Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Balancing Backlog: When the Well Overflows

Let's talk about balancing ideas and projects. I can't think of a single writer I know who doesn't have ideas that float around in their head to wake them up or keep them up at night -- and typically ideas not related to the current WIP. Oh, what's a poor writer to do?

Are you the type of writer who has a massive backlog of ideas to explore in your stories or the type who deals with one idea at a time and then turns on the idea machine afterward? How do store that backlog, whether digital or on paper?

Marian Allen: I have so many projects already in the pipeline, I don't have the brain capacity to do anything with new ones. EXCEPT! I do Story A Day May every year, and those flashes of ideas are great to prompt daily stories. I also have a big folder with story ideas in it, and, in the rare times when I need something to write, I dig into that. I've used it for many stories.

Jay Requard: Massive backlog. It is currently all in notebooks but I'm transcribing one part to digital after the baby got a hold of it.

Elizabeth Donald: Ideas are fleeting little butterflies that need to be captured in jars before they get away. I keep a folder on my computer titled “Marinade” where I put the stray ideas. They have to sit there and think about what they’ve done, and when I need help I go for a walk through the folder. My first novel is in there, in all its drafts going back to the utterly dreadful high school novella, and there are reasons why it’s never seen the light of day. The next oldest file in there is from 2002 and may not actually be translatable now, but why would I let it get away? If I’m not near my computer when an idea strikes, I will use voice-to-text to stick it in my phone until I can translate it to my Marinade file. If I tried to keep it on paper, I would inevitably lose it, and there goes my Pulitzer.

Bobby Nash: Depends on your idea of massive. There are many ideas tucked away for future use. Some I will never get to, I suspect as new ideas keep working their way into my brain. One of the best things about having these ideas sitting in writer limbo is that sometimes, I realize that two of them are part of the same story and blend them together.

Nikki Nelson-Hicks: I have a backlog of ideas. All of them swarming around in my brain. I keep them in journals or post-it notes that I have stuck all around my desk top. What percentage actually gets done? I don't know, man. if I start keeping score, I'll just get constipated and never do another damn thing. I just keep trucking. If the idea is good enough, it'll last until it's time to get inked.

B. Clay Moore: I have a huge backlog of ideas, and now and then one pops back into my head to either inform a new idea or as the impetus to rework it in a new direction.

John French: I have a legal pad on my desk, with separate pages for each "project". On these pages, I write notes, story and character ideas, etc. Right now I'm about 10-15K away from finishing one with five more warming up in the bullpen waiting to get the call.

Good ol' fashioned notepad.
Ef Deal: When I started writing, I had a character arc that consumed me, and I'm not through with her yet after 35 years. In those pre-computer days, I filled blank books and spiral notebooks and steno pads. I just kept writing. I couldn't stop. She's a rich mine of stories. I've written a lot of flash pieces and other short stories in the meantime, but I keep coming back to her and that universe. I really hope she sees print one day because she's a fantastic badass. When I started this new series The Twins of BellesfĂ©es, I found myself picturing the twins in so many steampunk / paranormal crossover situations I couldn't stop writing. The more I researched the more ideas for novels I got. 

Michael Dean Jackson: Oh, hells, yeah! I have a Word document listing a dream schedule of almost 20 projects, only half a dozen of which have been completed. I have worked on a few of them off and on, I have sketched thumbnails of potential book covers. They're all there in my mind floating around. Every once in a while I grab one and wrestle it to completion (but not as often as I'd like! The Dream Schedule is seeming more and more like a dream the longer it takes to actually get them to completion.)

My unwritten ideas sometimes seem more attractive than the one I'm working on, but they usually behave.

HC Playa: I feel like maybe I'm weird 😂. I hyperfocus on a WIP...maybe. I literally avoid going into that musing headspace of new ideas until I have a rough draft down for whatever I am working on. I don't mind at all doing edits on one while creating another.

