8 Reasons to Let Your Stories Ripen

Whenever we come up with a wonderful new story idea, it’s tempting to immediately sit down at the keyboard and start bringing it to life on the page. But that’s rarely the best way to turn that sparkling new idea into a worthwhile and enduring story. In his book How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card admits:

Good stories don’t come from trying to write a story the moment I think of the first idea. …all the stories I was still proud of six months after writing them have come from ideas that ripened for many months—usually years—between the time I first thought of them and the time they were ready to put into a story.

Like vine-ripened tomatoes, stories require the slow nourishment of sunlight and warm imaginative soil to grow into rosy, juicy maturity. Otherwise, they risk suffering from the blight of the following pitfalls:

  1. Meandering plot.
  2. Two-dimensional characters.
  3. Shallow themes.
  4. Underdeveloped/nonexistent subplots.
  5. Weak climax.

Writing up sparkly new ideas is like falling in love at first sight and getting married the next day. You might live happily ever after. But chances are good that, after a little more time has passed, you’ll realize that you really don’t know this story so well at all. In fact, at times, it will feel like a total stranger, and you’ll begin wondering what in tarnation you’ve gotten yourself into. It takes time and breathing space for us to figure out which ideas are worth committing to for the long haul. I’ve fallen in love at first sight with many ideas that eventually proved they didn’t have the depth or staying power to support a long-term relationship.

Stories aren’t the only victims when we pull them off the vine before they’ve ripened. We suffer as well by

  1. Losing our passion for a story
  2. Realizing we’ve wasted our time
  3. And developing the habit of skipping from one new idea to the next without ever finishing a draft.

As a caveat, let me throw out the fact that, for some authors, the only way to ripen a story is to fool around with it on paper. For me, putting a story on paper—even in the roughest of outlines—risks ruining the heady organic ebb and flow of my imagination. I prefer to leave my ideas in the greenhouse of my subconscious, pulling them out and pruning them from time to time, until I feel they’re ready. (Margaret Atwood once said that “you may be wrong about being ready, but you’re rarely wrong about being not ready.”) However, if this feels all wrong to you on a gut level, don’t be afraid of acknowledging that your initial ramblings on paper may indeed constitute a ripening period of your own. Orson Scott Card again:

For some writers, one of the best ways to help an idea ripen is to try writing a draft of it, seeing what comes up when you actually try to make it into a story. As long as you recognize that the draft you write immediately after thinking of the idea will almost certainly have to be thrown away and rewritten from the beginning, you’ll be fine.

Either way, don’t be in a hurry to write down that brand new idea. Let ripen, and you may be surprised at the full, mature flavor you’re able to reap a year or so into the growing season.

Tell me your opinion: Which ripening method do you prefer? Do you let your stories ripen in your subconscious? Or do you need to work them out on paper?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This sounds exactly like one of my favorite writing quotes:

    “The real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right. That may take quite a while.” ~ Agatha Christie

    I’ve got tons of ideas that I’m determined to write someday, but I haven’t started them because I know they’re just not ready yet. I’m tempted – I have one particularly lovable set of characters that I can’t wait to start working with, but I have next to no plot for their story yet and know I’d only make a mess of it if I started now.

  2. Here’s the thing….at my age if I don’t jot it down on paper it won’t get the chance to ripen…instead withering on the vine due to malnutrition because my feeble mind has allowed it to slip my mind. Of course I’m exagerrating…but not too much. 🙂

  3. @Elisabeth: It takes all kinds of patience to be able to wait on stories we particularly love. But, in my experience, it’s always worth it.

    @DL: I used to believe that an idea wasn’t worth writing if I couldn’t remember it. But thanks to head trauma a few years ago, my memory’s not as reliable as it used to be – and I don’t believe that anymore!

  4. I’m 40 and I still have ideas ripening in my head from when I was a preteen (seriously).

    Another one of my stories has been ripening since 2005. I have notes everywhere – on paper, on my computer, in my head.

    I believe, if you truly think about when you had the very first thought of a story, you’ll find it was years ago, and that it has come and gone while you work on other stories.

    At the same time, eventually you have to sit down and start writing, or you’ll take that fermented wine right to your grave.

