Good News about Ideas

Galaxy“Where do your ideas come from?”

I understand that this is often a question writers who do workshops get asked when they are giving said workshops, but it seems to me a question asked by somebody who can’t think of anything else to say. Either that, or by someone who doesn’t get a lot of ideas.

There is nothing wrong with asking a question because you couldn’t think of anyting else—at least you’re participating. And there’s nothing wrong with not getting a lot of ideas—God made all kinds of people and fewer-idea people are usually much better suited to making the practical elements of the world succeed than us creative types.

I guess it seems like a silly idea to me because I have a brain that generates lots of ideas from out of nowhere. Quite often I can just sit down at the page, start to noodle around and something comes out that, with some work, will be a story idea.

I don’t read the papers or watch TV for ideas. I have never used writing prompts, except in a class. I don’t brainstorm or mind-map.

There’s no formal process I use. If I were to put it in physical terms, ideas seem to form in my brain stem and then work their way up into the frontal lobes. From there, they fall out onto a piece of paper.

I saw a show about guitarists the other day in which Jimmy Page said ideas just come from “the creative spark.” That’s a pretty good way of putting it.

Of course, I have had some advantages that have made me a good, idea-generating writer.

I had a lousy childhood that’s tremendously helpful, because it’s given me this odd neurotic psychological energy that transforms old pain into new ideas. The same goes for a difficult adolescence and early adulthood.

I have an introverted personality, so I don’t talk a lot, and yet I want to say many things, so a lot of that ends up in writing ideas and actual writing. Introverts also are comfortable doing the sort of staring into space that often gives birth to new notions.

I’m well into middle age, so I’ve gotten enough perspective and help by now to realize that every idea doesn’t have to be great or even good; that helps them flow more freely.

So, I’m neurotic, too quiet for most purposes and old. Who would have guessed all those things would have given me a better idea fountain and made me a better writer? Funny how all that stuff that might have been so bad has turned to good.

I am grateful to a beneficent universe. I think I’ll go stare into it for a while.

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The Writer’s Abstract Feedback Loop

Feedback LoopWriters are legendary for trying to avoid sitting down to work, and once we’re there, keeping our butts in the seat is like being chained. When we’re done, we leap up like joyous gazelles (in my case, more of a joyous water buffalo, but you get the idea).

Murray, the news writer character on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, said something like “I like starting my writing, and I like finishing my writing, but I don’t like the writing part of my writing.” Lawrence Block gets into this, too, in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, when he talks about how writers are the only artists who seem to have a level of, if not aversion, a sort of nagging unwillingness to do their work.

Not all writers are the same, of course, and I’m sure they vary widely in the level and manner in which they experience the phenomenon. Isaac Asimov would happily write from dawn to dusk, even on vacation, while Mr. Block, at the time of writing his book, stated his preferred stint at the keyboard was about three hours.

To paraphrase Block again, a musician will work all day in a studio, say, and then go out to play for free in a jazz combo for half the night. Visual artists are always picking up the brush, chisel, mouse or whatever, in their off hours. Performing artists like actors and dancers pick up extra work or take extra classes just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

So why aren’t writers more often the same way about plying their craft? I had an idea about this the other day, and having an idea for me is so rare a thing I thought I’d share it.

The other arts I mentioned all provide the practitioner with some kind of concrete object to work with. For example, when a visual artist is working, she first conceives the idea to, say, put a stroke of red paint on the canvas. At that point, the stroke is right in front of her, a concrete object. She can look at it and think, “That’s perfect,” or “That should be longer.” Musicians can hear their notes. Performers can get feedback from directors, fellow performers and audiences.

Writers, on the other hand, are never dealing with concrete objects. Instead, we are always dealing with symbols for objects (and everything else): words.

Let’s say a writer is composing a sentence describing a sunset.

  1. He starts with the sunset in his imagination. Nothing concrete there.
  2. He writes the sentence. Nothing concrete here, just a string of symbols. It has meaning, but it’s still just symbols.
  3. To react to the sentence the writer reads the symbols and reconstructs the sunset in his imagination from there.
  4. Once the written sunset is reconstructed, the writer compares it to the original, which is even less than symbols, a tissue woven of thought.
  5. The comparison results in an adjustment to the original imaginary image, the image symbolized by the words, or both.
  6. The writer adjusts the symbols (words) on the page to reflect the adjustments.
  7. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What the writer is doing here is recreating the object for herself, over and over, as many times as necessary, to get the desired results. Several of these reflections and reconstructions may take place in the span of a second, often not even perceived by the writer as they are taking place.

All this is stressful on the writer’s poor little noggin! The feedback loop, without anything concrete to support it, is simply tough to maintain. A rare few writers appear to do it without much effort, but most of us get near the keyboard and an unconscious alarm bell goes off: “Not that again!”

Is there anything to do about it? The only thing I can think of is to self-edit as little as possible while you’re drafting, but even then, the feedback loop is going on at a subconscious level—that’s my hypothesis, at least. Aside from that, just practice good work habits and give yourself every advantage you can. The stress of the abstract feedback loop comes with the territory. It’s the price we pay for creating worlds all our own.

