14

I frequently have the problem of starting a story with an idea—either one recently conceived or one held in mind for months, even years—only to find it bland or boring after a day or so and abandoning it.

I have developed two partially effective strategy for this:

  1. Finish a story idea as quickly as is possible--usually within the span of a single day. This, however, is conducive to bad pacing and deviation of the final product from the original ideas.

  2. Limited the number of words written each day to no more than 500, this alleviates the pacing problem mostly, but seem to only delay the eventual abandonment rather than prevent it.

What might be some other strategies for such a problem?

  • 1
    If I got a nickel every time this happened to me, I'd trade it in for gold and build a mansion out of it – Redwolf Programs May 29 '18 at 17:36

10 Answers 10

14

The advice is simple. Nail your butt to the couch and type.

It won't always be fun, and your first draft will be very bad. If your expectation is to finish a beautiful story painlessly with a blissful experience throughout ... :-) You see from experience why this isn't what happens.

Also, each part of a story is different. Writing the beginning is writing the setting and introducing the characters. Lots of description. If you have a vibrant imagination this should be relatively straightforward. Writing the middle is all about complications, commitments, ups and downs, successes and failures. You need to be able to strategize out and think about the plot line, something that was not so necessary in part one of your story. You also need to pay attention to tension, make sure you have interesting scenes, challenges, complications that keep people reading. The third part has to take everything to eleven, and tie it all up too, in a way that is satisfying. Really hard. This is where you realize you did parts one and two wrong. :-) The ending is a mess. You plow through it anyway,

...And then you have a complete draft. It might be bad. But it's complete.

Then comes the editing. I'm in the camp that believes writing is rewriting.

Your issues are common. I'm dragging my heels on starting my next book because I want to get the first one perfect first - but i should dig into book two and start writing it. I should nail my butt to the couch and type. I will. I promise, I will.

There is a lot online about the difficulty with finishing a novel. Here's a nice description of Henry Miller's experience with this. But it really boils down to just put words paper and fix them after.

  • I'll be that guy who disagrees with the highest-voted answer. Here's my issue with it: An idea and a lot of typing don't make a great story. My take on the question is that the writer is bored because what they have written is boring. What is probably needed is developing the idea. Discovery writing is one way to do that, and maybe that's what you're suggesting (it's not clear), but using the idea to craft a compelling plot on a cork board is just as valid a development step. Working (typing) is essential, but it's also not usually enough. – Todd Wilcox May 29 '18 at 18:19
  • @ToddWilcox It's interesting, I consider myself a plotter (and visual, I have an arc drawn out for story two) but... the interesting parts to story one came after I had the skeleton in place (the complete first draft.) After I had all the bones (110,000 words of them, Acts I-II-III) I had a much better handle on it all. The layers have been added in each iteration. Layers = character motivation, relationship, plot twists, tension. The story is currently 92,000 and far more complex than it used to be. I see discovering as something that can happen after the framing of the entire skeleton. – DPT May 29 '18 at 20:04
  • That makes sense. My view of your experience there is that you didn't merely type, you followed a strategy and employed some specific tactics. So it wouldn't have happened with out typing, but I still think typing alone is not enough. I could be wrong about the asker's problem. My take is that they don't have a problem typing, instead what they are typing is coming out as boring. More typing might not make much of a difference. Just my read on their situation. – Todd Wilcox May 29 '18 at 20:07
  • @ToddWilcox Ahh. I was projecting from all the writers I know who give up on projects. Like, 60% of the aspiring writers I know start a project and get bored somewhere in the middle. They have a great idea (maybe a scene) but once the scene is out, they lose steam. I've wondered if its down to stories having these different 'parts'. Endings and middles are very different than beginnings. You could be right, and I sure don't disagree with you. Of course, of those that finish, the next hurdle is to find a way to publish, and it sounds like that's hard to. Then finding readers, also hard. – DPT May 29 '18 at 20:11
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    My very humble two cents say this answer is mostly right. @ToddWilcox has a point when he says you need more then just typing, but the key point is: if you don't type, you won't achieve anything. Many people think writing a book is a fun ride through fantasy and imagination, but it's actually a lot of work in the first place. If you can't get yourself to do all that work, then creativity and imagination and organization and preparation and research will get you nowhere. So, +1 for this answer. – Simone May 30 '18 at 7:03
7

TL;DR

Writing a complex story can be a lengthy project, use a project management technique—such as Scrum—to give yourself a fighting chance!

