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Remains To Be Seen

November 29, 2011

Every once in a while, I like to stop what I’ve been doing and look back over my shoulder, just to make sure I’ve got all my stuff where I can reach it. I don’t spend a lot of time reliving the past, and I also don’t really spend much time or energy on the idea of quoting my past works for bits of filler. I have done these things, but sparingly, bearing in mind that what is familiar to me in my work has almost certainly been overlooked by my readers, if they’ve ever read a given work or not.

What I mean is, you can afford to be self-referential, so long as everyone is in on the joke. It’s not as funny when you write a running gag that nobody heard the set-up for. I mean, how funny is the number 42 or galactic bypasses if you’ve never read Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? Same goes for talking elephants and regurgitating neon worm trains. See, I told you it wasn’t as funny.

So, what’s the point of looking back at a bunch of work that not many people know about? Well, I guess it depends on what kind of work you do, doesn’t it? I mean, if your job is to make simple little things like three minute pop songs or short stories or comic strips, maybe your work doesn’t have much to offer on repeated inspection. Maybe your work is upfront and straightforward, concealing nothing and helpfully pointing out all of the important points of interest. Sooner or later, we all do work like this, and most of us make a living at it, no matter what our job title is. Folks like the reassurance of knowing what they’re paying for before they put their money down.

But then, if you’re like me, you tend to pack a lot into your work, sneaking lots of little easter eggs and throwaway ideas into the bigger picture, in part to amuse the more savvy reader, but mostly just to amuse yourself.

But what happens sooner or later is, I start looking over my shoulder, as one does, and reconsiders leaving so many unharnessed ideas running free when I could be making them earn their keep. I’m the one who has to wake up at 4 AM to write the little bastards down, so why shouldn’t I get as much out of them as I can? Sure, some ideas really are just walk-ons that don’t have any lines, but if you don’t really look closely at some of these things, you can’t know what you’ve overlooked.

In the past, I’ve rather magnanimously told myself and everyone else that I was offering them up freely for the taking. Stands to reason, since I can’t possibly write every single idea that comes into my head as a full novel or short story. Some people may be able to handle that, but frankly, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do that.

A strange thing happens when you tap into Ideaspace™; the more ideas you use, the more ideas you find waiting for you the next time you go back. It’s like the system is jiggered to work best for the hardcore user, kind of like World of Warcraft.

So where does that leave those of us who just want to dabble or focus on one or two precious ideas?

Well, I’ve written stories that stuck to one set of ideas and didn’t introduce anything new after the initial establishment of concepts. It’s not really my thing, though, so I’m probably not the best person to ask about it. Still, I would say that the best thing to do is to stay the course, but leave room for the occasional revelation, because really, nothing wears out faster than a story you already know so well it holds no mysteries for you. If you have to know every plot point ahead of time, try not to write too much about each point, and spend more energy connecting the dots organically.

For lack of new ideas that connect easily to your original concept, just keep in mind that all worlds are made up of many parts that don’t necessarily make sense together. It’s only fiction that gives us the illusion of cohesion, and it’s a convention that needs to be stirred up a little, just to make your readership feel like you’re working them properly. No one wants to feel like they just read the adult equivalent of Dick & Jane. So shake it up.

But what does that have to do with exhuming old ideas? Well, if you’re a power user like I am, what you find is, if you use enough duct tape, pretty much every idea is related to every other idea, and it’s often the connections you forge between the two that creates and guides your characters and plot events. Learning to read the invisible plot threads between the dots (i.e. your intended plot points) is a skill that can do a lot for you when you’re stuck for a transition to the plot point you need to reach in twenty pages.

What I do is, I pull out a half dozen or so unused or slightly soiled ideas and rearrange them until I see a connection between them, and from there, I draw up my plot. Barring that, I take these individual ideas and dream them into anthologies or serials. Every idea is a good one, used correctly. You’d be surprised what execution can do for an idea you thought was too derivative of someone who heavily influenced you. A different slant on an idea, different lighting, different music, a completely different cast, all of these things can change the whole story in subtle but unmistakable ways.

When you run through your back catalogue, just open up your mind and grab a new batch, and get them all down before you lose them. Ideas can come from anywhere, but when you need them most, they seem to come from everywhere at once, so write fast.

And then again, sometimes what you really need to do is just put the past behind you and move on to the next big thing. A change is as good as a rest, they say.


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