A couple months ago, a friend and I were talking about our favorite graphic novels (Nimona, Saga, and Giant Days, if you’re looking for recs.) I told her that I’m really interested in writing graphic novels, but that unfortunately even my stick figures are woefully pathetic, so I’d need to find a co-author with art skills. She gave me a look and was like “Hello, yes, remember me, your friend who DOES ART.” So now we’re writing graphic novel together.
As always, working with someone new on a writing project has been interesting, and pretty eye-opening. When we first started brainstorming ideas, my friend said something to me that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. She told me that I have so many ideas.
I never really stopped to consider this before she pointed it out, but it’s true. I have a lot of ideas. Character ideas. World ideas. Story ideas. Novel concepts drift into my mind while I’m studying, while I’m gardening, and while I’m riding my bike. I can come up with an idea, brainstorm different possibilities for it, mentally write a synopsis for it, and get bored with it in the space of a single afternoon.
My friend seemed slightly frustrated when she told me that she doesn’t have half so many concrete I-should-totally-write-that-thing story ideas. What I told her at the time was “Yeah, but remember that I’m terrible at actually sticking with an idea.” Which is true. I start and subsequently abandon a whole lot more stories than I actually finish.
Thinking about this, I began to wonder about my own mental process when it comes to actually finishing stuff. I realized that I wasn’t sure why I abandon some ideas two pages in and stick with some until the cold, bitter end. And somewhere along the way, I developed a beautiful metaphor: my method of developing ideas is like cooking pasta.
I start my pasta-cooking, idea-developing journey by going to my pantry. Now, there’s a whole lot of packages of pasta in there. But do I pull out every single package of pasta and cook all of them? No. No, I do not. I pick a single package of pasta, a unit containing one collective hodgepodge of ideas for a potential project. Because the truth is that some ideas are never going to go anywhere. They’re just going to sit in the dark, cold pantry FOREVER AND EVER. We can consider those the ideas that I develop and abandon in a single afternoon (because seriously, that even I got bored of it that quickly is probably a sign.)
Now, do I take tender, loving care of my pasta? NO. I SNAP THE PASTA IN HALF AND I DROP IT INTO A POT OF BOILING WATER. That is what I do with my ideas– at least, the ones I think have some sort of merit. I toss them into the pot of boiling water that is my writerly brain. I stir them, mix them up. If those ideas are any good, being boiled in other thoughts and the busyness of life events does not ruin them. The best ideas thrive in the chaos rather than vanishing into it.
At a certain point, I’ll fish a piece out of the pot and bite it to see if it’s cooked yet. Often, I’ll do this three or four times, discovering each time that the pasta hasn’t completely softened yet. In metaphor terms, that’s me plucking an idea from my brain, sitting down, trying to write a story based around it, giving up on it quickly, coming back to it later, trying it again, and giving up on it again. (Yes, this is a common occurrence.)
Eventually, the pasta really will soften, and I’ll pull a piece out and throw it at the wall. In metaphor terms, that’s me writing a full draft of a book based on the idea. Often, the piece of pasta will slide pathetically down the wall, indicating that it’s not ready to be eaten. Metaphorically, that’s me realizing that not only is the first draft of a book garbage (as all first drafts are), but also that I am completely exhausted and don’t want to think about it anymore. I leave the pasta to boil some more and read a book or overthrow a government or something.
But eventually, after lots of stirring and boiling and hoping, I’ll toss a piece of pasta at the wall, and it will stick. At that point, I know that my pot of pasta has finished cooking, and is now ready to be drained and buttered and seasoned and covered in sauce. In other words, I’ve written the draft of a book that deserves to be rewritten and revised.
I’ve eaten a lot of pasta in my life, and I’ve written a fair amount of first drafts– 14 or 15, I think. Of those drafts, only three have stuck to the wall. Only three remain in my brain, needling at me, asking to be rewritten and revised. Those three are Demonic Dilemmas, Reckless, and Glass & Gold. Those are the ideas that have stayed in my head, the ones that are waiting to be covered in alfredo sauce and chopped parsley. (THIS METAPHOR IS GETTING WEIRD BUT I ALREADY SPENT A LOT OF TIME ON THIS POST SO WE’RE STICKING WITH IT, SORRY.)
So yes, I have a lot of ideas. Yes, I write– or start writing– a lot of drafts. But at the end of the day, only a few of those ideas stick. And the whole point of this long spiel, and this weird and probably unnecessary metaphor, is this: it doesn’t matter if you have two new book ideas per year or two hundred. All that matters is that you have a way to weed out the ones you really love from the ones you only sort of like, and that once you have, you keep working on those ideas until they become the most delicious bowl of pasta you’ve ever eaten.
Books are not instant Ramen*. They’re not quick, easy, or cheap. They take time, effort, dedication. You have to write a whole bunch of terrible drafts before you write a good one– call it developing a recipe, or learning the skills of the chef. But a dozen bad bowls of pasta are worth it if, in the end, you MASTER the art of pasta and your pasta-making skills make you a really popular dinner party host.
So go write some words, go eat some pasta, and remember that no matter how hard it can be to find an idea that sticks, it’s worth it when the final copy of your book turns out as fantastic as THIS BOWL OF PASTA.
*Not that I have anything against instant Ramen. I love the taste of MSGs and the satisfaction of a meal that takes 6 minutes to prepare.