About writing

About writing

One question writers get asked a lot is, 'Where do you get your ideas?' This tells me that the person asking the question isn't a writer, because it's more a case of where don't writers get their ideas. Newspapers, snatches of overhead conversation, films, tv, books, magazines, documentaries, photos, paintings, sculpture, a significant life event ... inspiration is everywhere to be found if you have the kind of brain that can't resist turning every little thing into a story. If you don't, it's not an idictment. And it's not a dumb question, either: folk who don't dramatise every last damned detail of their day are genuinely intrigued by the process and are curious as to how it works.

But if you do have that kind of a squirrely brain ... after you've had that great idea, what then? How does a great idea get turned into a story?

Well, when it comes to short fiction (an artform at which I truly suck) then the process can be quite quick. Short fiction generally contains a single central image or idea. It's a challenging, demanding form of storytelling but it doesn't require the depth of planning and preparation that novel writing does.

Novels are by their nature complex and complicated. They generally contain smaller stories (subplots) that entwine with the main story (plot). In the fantasy genre they boast a large cast of characters, and usually more than one (sometimes many) point of view characters.

When it comes to writing novels, the original idea is to the finished manuscript what a seed is to a tree. The beginning, the catalyst, but not the entirety. In fact, the finished manuscript usually bears as much resemblance to the original idea as the tree does to the seed: practically none.

The biggest mistake inexperienced novelists make is in rushing to write the story as soon as they have their original idea. But without giving that idea some time to sit, and breathe, and take root in the imagination, chances are it'll die a swift death.

The urge to strike while the inspiration is fresh can be overwhelming. You're scared. You think if you don't start writing right now the idea will wither and die. It won't. Jot it down and put it somewhere safe. Then stick it on the back burner. Let it simmer and percolate and breathe. Let that original inspiration be the start of the great idea, not all of it. Or you're terrified somebody else will have the same idea. Maybe they will and maybe they won't: you can't control that. But even someone does, it still won't be the story you write. Don't fret about what you can't affect. And in the meantime, if you know enough to start doing some preliminary research, go ahead. Research all by itself can give rise to amazing plot twists.

That's not to say that the shape of the novel has to be pre-conceived down to the last plot twist before you start writing. Often that level of meticulous outlining spells death to creativity. But it does help to have some idea of who and what the story is about, and where it starts, and where you intend it to end. In the process of writing and rewriting that can change, but having a clue before you start writing usually cuts down on the number of wrong turns you take during the first draft stage. Yes, there are some novelists who don't have the first idea of what they're doing when they sit down to write; they are the exceptions, and it's not a technique I recommend to inexperienced novelists. The job's hard enough without plunging in unprepared.

The spec fic genre deals with worlds that don't exist, but might, either in the future or somewhere in an alternate dimension. To vividly bring those worlds to life the writer must spend some time world-building. Day-dreaming. Playing 'what if' games. Developing new economics, new social structures, new histories and geographies. All of this takes time, and needs to be dealt with properly. If you don't, your world won't feel real, it won't feel lived-in and you won't convince a reader that it actually exists. This is another reason why novelists shouldn't start writing the moment they have their great idea. World-building often impacts the events of the story, and can even inspire fantastic new plots twists and elements that weren't thought of when the idea first occurred. And good world-building takes time.

The same can be said of character creation. Often you'll discover the truth of your characters as you write about them, but since story events (plot) and character are so inextricably entwined you need to have some kind of idea about them before you begin, or the story will quickly go off the rails. You'll have things happen because 'they have to', not because they grow honestly from a character's nature. That kind of poor story construction loses you readers quickly. So take the time to think about your characters: who they are, what they want, how far they'll go to get it and how they feel about each other. Fresh story ideas will arise out of what you learn at this stage.

Stories, like babies, have a gestation period. If you try and force them into standing alone before they're ready, they often die. Don't let that happen to your great idea. Give it all the time and thought it needs

Finally, remember this: the absolute enemy of novel writing is getting ahead of yourself. That is, focusing on getting published instead of getting the damned book written. Publication is the end of the journey, not the beginning. Forget about publishers and agents and the speech you'll make when accepting your first Aurealis or Hugo or World Fantasy Award or whatever. Focus on the here and now of telling the story as well as you possibly can. Focus on writing and rewriting and polishing and fixing until your story is bright and shiny and the best work you're capable of. When it's that, all the other stuff takes care of itself. And if it's not that, no agent or publisher will be interested in you.