  5. Agreed. We have to write – otherwise we have no business calling ourselves writers! But there are some stories that just take longer to ferment than others. Some may be ready in a few days; others, as you say, can take decades. I’m sure that story of yours is going to be wonderful by the time you’re ready to write it down!

  6. I at least have to jot down notes so I don’t forget the bare bones of the story. I can let it set and percolate, but sometimes really neat things don’t happen until I’m fiddling around with the story itself, actually writing it. Then again, maybe some of my plots or subplots end up underdeveloped…worth thinking about

  7. This is nice to read. I have worried that the time I spend letting my thoughts and ideas gestate in my mind was wasted time and perhaps I was just being a big fat procrastinator. But I think I am also the type that needs to let my ideas ripen before getting into the outlining phase. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one!

  8. @Carol: Once I have a title and a general idea of characters and conflict, I’ll write myself a brief summary of the story and a list of characters – just so I don’t forget.

    @subcreator: If a story feels like it needs more ripening time, it probably does. Don’t be afraid to wait.

  9. When I think of a new story I write a note in my iPod of what it’s generally about. Then I write a few chapters and see if I have a story then I’ll make a complete outline. For my first novel I wrote eight chapters before making an outline. Wasn’t the smartest choice but I can make it work.

  10. iPods and mobile phones are so handy for jotting down notes on the go. I use my iTouch for that all the time.

  11. This is so true. I had a great story idea two months before nanowrimo and on a lark I decided to wait and go for it in November. The story is so much more fleshed out than it would have been if I had just dived into it!

  12. I don’t believe that one idea makes an entire story. I’ll get one idea in my head, and I’ll think, that would be a cool story, then forget about it.

    Later on, another idea comes along, and I think it would be a good story. I forget that one, too.

    After some time, a tiny twig of an idea will suddenly appear in my mind, bringing those two other ideas together in a great way.

    After that, I start playing with it verbally, on paper, and in my imagination, until I can flesh it out more. Then I write.

  13. I make brief summaries, maybe give it a title, but let the main idea ripen in my head.

  14. @Eileen: I tend to think that some of the most powerful bits of a story are those well up from our subconscious, rather than those we consciously create to fill in the blanks. The more time we give our subconscious to work, the more it has to offer us.

    @BJ: Well said! A single idea, taken at face value, usually presents a very one-dimensional story. The stories of my own that have ripened to maturity as complete books are always those that resulted from the grafting of three or more ideas onto the same twig.

  15. @Lorna: Titles are always important for me in solidifying ideas. Once I have a title, the whole thing suddenly seems more concrete and reliable – even if I end up changing the title somewhere down the line.

  16. I totally agree with this concept. Personally, I put pressure on myself to work “hard and fast” because gosh darnit, that’s what the great writers do!

    But I think time is an necessary ingredient in developing a good story… for all the reasons you stated. Good blog entry!

    -Steve

  17. I tend to want to be a speedster myself, but my work always suffers when I give in to the tendency. Slow and steady wins the race!

  18. I have to work them out on paper. It’s a pain to edit, but that’s how I discover things–by playing with words and writing out the visions. That said, my current nearly complete novel started with a single image that I thought about for three years. When I finally started writing it November 2009, it went in directions I never foresaw, and it turned out the person I thought was the main character really wasn’t–she was just the catalyst.

    I think my stories have to ripen after the first draft stage. That seems to be when I have enough development in my head for them to start making sense. 🙂

    Good discussion!

    Amy

  19. This works for writing too: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”~~Dwight D. Eisenhower

  20. To write, I have to sit down with the seed of an idea and go from there. I did that with NaNoWriMo this year. It’s rather strange because in other matters I always plan and prepare ahead of time.

  21. @Amy: Sounds to me as if maybe your story did a little ripening in both your imagination and on paper. Letting a story brew in your head for three years means it probably grew and deepened in considerable ways before you even started playing with it on paper.

    @Lorna: That’s excellent. I’m stealing it!

