Writing Tips & Career Advice

Idea Development: Lightning Bolt vs. Slow Burn

Idea Development

People always ask where authors get their ideas. (Short answer: Everywhere.) I find the better question to be, “How are ideas developed?” Every writer has their own way of bringing an idea into the world as a book, story, or article. The idea is easy to get. Doing something with it is more difficult. How difficult is (for me) determined by the path the idea requires. I find there are two paths of idea development: The lightning bolt method and the slow burn method.

Lightning Bolts

Lightning bolt ideas are those that come into my mind already ready for prime time. They are so fully formed that I can simply jump in and start writing. Lightning bolts give me enough of the story to find my way to the end, or they give me an ending and dare me to come up with everything before. Sometimes a lightning bolt is a character who emerges in my mind so fully formed that I don’t have to waste any time coming up with her backstory, relationships, or “issues.” There’s almost no outline required for a lightning bolt idea. (Except for writing everything down fast enough so that I don’t forget it.)

Lightning bolts are awesome! Broken Fate was a lightning bolt idea. Once I “saw” the ending of that book, everything else fell into place. Lightning bolt ideas tend to make for quick projects. (Relatively speaking.)

When you’re working on a lightning bolt, everything seems to flow. It’s like you know the answers before you even ask the questions. You can’t write fast enough to keep up with the idea. It rides you hard and leaves you gasping at the end of the day. You don’t want to quit work every night, but you know you have to to stay sane. But you come back the next morning and go again.

I’m never sure where the bolts come from. Sometimes it just feels like a perfect storm of coincidences. I see or hear something at the right time and it ties into something else I was thinking about. Boom. An idea emerges. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but mine seem to show up during times of extreme stress. I don’t mean the kind of stress you feel when a deadline is coming, or you have a hundred things on your to-do list. I’m talking about the kind of stress that arises when your dog dies, then your best friend dies, and then you find out you have a disease. That kind of stress tends to lead to my lightning bolts.

(Which is really amusing because those are the times when you have the least amount of time or inclination to write. It’s like the universe is saying, “Go ahead. I double-dog-dare you to try to get through this crappy patch and write a novel.”)

As awesome as they are, lightning bolt ideas aren’t all that plentiful. If they were, no one would ever have “writer’s block” or decide that cleaning their house is more fun than working on their current project. It’s fantastic when you get hit by a lightning bolt, but you’d better not expect every idea to be like that. Most are slow burners.

Slow Burns

The slow burners are, well, slow. They’re far less glamorous than their flashy counterparts. Usually they begin with just a small piece of an idea and they make take many months (or years) to reach maturity. The Library of Absolution was a slow burner for me. About three years ago I was reading a history book and it had a little information about the scribes of the Middle Ages who illuminated manuscripts. Of course, back in those days scribes were overwhelmingly male. There were some nuns who worked as scholars and scribes, but very few.

The first part of the slow burn was asking, “What would it have been like to be a woman doing that sort of work during those times?” But I couldn’t find much to build on with that idea. I shelved it in my idea file and let it be.

Then, a few months later, I asked myself what would happen if manuscript illuminations came alive? That finally opened the door to the Library of Absolution. Then I could see the magic needed for that to happen, and the usefulness of such a skill. The world of the Book Mesmer was finally born.

But it didn’t happen with a bang. More like a little poof, followed by another poof, and then finally a small spark. That spark had to be nurtured and babied into a flame.

That’s the challenge of the slow burn. You never know when it’s finally going to take off. And it may never. You can put in a ton of work and the slow burn idea never catches on. Some slow burners burn themselves out before you get to the end. You think you’ve finally got enough to work with, but then as you’re writing you realize the burn has fizzled. There’s really not enough there to make a novel, or you’ve lost interest in the topic or characters. No matter how promising it seems, sometimes there’s just not enough fire there to make it to the end.

Slow burners tend to require a lot more work to get the story out. You have to tease and coax the pieces together. You may not have everything when you start writing. Only a few pieces of the story may have shown up. Gradually, though, you uncover the rest. It’s like an archaeological dig. It’s slow and painstaking, you take some wrong turns and get lost in the jungle, you may get sunburned and sick from bad water, but one day, finally, you have the whole dinosaur.

Slow burners are the reason I keep an idea file. When you write down ideas, even if you think you can’t use them right now, they’re easier to track. I go back and reread my file from time to time. Sometimes I find I’ve lost interest in some ideas, but others may trigger an, “Oh, now I know what to do with that,” moment. Writing them down puts them on the back burner of my subconscious, giving them a chance to fully bake before I take them on.

Of course, neither kind of idea is always “good.” The sad truth is that you only know the value of an idea after you’ve done the work and transformed it into a piece of work. Only then do you know if it’s worth publishing or if you need to bury it in a drawer. No matter how your idea gets developed, whether it’s a lightning bolt project or a slow burner, the key is to develop it into something. Ideas themselves are worthless. It’s only that finished project that has any value.

(Photo courtesy of Comfreak

One Commnet on “Idea Development: Lightning Bolt vs. Slow Burn

  1. You are spot-on to shine the spotlight on the development. This is particularly relevant for novels. Picture books are often more reliant on a flashing spark of a great idea, (and very difficult to execute with perfection and distinction) but for longer works, quality is all in the development.

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