July 6th, 2016

Harnessing the chaos of Story ADD

Last week I talked about my problem with Empty Story Nest Syndrome. Let’s not confuse ‘no WIP’ with ‘no story ideas’ though. That brings me to today’s topic — story squirrels. You know, the “ouuuu, shiny” idea that tries to muscle out the others. See, in addition to suffering from ESNS, I’ve developed a rather disturbing case of story attention deficit.

Ideas notebookSo many ideas. So little brain space!

But I’m getting ahead of myself …

A couple of months ago I turned in a proposal to my agent. “Great,” she said, then told me to write another one. She wanted options. I can do options. There were three other ideas bubbling in my brain. So off I bounced to work on another proposal.

But characters are kinda like kids – they can be in the room with you for hours and never say a word, then the moment you get busy doing something else (like going to the toilet or relaxing in the tub) they have something super-urgent-important to share with you.

The characters in the first story weren’t very happy to be discarded and for the first couple of chapters, they kept trying to muscle out the new gang. They finally settled down when they realized I was still listening, even if only partially.

The new proposal was finally perking along, and I was doing a decent job of keeping both story ideas fresh in my mind but separate enough to allow me to keep writing.

Until I went on a trip. There I was, in the airport, minding my own business, waiting for my flight, when another story idea pulled in to the opposite concourse. And stayed with me for the next three hours, chattering up a storm.

Two weeks later, I’m reading about a workshop at a nearby museum, and before I could close the browser tab, yet another character was chatting me up.

Then a couple of weeks ago during a family road trip, I was staring out the window, enjoying the scenery and, wouldn’t you know it, a sparkly new idea was waving at me from a ratty old sign next to an abandoned farm house.

So now I’m up to five active story ideas. That’s a few too many squirrels having a tea party in my brain. And that’s when forward momentum starts resembling the Washington DC beltway during rush hour. Someone has to yield and someone has to merge (preferably without leaving behind some serious roadkill).

Anywhoo … You know those people who tell you to write down the ideas while they’re fresh, because you won’t necessarily remember later on? Yeah. Don’t you just hate when they’re right?!

But here’s my hiccup with that concept—my story ideas are shy creatures. Well, shy about being captured at the beginning stage. Trying to plot out the ideas usually results in sending them scattering back to the top branches of the trees.

When I had the luxury of working on one project at a time, that wasn’t a problem. I could let an idea scamper away, knowing that if it was a strong enough concept, it would pop back up eventually. Once you sell that first book, though, the landscape changes and the expectation is that you can sell on proposal. That means capturing the story squirrels before they make off with your nuts.

But how?

Some people can grab an idea and hash it out in full detail. I envy them. If you’re lucky enough to have this capability, do it! Immediately!! Whether it’s long hand notes about your characters and plot points or a flushed out outline, capture that story idea for when you can come back to work on it.

I, however, need marinating time. This is my marinating time …


This throw blanket contributed to three story proposals.

I crochet. While my hands work, the story ideas ping around in my head. The repetitive motion of crocheting helps ground the ideas – as much as possible that is. Even if the characters are talking over each other at times, bits and pieces start falling into place.

Once I have the basics worked out, I write a pitch. Think back cover copy. That’s usually enough to trap the story squirrel for when it’s time to flush out the concept.

With a few of these written, I always have something to pull when my agent asks for more options.

btw, that pretty “ideas” notebook at the beginning of the post? That’s mine too. I jot down notes from articles I’ve read that may come in handy for lining a squirrel cage at some point.

Are you a one-story-at-a-time kind of writer or a story squirrel herder? How do you organize the story ideas when you’re not ready to write them yet?

About Orly

Orly-Ivy.jpgOrly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world, where she spent roughly sixteen (cough) years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats. She is a co-founder and past president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. She is rep’d by Marlene Stringer, Stringer Literary Agency LLC.

Orly’s debut, The Memory of Hoofbeats, will be released by Forge in 2017.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonig, on Facebook at OrlyKonigAuthor, or on her website, www.orlykonig.com.