The Specifics

Writing a book (or even a reasonable length story) is a sizeable project, it'll take time and a lot of effort to do. Luckily the modern world has developed several really good strategies to help us manage projects of this size and scale.

Have you considered treating your writing as a Scrum project?

Now, stop laughing and hear me out.

What will it take to write a book?

  • A basic outline.
  • Character development.
  • Writing.
  • Proofreading.
  • Cover design.

All of these are tasks which need to be organised, estimated, and delivered.

What if you maintained a backlog of work which needs done to deliver your book? Many of these have a dependency order (you can't write big chunks of the story until you've planned out the characters) and that can be represented.

At the start of each week/month/timebox you can commit to a certain amount of work. This could be writing a chapter or planning a character. Holidays and breaks are permitted and everyone knows life gets in the way!

Using Scrum gives you a number of advantages:

  • You get a little shot of dopamine every time you complete a task.
  • You can use tools like burn-up charts to measure your progress towards the finished book.
  • Your life is flexible again, you don't have to write 500, 1000, or a chapter every day!
  • What does "TLDR" mean? – Redwolf Programs May 29 '18 at 17:38
  • 1
    @RedwolfPrograms TL;DR means, “Too long; didn’t read…” – JakeGould May 29 '18 at 18:14
  • Also, this is excellent advice. I used to write a lot more before I became a programmer. Then I realized: Hey! I can use the iterative structure I use for programming for writing as well! And it really helps. Even if you only have a simple variation, deconstructing your process helps you become better at pretty much all you do. – JakeGould May 29 '18 at 20:15
  • @JakeGould out of interest did you use any software to help? I've been wanting to do a lot more personal kanban but my wife is unconvinced about having a scrum board on the fridge at home... – Liath May 30 '18 at 8:54
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    @Liath No software. Well, I will say I sometimes use Git as a writing tool. I write drafts in a “develop” branch and when they are good to go I merge to “master.” But that is about it. – JakeGould May 30 '18 at 11:56
6

If you don't already, it might be helpful to spend time outlining your idea on paper before you put it in story form. Elaborating on it for a few days or so as you flesh out characters, map basic plot points, etc might help you stay interested in your story if it develops some before you have the pressure of writing it out. After that, forcing yourself to stick to the 500 words/day (or 1000, so it'd get done faster) might help you finish it. Then put it away and set an alarm on your phone to get it out in a few weeks. Then you can look at it anew, and you might see things you didn't when you first wrote it so it doesn't seem boring, or at least get ideas for changes to make.

6

I suspect you are too focused on your idea. Most ideas for good novel length (or series length) stories are actually pretty simple, and can be summarized in a page. That includes best sellers like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or The Da Vinci Code.

And those one page summaries, or a synopsis, when we read them, are not that exciting, they are bland. It takes a professional editor, director, script analyst or fellow author steeped in the craft of writing to see such a synopsis as describing a vehicle for entertainment, not as being itself entertaining.

It is an extreme form of "telling, not showing" and I suspect that is what you are writing.

Either that, or like a lot of beginning authors, you are writing story climaxes, and they fall flat and feel boring. There are several such climaxes in the story: The MC being thrown out of their status quo world, halfway through Act I, then seeing the full shape of their problem, end of Act I, their striving to solve it, their setbacks, their final do-or-die conflict and prevailing or failing, near the end of Act III, then the end-of-story denouement or aftermath that completes the emotional journey for the MC.

Unfortunately, the climaxes are boring too, because readers don't care about these characters as much as you do. They are introduced cold, we are neutral on the MC, on the villain (if you have one), on any love story or hate story, on all of it. Readers begin their relationship with your story willing to make a friend of the MC, flawed or not, and wanting to root for someone. But that takes time and showing the reader scenes in which your MC does something they can feel something about.

