On the Choosing of Ideas

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about the nature of ideas and where to find them.  Let’s assume you’re at the point where you have plenty of ideas, and need to know where to focus your time and effort.

How do you know which ideas to nurture?  Well, that is a slightly trickier proposition.  The trunks, desk drawers, and hard drives of writers are full of half-baked and discarded ideas.  And that’s okay.  That’s normal.  It’s all part of the process, another brick in the road.

Honestly, there’s no magic formula.  A story that seems brilliant as you start it can shrivel and die on the vine, or hit a point where you realize the effort to fix it won’t be worth what you get out of it.  For me, I’ve found that practice helps me determine the mileage I might be able to get out of an idea:  how intrigued am I by this?  Can I shape it into something interesting?  Is it missing a vital component, like conflict?

I generally don’t start a story until I have, at minimum, a character and a conflict or goal.  If an idea doesn’t have that yet, I either poke it with a stick till it does, or toss it into the back of my mind and let it simmer.  But that’s just my process;  other writers might start with an image, or a scene.

When I begin a story, I don’t always know where it’s going to go. I start as a pantser, and usually find the plot as I chew on the idea and let the beginning play out.  Sometimes I find the way as I write it out.  And sometimes I hit a thorny patch with no discernible way to get from Point A to Point B.  Sometimes I look at that thorny patch and decide I can find the path underneath it with a bit of elbow grease and persistence.  Other times I shrug and turn to another project.  I ask myself, do I love the story enough to put in that extra work to find the path?

Seriously, don’t sweat it if you find a story isn’t working and you put it aside.  It happens to all of us.  With time and practice, you can improve at taking the temperature of an idea before expending a lot of effort on it, but sometimes you just have to make a go of it and see what happens.

On the Finding of Ideas

Last week I talked about how ideas are everywhere.  Still, writers are asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Well…where does one find ideas?  Anywhere, I suppose.  The human mind is always processing and reacting to the world.  Ideas flit into and out of our minds all the time.  It’s just a matter of cultivating the mindset of paying attention to these random ideas and holding onto them, playing with them and seeing where they’ll go.  That can take time and practice, but it gets easier.  The imagination is a muscle, and improves with regular exercise.

I’m a pretty visual person, so I find that intriguing photos and art can be inspiring, especially if the image implies an unspoken story behind it.  Or I’ll mishear something, song lyrics or a snippet of conversation, and the mishearing twists the words into something strange and thought-provoking.  Sometimes I will transcribe my dreams, which (with a little bit of elbow grease) can be turned into the start of a story.

Of course, your imagination might work differently than mine, and latch onto ideas from other places.  Maybe music inspires you, or abstract art, or a brisk walk in the park.

Whatever your source, I find writing these seeds down helps a whole lot, especially if it is an idea I may not get to working on right away.  I have a few different places I keep these:  one is a small sunflower tin full of scraps of paper, each one containing a couple of words or a phrase, nothing longer than a sentence or two that could imply…something.  Anything larger than that, a scene or a character or a setting, goes into a Scrivener file I have. (This is also where I keep lists of interesting names for people, places, and imaginary bands.)

In addition, I have a little jar full of hand-written writing prompts given as a gift from a friend, and a finely-carved wooden box full of story prompts from another friend.  These I turn to when I’m stuck and need a little push, or just want to try a writing exercise to get the wheels turning.

Some of these ideas I snap up and play with right away, and some I hold onto and put aside, throwing them into the giant stew pot that is my mind and letting them simmer.  And sometimes, when I least expect it, two or more ingredients in that stew pot react and create something greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s really all there is to it.  The world is full of idea potential.  It’s all just a matter of cultivating your imagination, learning to listen and hold onto and to play with the ideas that are just waiting for you to discover them.

On the Value of Ideas

One truism of being a writer is that, somewhere along the way, someone is going to ask you where you get your ideas.  It is also not uncommon, if one is a famous enough writer, for people to approach you claiming to have a brilliant instant-best-seller idea, and they will share that idea with you and you can write it and you will both split the profits of this sure-to-be-blockbuster 50/50.

Here is the truth about ideas: they are literally everywhere, and they are worth exactly nothing.

Most of us have heard variations on the Edison quote “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  This is true of writing, as well:  the idea isn’t the story.  The idea is a seed, and you have to roll up your sleeves, nurture and water it, prune it and pull up the weeds that threaten to choke it off.  The fruits (or flowers or vegetables) of your labor are the source of its value, in the end.

Authors give away ideas all the time.  We share prompts, we read and react and respond to others’ works.  A hundred authors with a single idea between them will come up with a hundred completely different stories.  The story is not the idea, but how we nurture and grow that idea.

(For an example, once gave five authors the same surreal image and asked them to write a story inspired by it. You can read the fascinating and varied results here.)

