Your First Idea

Every story is different, and every time I start a story, the process is a little different than it was before. As I write, though, I find that certain truths keep cropping up again and again. One I’ve been reflecting on lately is how you should almost never go with your first idea.

I’m not talking about the whole idea. Usually this first idea introduces characters, locations, a basic conflict, and once you set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), a rough outline from beginning to end. It’s this first outline that, in my experience, should almost never be kept by the time you’re finished — especially the ending.

There’s the simple reason that stories evolve as they’re written. I often find that I have ideas for what my characters are like, and then they surprise me as I write them. They tell me more about themselves and how their stories will end. More often than not, I’ll be led in the right direction. Trust yourself as an author to know when the story is spiraling and when the story is falling into place. You’ll see it as a reader, just of your own work as opposed to others’ books.

Despite what movies like Stranger Than Fiction imply, though, writing isn’t all magic where the characters come to life and tell you everything you need to know. At the end of the day, you are the writer and you’re exerting control over your narrative. And I highly suggest using this control to steer yourself away from your first idea as you start to see new ideas popping up along the way.

I dwell on this because, more often than not, our first idea is based on something we’ve read before. It’s not necessarily something that’s clichéd (though it very well might be), and sometimes, something we’ve read before can work in a new narrative we’re crafting. But something we’ve read before is very likely something that someone else has read before too. There’s comfort in familiarity, but there’s more reward in being shocked. If you surprise yourself as you write, then chances are, your readers will be surprised too.

As an author, I find great satisfaction when I give a brief synopsis of a story, and someone guesses something entirely different from how it turns out. I get even more satisfaction when they guess my first idea — one that has since been changed. It tells me that they’ll likely experience the same journey I had while writing it, one that I hope is as satisfying for them as it was for me.

I would give examples from my work … but that would spoil the ending.


Another universal truth I’ve found with each story is having to contend with sloppy writing on the first draft. It gets a little better each time, but there are still times I’ll start a draft and end up with sentence fragments, clichéd metaphors, and crappy endings. Never finish with your first idea or your first draft!

A lot of readers for Please Give thought it would end differently — not the same as my first idea, but the same as my second idea and, ultimately, the idea I didn’t go with. See if the same happens to you: the book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Thanks for reading!

Outlining: A Necessary Evil

I’m an excellent planner. I remember dates, remember information, and love to be prepared for a project ahead of time. I bring that planning to my writing as well, right?

Well …

Writing is better than planning to write. However, I can’t write everything I’m thinking of at once. I usually keep stories in my head until I’m ready to write them, and at most, write a couple quick sentences and a title so I don’t forget the idea as I devote my head space to other projects. Writing down an idea is almost like giving yourself a pensieve — the idea waits for you while your thoughts tend to other things.

Still, even when my thoughts are focused on one story, I often can’t write fast enough to stop my thoughts from swimming in my head. When I have thoughts on chapters I’m not yet writing, I start to write notes. My notes are usually quick asides, but quickly become passages and dialogue, which is why I prefer to just write the story as opposed to notes.

When a story is bigger, though, those thoughts become dedicated to more than just the beginning, middle, and end. Dates get involved. There are sequences. I need to remember what order things occur in, or when it makes the most sense for something to happen.

And that’s when I realize I need to do something I can’t stand to do: outlining.

I don’t like it. It feels like I’m clamping down the story before it even has a chance to breathe. It’s too perfunctory. I think to myself, “How can an outline help me write? Only writing can do that.” And then I write. And then I stop, because I’m caught up in the details of how the story should occur.

When a story reaches a point where my swirling thoughts on what will occur, and when it will occur, preclude the writing, that’s when I know it’s time. This happened with Please Give, and today, it happened with my novel-in-progress (over 50,000 words now, yay!). I found myself juggling timelines and thinking, “Wait, should this happen here? What month is it?” — and thinking that more than thinking about what to write next. So, I forced myself to write an outline. And sure enough, I felt better afterward, like the weight of a thousand swirling thoughts had been lifted off my shoulders and into a Google doc.

Everyone outlines their own way. My personal favorite is also how I like to plan: in dates. I consult a calendar and write a quick list of what will happen, and designate it by the date. An exact day is preferred, but I’ll write Week Of or Month Of if it’s a general course of action.These dates don’t make it into the book unless relevant to bring up, and are also subject to change — one of the ways I make myself outline is writing a note at the top assuring me that these can change as the story evolves. But outlining by date helps me as a writer to envision the action. It’s how I plan my own days, after all, so it makes sense that it would help me plan the fictional days my characters go through.

How do you outline, if at all?