Shop talk: writing ideas beyond your skill set

Someone asked me on Twitter the other day how I got past all the “I can’t write this yet” story ideas. I answered briefly there, but there’s only so much I can cram into a couple tweets and I have more to say.

**Note: the usual caveats apply! This post is all my experience and what I’ve found works for me. No two writers are the same so, essentially, your mileage may vary.**

So I assume you sometimes have (or have had) an idea arrive that feels beyond your current skill set to pull off. I’ve always trusted my gut and set those stories on back burners to simmer, but I don’t know if that was the right move. Self-doubt and impostor syndrome are Lying McLiarfaces that will take advantage of the tiniest opportunities to get in the way.

If every idea feels like it’s beyond you? I’d say you probably have some lying bullies clouding your judgment.

But what can you do when that happens and all the ideas just feel impossible? Or if you want to figure out whether it actually is beyond your current skills or those personal creative bullies? What can you do if the story just demands writing, skills be damned, or it will burn you from the inside out?

First off, SIT WITH IT. I can’t stress this enough. Free write or do timed writings about the idea, focused or just stream of conscious–whatever feels most comfortable or accessible. What is this idea? And how complete is it? Who are the characters? What are their relationships to each other and their individual goals? Where are they? What fascinates you and makes you passionate to write this story?

The deeper you delve into it and flesh it out, the better you’ll be able to understand what elements might be holding you back and keeping you from writing the story now. And it cuts down on a lot of the spaces that self-doubt and impostor syndrome like to exploit.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time for a little further examination. So, what does make this idea so challenging?

  • Atmosphere/message/desired reader reaction? These are all things that happen in revision. So write that draft! I like to make notes to myself as I go of what I’m aiming for where in the manuscript, since that helps free me from some of the more absurd expectations of a rough draft. Also super helpful when you pass off the story to early readers to be able to ask if you’ve hit the mark.
  • Does it feature people and/or cultures rooted in identities different from yours? This can be tricky and fraught with the potential to perpetuate harm to marginalized groups. Know your influences! And interrogate why you need to tell this story. What makes you the best person to tell it? If the story and plot are about the lived experiences of someone with a marginalized identity you don’t share, maybe consider abandoning it because there is just so much potential to cause harm. If you still need to write it, do your damn research. And sign up for any applicable Writing the Other classes.
  • Unfamiliar structure or style? Read it! You can learn what you don’t already know. Research any conventions or hallmarks that define that structure/style and make it distinctive. Someone somewhere on the internet has made a list. Once you’re a little more familiar, write it!
  • Does it require you to plumb deeply personal/uncomfortable/scary/etc experiences that might make you raw and vulnerable? Or open you to criticism/judgment/reprisal from your family or others in your life? WRITE IT ANYWAY. No one has to see it. At least in my experience, writing something that viscerally personal massively levels up writing chops. It can even help with catharsis and healing–just be mindful of triggers and keep checking in with yourself. Have supports in place before you begin to help keep you safe. Sacrificing mental, emotional, or physical health for the sake of your art is in no way worthwhile or romantic. Don’t do it.
  • Not fleshed out enough? This can be an issue of research. Maybe it needs more free writes or other forms of brainstorming. Or maybe it’s just not ready. It’s ok to put it back and let it cook more.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but unless the story just isn’t ready to be written or is likely to cause harm, I say write the damn thing. Know you’re writing a rough draft, set expectations accordingly (aka: low as you can), and trust in the power of revision.

Of course, all of those are much easier said than done.

I recently drafted a short story that had felt beyond my skill level for years. It’s a structure I’m not overly familiar with, told with tricky point of view shifts that I pretty much never do, and I want it heavy on both atmosphere and lyricism. I sat with it until I understood why it needed that structure and those point of view shifts and what each of those elements adds to the story. As for the atmosphere and lyricism, I made notes to myself as I went along. I don’t expect to succeed with those elements in a rough draft and noting my goals for those sections helped me focus on the story and getting words down.

You know what? It felt pretty damn good to have that faith in my revision process. And now that I have words written, I can start the work to make it more like I want it to be.

Currently, none of my stories feels beyond my ability. Some are infinitely more challenging than others (and therefore more interesting, because I’m like that) but not impossible. And yes, that is in part because of where I am in developing my writing and storytelling skills. If I had understood all this earlier, I could have gotten to this point faster. But maybe this can help someone else get here just a little bit faster, instead.

The world always needs more stories and more storytellers.

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