Ernest Russell: In my story ideas folder there are 35-40 ideas, from a couple of sentences to a pitch to an outline because I really want to recall where I was going with it. The journal I carry with me has story ideas, notes on current projects, notes from panels and lectures, turn of phrase I heard/saw that I liked. No sketches though, my stick people look sick and trees look more like cotton swabs.

Jonathan Sweet: Definitely a massive backlog. I've done a better job lately of storing them -- I keep a running file on my phone so I can get them down when I think of them. (I tend to find they come up when I'm off doing something else, so my previous goal of "I'll remember them when I get back to my desk" never seemed to work.)

How big a distraction do your unwritten ideas become when you are on another project? How do you balance their demands with those of the primary stories?

Teel James Glenn: I'm pretty good at controlling the 'I've gotta do this' with "I owe this to a publisher'-- the hardest is that I need to have short story 'space' between novels' so they can circulate while the months of working on the next novel...

Ernest Russell: Jot it down. If I can't seem to let go, I'll write a synopsis or an outline to revisit. Then back into the current projects. When I finish a project, if there is nothing pressing, I'll look through the ideas and dust one off.

Starting to get out of hand, huh?
Spencer Moore: I have no “process.” But I have like, a zillion different narrative bits that I’m always fooling with in my head, like an 800-pound Rubic's Cube with about a million different sides… Seriously, I’m locked and loaded for whenever the money guys come a’knockin’.

B. Clay Moore: My last Aftershock book, Miles To Go, combined two different ideas I'd had around forever, and *also* included a scene I'd written 15 years ago for a graphic novel I never finished, based on a real experience.

Jay Requard: I outline my ideas if they have any real pull with me, so once that outline is filed away I go about what I'm working on which is usually 1-2 manuscripts and an editorial project but I'm actually reading again for. Part of the hard answer to your question that might rankle people is psychological: why would an idea bother me when it's the next thing I can do? If you have this idea in your head that there is no real rest in this *life* as an author, then you finish one project and immediately go on to the next. Having that backlog keeps the work going and the chance of making it continue.

Timothy Joe Kirk: Middling, sometimes I've got to make a note right now but can write it and go back.

Jonathan Sweet: They can be a distraction when the writing isn’t going well on my current project. They’re that bright shiny object over there … I try to balance the demands by jotting down notes as those story points come to me and then jumping back over to the current project

Bobby Nash: When something new hits, I jot down some notes to return to later. If it's an idea related to one of the projects in some form of production, I go ahead and start writing it down. Yesterday, oddly enough, I wrote a chapter for the 3rd Sheriff Myers book, which I technically haven't started writing yet. The chapter was so vivid in my mind I went ahead and wrote it. Unusual for me as I don't generally write my first draft out of order, but I knew if I didn't, I would forget it. Or, at least part of it.

Elizabeth Donald: My ideas are never a distraction. Unfortunately, sometimes they grow into fully-fledged stories with plots and twists and characters and all those lovely nuances just waiting for me to hamhandedly put them on the screen. When they reach maturity but I don’t have time to write them, it gets annoying. I was just telling a colleague last week that I have Novel A at the nine-tenths mark with a publisher waiting, Novel B plotted but not written, Collection A half-written and Collection B at the one-quarter mark, and all of these are potentially paying projects, plus a burgeoning master’s thesis. So what’s occupying my mind when I’m two minutes from falling sleep? Novel C, which no one wants and isn’t on anyone’s schedule. Stop it, Novel C! Wait your turn!

Let's be honest, what percentage of your ideas, at least those interesting enough to record for "one day," ever really make it to the forefront of your brain and get worked on as potential stories? How do you prioritize what becomes a valid new project versus what must remain in the "not yet" pile in your inventory of ideas?

Michael Dean Jackson: Honestly, I don't know how many of the dream projects will ever see the light of day. On a good day, I'd say maybe half, but realistically I'd have to say four...maybe five... and only because I have actually taken a stab at writing those

Ef Deal: My head is full of stories all the time, but they don't interfere with my writing. If I get stuck on a piece, I turn to another idea for a bit. Then I see an anthology opening, and five new ideas pop into my head, and I write them.

