Sometimes, one of the most difficult things about wanting to write is deciding what to write. This decision is usually difficult for one of two reasons: having nothing to decide from, and having too much to decide from. Those who fall in the middle, who move from one perfect project growing in isolation to the next… well, what are you even doing here, you don’t need any help, go be good at stuff.
The former problem, trying to decide between nothing and nothing, is the more well-known form of writer’s block. Possible cures suggest prompts, long walks, music, fanfiction, and ultimately just doing whatever you can to throw some pile of words at the page.
The latter problem, having too many different things you could write, is a curse disguised as a blessing. Those suffering from the former can’t even see how the latter problem is even a problem… but it can stop you cold and leave you staring at the blank page just as thoroughly. Possible cures include pro/con lists, stepping away and seeing which ones come back to you, long walks (which are good for a lot of things), and somehow finding the discipline to see one idea through and then the next and so on.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I suffer from the latter. I see its potential as a blessing, believe me, so I’m not trying to take any martyr spotlight from the true writer’s block sufferers. But my mind can hop between a dozen different ideas in the span of a song, and want to write all of them, none of them, and only parts of them all at once.
My strategy, though it’s only been truly successful once, is to just keep trying to develop ideas little bits at a time, hopping between them as necessary. I’ll build the details of one, only to start seeing the virtues of another so I’ll work on that for a while, until it becomes clear again why I liked the first. My one success was based on the puzzle pieces finally clicking and that one idea just worked.
But it’s a success I’m having trouble duplicating, and for a specific reason that’s a subset of the problem above—multiple version-itis.
When you’re working on multiple projects at once in tandem and they’re all different, then it’s easy enough to convince yourself that you could write them all… eventually. But sometimes multiple projects are actually multiple versions of the same project, tweaked for different protagonists, or time periods, or plot structures. If enough of the core of the idea remains the same, then these multiple versions can’t coexist in any logical way, and so when you choose between them, you choose for good. Which, of course, makes the choice that much harder.
I’ll start with an idea, then see something wrong with it or something that could be better, and so I’ll haul what I like about it into a new framework meant to fix what I don’t like about it. This is just a natural part of “development,” and can ultimately make better stories. But then this new framework will have its own issues, some of which the former framework didn’t have, and all of a sudden I’ll want to go back to the former framework. Okay, great, but then I remember the issues that sent me to the new framework which is looking good again, and… you get the idea.
Most writing problems can usually be solved with discipline, but I’m a little short on that this… lifetime, so I end up just bouncing back and forth and all around before contemplating giving up altogether. Each version has its positives, each version has its negatives, no version is perfect, and I can’t write them all. And so I end up stuck somewhere in the middle, surrounded by ideas but unable to hold onto any of them. A better problem than some have, but still a problem.
I don’t have a clear solution yet, but here are some tips I’ve come up with to help:
Make a pro/con list, so you can at least get all the positives and negatives of each version down on the page in front of you. Though it’s never just about numbers of positives or negatives, you can at least get a sense of priority, and which positives and which negatives are deal-makers or deal-breakers. Of course, you usually wouldn’t get to this point if there weren’t strong weights on all sides, so…
Consider where these pros and cons are coming from—“internal” thoughts or “external” thoughts. This is a big one for me; “internal” thoughts are coming from what I truly like as a reader and writer, and “external” thoughts are coming from what I think I want as an author or what I think other people want. So, for example, if a positive of one version is its daringly original twist, is that something you really want to write or is it just something you think will look good? You can want something for external reasons and there’s no shame in that, but you might be happier in the long run following your internal truths.
Narrow the versions down to two, and keep developing both. Try and clarify two different versions that sit at opposite sides of at least one important continuum, and that represent as many of the different pros and cons as possible. This will at least make it easier than a dozen different versions clamoring for attention. Then, make it a fair fight—try and get both to the same level of development and detail, so that you can weigh them against each other with all the possibilities considered. As you keep developing each, one might pull ahead as the clear favorite, and then you know. But if the other one still tempts, keep developing it so you can see what you’re missing clearly. That might seem like a strong temptation, but for me at least, the vague grass-is-greener half-developed idea is far more likely to derail me than the actual detailed and flawed idea that’s just as messed up as the one I’m working on.
Finally, follow the story. As you develop the core of the idea that you started with into these different versions, whatever makes them too similar to coexist is what you really care about—most likely, that’s some version of a story or character (you can have multiple stories in the same world). But other factors will quickly distract—which world or time period you like, which structure you like, which number of POVs you like—and so a version with better “factors” might start to pull ahead. However, the version that’s ultimately going to make it isn’t the one with all the right “factors,” it’s the one with the story… so if one version feels like a story and the other feels like a disjointed pile of factors with potential, you know in your heart which one is the right one. Those tempting factors might fight you, but you have to follow the story.
It’s difficult to make that final choice and commitment, knowing you are shutting off that other path forever. Even as you start to write, you might still find yourself bouncing back and forth—don’t let that stop you from writing at all, something I’m currently facing. Every path taken is another path lost, but if you stay at the fork and never take a step for fear of the wrong step, all paths are lost.
So pick one and start. In writing, unlike life, you can always start over.