How To Know if Your Idea Is Too Big

And why you should go for it, anyway

Over the weekend, my corner of twitter exploded when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of the HBO series Game of Thrones, admitted at an Austin Film Festival panel that they essentially had no idea what they were doing when they started making the show. (Here’s the live-tweeted thread of their panel, from @ForArya.)

“Everything we could make a mistake in, we did,” they said.

The hubris on display, the ignorance about the source material, and their disparagement of fantasy as a genre were all eye-popping, and served as the most recent evidence that white men are allowed to take risks and fail up in ways that people of color and women are not. 

In a heartening twist this morning, Benioff and Weiss have “exited” the Star Wars project they signed onto in 2018. This exit is being reported as having no relation to their Austin Film Festival panel comments, but the timing is interesting, to say the least.

But I’m not here to delve into the unfairness of white male privilege—I’ll save that for another day. I’m here to examine something else that arose from Benioff and Weiss’s comments. 

It’s clear that when they started working on Game of Thrones, the idea was too big for them to handle. They had such little experience, though, that they didn’t realize this. They thought sure, we can do it. A sprawling epic fantasy series spanning thousands of pages, complex world-building, and intricate power structures: no problem.

(Reader, they had problems.)

Put aside the fact that HBO paid these guys an estimated $60-70 million per season for eight seasons to make a show that they didn’t know how to make. Put that aside for a minute, and think about this: Pretty much every beginning writer (including me) has been seduced by a grand idea and has jumped in feet first only to start drowning immediately.

I’ve met many ambitious and inexperienced writers with big ideas that they don’t realize are too big for them at the time. This is typical of new writers, and I think it’s a stage we all have to go through.

Beginning writers often don’t have enough experience to judge whether they can execute their idea well. Some manage to do it; others fail. There’s nothing wrong with failure. Trying and failing is how we learn the craft of writing, and how we discover what we’re capable of doing as writers.

Learning how to write is about more than mastering the art of the sentence or character creation or plot structure. It’s also about learning how to judge whether you can successfully execute an idea.

I had an idea

After I wrote my first novel, Ash, which was a relatively straightforward retelling of Cinderella (except gay), I had to decide what to write next. At this time, Ash was on submission to literary agents, and months went by in which I got no response, so I was starting to think that book would never get published and I’d better move on. 

Fortunately, I had an idea for another book. It was an intriguing idea, but I wasn’t sure how to go about starting it.

I did some preliminary research because it was a historical novel, and I knew I needed to do some research. However, I’d only written fantasy before. I had no idea what historical research for a non-fantasy novel actually meant.

My research was slapdash and hesitant, because I didn’t know what I was doing. But I had this idea, and it was very cool (I told some friends about it and they thought it was cool, too!), and I didn’t want to give in to my fear that I’d never get published, so I forced myself to try writing this new book.

I wrote a couple of chapters. They didn’t feel right. As I wrote, I began to see how many things I didn’t know. I didn’t understand the characters; I didn’t know much about the world they lived in; I couldn’t even really see how the plot should work. The entire thing was completely full of holes.

So I gave up.

This is what happens when an idea is way, way too big for you. You give up, because you don’t know how to handle it, and it’s likely that you feel like a loser, and you probably judge yourself for being a terrible writer when in fact you’re just a beginner. There’s a difference.

Allow yourself to fail

I’m sending this newsletter out on Oct. 29, a few days before National Novel Writing Month begins. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo myself (my life is NaNoWriMo!), but I’m always inspired and amazed by the writers who do it. Many of them are beginning writers with big ideas. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you’re reading this and wondering, how do I know if the idea I want to write is too big for me?

Here’s an answer you may not like: Whether an idea is “too big” is related to the writer’s skill, so it’s a different situation for every writer. I’ve written ten novels over the course of my life (not all of them are published), and I still get ideas that are too big for me. I learned how to judge whether I could execute an idea through trying and failing.

Each individual writer has different strengths and weaknesses. Determining whether you are able to execute an idea—whether you can turn that inspiration into a story that works—is about having a good grasp on your own strengths and weaknesses. The only way you can figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are is to stretch yourself, to push yourself past what you think you can do, and allow yourself to fail and learn from your failures.

NaNoWriMo is a great time to tackle your big idea, because it gives you a ready-made community of writers who are all going through this struggle at the same time. Writing is often a solitary experience, and while that’s inescapable, it’s so valuable to have a community around you cheering you on.

Figure it out

I have to admit: I felt as if I was a beginning writer all the way through my fourth published novel. All of those ideas, in some ways, were too big for me to handle at the time. But I was and still am an ambitious writer, and I wanted to tell those stories, so I figured out how to do it.

Through those experiences, I learned about my strengths and weaknesses. I learned that dialogue doesn’t come naturally to me. I learned that I love describing places. I learned that I’m very good at research. I learned that for me, building a romance can feel harder than plotting a mystery. 

I learned that I could learn how to do all these things.

After my fourth published novel, the idea that I first had way back before Ash was published (the historical novel I didn’t know how to research) came back to me. Good ideas do that: they return over and over, saying “Hi don’t forget about me.” I have never forgotten about that idea. Over the years I’ve checked in with it regularly, asking myself if I’m ready to write it yet.

At some point relatively recently, I realized that yes, I’m ready. I could write it now. It has taken much more solid shape in my imagination. I can see where it will be hard, and I know that I have the tools to solve the problems that will crop up along the way. All I have to do now is figure out when to write it. I don’t have an answer to that yet.

Don’t give up

Every writer is different, and maybe some writers are geniuses who can perfectly execute every idea they’ve ever had. But I think those writers are probably kidding themselves.

I think most writers start off with big ambitions and bold ideas, but little practical knowledge of how to turn them into stories. Some writers learn how by taking writing workshops or going through MFA programs, but that’s not how I learned it. I learned by doing—by writing book after book, and evaluating my mistakes in each one, and educating myself on how to not make those same mistakes next time.

You can do it, too.

In honor of NaNoWriMo, here are some essays on writing you might find useful:

Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Find out more at her website or follow her on twitter or instagram.