38 comments to Harnessing the chaos of Story ADD

  • I have many story squirrels scampering around my office. I bought a stack of cheap spiral-bound notebooks to contain each plot idea. Most of them will only ever have a page or two filled, but some of them I come back to with ideas for scenes and characters. Who knows, maybe one of those notebooks will become a full-fledged novel.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I love story notebooks. I have so many of them. Whenever I read something that may apply, I write it down. I even write down passages from novels that trigger a thought or feeling that I want to capture. Keep those notebooks!

  • “Story squirrels herder” leaves a lasting mental image–love it! Yes, I have a file cabinet full of bits and pieces of stories that whine about not getting enough attention. Someday, when they “grow up a little” maybe I can enjoy doing something with them.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      While cleaning through my office, I came across a notebook of story ideas I started six years ago. I pulled a muscle laughing at some of them. But there were a couple that actually have potential. Those little squirrels will be getting extra nuts to help fatten them up. 🙂

      Don’t toss those bits and pieces out – you never know when one of them will trigger an a-ha moment.

  • This makes me feel better. I always have too many ideas going at a time. And I’ve always worried that if I was ever to write a true epic, prize-winning book it would be after years of focusing on the same story, not grabbing at fifteen at once. I keep a notebook for ideas, too. I modge-podged the cover with some of the odds and ends in my desk and collect ideas in there – song titles that triggered an idea, pictures from magazines, news stories, character quirks, snatches of dialogue or a phrase that won’t go away, working titles, it really looks like a scrapbook of nonsense, but once I put an idea in there, I can let it go and it stops badgering me for attention. It also makes me feel safe – I’ll never run out of ideas. Sometimes I page back through it and have no idea what that picture of a crabcake and a glass of wine meant, but I leave it in there trusting it’ll come back to me at some point. Once upon a time I kept ideas on my phone – but then I deleted my entire notes app, contents and all, and it about killed me to know all those ideas were lost. My husband said, “if they’re any good, you’ll remember them.” Ha. I’m certain my brain reach maximum storage capacity at least a decade ago.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I love the hodgepodge notebook idea. That feeling of “what the heck was I thinking when I looked at this” though is why I’ve started writing a pitch for each of the ideas that stick in my brain.

      And yeah, brain reached maximum storage capacity a while ago here too. And not enough memory space for an update. Ha! It’s time for a vacation. 🙂

  • Yes, a story idea hoarder, that describes me. Recently I made an amazing discovery. Some of those ideas that were not fleshed out completely could combine with others that had just occurred to me. Yeah, so instead of 20 or so ideas and partially written manuscripts — I do that, too — I now have about eight or ten. This I can deal with. Thanks for the article.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      That’s exactly what I ended up doing for one of my resent proposals. Write down ALL ideas, folks. You never know when a character will want to play in the sandbox from another story idea instead. 🙂

  • Wow, I’m in the minority, so far. I usually get one ‘nut’ at a time. I’m always afraid, when I’m coming to the end of a book, that it won’t happen again…I won’t get another idea. Even though I always have….

    So far.

    You crack me up, Orly. You make it sound to the world like you’re a ditz, bouncing from one thing to another without getting anything done. You’re one of the most organized, motivated and hard-working people I know! Don’t believe her, people!

  • I envy you the constant scampering (ha!) of ideas that you can squirrel away (is there a limit on puns per comment?) until the right moment presents itself. For me, ideas are more rare and take time to percolate. I used to feel like this was a dirty little secret, as if maybe I was forcing things more than other writers do, until I heard Hallie Ephron say, in her presentation at last year’s Writer’s Digest Conference, that she is the same way and once bolted from a garage sale and ran several blocks home because the sale itself had sparked a novel idea she’d been desperately in need of. I say let those squirrels nest wherever and however they choose! At least you’ll never find yourself in danger of having an empty attic. 🙂

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I know a lot of writers like you and Laura. And I laughed at your “I envy you” comment since I mentioned above that I envy those with one idea at a time. Like everything else with writing, there’s no one way or right way.

      But here’s the fun part – it’s good to have someone from the other camp as a brainstorm and/crit partner. Sharing nuts is a good thing. 🙂

  • Story squirrels! Yes, they are nesting in my attic! Long ago someone passed on a tip to me about keeping a little notebook with these ideas in it. The originator called it her bankbook. And though I do do that, I also tend to jot down bits of plot outlines and character sketches as they come to me (and yes, they usually come at a most inopportune time, such as when I am in the bath). I can’t imagine ever running out of ideas…just the time to get them into some coherent form resembling a story.

