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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Talking Shop: The Idea Machine • By Eric Dontigney

The subject of creativity is a popular one in the writer set. Given the central role that creativity plays in the fiction profession, it’s no wonder that writers obsess about it. I’ve met some writers who agonize over coming up with ideas for any kind of writing. It’s a legitimate struggle they face, and I feel for them. Not having ideas when you want to create is awful.

Yet, I suspect, at least half of the writers out there struggle with the opposite problem. They have too many ideas. Way, way, way too many ideas to ever execute on all of them. Granted, not every idea is a good idea. I’ve got some complete short stories that will never see the light of day to attest to that. They aren’t terrible stories. They hang together okay, but they don’t have that special something. Sometimes, my execution was subpar, but the idea usually was just b-grade stuff.

Unfortunately, plenty of ideas are good ideas. When you start layering on years of experience, even some of those b-grade ideas can be elevated into something better because your execution of the idea is so much better than it was say five or ten years ago. Beyond that, you start training your brain to think in terms of narrative. These days, I find that I have to avoid opening up a new file on my computer for an idea because I won’t just jot down the idea. I’ll start writing. Then, all of a sudden, I’ve got a partially completed short story or, more often these days, the first couple chapters of a book that I’m pretty confident has legs.

There’s a reason why I’ve got like four series in progress, six partially completed novels, and something like another 15 books just to wrap those up those series. Plus, there will be new ideas. There will always be new ideas. Before I finished the first draft of Rinn’s Run, I had ideas for at least three or four more books in that series. I could probably make it 10 if I sat down and worked at it.

So, the question I always face is: “How do I sort through the ideas and pick the ones to work on?”

Historically, I didn’t pick. I just tried to work on everything. See above, six partially completed novels. These days, I’m more selective. Now, I’m about to say the least writer-y, least artistic thing you can possibly say about creative endeavors.

Rule One: Be pragmatic.

If you’re 19 and only answerable to yourself, you’ve got a lot of freedom about how you spend your time. For most people, there are adult concerns that vie for your attention. You’ve probably got a job, maybe a spouse, and maybe kids. You’ve definitely got bills. Sure, you may have an idea for a 7-part, epic fantasy series, but do you have the time to work on it? Will you still want to be working on it 10 years from now if you can only devote 45 minutes a day to working on it? If you’ve got 3-5 hours a week to write around all your other responsibilities, you probably want to focus on short stories and novellas. It’s not that short fiction is easier to write well, but it’s less time-consuming in the execution.

Rule Two: Phone a Friend

You’ll get a feel for what ideas are gold and which ones aren’t, but it’s not foolproof. You will get excited about ideas that aren’t top-shelf. If you’re thinking about sinking some real time into a writing project, especially at the expense of other writing projects, run the idea by a friend whose reading judgment you trust. Ask them if that’s a story they’d want to read. They can help you pick out the wheat from the chaff.

Rule Three: Finish What You Start

Almost every writer has partially completed short stories or partially completed novels sitting in a drawer or sitting on their hard drive. Don’t do that. Finish what you start. There are lots of teaching reasons to do that. You’ll still learn things about plotting, characterization, and world-building from those failed attempts, but that’s not my main reason for advising this. Have you ever had an unfinished task or a task that you knew you needed to do that you kept putting off? Ever notice how that task starts taking up more and more brain space. Partially completed stories and books are just like that. They take up psychic space as they compete for your attention. Finishing, even if it’s not great, frees up that psychic space for the next project.

Rule Four: Ignore Me

So, with all that being said, you should ignore me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try those rules, because you should. I’m saying that if you give those rules a real try and they don’t work for you, drop them. For the record, one attempt isn’t a real try. Six months or a year is a real try because the timeline for writing can prove long.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at

SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

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