There is no best-seller idea because people don’t buy ideas, they buy the finished product.

For example, here are a bunch of ideas and prompts I have sitting around in my idea stash:

  • “He ate an embarrassing amount of oranges.”
  • “Monday is a day of lies.  Friday is Opposite Day.”
  • “That’s my favorite pony!”
  • “Our coffee table was gnawed by wolves.”

Have at them.  I bequeath them to you.  Roll up your sleeves, play with them, see where they will take you.

Thoughts on “A Wrinkle in Time”

I just got out of seeing A Wrinkle in Time, the latest Hollywood delve into classics from my childhood.  I’ve honestly been pretty hype for this movie since I saw the first trailer.  The book meant so much to me growing up, and the movie was a genuine labor of love by the director, Ava DuVernay.  I’m glad it’s out and that the movie theater was packed with families full of kids.  It’s a story that I hope means as much to a new generation of readers as it did to me.

I read this book several times growing up, and its sequel, A Wind in the Door, was one of my go-to annual rereads.  The four books that make up Madelaine L’Engle’s Time Quartet are magical, cerebral, philosophical science-fantasy adventures.  The main character of the first two books, Meg, is a shy, awkward nerd girl whose love is capable of reaching across universes and filling emptiness with light.  Given that I was an awkward nerd girl growing up, and given my taste for happy endings, well…you can guess the appeal.

It is fitting that the movie is a labor of love, since love is a prevailing theme for not just the original book but the whole Quartet.  The antagonists in these books are an abstracted darkness, a virulent emptiness that brings out the worst in people and spreads throughout the universe.  But the answer is always love:  our willingness to connect with others, to open ourselves up to embrace each other and ourselves, despite our flaws and limitations as human beings.

In the universe of the Time Quartet, stars sing for the joy of existing.  That is an image I still carry with me.

And I think the movie does an admirable job capturing that aspect of the books.  There is a joy in this story that is unmistakable, that shines through as light.  And joy is just one exuberant form of love.


The World is Made in Wildflowers

The Thing about Fantasy is, you’re just making stuff up.  Sort of.  But not really.

I’ve touched before on needing emotional connection points in fiction:  a way for readers to empathize with your characters.  But it’s more than that.  You have to know a bit of how the real world works if you’re going to break the rules well, if you want to build up a world that is internally consistent.  Fantasy is a flower that blooms out of the same soil as any other story.  It needs nutrients, it needs good clean earth.  It needs to be real, and in order for that to happen, you have to feed it real things.

So maybe that garden by the enchanted palace is based on that time the author went to the gardens at the palace of Versailles.  Maybe the conversation that two grizzled wizards (grizzards?) have on their sun-drenched porch is a conversation the author heard their grandparents share on their own sun-drenched porch: the sort of well-worn back-and-forth that’s been had many times over the course of decades.  Maybe the way the prince tilts his head and presses one finger against his cheek when he’s thinking is the same habit shared by the author’s boyfriend.  Maybe the birds that sing in Elfland are the same that sing outside my window.

It helps to draw from your own experience, if you can.  We can’t all up and learn how to forge armor or ride a horse or pilot a rocket ship, but if you want to describe a field, think of the fields you yourself have seen, and go from there.  Build your descriptions from that, instead of relying on other authors’ descriptions of fields.  Copies of copies degrade over time.  But there is plenty in your life you can draw from, if you learn to pay attention to your experiences.

What flowers did you find there?  How did it smell in the heat of summer?  What sounds buzzed through the air?  How did the ground feel after a long rain?  What was it like when the frost covered the tips of winter-dry grasses?  Did their stalks crackle sharply beneath your boots?

Behold, the field in which I grow my worlds.

Building a fictional world can start with broad strokes: a city made of gold, aliens made of light, people riding telepathic dragons.  But as you zoom in, the world will be made real in the creak of leather and the warm smell of a bakery and a shock of green grass in the middle of a gray city.  Call it verisimilitude, if you like.  Build your city to music, build your world from magic, but also remember to build it in wildflowers.

Finding Wonder

Not far from my workplace is a towering Gothic edifice called the Cathedral of Learning.  I may have mentioned it before, on this blog; it’s a rather prominent feature of Pittsburgh’s university corridor, sticking up like the mast of a ship on the University of Pittsburgh campus.  On nice days, I love lounging on its wide, sun-drenched lawns.  But it’s also a great place to go inside, because I am not kidding when I say the whole place is built to look like a Gothic cathedral, stretched upward to 38 stories.  It looks like a building where Batman might brood on the roof.  (Point of fact: scenes from the Nolan trilogy of Batman films were actually shot in Pittsburgh in and around my workplace, only a couple of blocks from the Cathedral of Learning.  But that is a story for another day….)

