First thoughts aren’t always best thoughts. When I taught collage comp, I repeated this mantra again and again.
Creative writers would also do well to heed this simple advice. As proof, I offer two of my forthcoming books, each of which strayed a long ways from my original vision, and each of which is better for the journey.
One is Cold Spell, a novel that probes the conflicting and overlapping desires of a mother and daughter who move north one summer because of the mother’s obsession with a glacier. When I first started drafting the book, it was set in Fairbanks during a cold snap, and it featured a murder and a woman with Alzheimer’s.
The other is Wealth Woman, a nonfiction narrative about Kate Carmack that explores the Klondike gold rush from the perspective of those who were there first, Alaska Natives and the First Nations of the Yukon. Originally, I’d plotted the book as a love story, and then as the interwoven tales of four women, two of them Native and two of them not.
How can you improve on the impulse to run with your first ideas? Here, five strategies:
- Choose the best of many. Capture your first thoughts. Then consciously and strategically push past them. Fill a page (or five, or ten) with every twist, turn, and approach you can think of. Don’t evaluate. Brainstorm.
- Use both sides of your brain. Once we seize on an idea, our left brains try to push straight through from point A to point Z. Don’t allow this. Visual brainstorming strategies like mapping ensure that the right brain, with its links to your subconscious, doesn’t get left out of the process.
- Wait. Walk, sleep, shower. Repetitive activities and changes in scenery will turn your subconscious loose on the ideas you’re mulling. If you’re going to outline, don’t do it too soon, or at least make a pact with yourself to entertain plenty of changes along the way.
- When you think you’ve landed on the absolute best approach to your book, write two or three pages using one or more of the angles you plan to discard. This small investment of time and energy will help you be sure you’ve found the right shape and direction for your project.
- Let go. No angle or direction is sacred. Often your first thoughts are only an opening, a way for you to reach through to the real touch points of your project.