    @Shaddy: It is strange how particular methods work best for different writers, often without discernible rhyme or reason. All I know is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

  22. I get ideas way in advance of when I *can* start writing them…normally I’m embroiled in several other projects while I’m mulling another one in my head. I generally write down the idea and then let it sit until I work my way around to it again. By then, I normally have a good grasp of the characters, title, and general synopsis…and I can start writing off that.

    I can’t know the details of how a story ends before I start writing – in my head, if the story is finished, there’s no point in writing it…just a quirk I have. So I never mull anything all the way to the end – but I do have a pretty good idea of what the main plot centers on and the basic character arcs by the time I start writing.

  23. What a great post! Orson Scott Card is a great writer. Thanks for passing on his words of “writing” wisdom.

    I usually think about my story for a while, do some research to see where else the story could go, then sit down and plot out a synopsis. I have to know how the story will begin and end before I can seriously write.

  24. Being the single track-minded person I am, I can’t work on more than one fiction project at a time. The delay of finishing one story before getting to move on to another always helps me squelch the over-eagerness that might persuade me to start writing a story before it’s finished ripening.

  25. @Kathi: Knowing how a story will end is always important for me. If I don’t have an ending, I don’t have a story. And yet, ironically, my endings on paper never turn out quite how I think they will.

  26. Great post!

  27. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

  28. Shew! I’m so relieved to read this… Primarily b/c I’ve got TWO really interesting stories partially complete (with lots of notes holding them in place) and I haven’t had the chance to get back to them.

    AND I’ve been fretting for fear I’d “lose” them somehow. Nice to think of them as ripening. 😀 Thanks, girl~ <3

  29. It’s amazing what our subconscious can accomplish, even if it’s just overnight. Plot holes we thought were insurmountable, suddenly melt into pinpricks. So you can imagine how much work your subconscious will be able to accomplish over longer periods of time!

  30. I have a double level of story ripening, I guess: I use a pad and paper to scribble down my thoughts, then wait a while as I fill in details and scratch out “bad” ideas. My imagination begins to stretch the scene out and explore different routes as I gradually run out of space to add anything within the scene. Then I know it’s time to type it up. After that, I sit on it some more–sometimes for months–before I look at what I’ve written. Both levels sharpen my story and my perception of it as “ready” or “not ready.”

    Thanks for posting–it’s good to put a name to it, and to hear everyone else’s techniques.

  31. Your ripening period sounds very thorough. In general, all mine involves is a very strong visual sense of key scenes. Then, when I feel they’re ready, I pull out a notebook and start figuring how to connect the dots between those already-visualized scenes.

  32. I keep my stories in my head while they ripen, but I let them ooze out on to paper in the form of doodles, lists, and unorganized outlines. Works for me. 🙂

  33. Usually, I let things ripen in my head. When I get to the point of bursting with thoughts about a story or set of characters, that’s when I start putting things down on paper–either in an outline, or, more often, the story itself.

    Though, I’m starting to become an outline kind of gal. 🙂

  34. @vv: “Creative oozing” – I like that!

    @Liberty: Finally seeing the wisdom of joining us over here on the dark side, huh? (We do have cookies after all!)

  35. When I come up with an idea, the first week is the most productive. I burst with so many ideas that I can’t sleep, and I scribble things down madly. Once things come to a boil, I calm down and write slower and it gets to a simmer. It would be awful if I lost that first week just because I thought I needed to let the idea sit in my head for a while.

    On the other hand, I’ve noticed that time is the best way of weeding out my bad ideas from the good ones. I might come up with ten ideas a year, but if at the end of the year I’m thinking of a particular one more than the others, that’s the one I write.

  36. The first week is definitely a productive one for me too. But I have to confine the busyness to my imagination. I find that if I take a delicate new idea and try to write it down right away, I end up stunting its growth by imprisoning it within my words. I have to let it grow and develop some solid roots before I try to capture it.

  37. I keep taking notes, from non-fiction books, blogs and just about anything. Everywhere, I find wells of ideas. But the issue always come when I actually start to write them. The premature drag to perfection.
    But there are kinds of ideas. One of my idea bloomed just during normal routine brainstorming and is suddenly on its way to first draft. Another is ripening in my mind from almost 7 years now.
    My goal is to make that my next WIP, but who knows?

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