The Cathedral of Learning is a building of echoing stone corridors, fluted pillars, and fancy wrought iron.  If you like arches and alcoves and heavy wooden furniture that looks like it was lifted from Oxford, have I got a place for you!  The whole building is very Old World, which is rather outside my everyday life here in America, so going in is always an experience.  It’s like stepping through a portal.  It’s a moment of wonder.

Wonder is, IMHO, an important part of a complete and balanced life.  I may have talked about this before on this blog but it bears repeating.  It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut, sometimes you just need to go someplace different.  Someplace that engages you on a new level or from a different angle.  It’s a trick writers use to stimulate fresh ideas.  Not sure where that story is going?  Get up and move.  Go somewhere else.  Go somewhere different.

I’m a visual person, so visual change always helps.  I’m a big fan of offbeat museums and unusual buildings and winding parks.  These are places of wonder for me.  They are places to get lost in, they shake me loose from where I am.

Do you have a place of wonder?  Do you have somewhere you go, just to get lost in?  Or is it a moment you treasure, a moment where you felt caught up in something greater than yourself?

The world is full of potential wonderful-ness.  Sometimes you will stumble upon it like a sudden view or an instant connection with a stranger or a hidden park.  And sometimes, you just need to go out and seek it.

Building Character

What makes a good character?  What makes one leap off the page and lodge itself into a reader’s brain?  You’d think that after so many thousands of years of humans creating characters, we’d have a handle on the magic formula.  We could say, “Oh, to make a compelling character, you need X + Y + Z.”  And it’s true that some authors seem to have a knack, a secret for creating characters that stick with us.  There must be a formula, right??

But as with most tips and tricks of the storytelling trade, it isn’t so much a formula as it is some loose guidelines or starting points which don’t make any guarantees.  Writing is an art as much as it is a craft, and you can follow the steps but that won’t be sufficient to make a story sing.

There are some starting points that we like to try.  Some say a character needs to be relatable, that a reader should be able to connect with them.  (Maybe they’re in love.  Maybe they’re in mourning.)  Some suggest giving a character realistic flaws and struggles.  (Maybe they can’t work up the nerve to ask that special someone on a date.)  Others just toss a bunch of quirks onto a name and hairstyle and call it a day. (They’re obsessed with the Beatles, dye their hair fire engine red, and wear bright yellow socks all the time!)  But I don’t recommend the “a bunch of quirks” method, because unless those quirks actually stem from and reveal a more in-depth element, it’s all surface detail with no supporting structure.  It’s better as a brainstorming method than an actual character on the page.

One common trick is to plunge deep into a character’s backstory and figure out all the little details that went into shaping them as a person.  Even if those details never make it onto the page, that depth will come across unconsciously because you know those details.  They will feel deeply defined, because they are.

On the other hand, a loosely-defined background character can be just as fascinating, if their loosely defined characteristics give a reader something to latch onto.  Intriguing hooks that are not fully fleshed out or defined, can still lead a curious reader to fill in the blanks themselves.  It is the implication of depth, a sounding that implies a deep well.  (Maybe this person hasn’t spoken to their brother in years.  Why?)

A starting point I am fond of using, especially when I’m stuck, is to find at least one emotional aspect of this character that I can personally relate to, and let that be the starting point for how I understand and write them.  Even if their circumstances are wildly different than mine, usually I can find something to connect with.  So maybe they’re on the run for a crime they didn’t commit.  Well, I’ve never been in that situation, but I know they’d probably be feeling frustrated, and I can get pretty frustrated if things aren’t going well.  I know that feeling, that desire to get life back into a semblance of control.  So I can focus on that when I write them.  And usually that’s enough to clarify them in my head.  It’s enough to make them feel like a person to me.

It’s hard to find that tipping point sometimes, to get to that moment where a character suddenly feels real.  But it’s always possible.  It’s a kind of magic.  It’s a synergy that makes something greater than the sum of its parts.  Just like real people.  Just like all of us.

Tap-Dancing in a Bee Costume

One of my favorite music videos of all time is Blind Melon’s “No Rain.”  It stars a girl in thick glasses and a bee costume, joyfully tap-dancing away in a theater, only to be laughed off the stage in tears.  She drifts through a gray cityscape, performing her routine for bemused, head-scratching strangers, until at last she comes to a green field under a blue sky, so perfectly sunny and bright that it looks like a Windows wallpaper.  And there she finds a whole troupe of dancing bee people who welcome her with open arms.  It is a moment of joyful catharsis, a homecoming.  It is the moment where someone who doesn’t feel like they fit quite right finally finds their people.

I have a confession to make.  I was once a weird little girl.

Not rebellious or troubled, but definitely geeky.  As in, cover-my-walls-with-pictures-of-dragons geeky.  As in, proud-member-of-the-school’s-Library-Club geeky.  As in, Straight-A-student-with-no-fashion-sense geeky.  I had a few friends in high school, and we’d get together to play D&D and Magic: The Gathering.

