In my recent post In Case of Natural Disaster, I made a passing reference to my 50-in-5 lists, a writing habit I created for myself a few years ago as I’ve gotten further and further into this crazy tv writing career. And the texts and conversations that poured in as soon as I posted it all tended to swirl around one question — What is this 50-in-5 thing? So, I thought it was time for some answers.
The Short Answer: A List. 50 Ideas. 5 Days.
Yep. You heard me. 5-0 ideas. 5-0 loglines. 5-0 characters and creations and complications. Fifty.
I give myself 5 days to come up with 50 ideas — written down and saved for future storyline ideas. Now, lest you think I am some sort of story genius with ideas just pouring out of me all the time… It’s true! It’s all true! I am a genius!!! (*goes mad with power*)
The Long Answer: 49 Terrible/Mediocre/Ehhh/Boring Ideas. Hopefully one good one. 5 days.
50-in-5 lists are messy, and that’s perfectly all right.
I’ve found that the easiest way to start a 50-in-5 list is to start a new doc on my ever-present laptop. There are other times I’ve put everything on post-it notes or handwritten the lists in my journal. But I’m at my most organized when it’s all on my computer. And post-it notes fall off the wall and get vacuumed up or tucked away in yesterday’s mail — and I for one hate the idea that my Emmy-winning idea is lost in the belly of my Roomba. That would suck.
But find a way to organize and keep these lists — whatever works for you!
The list begins, and every morning — before I do any other writing for the day, I come up with 10 ideas. I push myself until I hit 10. I’m not allowed to do anything else until I get to those magic double digits. If I have a spectacular idea day and come up with 11 or 13 or 15 off the cuff, so much the better. But tomorrow, I have to come up with 10 all over again. (No cheating or stockpiling today’s ideas for tomorrow. I’m onto you!)
10 ideas. Go!
Each idea has to be its own world or story. No cheating with half-ideas like — A girl named Ava. Or — The biggest apology in the history of the world! If that were the case, could just pull up a baby names website and a list of emotions and call it a day. That’s not going to be helpful when I need to have story ideas later. Each idea has to give a sense of the world or a complication within that world. The story of Ava and her career as a professional juror in this far-future world in which ‘trial by a jury of your peers’ is no more. Or: Aliens come to earth for the first time and are extremely apologetic. “We didn’t realize we’d left you off the list of inhabited planets for the last several centuries. Welcome to the New Republic!”
What stories do you want to see? What stories do you want to tell?
And the most important part: they don’t have to be perfect ideas, or even good ones. Most of the ideas from each day are going to be almost immediately discarded. They’re similar to something else that someone else has already written. Or they’re romantic comedy ideas that I will never, ever write. They’re not interesting to me. They’re utterly ridiculous. (My clown car cleaning shop idea stands out loud and clear here.)
Don’t be afraid of the bad ideas or get stuck on needing to have 10 amazing ideas every day. You’ll get stuck somewhere early on in your daily list and give up. If I can’t come up with three ideas today, how can I ever come up with fifty ideas by Friday??? It’s not easy. But keep going.
Why do I do this to myself?
I spend all day every day thinking about story. It’s the glorious life of being a writer. So I realized I needed a way to organize and hang onto the good ideas that pop into my head pre-coffee. I may not want to write that particular story today or any time this year, but if there’s the seed of a good story there — I can save it the day I’m ready for it.
I also need a way to get all of the bad ideas out of my head so I don’t have to think about them anymore. There’s something about seeing a really truly terrible story idea in black and white, unblinking on my computer screen. Beforehand, I think: Hmmm… maybe that could be something? And then when it’s in front of me, I can safely say: Wow. No. That’s like the worst idea. Ever. EVER. It’s okay to let it go. Now I never have to think about that story again, and I free up just a tiny bit of brain space that will hopefully be used for something else better tomorrow.
The last five projects I’ve written – three pilots, one feature and one webseries – have all come from the best of my 50-in-5 lists.
I actually don’t think I could live without them now. Plus — when I’m really desperate on my worst days, the days where I wonder if I really can keep writing as a career — they’re an amazing way to procrastinate and yet still be productive in the long run.
And in my neurotic writer brain, by the time I’m done with the list, there’s a quiet voice in the back of my head that says: Yep. You can do this. Keep going.
I use my 50-in-5 lists for writing… but I wonder what else they could be used for? Ideas, anyone? I’d love to hear…
I write a lot about my writing life. Interested in more? Check it out!
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