Expiration Date

Lately I’ve heard a lot about the question of where story ideas come from.  Of course there are various ways of explaining and simplifying the idea process for non-writers, but none of the explanations I can think of really match up with the truth.  I think that’s why the ancient Greek writers came with the idea of the muse.  That way when someone asked them where their ideas came from they could say, “Some invisible lady whispers them in my ear.  She’s pretty well connected with the gods.  And she doesn’t like you asking questions about her.”  Cue the sound of scampering feet and peace and quiet for the writer.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about today.  Because I was thinking about it today, and while there is a great deal of interest in where story ideas come from,  no one ever asks where they go.

Of course, some of them get written.  That’s the way it’s supposed to go.  You get this idea bouncing around in your head, inspiring all kinds of mental images and burning up your neurons, and you say, “I am a responsible writer who will make time for this wonderful idea today or tomorrow at the very latest.”  Except down here in the real world it doesn’t always happen that way.  We get busy.  We get sidetracked with other writing.  Maybe we’re just plain lazy.  But for whatever reason, that idea sits up in our head for days that turn into weeks and maybe months, and we don’t do anything about it.

The problem?  Ideas are like groceries.  They have an expiration date.  Some ideas are like beef jerky.  You can leave them sitting on the shelf for months, maybe even forget about them for a while, but when you come back to them they’re just as good as ever.  But sometimes an idea is more like milk.  You bring it home and put it in the refrigerator of your mind, and you intend to do something about it, but then the cool-aid pitcher of taking down the Christmas tree gets shoved in front of it, and maybe you forget about your idea entirely.  When you finally do find it again you go to pour it into the cereal bowl of your story and it comes out all lumpy and sour.

Maybe you think you can strain out some of the bigger lumps to make it better, and [stretched metaphor alert: Abort, Abort, Abort] polish up the prose a little after the fact.  But there’s a sinking feeling in your gut that you’re not going to be able to pull it off.  Your idea is dead. Even if you could bring it back, it would be a zombie story doomed to roam the wastelands of mediocrity in search of a reader whose brains it can feast upon.

This nearly happened to me recently.  Several weeks back I had a short story idea that I called “The Thing in the Shed.”  “The Thing in the Shed” is a story about a shed, and a Thing which lives inside of it.  Also there is a dog involved.  And a boy.  But “The Thing in the Shed and also a Dog and the Boy Who Owns the Dog” doesn’t quite carry the same weight titlewise.

I really liked the idea, but it came to me with very few details, so I sat on it for a while and tried to fill in where I thought the story should go.  I had some great moments of inspiration, not the least of which was the moment that I went for a walk at my step-grandmother-in-law’s house and found the perfect shed for the story: a rotted wooden structure all covered over with vines and filled with motes of dust dancing in the dying light that scattered through the cracks in the walls.

But after that I did nothing.  I filed the idea away and told myself that I would get to it soon.  Except I had other projects and other stories occupying my time, and I just didn’t do anything about it. But I could feel the idea going stale in my head, and I could sense little bits of mold starting to grow on it.  It was still salvageable, but only if I acted quickly.

I wanted to put it off.  Between writing yesterday’s blog post, going to sell my plasma (because I am poor), and going to work, I had a pretty full plate.  But I knew if I waited even one more day the idea might be gone completely.  So I scarfed down my lunch, went across the street to the Whataburger where I can plug my laptop in, and I wrote.  And while I didn’t get the story finished, I got enough of it formed into words to keep it alive in my mind.  Today I hope to finish it, and I’ll be posting it soon for your perusal.  But if I hadn’t forced myself to get to work on that story I truly believe it would have been gone before much longer.

What about the rest of you?  Have you ever let a story idea go beyond its sell-by date?  Think I’m full of crap?  Let me hear about it in the comments.

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2 responses to “Expiration Date

  1. There are ideas that you -do- write, and edit, and keep periodically working on for months – and then, finally, have to admit that it had mould growing on it from the start. The passage of several months and many hours of work hasn’t miraculously reversed the mould and restored it to gleaming freshness; rather, the thing is now in such an advanced state of decay there’s nothing to be done but lay it gently in the compost heap, sing a brief dirge for its poor soul, and move on.

    This has happened to me this week. Note to self: pay attention to those traces of green, furry stuff that shouldn’t be there. If the idea feels on the verge of staleness when you start, there’s a limited amount of work that it’s reasonable to put into it – if it doesn’t revive soon, it probably ain’t gonna.

    • That’s true too. And it’s harder to cut your losses when you’ve already invested a certain amount of time into the thing, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and start over on something else. Leaving your babies in the snow is no easy picnic, but if they’re zombie babies it’s for the best in the end.

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