First-Quarter Report! What’s Working, What’s Not

First Quarter ChartHey-nonny-nonny and a ha-cha-cha! Last week I finished drafting the first of four major sections of my novel-in-progress. I am very happy, not just because I finished, but because I think the results aren’t too terribly awful (responsible persons may disagree).

It seems, then, that this is a good time to take stock.

What’s working:

Regular, yet flexible writing habits. I’m doing my best to put in an hour a day each weekday and to remain worriless should I happen to miss a day. This is allowing me to produce 1-2000 words a week.

Working in the right location. The right location is the one in which I can be undisturbed to write. Sometimes this is the local coffee shop, sometimes it’s a lightly-traveled hallway (a wide one with easy chairs) at work, sometimes it’s my basement office.

Having a plan. I made a plan this summer based on principles in Story Engineering and Outlining You Novel. The result was a streamlined story that has drama, humor and a demon that looks like a human made of asphalt. Best of all, I can follow it without the thing sliding out from underneath me.

Weekends off. I know there are many writers with more stamina or time than I have. To them, congratulations and Godspeed. I take weekends off to refresh by spending time with my family and to pursue other interests. By the time Monday rolls around, I’m ready to make with the fiction again.

Trusting my gut. If a scene doesn’t feel right, or if I’m not having fun writing it, I stop at some point and take a second look. I might do this after the scene is completely drafted or somewhere in the middle of it.

Eschewing perfectionism. Sorry, I know I mention this a lot. I guess that’s because I’m always struggling with my perfectionist tendencies and the misery they can cause. Anyway, I try to get things right, not perfect. That keeps me going.

Notes along the way. If I find a plot hole or an administrative task that needs doing, I don’t interrupt the writing to fix or do it. I make a note to do it later. That’s what I’m doing right now, in fact—cleaning up items from that first quarter of the book. This includes filling in gaps in character profiles, making setting notes to refer to later, etc., since many of those details crop up during the writing, rather than beforehand.

What’s not working:

Anxiety. If I let myself get anxious about the quality of the work, or not getting to write one day, or whether I’ll ever finish, or the possibility that I’m a fool wasting his time, or anything, I’m screwed. Writing drags. People I love suffer from my crabbiness.

Fear. Every time I start a new scene I am intimidated by the prospect. It hasn’t stopped me yet, but I have to remain vigilant against it.

Doing too much. I want to do a lot. I want to write more, be on all the social networks, go to all the local writers’ meetings, blabbity blah. Trying to fit all that it makes me crazy and I have to dial back once in a while. Oh, and there’s the fact that these other things steal writing time.

Luckily for me, the list of what’s not working is shorter than the list of what is. Let’s hope it stays that way. Now, on to the second quarter!

Writing a Stubborn Scene

Writing the Stubborn Scene

This week I had a struggle with a scene in my nascent novel, Thin Spots. It’s a pivotal point in the plot, where the hero finds out he’s not just a soul trapped in Hell by mistake; rather, he has a comatose body on Earth to which he can return. There’s a lot of information to be presented and I figured the best way to do it was in dialogue between the hero, Colin Davis, and the angel who screwed up and landed him in Hell, a character named Sakamiel.

As usual when I struggle with a portion of the book, I learned some things to share in this space.

Be prepared to retrofit. For this expositional scene to make sense, I had to go back and plug some events into a couple of preceding scenes. For instance, Sakamiel gives Colin the news that his body is in a coma back on Earth and that there’s a chance he can return to it. How would old Sak know all this? As things originally stood, he couldn’t, so I altered a previous scene to show Sakamiel’s boss relaying the coma story to him and I altered another to indicate that Sakamiel was doing research that would uncover facts about Colin’s being able to reunite with his body.

Outline for clarity. I didn’t just want to convey information in this scene. I wanted to show that the information had set Colin on a new course of action. That meant I had to arrange the dialogue so it built from the least arresting matters to the most arresting and ended with Colin’s making a decision. I tried simply writing the dialogue a couple of times, but it just rambled. To tighten things up, I made a bulleted list of the points I wanted to make and then arranged them in the most interesting sequence. It was a miniature beat sheet just for this chunk of dialogue. Once that was done, I was able to write the scene to my satisfaction.

Keep going… and retrofit again, if necessary! The day after writing draft one of this post, I started work on the scene after this troublesome one. Lo and behold, I discovered that to make the subsequent scene work the way I wanted it to, I would have to go back and rejigger the stubborn scene yet again! So, with a little carping, I backed up and did the work. Thank goodness I did—both scenes are better than they would have been otherwise.

Let go of perfection. I keep learning this lesson over and over again. Even with all the effort I’ve described, the scene still doesn’t quite ring like it ought to. I was very tempted to keep working on it until it was just right, but then I remembered the old mantra “don’t get it right, just get it written.” The scene is good enough as it is and I will be revisiting it during the rewrite anyway, so it’s time to move on. The niggling pursuit of perfection slows you down, leads to writer’s block and, most important, sucks the fun out of everything! So I’m letting this puppy go for now and happily moving on.

If you’re interested in reading this scene, keep an eye on the Friday excerpts; it’ll be coming up in several weeks.