The Importance of Percolation-- Letting Story Ideas Simmer

Jan 15, 2013

I'm back! And I'm alive! Barely. The move involved two sick kids (including one with pneumonia), one sick parent (me), another sleep-deprived parent, two trips to the doctor, one trip to the emergency room, and some very dedicated friends and family. But we're finally all healthy, and I have only a few boxes left to get rid of. Phew.

Needless to say, pretty much nothing has happened on the writing front since, oh, early December. Well, nothing has happened on paper, anyway. But in my newest story has been percolating away. It might not be visible work, but it's work all the same.

Percolation-- letting your story diffuse through your brain, sifting through ideas-- is a process that I think doesn't get enough credit. We practically never talk about it when we bring up writing advice, or mention our writing process. For me, without this process, my stories would be a heck of a lot dumber.

Sometimes, I have story elements that simmer in my head for years. That's what happened with TUGL. I'd had general ideas bubbling in my head since literally the fourth grade, when I first read The Giver. Then, a few new ideas combined with old ones. But even though I had a burst of insight that formed the basic concept, it took weeks of the story rolling around in my head before I could pull it together and actually start a draft. Then, all through the writing process, even when I'm not actively writing, the idea pulls things out of my brain and my daily life. Things get deeper and more complex.

Same thing with my current story. Certain concepts I've been mulling over for a year finally started coming together. I have a certain trick to make sure I get enough "percolation time." When my current project is out with beta readers, I start the mulling process. I have a document I call an "idea dump," and just throw down any idea that comes to me (usually relating to a certain idea or concept). A lot of it gets thrown out, but in the end, I've had a couple of weeks to get a story idea somewhat ready.

Then, it's usually back to revisions on a current draft, but that that point, the new story has started percolating in the back of my mind. I'll stumble across pictures, songs, or ideas that I throw into a file for the new story. And gradually, even though I'm working on another project, the new story starts to take shape in my mind. Then, by the time I'm actually done with my current project, my new story is ready for real development and drafting.

So in a way, all this break time for me has still been productive. I've got more of an idea where to take my plot, how things work in my world (which, I have to say, is SO DANG COOL and I wish I lived there...kinda), who my characters's been great.

So, my friends, do you have a percolation process? Does it happen only while you write? Only before you write? A combination? How much percolation time do you need? I'm curious how other writers develop their stories.

image credit


ilima said...

This is so me. I get very few ideas (I don't understand those people who say they have too many to choose from) and I let them simmer for months before I even think about outlining. I change things as I write as needed, but most of the story is fleshed out in my head beforehand. So even if I'm not writing but just thinking through a story, I consider it time well spent.

Kittie Howard said...

First, I'm relieved to hear everyone is well. You had quite a go of it for a bit.

It was so nice to read your thoughts about letting ideas percolate. Oh, but that's the most productive part for me, when the story bubbles in my pea brain. What with the move, everyone being sick, and your percolation, you've been very productive!

Jenilyn Collings said...

I usually play around with ideas in my head before I write them (unless, of course, it's a specific scene and then I write it down before I forget). But I definitely need time for ideas to percolate while I'm writing. Usually I know when something is off, but if I don't give myself enough time to think about it and figure out where I went wrong, it's a problem. I participated in NaNo last year and discovered I hated it. I needed time to take a break when things weren't coming together in the story.

shelly said...

I do the same. Especially when I get stuck as what to write for the next scene. But I love the stories that you can see from one moment to the next in your head. Working on one right now. The first book is almost drafted. The third book is drafted. And the second book is on a storyboard.

Hugs and chocolate,

DL Hammons said...

I have a story that's been percolating in my head going on four years now. I know that when it comes time to sit down and create an outline, the meat will just fall off the bone! :)

Eric W. Trant said...

I am typically writing about the book I first thought of three or four years ago. And I'm thinking on the book I'll write three or four years from now.

Percolation is the recycling and refiltering of thoughts until they are pure. I only begin the book when I feel the thoughts are pure enough to write them out.

Of course, for new writers, you just have to start writing and hope for the best. You can't percolate until you have some used grounds in your head!

- Eric
Digging With the Worms

L said...

Glad you've survived the move and feel ready to resume the writing.

Cherie Reich said...

I'm glad to hear you're feeling better!

I definitely let my story ideas percolate. I do a lot of the thinking in those months/years before I ever write anything down or begin writing the story. It's a necessary process for me, and I believe I do the majority of my percolating before I write.

Tonja said...

Good that you are all feeling better - a round of sick is making it's way through my house this week.

I agree - percolating is important. I can't start a story until I can see it all the way through. I need about an hour before I start writing a new chapter.

KM Nalle said...

I've got story seeds written down and every once in a while I'll add to one idea until something takes hold and my brain won't shut up about it.

The rest usually happens pretty quick after that. It'd be nice to wrangle it into a more predictable process.

KM Nalle said...

I'm glad you and your family are feeling better!

Romance Book Haven said...

Sorry to hear you had to go through all that with the family, but glad to hear it's all okay now.

I'm a great fan of the idea of letting ideas percolate. Many of my writer frieneds tell me that tanding in queues is when they get their best ideas.


Meredith said...

I tend to let things percolate for a couple of weeks, but then I have to start writing or I'm worried I'll lose enthusiasm. I can be fickle when it comes to story ideas. :)

Tara Tyler said...

glad you are back!
and yes, percolation is an ongoing process for me. things trigger ideas for adding to future stories all the time...keep notebook handy!!

Jessie Humphries said...

I take a ton of time thinking. I think that contributes to my slow writing! I wish I could do it faster.

Rachel Searles said...

I thought I would percolate my entire WIP into being this time around, but then I hit a bit of a wall and realized a lot of it will have to be discovered during the writing. So I think I'm a combination type :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Welcome back and glad to ehar everyone is healthy again.
I do a lot of percolation...

AVDutson said...

Sounds like you've had a busy couple of months!

I definitely have to Percolate too. Natalie Goldberg calls it composting, but it all comes to the same thing: letting the ideas sift themselves into something better. Even Stephen King recommends walking away from a WIP for a couple months before looking at it with fresh eyes.

But I doubt we ever really walk away. The story is always there, always blooming.

Ghenet Myrthil said...

I'm sorry you and your family have been so sick! Glad you're all feeling better.

I totally believe in the power of percolating. I have a book idea that's been percolating for a while now, through writing my first book, and now I feel like I have many of the big pieces in place to start writing it.

Good luck with your new idea!

Stephanie Allen said...

I have a document where I write down all my ideas - maybe it's a few words, maybe a couple sentences. That way, I have them all at the back of my mind for when I finally do get around to writing them. I have a hard time writing if the idea hasn't had enough time to sit!

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