What turns either a synopsis or a list of climaxes into entertainment is adding a lot of detail and scenes filled with conflict on every page that keeps them reading to find out what happens next. First to introduce your character to them in a non-climax setting (their status quo world), then introducing a complication, that becomes a big problem, that drives them to metaphorically leave the status quo world (physically or mentally or morally) to solve it: The moment Harry Potter turns eleven he discovers he is a wizard via the giant Hagrid pounding on his door, and gets whisked off to a new land and new life in Hogwarts, the school for wizardry.

If you did not know that story it might sound pedestrian, even stupid: Since when is "Harry Potter" the name of a wizard? We don't care anything about this kid, or Hagrid, it sounds like a spoof: A very unwizardly commoner name "Harry Potter", and a laughable silly school name, "Hog Warts".

But it is the author's job to make us care about Harry and Hagrid. She purposely chose a common name for her MC and his friends precisely to appeal to her audience, born without wizardly names, to help them be those characters.

That takes imagination and scenes, scenes, scenes, so we care about the MC and what is happening to them. It takes setups: Nobody cares if Alice breaks up with Bobby. We care only if we see Alice as a friend, or a Bobby as a friend, and although we are willing on either front, if we first see them as strangers on the street yelling and cursing at each other, we care very little. Let us live with Alice a few days and see her "status quo", her happy relationship with Bobby before any instigating incident that will lead to their breakup, and then we like Alice, and we don't like that Bobby has hurt her so badly.

Stories take time to unfold, that time is represented in scenes. If all you write is climaxes, the story is boring, even if your ideas are good enough to be bestsellers or great movies. Take your one-day jottings and treat them as the seed of a story; and write 20 pages introducing your MC, in her status quo world whatever it is, encountering the difficulties of life and work and relationships (in family, romance, work and public) and demands on her time and money and getting her crap done every day. It makes no difference if she is a master assassin or a normal ten year old, everyday life is a routine that can go awry every day.

A great plot can be the skeleton of a great story, but all plots are crap without characters we care about. We feel little sympathy for a skeleton, it needs flesh to become Alice, alone and afraid in her life.

The Sixth Sense is a great plot with a great twist, but if I give you a five sentence, twist-revealing, one-paragraph synopsis without characters, it falls flat, or at best gets a chuckle: "Oh, cool, ha ha."

It has no impact because we have skipped the experiences of seeing a kid terrified, the problems of the psychiatrist with his wife, his guilt over his inability to help a previous similar patient, his slow conversion to believing the supernatural ability, and then the shock of learning the full truth about himself. If we don't care about these people, if they are just skeletons, we do not feel happy with them, fear for them, root for them, grieve with them or dread what will happen to them. Make us like them, and dislike their opponents or their situation or whatever is not right in their world.

Then you will have a story.

  • I like this answer as much as any of you other answers :) – Totumus Maximus May 29 '18 at 11:27
4

In Movies there's the concept of Set Pieces. These are exciting moments in your story you want to hit that will be lavish and engaging, both for you and the reader. Set Pieces can act as mile markers. If you're anything like me, then you don't want to know more than a rough outline of where you are going. A deeper outline will explore the ideas and make them unexciting. So, instead, set up a destination you have to get to in the future and give yourself permission to write poorly to get there. I guarantee if you write 750-1000 words a day you'll have a book at the end of the year. Get excited about that and let your mind hit your targets giving you steady progress towards something. Now the problem with that is your quality might be low, but you will get to the end of it. And then you'll hit the point of struggle I'm dealing with. Once you get to the end, and you've laid down your sword its hard to pick up your scalpel to start working on dead body of a story before you. But, but, but you'll have a finished first draft which is better than you've been doing so far.

I concur that you're problem here is that you're focusing too much on the idea. I think when you get to the end of the first book you're going to be able to see more of your problems than you can from the front end. Possibly weak characterization/motivation, especially if you're all about the idea and not the people. And a few other things. Before you set off on your journey you need to cast your story with people who will be good for it. If you're not able to do this on the front end, you're going to have to perform invasive surgery at the end of it. So, you may want to spend some time thinking about the people.

