Friday, June 27, 2014

The Idea Factory

A short while ago I got an inquiry from a student who asked the classic question that all writers get from time to time.  "Where," she asked, "do your stories come from?"  Note that she didn't ask about ideas, concepts, or characters. She specifically asked about stories.

Most people ask where my ideas for the stories come from, seeking the wellspring from which all literature flows.  If they have a scientific turn of mind they might ask the question in technological terms, seeking the source, the article, the paper, the magazine, or the discussion that provided the spark for the central McGuffin of the piece.  The more literary might ask what well-known (to them in most cases) writer's works inspired the style in which I wrote this or that.

My answer to all is the same.  Ideas are all around you, in the very air you breathe, the water you drink, and the affection that others lay upon you.  You can no more ignore ideas, once you open your mind to them, than you can stop breathing.  We humans swim in an ocean of cognizance where daily we are bombarded with questions, assertions, conflicts, and contradictions that stimulate our minds.  Each of these influences can generate a story, a tale, or a logical extension that resolves the issue. Only the dead can ignore the flood of ideas surrounding them.

This is an easy answer one can shrug off easily, but the answer to the student's deeper question stopped me.  Where do my stories come from?

 I admit that I sometimes model characters on people I've met. I use memories of places I've been and situations I've encountered or only read about. I also liberally steal snippets and bits from other writers, drawing on the vast library of expositional material generated by our genre. Sometimes I even borrow plots after carefully repurposing characters, settings, and times* But all those are simply component parts and the pieces from which I assemble the whole. Simply snapping these elements together like Lego blocks does not a story make.

A story is more than the simple aggregation of words and ideas, more than a logical arrangement of more or less connected scenes, more than the words themselves, and manages to transcend its mechanics.  The writer must also imbue the tale with heart and soul to become a living thing.

My answer to her is that my stories come,, just as a river is fed by a thousand streams, from the experiences of a lifetime and all that I have learned.

*Some of the Sam Boone series used Wodehouse's plots 


Friday, June 20, 2014

The Act of Writing

A new day dawns and I sit at the computer, staring at a blank screen, ready to produce a stream of words, and I ask myself: Why?

"WHY?" is the question that faces me every morning.  Why am I consuming hours of a beautiful spring day pounding out words when there are so many other wonderful things in this world? What impulse is driving me to write instead of doing practically anything else? Is it some uncontrollable mental affliction, an obsession, or manic craving? Am I insane to be doing this?

That I can write, have written, have even sold a few stories over the years is not in question. I can produce prose (I leave it to the reader to judge the literary worth of such) that sells, so it isn't the lack of ability, skill, or grasp of the mechanics that makes me question what I am doing.

I am, have been, writing a novel for no other reason than to see if I could do so.  I have no pretensions that the current piece will ever be published or even read, save by some slush reader.  But that dire view does not deter me from daily adding to the preponderance of words as I drag the characters toward an as-yet unrealized epiphany.  I know I am not writing great art nor even a skillful retelling of a classic story: It's just a long adventure set in a world of my imagination.

So I ask myself why I continue producing a thousand words, day after day? Why not crank out a few salable short stories instead?  What is it about the ACT of writing that keeps me pounding on the keyboard to produce wordy footprints of my passage?  Is seeing the words magically appear before me or is seeing the scenes in my head become words on the page that is so enjoyable?  Is it the simple joy that comes from creativity?  Perhaps therein lies the answer I seek;  the realization that it is the process of writing and not the end result that is important.

Perhaps the act of writing is its own reward.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Plotland Progress (of a sort)

Last week I reached a new Plotland plateau of frustration as the burgeoning novel approached the 70K mark.  I've only completed the first third of the original (very bare) outline and, if I continue at this rate, the result will be rather too long - about 0.5 Sandersons.  This means I must either (a) abandon the outline (b) eliminate one or two subplots (c)write faster or (d) cut, cut, cut, cut.

In a moment of crystalline clarity I put on my editor's cap and chose the latter, cutting nearly eighteen thousand precious, hard wrung words from the latter part of the novel and placing them aside for possible later use.  Nevertheless it was a painful move.  I now understand why it sometimes takes years to complete something in the long form, as this is starting to threaten.

The first nine chapters (about 50k) are in second draft.  The first two have been peer reviewed as acceptable which heartens me, but makes any further changes to the elements introduced there very chancy.

 Chapters Four through Nine continue to be influenced by the new material I'm creating with my back and forth create and edit process.  Still, I am happy with the prose for the most part, somewhat doubtful of the facts, and dead set against introducing yet another character or plot element.  Of course I still have to deal with the rebellious characters who refuse to take my orders and go haring off the script.  Nevertheless, I know my will is the stronger and I will soon have these miscreants yoked to the plot.

Then there's the other novel, somewhat incomplete and waiting for the Big Fucking Idea (BFI) that will let me tie together the threads.  It is the lack of the BFI that confounds me. Each time I attempt to develop a solution the effort drives me back to Plotland and its own challenges.  Back and forth, back and forth, I go, leaving me nearly no time for writing more short fiction.

I find that fighting the nearly irresistible short story idea demons that flutter about my head is difficult. Their cries are like the sireens, tempting, tempting, enticing.  No, I must resis, I cry. I'm too much committed to completing these novels than having them languish on my desktop. I feel that I must continue, slogging ever forward to the point where I will call "Finished!" to the effort and send them forth to find a home or die languishing on some slush reader's desk.


Friday, June 6, 2014


In the dim dark hours of the night, when sleep escapes, my thoughts sometimes return to the mystery of why writers, when they come out of their dark caves at conventions and actually engage in social contact, talk about so many things that are peripheral to what they actually do.  Conversations revolve around markets, editors, publishers, the latest web war, and whatever project they're working on.  They also talk about people, places, cabbages, candle wax, and kings, the latter set usually influenced heavily by strong drink in the cozy environs of the hotel bar.

But you, the writer, never seems willing to talk about your muse, that mysterious being who guides your thoughts and fingers back home, away from the crowd, where you struggle with the difficult problem of placing word upon word to form a story or make a cogent point.

Sure, you are a writer.  You've mastered the three-element plot, grammar, and  the proper use of gerunds, adjectives, and nouns.   You've probably grasped the basic rules of composition, formatting, and adhere to a smattering of professional courtesy.  You've even managed these difficult arts despite reading countless guidance about the "correct" way to approach writing.

But in the dim quiet it is just you and the tabla rosa, the blank sheet that beckons to fill its spaces with words, words, words until your fingers no longer feel the keys and your eyesight starts to fail. What is it that you've been doing until exhaustion overtakes you?  Were you in a fugue state, cooly calculating, plugging along, or thinking of the sweet oblivion of NOT writing?  What is it that drives you to write, even when there is only a very distant prospect of anyone besides some overly critical slush reader ever seeing your thoughts, your words, and your stories?

"Muse," you say, but do you really know what you mean and why, dear God, do you never really talk about her to others?