A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “The Allure of the Shiny Thing” in which I discussed how I was struggling to write one novel because ideas for a million other novels were vying for my attention. The phrase had been one I’d learned from a professor at Columbia College Chicago, and at the time I was adamant that pursuing the shiny thing was the worst thing I could possibly do. However, recently I actually did give in to the shiny thing. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
I can say with complete honesty that I don’t regret starting the project that I’m now working on. Sure, it was my shiny thing, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad idea or that I shouldn’t have written it. In this post I’m not going to warn you about the dangers of the shiny thing. Rather, we’re going to talk about these three things: Understanding why the shiny thing appeals to you so much, deciding whether or not the shiny thing is worth pursuing, and knowing when it’s the right time to allow the shiny thing to demand your attention. This all may seem odd, since my previous post on the subject had all but spurned the very notion of giving the shiny thing the time of day. However, as I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve come to understand that this isn’t a black and white issue. The shiny thing is neither good nor evil. It’s just… a thing us writers have to deal with.
So, before we get into the three things I wanted to focus on today, I’ll quickly explain a bit more about what the “shiny thing” is, in case you don’t feel like going back and reading that old post. To put it simply, the shiny thing is an idea. It can be any kind of idea; an idea for a new book, an idea for a new drawing, an idea for a new video series… It’s a shiny new idea. The catch is that, usually, it distracts you from whatever creative endeavor you’re currently working on. Like I said earlier, for me it’s usually new book ideas that distract me from my most current work in progress. These ideas sit there and stare at me, begging for me to work on them right now. And, if I’m not careful, I’ll give in to them without a second thought. That’s the exact opposite of what you want to do with a shiny thing, though. You can’t just give in. You need to think long and hard before you begin working on it, or else you’ll find yourself leapfrogging from one idea to the next without ever finishing anything. However, you also can’t never give in to the shiny thing. This creates a fine line, which I’m going to help you navigate.
With that said, let’s get started. The first thing I want us to look at is the why. Why does this shiny thing appeal to you so much? The truth is, the appeal stems largely from the fact that this idea is still in your head. What does that mean? Well, when an idea’s in your head, it’s perfect. It doesn’t have all of those bumps and blemishes that you just can’t seem to scrub out of your current work in progress, no matter how much elbow grease you put into it. However, you have to recognize that these imperfections come with the territory of making anything. It’s always, always going to be better in your head than what the final outcome is. This is, unfortunately, a fact of life.
The next step, then, is deciding whether or not this shiny thing is worth pursuing. You can’t look at it from the perspective of “Is this idea better than the one I’m currently working on?” because there’s just no way to actually know if it is or not until you write it. But, like I said before, you can’t just go jumping around from one idea to the next to find out which idea is better, because then you’ll never finish anything. Instead, you need to look at it like this: “Perfect or not, will I enjoy working on this idea? If I get it down on paper and realize that it isn’t as amazing as I thought it would be, will I still be passionate enough about it to keep working on it?” And, trust me, this is a hard assessment to make. It’ll take practice. Trial and error. God only knows how many times I misjudged my passion for a project.
“But Leighton, why would I work on my shiny thing at all? Shouldn’t I just ignore it until I’m totally, one hundred percent done with my current work in progress?” Well… Yes, and no. This is where that fine line is drawn. You have to know when it’s the right time to give in and finally start working on the shiny thing. This, I’ve found, is the trickiest part of the whole shebang. How can you tell when it’s too early or too late? I really struggled with this when it came to writing my novel The Forbidden Prophecy. When I started working on The Forbidden Prophecy, I honestly hadn’t expected it to take 3+ years to write. In the beginning, pushing off other projects seemed logical as I completed drafts one, two, three, and even four. Then, things started to get complicated. I was in creative writing courses at college, where I was starting to work on other projects for classes, getting a new idea for a novel every few weeks. Still, I was determined to put them all off until my novel was not only completed, but published. And so drafts five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven all went by. All the while, shiny things came and went, and I ignored all of them while, unbeknownst to me, I burned myself out on The Forbidden Prophecy. Finally, it got to the point where I was super disappointed in my novel, while the piles of shiny things I’d stashed away were looking prettier and prettier every day. That was the day I decided to shelve The Forbidden Prophecy and start working on a new novel, one of my shiny things that had been begging to be written for a long time. And what do you know. A few weeks into writing that new project, I suddenly wanted to start revising The Forbidden Prophecy again.
This is why you can’t wait forever to start a new project. Working on one thing for so long and backlogging a ton of projects that seem pretty and perfect can absolutely kill morale. In my case, working on one of my shiny things actually made me realize that my shiny ideas weren’t so shiny after all. It had been so long since I’d written anything new, I’d forgotten that nothing I’d ever write would be perfect. Once I re-learned that lesson, it boosted my confidence in The Forbidden Prophecy again (and got me working on another novel that could also possibly be published some day in the far distant future). So, from this experience I learned that you shouldn’t just ignore your shiny things. Still, though, you can’t start them too early, either. I’d say, as a general rule of thumb, you should get a few good revisions under your belt and maybe even a beta read before starting something new. That way, you’re well into the project and won’t be tempted to drop it completely for your new idea, but you’re not too far in that you’re burning yourself out by working on one single thing for too long.
Of course, only you really know what will work best for you, so try out different things and see what clicks. Maybe starting something new after the first draft works wonders for you, or maybe you have to have been working on your project for a certain number of years before you can start something new. No matter what your style is, just remember:
The shiny thing can be a blessing or a curse. It’s up to you to decide.