But, there's one more technique before you focus too much on your weak areas that need improving. Fill your story to the point of bursting with ideas. This is contrary to the advice elsewhere, but it may work for you. Throw every single f'ing spit ball on the wall. Every one, then make more until your wall is damp and dripping with saliva and molding fiber. Do it till you have no ideas left. Then, at the end figure out what's working. It might be the worst story you've ever told, but there's probably a good one inside and you might be able to see what is working. Read Harry Potter again and you'll see a new idea every two pages or so. Anyone who thinks that book has very little going on isn't paying attention. Most boring stories are bereft of these ideas. The trick is to make them work for revealing character, plot and setting in a way that enforces the narrative and guides everything forward. Harry Potter is thick & tight with idea while being fairly brief: Teaser, Summer (muggles suck), Birthday (You're a Wizard + Wonder of Wizardry) introduce main characters, Go to School, Sorting + Danger Exists, Intro Lessons + Seeker + We Sneak Out @Night, Halloween (Trolls + Friendship + Fluffy), Christmas: Chess + Mirror + Harry's Purpose, Dragon + Malfoy + Voldomort & Unicorns, Exams + Puzzle Solved + Adults all Missing, Solve the Maze, Harry Must Stand Alone, Harry Must Confront All. The end.

Through all of that he collects tons of friends and there are so many ancillary ideas/plots, but they all are in service of this big idea: friendship, loyalty, honesty and bravery in the face of danger will conquer evil. The ideas in that story give it a sense of wonder, a feeling that everything is real. But the talent is in how strong everything is applied, how focused what is left is on the final target. You need lots of ideas, but when you finish they all need to be on point. EMPHASIS: WHEN YOU FINISH. You're not anywhere near finishing if you're giving up after 500 words, you're not finished after a first draft. You're finished after all of the holes have been dug to the right depth.

(Ripping this from Writing Excuses) On the topic of digging holes: You have 1000 feet of hole that you can dig for your final book. 500 should go to your big idea and you can probably dig a couple 100 foot holes, and then you need to do shallow pits that imply and support your other holes. But you need a lot of holes, a lot of them to really make people feel immersed. Dig your holes however you like a book only has 1000 feet of holes. Or, 1000 feet of space for you to explore ideas. So, have a lot of them, but you can't explore them all to death.

It's a good thing you're an idea man. You now need to develop the skills and focus to apply it. My last non-writing suggestion. Try meditation (get headspace, an app). It sounds like you have a problem sitting with yourself. If you can get used to it and gain presence you may be able to override that itch to move away when things get uncomfortable or boring. You need to develop a writing practice & stick to it. It needs to be what you do. It will all get easier when you've written enough words that the scary becomes a bit more mundane. Just keep your ideas alive. They're the torch from which you can birth a universe of utterly amazing adventures.

3

An idea is not enough. It's abstract and need life to become concrete. If you just focused on your idea while writing, you will empty it and each word will make it less interesting. You must feed your idea with life to make it entertaining. So, you thought about a story which seems a good idea. You have some characters, required by the story. For the moment, they are abstract, more shadows than people. Give them names. Give them histories and feelings. Let them talk. Let them think and do. Let them surprise you. Nearly the same is truth for places.

Writing is a form of investigation. If you already knew what you will write, it will be boring for sure. You must write to entertain yourself first. It you do not entertain yourself while writing, try to change something, the thing you expect the least to change.

Ideas are to change. Focus on them, and they will remain the same, and become boring after a while. Focus on what they mean for people, and what people mean for them, and they will improve, live, or even die. Ideas are not fun by themselves, but people are when dealing with them.

  • Interesting answer, but I'd appreciate if you were a little more specific as to how one might change said ideas in order to entertain oneself. Examples would be helpful. – user289661 May 29 '18 at 16:52
3

I think you're confusing the idea with the story. They are two different things.

The idea is not the story

For example, Aaron Sorkin had one idea, to show a President of the USA as a human being with everyday human problems, and he created two stories from that idea, the feature film The American President and the TV series The West Wing. They are fairly different stories, and even though The West Wing was based on the same idea, it does more to show White House staffers as human beings and the president is still a bit larger than life (with some exceptions).

My point is that I think you're getting bored with your stories, not your ideas. Ideas are usually only interesting for a while anyway. They are like seeds that you can plant and nurture to grow into a good story. But just a seed is not very interesting once you've finished imagining all of its potential.

