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Steinbeck was wrong


John Steinbeck

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Steinbeck said that, but I think he’s wrong. You’ll have way more than a dozen.

Sometimes people ask me where I get ideas for my novels. I’m not always sure where they’re going with the question. Are they looking for a recipe for getting ideas of their own? Or just curious about my “muse"?

Happily, there’s no real magic to it.

I think a lot of people who have never written a novel, or who have tried but haven’t succeeded to their satisfaction, have this misapprehension about the process of coming up with ideas. Like we writers sit around in our offices, or take long thoughtful walks, or sit in Starbucks swilling chai lattes, waiting for lightning to strike. Like ideas for great stories are some sort of gift that you have to wait and hope and pray for, that they come from some mysterious external source.

The source of these ideas is often external. I’ll grant you that. But it’s nothing mysterious. It just a matter of paying attention to what’s going on around you. It’s a matter of learning to see the world through a storyteller’s eyes. It’s a matter of looking at people and events, and asking yourself if there’s a great premise lurking somewhere in there.

I didn’t always get that. I used to believe there was a recipe for it. That writers sat down and worked through some sort of secret process that generated story ideas.

I thought that until the first time I tried to create a story idea that way. It was going to be a spy story, because I have a soft spot Tom Clancy style espionage thrillers. I worked at it for a couple of weeks, until I realized that I absolutely hated the storyline I’d come up with.

The first successful novel writing experience I had was in 2005, during NaNoWriMo. I decided very late in October to try it. With no time to work out anything new, and out of desperation, I wrote a fantasy novel based on a piece of backstory I’d created for a role playing game some years prior. Roll your eyes if you will, but hey, at least it was something I already knew, and had a certain geeky enthusiasm for.

One year, an idea came to me while I was at the bookstore. I saw a book sitting out on one of the half-off tables. It was a history of the Pony Express. It just sort of jumped off the table into my hands. By then I had a storyteller’s eye, and it said to me “Dude, that’s a great setting!” I wondered to myself why I couldn’t think of a single book or movie that takes place there. I walked out of the store with that book, instead of the one I’d come for. I read it, it was absolutely fascinating, and when I was done I had in my head a young adult coming-of-age story set there in the wilds of what is now Wyoming.

One year, a story came to me in a dream. No, I’m not kidding. Well, it was more of a nightmare. I woke from the dream with just fragments of it in my mind, but vivid ones. Rather than just shaking it off and trying to go back to sleep, my storyteller’s eye said “Wow, cool sci-fi premise.”

My current work in progress came from a blog post I wrote a while back about backstory. In the part where I was talking about characters with interesting quirks, I wrote something about maybe having a character who collects Soviet-era comic books. I had no intention of that turning into anything, it was simply the quirkiest thing I could think of on the spur of the moment. But my storyteller’s eye said “Hey, remember that spy story you tried to write? The one that sucked so much? Well, what if spies hid secret messages inside the comic books?”

There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers. Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up. — Stephen King, On Writing

Together, Steinbeck and King have it about right. That first idea may be tricky for you. It might have to come in a flash of inspiration, or desperation. But once you’ve developed that storyteller’s eye, you’ll see them coming at you all the time. One time, you may get a premise. Another time, a setting or a detail about a character. Whatever it is, it hints at the rest. That’s where stories come from.

Ideas are everywhere. See them. Grab hold of the good ones. Don’t let them go.

November 25, 2009 22:01 UTC

Tags: writing, ideas, premise, setting, stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck

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Getting the bones right

I’m going to take another little departure from character development tips today to address a question I hope every writer is asking themselves: When is the right time to involve an editor in the creation of your novel?

This question actually came up at the PNWA conference a couple of weeks ago, during the Q&A session I was in with one of the conference’s other book doctors. An audience member asked if she should wait to find a good editor until her manuscript was finished, or until she had done her own edit pass on it first, or what.

My answer to her was “As soon as possible. Now would be good. Let me give you my card.” Because seriously, the earlier I get to see the story the more I can help.

This never happens, but ideally writers would contact me as soon as they get a solid idea for a premise. They’d e-mail me and say “I’ve got this idea for a book. It’s a paranormal mystery with comedy and romance themes, sort of I Dream of Jeannie meets X-Files. What do you think?”

Ok, so I just made that up. But we’d kick the idea around and I’d help them build their initial premise into something stronger, something with what literary agent Donald Maass calls “gut appeal". I’d help shape that premise into something that has the potential to be a really interesting book, by eliminating elements that might distract from the core concept, ensuring that the premise has appropriate levels of conflict and stakes built right into it, and helping the author find the right focus for the story.