Being a geek, for me, was a lot like being that tap-dancing bee girl.  It meant being enthusiastically, openly joyful about the fantastic stories and worlds that I loved, and wanting to share that joy with the world.  It also meant a lot of blank stares, conversations from well-meaning but concerned relatives, and sometimes even outright hostility from my non-geek peers.

College was a whole new ballgame.  Finding the gaming club there opened up my world immeasurably, because it was there that I discovered the joys of being part of a much larger community.  People who ‘got’ me.  People who were unabashedly enthusiastic, and even joyful, about our shared interests.  It was there that I met some of my best friends, including the man who would one day be my husband.

It’s been a long time since I was a kid, feeling awkward and strange in the world, but I know that finding my community changed my life for the better.

I still get that vibe when I go to conventions and shows.  Suddenly, the world opens up and I’m surrounded by fellow enthusiasts of wonder.  It’s a feeling of opening the iron gate and finding a whole group of people dancing joyfully in bee costumes.  It’s a feeling of coming home.  It’s like that.

They’re out there, waiting for you.  Find your people.  Be weird with them.

Finding Jack

Last week I mentioned the liminal quality of fantasies like I Kill Giants.  But that’s one of several reasons why I have a particular fondness for that graphic novel.  Another reason is that Jack the Giant-Killer is one of my favorite fairy tale heroes.  So I like seeing stories that play on that character and that story.  I’m not particularly fond of the violence (though the original Giant-Killer stories are quite unrepentantly bloody).  No, I love them because they are stories of vastly under-qualified heroes (or heroines) facing down a foe that is viscerally far more powerful and so much bigger than themselves.  The giant is always stronger.  The giant is capable of squashing them underfoot like a bug.  But the Jack character, through cleverness or guileless determination, is able to win out.

(One could argue that knights fighting dragons fall under a similar trope, but I love dragons and so stories about them getting run through aren’t typically in my wheel-house.  I’d always rather be riding a dragon than slaying one.)

Jack is an everyperson hero; he is neither king nor knight, he’s not the chosen one, and maybe he earns a magic gift or two along the way but in the end, it all comes down to him.  There’s something pretty amazing about that.  And there’s so many ways to explore this character:  Jack shows up in stories all the time, because that’s the nature of the everyperson hero.  Anyone can be Jack.  Is he a guileless fool who wins through sheer earnestness?  Is he a clever trickster who fools his enemies into getting hoist by their own petard?  Is he riding on that fine line where you’re never quite sure?

Once you understand the archetype, it’s pretty fun to try to spot Jack characters.  I mean, there’s the obvious plays on the fairy tale: Crazy Jack by Donna Jo Napoli, or Jack Horner in the Fables graphic novel series, or Jack from the musical Into the Woods (my personal favorite).  But what about Homer Simpson, or Captain Jack Harkness, or Bilbo Baggins?  Are these Jack characters?  And how can we stretch and play with our definition of “everyperson hero”?  Finding Jack in our stories soon becomes the world’s biggest game of Where’s Waldo.  Just look for the befuddled would-be hero thrown into circumstances so much bigger than they expected.  Look for the clever twinkle in their eyes, or their earnest bravery in the face of the unknown.  Look for the person armed with almost nothing except their heart and their mind, who is nonetheless able to overcome giants.

Living with the Questions

The trailer for “I Kill Giants” dropped last week.  I am instantly hype for it.  It’s based on one of my favorite graphic novels of the same name, written by Joe Kelly and drawn by J. M. Ken Niimura, which you should definitely check out if that’s in your wheelhouse.  Or even if it isn’t normally in your wheelhouse!  It’s good to try different sorts of stories once in a while.

“I Kill Giants” is a great example of a liminal fantasy:  much of the conflict/mystery is on whether or not the magical elements are actually happening.  It’s a great approach to fantasy, though it takes a deft touch to pull it off well.

Here’s a thought exercise:  was Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who was Calvin’s constant companion, actually capable of transforming, or was it all in Calvin’s imagination?  Watterson left it deliberately unclear which was “truer,” letting the story rest in that uncertain tension.

Fantasy can do that.  One could argue that this is what fantasy is:  it lives in the tension between what is real and what is not.  We know that dragons aren’t real, but for the duration of a story, we can hold that idea in our heads:  we can accept that the dragons, in this story, are real, and that is enough.  Or, at the very least, we can live with the question that the dragons MIGHT be real.

That’s one of the many things I enjoy about fantasy:  the magic can be as bombastic as a fireball to the face, or it can be subtle and numinous as a soft scent you think you detect on the breeze but aren’t really sure if it’s there or where it’s coming from.  Fantasy is incredibly flexible, a vast field of seemingly endless variety. And there are some great stories out there where the fantasy is as subtle as a smudged fingerprint on a screen, or a light seen out of the corner of your eye.