  • Beverly Turner

    Loved this post, Orly. Herding story squirrels sounds a lot like herding cats. As I neared the end of my current WIP, I was afraid I was a ‘one story’ woman, since that story had been banging around in my brain wanting to be written for at least six years. But I turned the prospect of find the next project over to the hamster running the squeaky wheel in my brain. And within a week, I woke up with the two main characters, the premise and snatches of conversation for my next project in my head, waiting for me to grab a pen and my idea file. (I really need to train my brain hamster to wait until a decent hour to wake me up with the next idea!) …And since then the glimmers of a third idea have appeared on the horizon. I’ve learned if I don’t capture these ideas on paper, they will disappear much like that elusive thought about what needs to go on my grocery list.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Hamsters and squirrels don’t subscribe to the same hours of operation humans do. Just embrace that middle of the night quiet time.

      btw, that last story idea may be on the shelf next to the cream cheese. 😉

  • I love this, Orly! I have too many squirrels to count, and they also scamper to the top of the trees if I don’t write them down. Unfortunately, I’m not great at keeping track of what I’ve written down. Some end up in specific notebooks, some in notebooks that belong to other projects (or totally unrelated notebooks like my genealogy), and many many scraps of paper that I come across years later. I try to scribble a couple of lines describing the idea, but when I read it later, it usually sounds very flat. So I love the idea of doing a back blurb – not the whole story, but enough to make it enticing when I find it again!

    BTW, I don’t have as many problems losing my idea scraps since I started putting them in my Notes on the phone. I can dictate them wherever I am, and scroll down to the first line that shows up as the title.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I use Notes once in a while too. But I have to confess that I’m old school with notes – have to hand write for some reason. 🙂

  • This is great. I was suffering from ESNS but only because I’d had so much company in my house that I was distracted. When I finally sat down to work, I found my current main character duking it out with a paranormal vampire that I’d never met before. Finally, I set my current WIP aside, outlined the paranormal to shut her up and now I’m back on track. EXCEPT… three new main characters are having coffee together in the background. I need to employ the outline technique on them as well before they go off camping somewhere never to return.
    I really enjoyed this article. Thank you, Orly!

  • You’re not the only one with squirrels having tea parties. I wrote about this on my blog a while back. Those flighty, indecisive little creatures can sometimes be hard to catch. I hear and feel your pain. Thanks for making me smile. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  • Fae Rowen

    This must be squirrel season, Orly. First in Yosemite, then prairie dogs, kind-of-wanna-be-squirrels, in Texas, and now squirrels at home on my hikes.I get characters in my head, not stories. Once I listen to the characters long enough, I’ve got their stories. I used to write the ideas on bits of paper. Yes, we all know where those went. Now I either type them into an IDEAS file on my computer or on my phone. In fact, last week I was going through some phone files and found the book ideas notes. Good thing–I’d forgotten about them And my WIP crib notes were there! How it’s grown.

    Thanks for a smile and a reminder today.

  • Whoa, Orly, and I thought I had a lot of them floating around. In my women’s fiction world, Scrivener has two developing at once after one set of characters threw the others out when the second set demanded too much story space. And I’ve another in the romantic suspense group that keeps poking at me with a knife.

    Toss in the fact that it’s summer, which means kids and grandkids and boats and the Cape (my cape, not the famous one). There’s just way too much to do.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I knew we were kindred souls, Normandie!
      Enjoy the kids and grandkids and boats. Wish I was on that boat with you. 🙂

  • My story ideas are more like fish. They emerge from the gloom, catch my attention with their sparkling scales and then sink back down into the depths. Before I have time to catch that one another one shimmers past. I have learnt to relax – I figure if it’s important the idea will come back to me.

  • I have enough idea to keep me busy for the next ten years at least. The problem is carving out the time to write them all before they go stale.

  • Zan Marie

    I <3 story squirrels! But I do have to write them down. I have one polished WIP, two more stories in the series, and two stand alones that I'm working on in round robin fashion. Whatever's active gets the time. That is, until I need to buckle down and edit on one. The others have to make do with notes. 😉

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