Get the Crap Out

When you hit the wall

Have you ever been working on a project or trying to think of an idea and been completely stuck? Like you’ve hit a brick wall and the only things coming to mind are complete garbage? I have that problem a lot. In fact, I dealt with it today.

A Novel Dilemma

I’ve been prewriting for my next novel that I’ll be writing in June (if you haven’t heard of JuNoWriMo and you’re daring enough to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you should check it out). My story is about a girl who goes to her ten-year reunion hoping to finally find out why her high school boyfriend broke up with her long ago. The past few days I’ve been fretting about the genre. All my previous stories are either science fiction or urban fantasy, but this idea sort of came out of left field. It was going to be somewhere between chick lit and women’s fiction. Neither of those are genres I read much of, so it irked me a bit. More so, since I’ve been aware of building my brand and those genres don’t easily fit into that brand. And yet, I had a plot idea complete with about a dozen partially-formed characters. What to do?

Discarding the story idea wasn’t an option. But an interesting thought hit me. What if I added some element into the story that pushed it more toward science fiction or fantasy? Then I could still write it, within my specialization. Not only that, I was pretty sure if I could get something fantastical in there I’d like the story even more (‘cuz that’s how I roll).

Crap is Key

I wracked my brain for options. The problem was that I kept coming up with the same lousy ideas. I immediately knew they wouldn’t work. But every time I tried to throw one out, it just hit the brick wall and bounced back at me, leering in my face. I couldn’t get my brain to think past all that crap and come up with something good. But then I remembered what a good friend of mine (thanks, Tanya) had told me a couple of days earlier.

I’d been venting to her about a cover design project I was struggling with. She offered a listening ear as well as a valuable piece of advice. In fact, it worked like magic when I applied it to my genre problem. It’s this:

Sometimes you have to get all the crappy ideas out before you can get to the good ones.

When she said that, I remembered design school. One of the early stages of design is conceptuals. It’s all about being rough and sketchy—not at all about perfection. In that phase it’s important to get down as many possible solutions on paper as you can, not worrying about whether they’re terrible. Instead, just get them all out in front of you so you can visually analyze what works, what doesn’t and why. One of the bad sketches might have a small element on it that is right—a piece you can take and build from. But you’d never have found it if you hadn’t drawn the crap option.

Let the Garbage Out

When I remembered all that, I heaved a resolute sigh and said, “Okay. Let’s do this.” So I sat down and started a list of options I could do (or NOT do) with my story. They were pretty terrible. But I didn’t reject any one, no matter how much it stunk. This is a partial list of what I came up with for my protagonist going to her high school reunion:

  • The story is set in another world or alternate universe
  • The main characters have superpowers
  • An evil antagonist with superpowers tries to stop Protagonist
  • Protagonist is abducted by aliens after high school and finally returned ten years later, in time for the reunion
  • Protagonist is a werewolf/shapeshifter
  • Right after high school, Protagonist gets sucked through a time-warp hole and transported ten years into the future to her high school reunion
  • There’s a zombie attack at the reunion
  • A nuclear explosion turns people at the reunion into mutants

Ahem. You see what I mean. (And you also got a small peek into my crazy brain, whether you wanted to or not.)

But I didn’t stop there. Once I had a nice-sized list, I hit upon a solution that actually worked. I’ll save that surprise for another day (although if you were reading my tweets you may have seen a mention of it). BAM! Suddenly, I had my fantasy element. It ties in with the plot and it makes my protagonist more interesting. Jackpot! But I never would have come up with it had I not gotten all that crap out first.

If you’re stuck on a problem, try this technique. See if it works. And then let me know. If you’ve already done the exercise, how did it work for you? How much crap did you have to wade through before you found a solution? Still wading?

You might also be interested in:

Learning from Your Mistakes

See it, Think it

The Power of the Spoken Word (or The One Where I Reveal What Really Happens in the Shower)


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