You might need to build your "gardening" skills, to help your seeds grow into the kinds of flowers or giant trees that you want. One word for these skills is "craft".

Create a compelling story

As you've probably heard and read, there are two major strategies writers will use to craft a story from an idea: plot-driven writing or character-driven writing. Each strategy has its advantages and disadvantages, but no matter how you write, you have to know the tactics that will work to accomplish your strategy.

One way to view a compelling story is to look for two ingredients. The first is an overwhelming desire or compelling intention, and the second is an insurmountable obstacle. A character-driven writer might conceive of a character with an overwhelming desire (e.g., a lifelong dream), or do some discovery writing with a character and find a goal or goals for that character. A plot-driven writer will generally come up with the intention(s) and obstacle(s), and then work out what kinds of people will put themselves in that kind of situation. Again, it doesn't matter which way you want to go. It does matter that you keep in mind which strategy you prefer and remember to find those intentions and obstacles.

Once you've got some desires and challenges, intentions and obstacles, whatever you want to call them, that is when you can really start wondering whether the story you are contemplating is exciting or boring, and answering that question isn't too hard. The more imperative the desire and the more daunting the challenge, the greater the stakes and the more exciting the story.

Idea versus story example

Suppose your idea is to tell a story that has only one character - an astronaut alone in deep space. Now you think about what kind of story you want to tell based on that idea. Maybe your astronaut gets hungry and wants a hot dog (intention), so she has to go to the galley to heat up a hot dog before she can eat it (obstacle). Hopefully it's clear that the story I just outlined is not going to be very exciting. She heats up the hot dog and eats it. So the setting and isolation that are part of the idea are basically wasted on the story of a person eating lunch.

What if we take the same idea and come up with a more compelling story. The astronaut wants to go home. No, needs to go home, because her daughter is going to be forced into hard labor by a corrupt government unless our hero can get home in three days to take custody. That's a very compelling desire/intention. But, the astronaut is lost in deep space. She has almost zero clue where she is. It might not even be possible to travel back to Earth in three days in a straight line at the speed of light, assuming she even knows in which direction Earth lies. That's an insurmountable obstacle, to be sure.

From there, we have all kinds of exciting possibilities. Perhaps she attempts to use some kind of radio wave transponder to catalog nearby stars, but accidentally hails a previously-unknown alien race. After figuring out how to communicate with them, she sacrifices her chance to get home to help the aliens, and then they repay her kindness by transporting her home faster than light just in time to save her daughter.

Or she could go all Mark Watney and science the sh*t out of her situation and arrive home just in time.

If it's boring, raise the stakes

If you are bored by your story, any story, no matter how far along you are in it, my suggestion is you immediately ask yourself, "what is the intention and what is the obstacle?" If you don't have both of those, work to find them. If you have them and they don't seem interesting enough, raise the stakes. The highest stakes in a story are usually life, love, and fortune. If your character(s) isn't/aren't going after one or more of those three, you still have some headroom to raise the stakes above where they are.

  • Good differentiation. Some (very few) writers made it on ideas alone. I've yet to read a Philip K. Dick short story that did anything more with an idea than add the barest flesh to its bones—most of the film adaptations of his work are, in my opinion, better than the stories. – Wildcard May 30 '18 at 10:20
3

In Short…

You cannot sprint a marathon. And if you pace yourself out—and figure out how to break down your writing into smaller tasks—you will be consistent with work and will (hopefully) always be happy with your ability to push the proverbial boulder forward.

More Details…

Riding off of a comment I made on Liath’s great answer regarding Scrum for writing project management, I wanted share some of my advice. Mind you I will frame this in the concepts of writing and creativity being similar. And some of this is based on my experience with writing and then becoming a programmer; I have learned that some programming habits can be adapted for other non-programming uses:

