Darling, Everything's On Fire

08 April 2013

Last Friday I had a revelation.

It didn't take much of a spark to turn the brush to flame. Inspiration rarely requires a great incitement — a word, a glance, even a snatch of music can turn into a plot (time still remains the judge of whether it's worthwhile or not). In this case, Emilia was making herself lunch at the kitchen counter while I was toiling away over my chemistry homework (not much scope for the imagination there!). As my sister worked and I attempted to stay focused on rate constants and equilibrium, she began humming a few notes of a song, following the melody with the lyrics.

The spark was released, the flames lept high, and my mind swirled. The song's lyrics intertwined with a photo of a young woman I had recently seen on Pinterest, a small plot long ago set aside because it held little promise, and the concept of Chesterton's quote about how "something must be loved before it is lovable". Less than five minutes had passed, and yet I felt as if a story existed at my fingertips — I only needed to dig deep enough, and I would reach it. (Am I the only writer who views a new story in this manner — as if the characters already exist on their own, and I only chanced to stumble across them at an opportune moment?)

Needing a less busy place in which to process my thoughts, I stepped outside and settled on the porch steps, where, head cradled between my palms, my elbows balanced precariously on my knees, I sorted through the hurricane of my thoughts and settled on some concrete facts. New plots with little to bind them together can choose virtually any course; the trick is reigning them in until they reach some semblance of a legitimate story. When I finally returned to my chemistry, which was growing less romantic by the minute, my mind still felt like it was about to fly to pieces. My carefully crafted schedule of the day before was in grave danger of being tossed heedlessly to the wind, my current work in progress sacrificed, and every other daily practice ignored in favor of the small sunbeam I had caught.

This isn't the first time this has happened to me. Though few of my original ideas actually become full-length novels (and they're hardly recognizable when they do), that is not to say I'm not constantly bombarded with the adorable and terribly irresistible plot bunnies. They come in any form and at any time, whether I'm at my weekly tutorial, at dance, or wasting time on Pinterest under the guise of literary research (an event that rarely occurs, I assure you). Not every idea is so dramatic as the one I depicted above, but each wreaks havoc on my schedule and my writing. One of the qualities of a plot bunny that makes it so very deceptive is the power it holds to turn your current W.I.P. from living color to black and white. Plot bunnies are known for their propensity to bully other more developed books into the background, while they claim center stage for themselves. They charm you into following them into a new idea, abandoning any and all of your previous projects, until you're caught up yet again by another distraction, and the cycle starts all over again.

Lest you think I'm dismissing every form of inspiration as a meaningless distraction to the writing process, allow me to explain better. Without inspiration's occasional lightning bolts, our stories would be undeniably dull and horribly predictable. No one receives the whole plot for his next book in a moment — it comes in snatches and glimpses, and it's up to the writer to stitch all those pieces of human existence and truth together until they make up a story. Rifles in the South Field was quite basic at first conception, but since then it has progressed not only in word-count, but in plot as well. This would not have been possible without the occasional plot bunny who scampered across my path. There is, however, a way of managing them so they don't run out of control.

how to manage the plot bunnies

Write the idea down. A common mistake among writers (myself included) is to ignore Inspiration's call and believe that the character, plot twist, or piece of dialogue will remain in your mind indefinitely, ready to be dredged back up again at a moment's notice. But if an idea can enter your head, it can just as easily exit it. Unless the notion is highly ridiculous and you know for a fact you won't have a use for it, write it down! It doesn't matter how insignificant it may seem at the time — you'll always regret the alternative.

Make a Pinterest board. This is a rather new-fangled concept, and while it took me a while to hop on the Pinterest bandwagon, I confess that the site does have some measure of practical use. If the plot in question shows promise that extends beyond simply jotting it down in a notebook, I might consider making a Pinterest board for it, where I am free to collect bits of inspiration as I encounter them on the highly addictive website. Note that this is not a necessary step by any means, but for those of us who are more visual and like to have pictures to attach to our characters, it's quite helpful (not to mention fun!).

Read the Greats. When I refuse to expend my energies on anything else until I'm practically intoxicated by this new idea, I find it difficult to see the holes in it. Dragging my head back out of the clouds, cracking open an old favorite that has been left to collect dust, and putting some space between the plot bunny and myself gives me the necessary dose of reality I require to decide whether it's a worthwhile pursuit or not. Reading good books is undeniably helpful, as it tends to burst the self-indulgent bubble that tells us we've just invented the next Tale of Two Cities. It's not a terribly enjoyable process (who doesn't like to think he's the next Dickens for a minute or two?), but it's vital if we ever wish to improve.

Remain loyal to your W.I.P. Just because you stumbled across a new plot that just might become your next novel does not mean you have cause to abandon your current work, which is most likely a great deal more promising at this point. For about five minutes last Friday, I felt that Rifles was dull, tired, and not worth continuing when compared with my new idea — a concept riddled with plot holes that can only lay claim to three characters as of yet! Inspiration can make us delusional at times, but its alluring countenance is no reason to forego a work into which you've put countless hours.

And of course, when all else fails, you could simply stop your ears to every new concept and never seek Inspiration out again. But I wouldn't recommend it.

12 epistles:

  1. Sticking to one (or just a few) projects at a time is probably one of my biggest struggles. As a matter of fact, just today I was thinking to myself, "I can't allow myself to come up with any new ideas for novels till I've written the dozen or so I've already got."

