You know what’s handy when you pre-write a bunch of blog posts and set them to post while you’re away? Actually remembering to set them to post. Seems I forgot to hit the all-important Publish button in my rush to get ready for the Adelaide trip last week, which means we’re starting the dancing monkey series a little later than expected. If there’s a topic you’d like to throw into the mix, you can still do so by pitching it here.
A Few More Ideas About Ideas
A few years ago I wrote a blog post that looked at the often-maligned question of where do your ideas come from. I wrote it ’cause I didn’t like the way most writers behaved when they were asked that question, and ’cause I kind of like understanding my process. Plus, as a guy whose occasionally asked to teach people how to write, it’s a useful thing to be able to talk about process without pulling all that form a little shop in Schenectady bullshit on students who are paying good money to learn things.
I haven’t changed my approach much since I wrote that original post, but since then I’ve had a lot more opportunities to talk about process with some friends at the beginning of their writing careers. This is a slightly different experience to teaching classes, and I’ve found it changed the kind of advice I offered about ideas. So when Nathan Russel suggested where/how to find ideas to write about? as a dancing monkey topic, I figured it was as good an opportunity to build on my original post.
Here’s what you need to know about ideas: they don’t actually mean shit in the writing process.
Don’t get me a wrong, there are moments when story ideas do descend upon you like a bolt of lightning, forcing you to hit the keyboard and belt out a story. This is generally a shiny, happy moment and it’s generally good for all of about an hour of work before you hit the first major plot point of your story and have to actually think about shit.
The thing is, ideas aren’t actually hard to come up with all the time. People have them all the time. They just get used to ignoring them, or they don’t see the ways an idea can be developed into a story, so the idea goes by the wayside. I generally assume that the question being asked, when people ask where ideas come from, is either how do I develop an idea or how do I come up with the perfect story idea?
The latter question is easy to answer: you don’t. You just come up with ordinary, grubby, half-formed, everyday ideas and work like a sonofabitch to turn them into a story. Occasionally you get lucky and hit on an idea that speaks directly to the cultural zeitgeist and your story explodes with 50 Shades of Harry Potter in the Twilight Code-like popularity, but most of the time you’re just writing stories. Stop searching for the perfect idea and start writing. Learn how stories work so that when you’re zietgiest-busting idea does come along you’ve got the chops to make it work.
Developing a story is a trickier process, since it’s not easy to sum up in a sound-bite type answer. I mentioned it in my original triangle because it’s important, but over the years I’m coming to think of the triangle metaphor I originally used as something that’s less equilateral and more scalene-like, with knowledge of how a story works as the largest side. After all, once you’ve got that down, you can actually turn some fairly middling ideas into pretty cool stories.
One of my favourite pieces of writing advice ever comes from Samuel Delany, who breaks writing talent down into two parts: the first comes from absorbing a series of complex models regarding the construction of sentences, characters, plots, narrative. These become internalised rather than learnt, a part of the writer. The second part of writing talent comes from the ability to submit to these models, adjusting it to the idea at hand, until finally you’re forced to change it slightly.
The sad truth is there’s very little that’s creative in creativity. The vast majority is submission – submission to the laws of grammar, to the possibilities of rhetoric, to the grammar of narrative, to narrative’s various and possible structurings. (About Writing, p. 121)
This isn’t exactly a popular thing to explain to the crowd who really wants to believe there’s something magical about ideas. They get seriously fucking cranky when you try to point out that writing isn’t a magical playground where muses fire shit into your brainpan and allow you to make millions off the back of inspiration alone, and thus they ignore you and go on believing in the primacy of the idea as the most important thing in writing instead of the least.
Truth is, much of writing is about interrogating an idea, figuring out what model it’s going to fit into. If I start with an idea such as drag races are run with genetically engineered dragons*, it’s not actually a story. In fact, the story it naturally suggests is kind of uninteresting, since the only conflict comes from whether a protagonist will win or lose the race.
And so we go to town, looking for structures I can fit that idea into. Narrative structure suggest there should be internal and external conflict within the primary character, so as I fit characters into the idea, I look for archetype that can be adapted and altered. I pick a name – Jimmy Locke – and I give him James Dean’s look from Rebel Without a Cause, but I look for places I can twist it and ask questions. He’s a smart kid who desperately wants to belong in the street racing culture he’s found. Why? ‘Cause it’s an escape from things he doesn’t want to deal with at home.
What’s he escaping? I start a scene at his home, after a race, start throwing details at the story and let the structure of a scene guide me. My subconscious is more than willing to spit up details once I give it frameworks – Jimmy’s got a sick parent, a home-life he has no control over, and so racing becomes his escape because it offers the illusion of control. I come up with people who oppose him – parents, other racers, friends – and give them internal conflicts as well, looking for ways they can be brought into physical conflict with Jimmy and reflect his own internal conflict back at him…
It’s all patterns, structures, and as Delany suggests, many writers don’t even think about them. They just learn, internalise, and let the structure guide them through the process.
Or they learn, plan, and fit details in where they look useful.
Or they scribble, and keep scribbling, and apply the pattern once they’ve assembled a rough draft. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, the structure comes into things somewhere along the line. And you learn the structures the same way everyone else does – reading, engaging with narrative, talking to other writers, pulling other people’s stories apart.
Once you’ve got the structure down, ideas ‘cease being difficult. They’re just things that you sort through and discard as necessary, trusting in the process to deliver what you’re really looking for. You can get down to the business of actually writing, and shaking your head at the occasional asshole who says “I’ve got this great idea for a novel – you write it and we’ll split half the money.” Just make sure, when they try your for murder, it truly is a jury of your peers – no other writer is going to blame you for stabbing the guy.
*Where did this idea come from? Confluence and Other People’s Stories. I was watching Fast and the Furious, remembered reading about Vin Diesel being a D&D fan, and found myself thinking what this film really needs is dragons. And lo, there was an idea, and I started writing it.