Idea Debt

edited January 2016 in Do The Work
Jessica Abel has posted an essay about something she refers to as "Idea Debt". It's about the sunk cost fallacy, and how creators sometimes refuse to give up on an old project because of the time they previously put into it.  Read it, please.

I can relate to what she's talking about. Somewhere at my father's house there is presumably still a box full of 3x5 index cards with notes for my millennia-spanning epic novel tying together the labors of Hercules, the quests of King Arthur, and the adventures of star pilot Jason. Which I wisely gave up on around the same time I discovered boys-and-girls. But I still have notes (not quite "binders of lore", but still...) for Olympus: The Next Generation, which was to be a feature film starring my high school classmates, about twelve demigods and minor deities (carefully selected after extensive research) who take over after the Olympians (except Athena, the new queen) are slaughtered. I hauled them out and worked some more on them about 10 years ago. And more recently I have outlines and notes and two issues scripted for a 12-part maxi-series updating the Gospels as a satirical modern-day graphic novel.

It's hard to know where to draw the line, to decide what's Idea Debt, and what's Idea Investment. I've been plugging away at JAQrabbit Tales for over six years now, publishing for a year and a half, with over 200 pages to show for it, but I still have "binders of lore" – finished scripts and others in various states of completion, a huge color-coded spreadsheet with dozens more story ideas – that may be dragging me down. I've definitely lost some momentum on it, and I've thought a little about putting the weekly posts on hold, either to give me time to rebuild my inventory, or to work on other things.

Do you have any binders of lore that you're dragging along with you? Are they for things you still sincerely want to do? When do you think you'll get to them?


  • I don't have much in the way of binders.  In fact, I just have a few documents on the computer that says "old ideas".  These docs/ per story idea breaks down to roughly 3 or 4 paragraphs.  I don't need much.

    As for doing what I sincerely want to work on?  I'm still finding that out, hence why I do new projects in different genres.  Bomb Queen has been my longest running title, at this point she has legs of her own.  She generates new audiences and royalties.

    I've had a few moments when I think I might've been in *idea debt* (where a project was holding me back rather than moving me forward), but that was when I was working on someone else's book.  When it's MY idea... I tend to be okay.  Also, it helps that I'm not investing major years into a project.  I tend to get in and get out with the mini-series format.

    So, no binders of lore for me -- though I have two stories from a long time ago that I might want to visit later.
  • That was definitely the case with "Witch Doctor". It took me longer to walk away from it than it should've when it became apparent I shouldn't do it anymore, in part because of how much time I'd already spent on it and how many story ideas I still had.

    I've had that happen with other projects too. There was one this fall that an artist and I were working on that I'd come up with years ago — and in working on it, I eventually discovered I wasn't actually interested in it anymore. Took a while to figure that out though, for sunk cost reasons.
  • I'm having that problem right now. I've built up Isaac & Lee but I'm really feeling that it's time has come. I just don't have any more stories for it. I've been wanting to do this other comic for years now, but I've been putting it off forever because of Isaac & Lee. I've actually gotten to a point where I'm kind of resentful of the book. When I talk about quitting the book, I keep hear from people about how much they love the book and how they want to find out what happens next.
  • Beth, I continue to hear that about "Witch Doctor" too, on a weekly basis. But if it's time to walk away, it's time to walk away.
  • I would quite call something that you've actually done and is no longer viable the same deal, though. It's still a sunk cost thing to a certain extent, but it's not quite this.

  • Story of my life. 

    But you know... Bloody Waters was a thing I didn't give up on after more than a decade of failures. I literally discovered a cache of old rejection letters at my parents' house last night--mostly from agents or editors who didn't even read it.  While the book hasn't made me rich or famous, it won me entry into the prose writing community and that has yielded tons of opportunities to me. Two other publishers have offered to republish it since then (I'm holding out for one who can pay me). It remains the work I am most proud of.

    Should I have given up on it? I don't know. It came close to selling into the big leagues so many times that I knew there was something worth keeping.

    Could I have spent the time I spend chasing it producing more stuff that might have made me more successful, sooner? Yeah, maybe. I don't know. Maybe the fact I stuck with it for so long is what made it good enough to get me where it did.
  • edited January 2016

    Ouch - work on writing. Yep that's me.

    If I think about it (honestly trying not to, which I guess is the point) I have colossal Idea Debt because I've never published anything. Most of the time I have 'amazing idea' that becomes 'research and plot snippets' that then becomes an issue or two of writing before all forward progress is halted.

    They're all still there on my PC, folders and folders, some with no movement in years. It's pretty sad when you think about it. But then the alternative is not doing it and I'm not ready to admit defeat yet.

    ** On a side note @BrandonSeifert - it sucks to find out there won't be more Witch Doctor but I'm glad you had the run you did. It's a brave decision and I'm looking forward to whatever you do next. Good luck.    

  • I think I misunderstood the "Idea Debt" idea initially. I certainly have "binders of lore" on "Witch Doctor", but I also had a produced body of work, like Justin said — so it's not quite the same thing.

    Actually reading (skimming) the essay, I have a lot of idea debt, on a lot of different projects. The biggest one is probably "Supernatural Geographic". I have "bimders of lore" (well, a Scrivener binder of lore!), a bunch of finished or half-finished scripts — but the only thing I've really done with it is team up with Dan Govar to do a 7 page finished story. But though the B&W art for that story is done and it's lettered, I've never found a colorist for it — so it still sits, unused in my laptop.