  1. Don’t Kill Yourself to Write/Create: First and foremost, I really do not believe forcing yourself to “write” will add up to much. Sometimes inspiration strikes and you can literally spend hours writing and wonder where the time went. But in my experience you really need to be in “the zone” for that to happen. More often than not you will be experiencing things in a piece-meal fashion: Ideas, creativity and the urges to engage are all small drops in a larger pool.
  2. Figure Out Small Ways to Write/Create Without Bullying Yourself: Some days I don’t want to create anything. But still, and idea might pop into my head. Write it down somewhere. I used to use a notepad, but now I quickly jot it down in the “Notes” application on my iPhone.
  3. Slate Some Time to Review Notes: On some predefined schedule—perhaps weekly—look over your notes and decide what to do with them. Some of your notes might be worth nothing, so feel free to toss them. But review your notes and decide what the next steps are.
  4. Act on Your Notes: Depending on what you decide to do with your notes, you should slate some solid time to do it. And I would recommend leaving your home to do so. Once a week I head to a nice cafe, get a decent coffee and snack, crack open my phone or laptop and do something. Sometimes I spend an hour or so doing something and then say, “Ehhh… I want to do something else…” and I do it. If that something else simply means taking a walk, hanging out with friends or something else, do it. You can’t force inspiration. And you need to stretch different muscles and give others time to relax.
  5. Divide Up Your Tasks: Now this depends on what you are doing, but in general I like to divide up tasks into four, simple slices. Now don’t feel strictly connected to that structure, but in general most any project flows like this:

    • Ideas/Notes: Simple, quick and just get them out of your head and onto—or into—something.
    • First Drafts: Expand on the ideas and notes you have to roughly piece together a first draft. Your goal should not be perfection. Just write.
    • Second Draft: Your second draft should be more focused and basically a chance to shape and solidify your first draft.
    • Final Version: At this point you are basically finalizing what you laid out previously.
  6. Use Structuring Tools to Help You If Needed: For some people, a simple batch of notes help. But I am a programmer, and I use Git extensively, so I actually have found using Git can be quite helpful. It’s helped me learn more and more Markdown and the flow is just like programming: I do all of my draft writing in one branch (not master) and then when things solidify over time, I eventually merge to master. The main benefit of this method is I have a version history as well as a digital backup of my work. And on rough days I can check my commit history—much like a regular programming project—and map out how well I have been doing. It can also help you identify patterns in when you are inspired or just tired. For example, if you notice every 3 weeks you crash and hit a wall… Well, then that is a good thing to notice! It lessens the pressure when you realize you have a creativity curve and—basically—bottom out at a certain time. You can even plan things, like outings or trips, around that downtime knowing when you get back you will be fully ready for the next round of creative work.

In general, while there is some romanticized noble fantasy around the artist who kills themselves ensconced in their work, I’ve found—the older I get—that this isn’t always the case. Lots of fine artists spend weeks on—let’s say a painting—and then let it sit around until inspiration strikes them… Often times days, months, weeks and even years later.

Don’t feel burdened by deadlines if you don’t have one. Let your own creative urges be your guide!

2

Bland idea goes to crime, saved in the end ...

Your question is important because we all get this illness -- days, months when every idea is boring, every story has already been told. Pushing through these periods takes perspective and motivation.

If we look at ideas as raw material -- rocks that need sculpting -- we can let go of the notion that they are important. You can chisel any bland idea to sculpt a fine story because the writing, the process, is the where the story comes from. Subsequent drafts might completely rub out the original idea anyway!

DPT's brilliant advice above, "Nail Your Butt To The Couch and Type!" is now on my wall - big smile and thank you, DPT.

A handy motivator is to imagine you write for a living. You are on a deadline -- a vital deadline that means you either make the rent or beg for another extension. You must be willing to bang the keys for crappy ideas, heartless editors, rapacious publishers. Use this trick every day for a decade and you will look back to see that you write better than most and can finally carve a masterpiece from a dull piece of limestone.

BTW, this is my first post to this group. I was looking at something else on SE and saw the hot teaser on the right. Hello everyone - wonderful comments here. I will check back often.

1

Write it backwards; sounds impossible and it kind of is but bear with me. Writing the conclusive scenes of a story first gives you a clear goal and also motivates you to get there with the rest of your writing, that's how it works for me anyway. Working backwards through the stories' key scenes and then stitching them together into a final narrative makes keeping track of what's happening and where the story is going easier and it maintains interest in a way that starting at the beginning with a goal in mind doesn't.

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