High Fidelity: the Romance of the Big Idea

I’m going to ask other authors to jump in and correct me if their experience has differed, but the number one question I get at events and online (and by a very large margin) is, “Where did you get the idea for Shadow and Bone?” And recently, I was asked by a reader (through the AskBox on Tumblr which I LOVE—come ask me things!), “When you have many ideas, which one do you choose to write first?”

My initial thought was, “Well, the one that won’t let me sleep.” But I think these questions come up so often because of a preoccupation we have with the Big Idea. The myth of this kind of inspiration is a bit like an old fashioned romance: The Big Idea shows up looking sexier, smarter, and just plain better than anything you’ve ever seen before. It takes you by the hand, looks deeply into your eyes, and says, “I’m the one,” and you know, deep in your writerly heart that this is DESTINY.

I understand the appeal. Depending on how you work, it can take months or years to turn an idea into a finished manuscript. It’s a serious commitment, and I think we want to believe that the Big Idea makes this commitment easy, that you open your laptop and never look back.

And y’know what? It’s sort of true. For me, there’s always a honeymoon phase when the Big Idea can do no wrong. I feel brilliant in its company, thoughtful, like a real writer who can simply see the plot spooling out before her in perfect loops and arcs. The Big Idea keeps me up late talking. It has a thousand questions, each one more interesting than the last. I neglect my friends and family because I just want to spend every minute with the Big Idea. It’s a magical time, all moonlight and martinis, and then, of course, the honeymoon ends. Then the Big Idea clams the heck up and just sits there doing nothing. Then this relationship starts to feel like work.

This is when—I guarantee it—the Other Idea comes around, looking gorgeous, smelling good, and making all kinds of promises. When I was writing Shadow and Bone, I got an idea for a horror project. “I’m what you should be writing,” this Other Idea said. “I’m the book that people will want to read. I’m hot and trendy, and you might as well know, I’m easy.” And I was tempted. I sinned in my heart! I mean, the Big Idea had just gotten so complicated. The Other Idea looked simple and fun. It didn’t make crazy demands. What if the Other Idea was the one I was meant to be with?

But this was nothing new. I’d started a lot of books, written a lot of first chapters. I’d never managed to commit to finishing a manuscript or anything close to it. With Shadow and Bone, I’d made myself a promise: Once the manuscript was done, I could bury it in a desk drawer or light it on fire and send it out to sea, but it had to be finished. So I opened a file for the Other Idea. I wrote down any thoughts or plans I had for it. I flirted, but I didn’t cheat. I stayed faithful. And after a few rocky weeks, the Big Idea got over its damn mood and started acting like itself again.

Extended metaphor aside, I’m learning that the Other Idea isn’t necessarily something to be ignored or pushed aside. Laini Taylor touched on this at a signing and it was a bit of a revelation. Sometimes, instead of being a distraction, the Other Idea can become an ally that points you toward a breakthrough. If you start to feel the draw of another project, try to analyze just what you find so compelling about it.  Is it a character? A concept? Some kind of emotional impact? Then write that compelling thing into your current work. The lure of the Other Idea can be both a warning that something is lacking and a way to put your finger on what might be missing.

Despite our romance with sudden, cataclysmic inspiration, a book isn’t just one idea. It doesn’t require a single moment of inspiration. It requires daily inspiration. No matter how spectacular the initial concept, a time will come when you simply have no clue what comes next or how you wrote yourself into a particular corner. It’s easy to look on this inevitable return to reality with let’s-curl-into-a-ball-and-rock-slowly-in-the-corner dread. But it’s also possible to anticipate it as an opportunity, to know that the story will get harder, but it will also get better, and to remember that, if we stick with it, we might just get to fall in love all over again.


23 Responses to High Fidelity: the Romance of the Big Idea

  1. Natalie Aguirre Dec 6 2012 at 6:30 am #

    Great suggestions on what to do when you’re pulled in more than one direction with projects. And you’re right, a book requires daily inspiration. So glad you didn’t put Shadow and Bone in a drawer BTW.

  2. Claudia McCarron Dec 6 2012 at 6:44 am #

    Thank you so much for this post! I to was looking for the perfect idea not so long ago, and I have finally made a decision to commit to a manuscript. I thought it would be easy. Wrong! But now that I’ve gotten over a few hard parts, I want to tough it out to the end.
    Also, I love the new perspective on Other Ideas, which can be a big problem for me. Thanks again for this post, it was inspiring and encouraging.

    • Leigh Bardugo Dec 6 2012 at 2:08 pm #

      I’m so glad, Claudia. And brava to you for toughing it out. You got this 😀

  3. Jenn Rush Dec 6 2012 at 6:48 am #

    “…looking gorgeous, smelling good…”

    Hah. So true. So true.

    Brilliant post, Leigh!

    • Erin Bowman Dec 6 2012 at 10:56 am #

      HA! What Jenn said. This post was humorous AND true, Leigh. (I’m currently being distracted by a New Shiny. I really do think it’s the one I should be writing, though. Of course, don’t they all tell us that when they show up with flowers?)