    I recently started using the "secret board" feature on Pinterest after I heard another writer mention it, to gather images for a couple books in the planning stage. It's kind of tricky for me, since I can't visualize made-up things and people well, but I still have this vague but stubborn idea of what they look like and only the most perfect pictures will fit. :)

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    1. Ah yes, I know exactly how you feel! I have lists of half-ideas that are waiting to be turned into books . . . what is it about them that makes them so much more appealing than your current W.I.P.?

      I noticed the new secret board feature on Pinterest and have been having a bit too much fun with it as a result, I'm afraid! In fact, the idea I mentioned in my post has its own board now, where I'm collecting and keeping any sort of information that happens to cross my path. The only problem is that, like any other aspect of Pinterest, it fast grows addicting. :P

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  2. A splendid post! It's so very difficult to determine which ideas are worth a quick jaunt away from the manuscript at hand. My method is usually to write it down, as you suggested, and then let it sit. If weeks can go by, and it continues to tingle within my fingertips, then it may be worth my while.

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    1. Exactly! If an idea doesn't last a week or two, I know it's not worth it. I have pages filled with book concepts that only lasted a few days before being tossed to the wind; I suppose it's yet another part of being a writer. :)

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  3. What a great post! I must say, I love reading your blog. Your style of writing just seems to draw me in. ^__^

    The subject of plot bunnies is known to me! And it is good to know I have done something right! I have started the habit of writing everything down, and even have a small notebook at my bed where I can grab it during the night. =]

    Thanks for sharing!

    Blessings,
    Sarah

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    1. Writing everything down is never a bad idea. I have a spiral-bound notebook in my bedroom that I grab whenever I have a new snippet of story to copy out (even if it doesn't last more than a few hours). I always seem to get my best ideas at night as well; something about it makes me feel much more creative. ...Until morning, that is, when I take another look at the list and ask myself what on earth I was thinking. ;)

      I'm so happy you've enjoyed my blog, Sarah — do stick around!

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  4. Inspiring post! And I like the new blog design. Did you do it yourself?

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    1. Thank you — I'm glad you enjoyed it! No, I did not design my blog; I'm quite a stranger in the world of HTML and CSS, I'm afraid. :P A dear friend of mine, Brianna Wachter, designs my blog on occasion. Here's her link: http://bytheway-nana.blogspot.com.

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  5. I don't know how you do it but this is an amazing post, Elizabeth. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Sometimes I fear I am the only writer in the world who gets wild fits of inspiration and cannot control her works in progress. Your writing assured me I am not alone. I also keep writing all my ideas down. We never know when a need for them will arise! I love your blog and your books (especially Rifles) sound very intriguing. I cannot wait until it is finished. (The American War for Indepenndence is a favourite time period of mine.) Thank you again for this post! Love, Annie-Jo Elizabeth

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    1. Well, the main reason I chose to write about it was because the plot bunnies were particularly plaguing me this week (and still are), so rest assured that we are all in the same boat. :) I'm glad my books have piqued your interest! I can't say exactly when (or if) Rifles will be published, but if you do read the final product in future years, I hope it doesn't disappoint.

      Thank you for commenting, Annie-Jo!

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  6. What a spot-on-brilliant post, Elizabeth dear! And, I believe, one that echoes so perfectly the struggles of all of writers when it comes to those naughty plot-bunnies that drag us down their bunny-holes and the flaming inspiration for new stories that seem to plague us far beyond our liking. I actually got asked how I manage 'plot-bunnies' sometime ago and was planning on writing a post about it, but this post is just really, really good I think I may reference it. That is, if you don't mind!

    I also struggle with calming the notions and ideas that fly like a riot of colour in my mind that tells me those 'story-ideas' are far more interesting and amazing than what I am currently writing (I chuckled at your 'A Tale of Two Cities' reference, because isn't that how it really is?). Especially when I was younger, I struggled with this problem constantly and got sidetracked far too often. It's gotten better I believe, but even now, I have many, many half-baked ideas swirling in my brain for potential stories (I can think of at least six!).

    However, I have found that for the most part, so long as I jot down the story-idea with whatever plots, events, themes or characters that have struck me into a sort of rough synopsis which I can refer to later on, and along with a private Pinterest board to gather ideas and inspiration from, I let the ideas simmer and brew in the back of my brain to see how serious and proper a story it really is for future use. And then I can put it aside, and with a focused-mind continue plodding along with my current work-in-progress - and the more I force myself to write what I am supposed to, without stressing overly about how good it is - I will find inspiration and joy and enthusiasm in what I am doing!

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    1. Why, thank you, Joy! I'm glad the post was helpful. I'm actually quite flattered you want to reference it — go right ahead!

      I could probably recite an hour-long monologue on all the three- and four-page stories I wrote on a daily basis from ages eight to twelve. It wasn't until Violets Are Blue that I actually finished a full-length novel. And you'd think the problem would improve with time, but alas, 'tis not the case!

      I have found the same with Rifles as you have with your current W.I.P. — if you stick with it, even when you don't want to write, both the quality and your initiative will improve with time. Writing well also comes easier when you're not necessarily trying to write well. One of my favorite scenes in Rifles was written during NaNoWriMo, and the scene itself tumbled out of its own accord, causing me to give little thought to grammar and lexicon in my eagerness to put my thoughts on paper. Much to my surprise, the result was better than many of my more grueling scenes . . . but isn't that always how it works out? The trick is getting excited about scenes that do not hold so much interest. Ah, the eternal plight of wordcrafters!

      Thank you for commenting, dear friend — I always enjoy your lengthy and heartfelt missives. :)

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