    The second half of 2015 was really about starting to clear out the idea debt I've been accumulating since before I started writing comics professionally. I sat down and did one-page pitches for 13 of my series ideas (all the series ideas that are developed enough to be pitchable), and started pitching them to a whole bunch of publishers. Dan and I are revisiting "Supernatural Geographic" with the intention of getting the short story finished-finished, and then moving on from there. Michael Montenat has signed onto my project "Restless" (which is actually an idea that spun out of "SG"), and Jeremy Rock's signed onto my project "DreamSequencer"/"Dreamgirl". And those projects are moving ahead.
  • Yeah. My "Great Canadian Space Opera" project - originally intended as a prose novel - is still on the hard drive of my computer, awaiting my return to it. Been sitting there for a decade, along with a couple of detective/soap opera prose serials done in 500-word instalments for a local writing workshop. Not sure what I'm going to do with those serials, unfinished as they are.
  • edited February 2016
    I mentioned JAQrabbit Tales, which not only exists but is still ongoing, so it's probably my fault, for presenting that as an example. Similar phenomenon but not quite the same. Wearing some of my ample anxiety on my sleeve, I guess.

    So, @Owen_Jones :) What's your plan for moving forward? Is there something in particular holding you back, is it a matter of time, confidence in the work, having a venue for it, or something else?
  • Thanks Owen! I appreciate it! Yeah, we tried to do more, but it just didn't work and was getting in the way of other projects. It was time to go.
  • Yep. I just reread the article. This describes my struggle for the past several years between Isaac & Lee and Grotto of Poppies. Either Poppies becomes an actual thing, or I have to cut ties. Which means giving up on Isaac & Lee because I can really only run one major book at a time.
  • edited February 2016

    So, @Owen_Jones :) What's your plan for moving forward? Is there something in particular holding you back, is it a matter of time, confidence in the work, having a venue for it, or something else?

    That's the million dollar question I guess. I think there are a couple of things I need to address to be honest.

    Firstly I'd say it's a lack of confidence in selling my ideas to an artist, I have no CV to suggest their investment in a project would actually pay off. Plus the few stories that I've had go to the art stage were where an editor engaged the artist, so I don't have a network of artist friends to sound out about projects. Also living in the UK we don't have the kind of comic communities like Portland or much of a convention season, everything is net based which makes it a little unreal (if that makes sense).

    I also have issues with deciding whether I have enough material to pitch to an artist - I suspect this is a part of idea debt where you constantly want to add details and more information, perfect a story rather than drawing a line under it and moving on. Which I suppose is project organisation?

    I'd say lack of knowledge/experience is also an issue, I've never moved beyond a certain stage so it's an unknown to me. When you do something once, it immediately gives you a much better understanding of what it entails, until you've experienced the process it's kinda guesswork.
    This obviously involves me finishing something (or taking it as far as possible) :(

    Lastly, I haven't had a go at the short story market, which may help me with some of these issues, all my ideas have been for a minimum 4/5 issues.


    Making a plan out of the above and progressing that plan is now the next step (seems so easy when you talk it out doesn't it  :D )

  • I'd definitely encourage you to try your hand at some shorts. That's the sort of thing that's fairly easy to get an artist to invest their time into, because it isn't that much of a commitment... for either party. One of my first attempts at collaboration was a 30-page story and even that was biting off more than I should have. There isn't much of a paying "market" for them as such, but getting 2- to 6-page stories included in small-press anthologies (for little or no money) has been good practice for me. Keep an eye on the "Looking for..." thread here, for example.
  • My first illustrated comic was 4 pages long. At four pages, I could afford to pay an artist and letterer without crushing debt (that comes later), and editors and potential future collaborators can read it and reach their conclusion quickly, even if I were to package it with, say, the script for a reference of how I work. 
  • Eight pages is an excellent, "classic" short comics story length. And it requires real skill to tell a truly satisfying story, as opposed to something truncated. You have to chop waste at all levels, plot points, dialogue; and to my mind, use both dialogue, visual action and caption blocks to emphasize the key points and provide textural changes to the narrative flow.

    Its easier to find an artist to commit to this, and then, you can (perhaps jointly) fund a short run of mini-comics (black and white is fine) which you can sell at cons, or hand out to publishers, editors and future collaborators as a calling card.
  • I started out with, and still recommend, short stories. Mostly five pages.

    But everyone is exactly right - it's easier to get an artist to commit to that, and you get good at stuff.

    Or, everything Marv said. It was my exact plan.

    This ALSO solves the resume/CV question. By the time I pitched Tradd on Strode, I had 200+ pages of stories, pitches, what have you, which served as evidence I could do the job.
  • @Owen_Jones Short stories are tons of fun. Check the Alterna Comics website. There's a cool anthology that's currently accepting submissions. Or maybe just put them up on your own site, like Ed Brisson did - 

  • Ed Brisson, as far as I know, broke in doing Murder Books on his own website.

    With "Witch Doctor" we put the first 16-page short story up online for free, and I directed a whole lot of traffic to it. That, combined with tiny print runs so we'd have something to put in editors' hands, is what actually got us our careers.

    It's definitely scary and confusion, I get that. But there are a number of successful models that you can at least partial follow as a way forward.
  • And Ed was always plugging his books at conventions where ever and when ever he got the chance.
  • @BrandonSeifert  You have a short story done in collaboration with Daniel "Azure" Govar and it's just there in your laptop?!  I've got three words that might interest you:  "Heavy Metal Magazine"  ;)
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