”, and any snippets of dialogue or description or whatever that came with the specific idea. Attach pictures if it was a visual inspiration.
- Create a mood board or a playlist. Keep those in a place you can easily find them again — I bless Spotify for making playlists so easy that I never have to worry about losing a curated playlist when I change computers again.
- Research aspects of the idea, even if it’s something small like a period-accurate pair of shoes or how religious acolytes cut their hair. Research will help you get a feel for the world again, or help with your world-building by using real-world equivalents, and help you want to be in your own version of that world again.
Then, when you want to return to the idea, you have whatever inspired you in the first place in an easy-to-find location. If you’ve done several reminders, you’ll have inspiration for multiple senses to kickstart your creativity again.
- Reread what you’ve previously written. If you didn’t take notes but did write a few hundred or thousand words, reread them and write down any thoughts you have while you’re reading.
- Reread a favorite novel. When I feel like my creativity is waning, I visit my favorite books to refill the well, so to speak.
- Rewatch a favorite movie or TV series, go to a museum, go to a play or a dance performance or a concert (when such things happen again), go for a walk in the woods. As with books, a beloved piece of art (yes, nature totally counts as art) can clear your head enough to get some thinking done.
- Search for inspiration, in new places and in old. I firmly believe that when you open yourself to new ideas, they will find you, but you have to do your part, too.
Most of all, if you really want this story to be told, don’t give up. It may take time, it may take research, it may take the weirdest Google searches to appear in your history, but if you believe you can write the story, you will.