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I was going to title this post the Agony of Choice, but let’s be real. No one wants to talk about agony, right? And we are all familiar with “Squirrel Syndrome.”
Sometimes a shiny is just a shiny. It attracts our attention and we wander after it as happily as a child chases a butterfly. However, we are soon back with our project, the shiny object now a mere smile on our lips as we forge ahead on our original track. To carry the analogy further, most of us know that catching those butterflies can damage them, so we have learned to wait patiently for them to land on their own.
Sometimes, though, the shiny (or squirrel, depending on your preference) is a mask. It’s not just when we can’t decide between existing options . . . this character or that plot, this project or that. Those moment s of indecisiveness are hard enough when the choices are clear-cut. It’s when we have too many really good ideas worth pursuing to settle on any of them. It’s like being in a field filled with butterflies, mesmerized and still, as they flutter, land on us, flutter again. It’s a beautiful place to be, but man is it hard to pick a favorite, you know?
When so many ideas have so much potential, it feels so impossible to pick just one. So we stand there in the agony of choice.
It’s all well and good when the options are butterflies, beautiful to watch. But, on occasion, those pretty wings turn into a cage (or worse, hail or stinging rain) and we become trapped, frozen, That’s the agony. That’s the pain of indecision.
If you have ended up there simply because you are afraid you’ll lose all the other ideas if you choose one, there’s good news. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” The writer is never short of ideas. They come from everywhere. They land like fairy dust on the pillow, the breakfast table, the conference room. All we have to do is sweep them up. Only the new writers are worried about lack of ideas or losing those they have captured. More ideas will come to us than any of us could write in a lifetime. Grasping this truth leaves us free to pursue one idea, knowing dozens are lining up for our attention later.
If you ended up there due to fear (fear of producing, fear of judgment, fear of choosing), there’s also good news. Either your drive to write will overcome fear long enough for you to get started (and begin negotiations with that fear) or that fear will distract you from writing all together. Either way, you’ll move beyond this point.
The true agony, for me, comes when I’ve developed a couple of ideas enough to see where they are headed and what their potential is. I like them all, the characters are active, the plots creep into my dreams. I would count it a great success if I only had one, or a great one and a good one. The choice is easier then, of course. Once in a while I have even managed to combine two of them into a stronger story. My painful indecision comes when two or three are actively campaigning for my attention.
I think it’s helpful for writers to have a clear idea of their goals at moments like this. If you plan to write only historical romance, or to focus on science fiction, it’s simpler to eliminate all the good ideas that don’t fit. If you are publishing your work, continuing your series probably carries more weight than writing a stand-alone novel. Knowing your goals gives you something by which to judge each idea and concept.
To make the process easier, I’ve developed a list of questions to answer when I am stuck in the agony of choice. I’ll draw columns for each idea and use the questions as rows. My goal is to find out which story has the most meaning for me personally, (which is usually directly correlated to how much it make me uncomfortable), and which seems to have the most “juice.” Some ideas look fantastic when first developed, but not all of them have the juice to carry a full novel.
Every writer develops their own list of questions. I’m sharing a few of mine in case you need a starting point.
- Which of these stories am I dreaming about?
- Which of these stories pops into my head most often?
- Which of these stories feel like they can wait?
- Which of these stories brings emotions to the surface?
- Which of these main characters is most/least like me?
- What is the Truth for each of these stories/characters?
- Which of these stories or characters makes me most uncomfortable?
- Which character makes the most profound change in their arc?
You get the idea. I use about 16 questions on average. Generally speaking, it’s worked for me to go through a process like this. What’s most telling (and kind of maddening, in a good way) is when I write a lot about one idea and feel it’s the best option only to throw it all out the window and run after the other idea full speed. I don’t think I’d have found the hidden commitment for it if I hadn’t put it through the process.
Squirrel Syndrome gets us all at one time or another. The Agony of Choice will, too. In both cases, however, we can take control.
How have you resolved your Agony of Choice? If prone to Squirrel Syndrome, how often do you let it pull you off course?