      • Leigh Bardugo Dec 6 2012 at 2:10 pm #

        Yes, Erin. Yes, they do. And I think there’s a lot of pressure in YA to have the “next” thing or the “hot” thing so that feeds those doubts and the desire to somehow hedge your bets.
        And hee! Jenn, I know you feel me.

  4. Anna Boll Dec 6 2012 at 11:31 am #

    There’s a great Ted Talk on this by Elizabeth Gilbert that opines that creatives are not wholly responsible for their genius both when it succeeds and when it fails.

  5. Alexa Y. Dec 6 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    I absolutely LOVE this post because it is just TOO true. During NaNo, when I was working on the WIP that I’m still working on, I came up with one or two new compelling ideas. Like you, I wrote out my ideas for them, saved the document and filed it away – I was determined to make something of this WIP I have. Though it’s been rocky and I’m still tempted to “cheat” on it, I think it’s necessary for me to try and actually FINISH this one first before starting a new one, just to get into the habit.

    • Leigh Bardugo Dec 6 2012 at 2:12 pm #

      Alexa, I really encourage you to stick with it and finish. Even if you aren’t thrilled with the outcome, you’ll do more justice to those other ideas for having completed a project. You learn lessons along the way that can’t be learned any other way. And dude, you’ll have written a book!

  6. Robin Hall Dec 6 2012 at 5:47 pm #

    First, I have to say that I’m so impressed with how welcoming you are to your readers, on twitter and tumblr and on and on. Thank you for that. Second, I am at the point in my WIP that is tough and all these other “perfect” shiny new ideas are vying for my attention and being all pretty and fun and easy (why did I have to write a novel where I have to understand physics? with me you don’t even have to know how to add, they say). You post was a great reminder to get back on the dang horse and at least finish this first draft. It might be one that I never polish, but in that end, it is still worth it. No cheating this time:)

    • Leigh Bardugo Dec 6 2012 at 7:57 pm #

      It’s my pleasure! (And it’s honestly just exciting to have readers.)
      As for science, let us not speak of it. It pains me. But I’m glad you’re pushing through on this.

  7. JQ Trotter Dec 6 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    This post came at just the right time for me. I’ve been struggling with my current WIP (finished, but in need of a lot of revision, of course). All these other ideas keep trying to get my attention and I’m often tempted to just go with them and leave my Big Idea to disappear as a whimpy rough draft. But then I open a file, write down what ideas I have, and the Big Idea — while it promises it needs a lot of work — keeps nagging at me and drawing me back. It’s a challenge, but I’m not going to let it go. It worked out well for Laini Taylor, but when I heard her talk not too long ago it sounded like she knew on a few different levels that her then-current WIP just didn’t turn out like she wanted it to.
    Great post and great advice!

    • Leigh Bardugo Dec 6 2012 at 8:01 pm #

      Glad you’re facing the challenge. I really enjoyed hearing Laini talk about process and I appreciated how forthright she was about the way she works and the ups and downs of that. I’ve also heard both her and Margi Stohl say that they had histories of starting well but then not following through on projects, so that made me feel a lot better about all of my grand beginnings that never went anywhere 😉

  8. Sooz Dec 6 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    This. Is. Brilliant. Gosh, this post is so, so, SO spot on. I literally just went through this with the novella I’m revising. So many SHINY IDEAS…elsewhere. I managed to use all my inspiration with those Other Ideas to transform and sparkle-ify the novella…and then–exactly as you say–fall back in love with my novella’s original story.

    Awesome post, Leigh. So insightful for this whole excruciating creative process.

  9. Ameriie Dec 7 2012 at 2:20 am #

    Leigh, this is such an insightful, hilarious post. You’re good with it, you… Great points to keep in mind when the heart becomes wanton.

    • Leigh Bardugo Dec 8 2012 at 6:44 pm #

      ha! extra points for use of the word “wanton.”

  10. Julie Dec 7 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    Great post! I’m working on something now and have two other ideas that are luring me into their snare. I’m definitely going to try to figure out how I can use some of the new ideas in my current WIP. It’s hard for me to fall in love again with original idea, but I have to try…because I know it’s a great concept and has interesting characters. Thanks for the tips!

  11. Renate Dec 8 2012 at 6:38 am #

    Towards the end of NaNo, whilst bogged down in the soggy middle, I got distracted by a Shiny New Idea and had to *really* struggle not to cheat on my NaNo with it! (I’m still struggling to finish the story, even though I technically won). This is such a fabulous post.

  12. Leigh Bardugo Dec 8 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    Julie, Renate, I’ll have my fingers crossed for both of you. At the risk of introducing yet another metaphor, I’m starting to feel like the process is like sledding: you slog and slog and then wheeeeee!!! you slog and slog and then wheeeeee!!! Those happy, exhilarating moments when the story is just happening and you’re it make it worthwhile, but there’s simply no way to know how high the hill is going to be or how long the slog is going to take. OKAY. Now I’m going on a metaphor fast.

  13. Vanessa Di Gregorio Dec 9 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    I love, love, LOVE this post!

  14. Adam Feb 9 2017 at 10:08 pm #

    I really like the humor of this piece. It’s informative, and helpful, but there’s also a wonderful humorous personality that makes this a fun read as well. Thank you for sharing.

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