What do I work on next?
Roger Stegman: From 1997 to 2006, I had more ideas than I could write, so I posted them on bulletin boards. I posted at least an idea a day, and most years I posted from 50 to 400 extra ideas a year. Going through some at one time or another, one or two a month were really good. Most were drivel, but I never knew that until long after it was posted.

Jonathan Sweet: A pretty small percentage. The ideas keep coming because that’s the easy part for me. The unused story idea is the wonderful, perfect, unspoiled nugget. Sitting down and cranking out the stories are always more of a challenge. I’ve accepted that a lot of these ideas will never make it to full story form.

HC Playa: I don't really have extensive notes. I might scribble an outline, some brainstorming plot, and conflict ideas, but I tend to keep it all in my head until I build a world that is too complex. Sometimes I'll get a story started, run into a plot issue and set it aside, but that's the extent of my "idea" log.

Ernest Russell: To date, I've had three accepted and are awaiting publishing. There are perhaps half a dozen with progress made on them. Currently, I have nothing on a deadline. I've been working in collaboration on a novel, I have a sequel to a novella started, and an ongoing story a friend and I share just for the fun of it. Once the first draft of the novel is completed I have a collection I've worked on here and there, I want to concentrate on it. It's the furthest along of my different WIPs. It has the benefit that I already know there is interest in it. Beyond that, Whichever one strikes my interest. When it does, magic happens. Sometimes, nothing happens.

Bobby Nash: I don't know numbers, but there are germs of ideas that will probably never go beyond that unless another idea comes along that adds to that idea. Ideas are always flying at me, but there's more to a good story than just an idea. Sometimes, you have to wait for the right idea and character to meet.

Elizabeth Donald: I’d say maybe 30 percent of my ideas eventually come to fruition, but they may linger in the Marinade file for years. One concept went through five iterations before it morphed into the project that I sold. And really, that last part is what’s key to which ideas become a valid new project and which ideas go to the back of the line. Harlan Ellison once asked me how many stories I had sold, and I flubbed the question because Harlan made me nervous. But it occurred to me later that he didn’t ask how many ideas I’d had, or even how many stories I’d finished to my satisfaction. He asked me how many I had sold. Because when you do this for a living, that’s how you pay the rent. I’ve been told that perhaps I focus too much on the salability of a project, perhaps to the detriment of the art. That’s possibly true, but there’s also a lot of privilege to the idea that we should do art first and market second. When you have the rent paid by other means, maybe you can do art first. But when you feed your family by the written word, you need to prioritize what you can sell and keep your work out where the eyeballs can find it. So call me a craven commercialist, but buy enough of my books so I can go write Novel C, would you? That book won’t shut up.

B. Clay Moore: Just had a new book approved with a publisher, and should be outlining it while waiting on the contract, but another old idea that I'd partially developed with an artist a decade ago jumped up and bit me, and I'm now polishing that to pitch. 

If an idea is good but doesn't fly, I always keep it in the back of my busy brain.

My organization is more like "dis-"

Jay Requard: I would refer to the answer in my second question, but basically if it sticks with me for a bit I finally get to writing it down in an outline. I do have outlines I will never touch in that notebook, but I also sold three stories last year from something I wrote two years ago in it. I'm also proud to say I've completed a number of them as well.

Timothy Joe Kirk: Quite a few, sometimes I find a better way to approach the idea later.

Matt Hiebert: Three novel-length ideas in the background. If I start something I have to finish… at least a first draft. I plan to finish at least two of the novels.


  1. I love reading the final Roundtable discussions. Thank you for these wonderful topics, Sean!

    1. Thanks so much. I love doing them. And thanks for taking part. You're always welcome. One day, I need to get permission to turn there into a book too, I guess. Can't imagine the nightmare that permission-getting will be.