Friday, February 26, 2010

In Which I Advocate Caging Your Plot Bunnies

Okay, so I got this question in my inbox a little bit ago. My policy is to add answers to my FAQ if the questions are universal, but this one, both the question and the answer, were a bit too long for that. So I decided to answer it here.
I’ve been writing a novel for the past 6 months. I’ve completed a good 350 pages of it and an uncountable amount of handwritten pages still needing to be typed. I know every little detail of where this story will go and my characters are almost always somewhere in my head showing me their life together. BUT… it seems like lately completely new story ideas have been flooding my brain in abundance and all I really want to focus on right now is writing the story I’ve already worked so hard on.

So the question….

Does this happen to you? And if so, what do you do about it? I’ve tried to just ignore the new story ideas, but they literally feel like they take my brain hostage until I acknowledge them. I hate breaking from my current story, but I’ve found myself writing several chapters into these new stories just to try and free my mind. Sadly though, I think it’s just given those new stories more life then I’m ready to give them right now. It’s like writers block, but not at all at the same time because I know exactly what wants to be said, there’s just too many people talking at the same time that don’t belong together in my mind. Does that make sense?

What do you do to stay on track when ideas run rampant in your head?

The answer is yes. Look, they're even in the urban dictionary, under Plot Bunny.

Every writer has them, especially as the first blush of Oh-I-Love-This-Story wears off and the writing becomes work. That's not to say that a novel in its middle stages shouldn't have flashes of euphoria -- if it doesn't, I think you've taken a wrong path -- but you have to work harder for them and there's more slogging in between. It's not all roses and chocolates and waffle houses anymore.

But I tend to think of them as good things. It means that I'll have something else to write when I'm done, already waiting for me. I always have a dozen ideas rattling around in there. When I was a teen writer, I used to write several novels at once (for me, this was a terrible idea) and I used to abandon novels as soon as a "better" idea came along.

It took me a long time to realize there aren't really better ideas. I mean, sure some ideas are more catchy, but it's really the execution and characters that sells anything. So if you're writing and currently entertaining jumping ship for a plot bunny that is "more salable," abandon that idea immediately. And get back to work.

Some people can write multiple novels at the same time. I can't. I can edit one and write on another, but not two rough drafts. And I need to float and immerse myself in the world of whatever I'm writing, so it's not a good idea for me to pick up one of the plot bunnies and examine it too closely. When one of them appears, I do one of three things:
1) Write a one paragraph summary of it, like the back of a book. Save it in a folder named "ideas."

2) Write a short story with it for Merry Sisters of Fate. That lets me play with the idea and release some of the pressure of it that's been building up. It also lets me see if I'm actually interested in pursuing it farther. If I have more to say about it.

3) Write a page long synopsis for it, with title, and save it in a folder with the idea's title as the name.

And that's it. I'm not going to let myself pursue it further before I finish writing my current novel, because it will only distract me. It won't "let off more steam" to work on it more. If it's a decent story idea, the only thing that's going to release all that pressure will be to write it to its finish, and I will never finish writing anything if I keep letting plot bunnies interrupt me.

Also, here's a little secret: plot bunnies don't have expiration dates. If it's actually a good idea that interests you enough to pursue it to completion, it will still interest you in two months. Or six months. Or however long it takes you to get to it. You're not going to kill your plot bunny through neglect. Not if it would've survived to adulthood anyway. I have a plot bunny that I came up with in March of 2008. In between other projects, I've written a few dozen chapters on it and I have a lovely synopsis. It still excites the heck out of me. I cannot write it yet -- I can't start writing on it again until at least September, because of other obligations. But I have to tell you that it still thrills me to think about it and I still get more ideas for that book all of the time. (Ask my critique partners -- they know exactly which novel I'm talking about). And I'm glad that I didn't write it back when I first got the idea, because I am such a better writer now. I could've never given it the nuance that it needed back then. Sometimes putting things away for later is the best thing you can do.

So my advice? Jot down the plot bunny. Give it a short story if you want to play with it. Then put it away and do the hardest thing any novelist has to do: finish your effing novel. Then scalp that next bunny.



Ella Press said...

great post, Maggie! really helpful and so true.
this happens to me too, but i'm trying not to listen to the bunnies so much, and finish what i'm working on.

Erica said...

Great post! Plot Bunny's that's funny. Oh but it has such a sweet name it couldn't be all that bad... LOL

That's exactly what I do, write 'em down and leave 'em, but it takes some control! Thanks for sharing Maggie ;o) Oh and for the person that asked the question - great question!

Christine Danek said...

Great advice. I never thought of Plot Bunny's--how cute. I have done this write the idea and put it away. I can't write more than one thing at a time. I am too soaked into my current idea to start something new and it make any sense.

briansplicing_chick said...

Totally great advice. I get plot bunnies all the time. People I know tell me that is awesome. They are so wrong. I get so many ideas at once that I get a whole bunch of first chapters and little else. Do you think there is a market for first chapters? Because I have like 150 of them. :) lol

Sarah said...

Plot bunny aka SNIS (sexy new idea syndrome). It seems this questions has been popping up everywhere in the blog world lately. There must be lots of plot bunnies being born.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm so glad this happens to other people! I thought I was going insane -- all these new ideas warring for my attention and time. I too feel that many voices clutter my head, and then my mind eventually strays from the idea I'm currently working on.

(Plot bunnies . . . cute name, I admit, but they are VERY distracting -- especially to amateur writers like myself who have neither the will nor the power to say NO to the pesky little things.)

Thank you very much, Miss Stiefvater. I think I needed this blog article as a kick in the butt to get working on that novel again. ;) (I worked on it for almost a month straight and I haven't been back to working on it seriously for many months. Now, it seems, it's time to get back up on the horse and leave the plot bunnies alone for the time being.)

Suzanne said...

Ahhh, thank you. I didn't pose this question to you, but I totally could have. This must be a tough issue for just about everyone. I caged a plot bunny just last week... cute little critter required a short story (that will surely turn into a first chapter). Heh, "caging plot bunnies".I didn't even know that what I was doing had such a cute name!

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