That never happens, but it sure would be nice. I think forlornly about all the books I’ve seen that were trying to be too many things, to fit into too many genres. Books which had a surplus of subplots but didn’t pick any of them to be the main plot. I think about all the time those writers spent banging their heads against problems they could sense, but didn’t know how to fix because the problems were deeply structural in nature. They’d have been easy to fix at the premise stage, but they often imply a major re-write to fix once the first draft is done.

This next thing never happens either: After I helped a writer get their premise squared away, they would go off and build it out into a whole plot, which they would describe in a nice, detailed outline. Ideally, they’d break the whole thing down into chapters and scene-by-scene sequences within each chapter. They’d send me that and then I’d make sure the plot actually works.

This is the time for eliminating sub-plots that don’t add enough to the main story, collapsing redundant minor characters into single, less-minor characters (if not cutting them entirely), finding the story’s themes, ensuring that they’re touched upon at appropriate times, and identifying ideas that don’t quite rise to the level of themes but could if strengthened. This is the time to look at the story’s overall pacing, to make sure it’s fast and slow at appropriate moments, to make sure the story provides drama everywhere, that the stakes are both plausible yet rising, and (for those thriller authors especially) to ensure that the sense of tension mounts with each passing scene.

Get all that done, and you’ll know the bones of the story are right. You’ll know the story’s skeleton has the appropriate number and placement of arms, legs, and heads. Only when you know you haven’t conceived of some sort of seven-armed, legless, three-headed mutant Cerberus of a story—and only then—would the writer sit down to write that first draft.

But, alas, that never happens. Writers get an idea, half-formed as all initial ideas are, and they start straight in on chapter one, scene one. To take Stephen King’s metaphor, their initial kernel of an idea is nothing more than a fragment of bone sticking up through dry, rocky ground. They rarely take the time to discover the actual fossil buried beneath. They start writing before they really understand what it is they’ve found.

Every writer has their own process, and I know I’m bound to spark some ire in writers who love the joy of jumping into that first page to discover the story through the writing process. They’ll argue that planning everything out ahead of time like that eliminates the possibility of having those spontaneous moments of inspiration, when suddenly you realize how great it would be if the main character’s paranormal love interest turned out not to be paranormal after all, but merely possessed by the spirit of the person whose murder is the crux of the story’s central mystery. Or whatever.

I understand that concern. Discovery through writing really is fun, and that’s hard to give up. All I can say is that from my own personal experience this concern is unfounded. I plan the crap out of my novels before I write them, mostly as a paranoid defense against writer’s block: I can’t get blocked if I always know what scene comes next. But I have yet to write a novel that didn’t end up deviating from my plan, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in small, when those flashes of inspiration hit me.

You can, after all, only do so much thinking ahead of time. You can anticipate and avoid the big problems—and I argue that you should. But you can’t anticipate every little nuance of the story. As you write it, you’ll see possibilities in your outline that weren’t evident before. But guess what? Because you already understand your story on a deep, structural level, you’ll know immediately whether that brainstorm is a helpful idea or a dud. You’ll be able to see, right away, how that idea fits in with the structure you’ve outlined. You’ll know where to add that great plot twist, what character’s mouth to send that critical clue out of, or whatever it might happen to be.

Yeah, the jump-in-and-write strategy works for some writers. To paraphrase one of my personal heroes Elizabeth Lyon, it even “occasionally results in a manuscript that is worth improving.” But for most of us, jump-in-and-write is nothing but a recipe for spending a lot of time on a story that’s going to end up with fatal flaws. Yes, it’s good practice for our surface-writing craft, but why not spend some time beforehand working on deep structure first? Before you jump in, figure out how deep the pool is.

It’s easy to fix writing that’s rough on the surface but solid underneath. I can totally help with that. But if you send me a story with deep structural flaws—those seven armed, three headed beasts—no amount of surface editing in the world is going to fix them. I’ll still happily find and show you those structural flaws, so jump in and write if you want to. By all means take advantage of inspiration. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. But jump in with the understanding that ninety-five times out of a hundred, you’re setting yourself up for a mountain of re-writing later just to get the bones right. Mere editing won’t do it.

If you’re cool with that, I won’t stop you. Otherwise, do yourself a big favor and get some skilled eyes onto your premise and outline before you write that first draft.

August 13, 2009 20:09 UTC

Tags: bones, story structure, deep structure, PNWA, premise, Donald Maass, outline, themes, pacing, drama, rising stakes, rising tension, Stephen King, fossil, inspiration, Elizabeth Lyon, writer's block

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