A few weeks ago a Mugster asked me where I come up with all the ideas for my stories. I’ve had a couple of other people (non-writers!) ask me similar things, and yet another person sent me the link to that Ted Talk I posted here about the Creative Process. In the meantime, I’ve had a couple of stories leap into my head fully formed, the bare bones of a couple more begin to flesh themselves out, and several leaps of creativity that (to me, at least) have provided exciting insight into my work.
So, I thought I’d talk a bit about how my mind works when I’m writing… and how it works when I’m not.
Writing, for me, is like opening a sluice. The words come, almost unbidden, flowing out of my mind and down my arms to splash all over the page (well, the screen, but you know what I mean). I sometimes re-write sentences two or three times between the time they spring into existence and the time they exit my fingers, but more commonly what you read in my first draft is completely stream-of-consciousness writing, free-flowing ideas hitting the page. As a result events and characters in my writing often surprise me, a feeling I thoroughly enjoy.
But that doesn’t mean I sit down without any idea of what I’m going to write. It’s the details that are fuzzy, the meat of the story that hasn’t been fleshed out yet. The bones are already there, and certain scenes are completely worked out ahead of time. For instance, in the short story “Buck and Maddie”, I’d worked out who the three characters were before I sat down. I knew the setting, the circumstances of the main character’s life, and the back story of the farmer and his wife; and I’d composed both the prologue/intro and the final two or three paragraphs in my head beforehand. In fact, I’d gone over those conversations multiple times while driving to work, showering or working out. The rest of the story I’d reviewed mentally once or twice, as well, but not in specific detail.
I do that with nearly every story I write. “Rejk is a Vampire Hunter” and “Last Flight” are notable exceptions: oddly, one is possibly the weakest thing I’ve written in the last year, and the other one of the strongest. Both of those stories came to me fully formed, and I wrote them down immediately. Everything else, whether it comes as a fully formed story or just a brief scene, gets rolled around in my head literally dozens of times. I repeat conversations and narrative to myself again and again, changing the words, working out the details, trying to solve issues of character and plot before I ever sit down.
But that still doesn’t tell you where the ideas come from, does it? Well, pretty much anywhere, really. I have a notepad near my bed and often jot down notes as I’m waking up, trying to pull ideas from my subconscious. “Last Flight” was inspired by a news radio report on the last NASA shuttle mission. Iandoli’s character was born from a role-playing game I’ve been participating in. My newest short, “What’s in a Name?” was a waking dream.
Here’s a more detailed look. One of the new Wizard and Warrior tales, “The People of the Elk”, came into being largely because I saw a great picture of the Aurora Borealis on the internet. I knew that Belan and Regnar travel north and meet Regnar’s family, and I knew what the major conflict of the story was going to be, but I hadn’t worked out any other details. Looking at that picture of the Northern Lights, I had a vision of Regnar singing a heroic poem while his cousins and other tribesmen look on. As I thought about his song and what it meant, I came to the realization that Belan could not understand the song, and so he had a translator. Then that translator became Regnar’s cousin; then a woman. More details came along: why she was translating, why Regnar was singing. Suddenly the entire first half of the story and the minor plot became obvious. But how to introduce the major conflict? Again, the inspiration came from outside. The conflict in a film gave me an idea of how I could introduce conflict in my story. Soon I had not only the major conflict worked out, but a minor one as well; and some character development, world-building, and major plot connections to some of my other stories done as well.
I’ve got that entire story worked out now – eight or nine major scenes scripted, the setting, the plot twists and turns, the final resolution – and I haven’t put a single word down on paper yet. When I do sit down to write it, though, I’ll bang out page after page with hardly a single breath drawn.
I’ve heard other writers say they write free-form as well, stream-of-consciousness stuff, and then spend revision after revision polishing it. I’d like to think I’m doing a fair bit of polishing before it ever hits the page. Is your method radically different than mine? Very similar? How do you get your inspiration, where do your ideas come from, and how do they make the transition from floating light bulb over your head to words on my page?
Let me know!