Wednesday, February 8, 2012
"Where do you get your ideas?"
All through my youth I was seeking the ancient guru - specifically, seeking published Science Fiction writers at conventions to kneel at their feet and learn the only job I ever wanted. They weren't hard to find. If you go to an SF convention, bring a few extra bucks and start buying them drinks. Take them to dinner. They appreciate that, usually they live on a rather lower income than say, bestseller thriller writers.
They also hate that question. It's the first one fans always ask them. To my credit, I only asked one once out of idle curiosity. I think it was Gordon Dickson. He said "Don't you know there's a place you can subscribe? I get a six-pack delivered every morning with my milk."
The way to get that subscription is to jot down any idea you get for a story or novel or character, immediately. No matter how stupid it seems. Stop getting self conscious about ideas. Just write them down. Sticky notes will do. Or in my paperless live-on-my-laptop lifestyle, lots and lots of little "Ideafile" entries in my Journal folders. If I never look back at them, the good ideas come up again and again until the story is ready to write.
The act of writing them down is intent to remember. It tells your brain "This is important." It tells the part of your brain that gets ideas all the time from everything "Go ahead and make them conscious, Rob uses these. Sometimes he even writes the story."
Many of your ideas won't stand on their own. The moment you thought of that cool character and his story, it didn't pass the inner editor and he would never make a protagonist. But he might make a two-page incident in someone else's novel.
Having survived the events of the unwritten novel, he's now characterized enough to get in the cattle call for Thug No. 2 and his dialogue will be just that step more original because that story about his bludgeoning his grandma for the money and then reading Tolstoy and feeling guilty but never quite confessing that he was the one that knocked her out for her purse till the end of his book gave him character. There are things Thug No. 2 won't do. Thug No. 1 who got abused by his drunken daddy in another unwritten story turned out just like his Pa and proud of it.
From bad stories, fragments and unfinished novels, side characters and side plots grow. They mutate. They get edited every time you look at them. Sometimes they turn out to be exactly the right puzzle piece to fit the mosaic of a whole story or a good novel. Occasionally they turn out to be the first appearance of a series character.
To get lots of ideas, treat the ones you get with respect. They're seeds. They're starting points. If you plant lots, you will have a crop.
This entry even has a picture because the photo reference in a pastel challenge on my favorite art community gave me an idea for a Lovecraft Mythos story. The photo was of a pretty little white church on a steep hill out on the East Coast, with gigantic dark ancient pines soaring two or three times its height. Several of my painter friends did wonderful paintings of the little gem of a rural church.
I looked at it and saw the Church of the Starry Wisdom, painted black and set way off in the woods where, you know, rural New Englanders get way too inbred and when they marry outside the family it's to creepy creatures from the stars in Lovecraft Mythos stories. So I went ahead and sketched the church as the Church of Starry Wisdom.
I liked that story as a kid. I felt so smug. That reporter was so dumb. I wouldn't have opened that box with the alien artifact without a radiation suit and a whole National Guard unit backing me up.
Whoops, I forgot that was the one that had a telepathic effect on the opener! Eeep! Yes, the clever young reader of the story who somehow managed to grow up and get a radiation suit and an entire unit of National Guard to check out these things was just as dumb as that dumb reporter in the 1930s! He did not correctly identify which monster it was!
Laughing at myself, I realized... hey, Lovecraft is out of copyright. There's an entire subgenre of New Mythos Stories for the same good legal reason that you get all the characters from the original Dracula coming up in any movie that even says hello to monsters. No kidding. Mina Harker can show up in your novel talking about that horrible vacation her husband took in Hungary no matter what your novel's about. You can stick to Canon or you can blow riffs on it. Just be careful not to borrow anything added by the new contemporary Lovecraft Mythos writers or you could be in hot water.
Dracula can meet Sherlock Holmes in Arkham, no problem, and if you want Drac to give the old cocaine addict the Bite to change his habits, you could set off a whole new vampire series and send him hunting Things Not Of This World once he's met things that make Dracula look like a nice guy, practically human, no real problem to the public at large unless they're young women in underwired nightdresses.
Even at that, think about it. That's just how he seduces them to join his harem. Lucy was cool with the lifestyle change, it's her jilted fiance that wasn't. She did turn into a monster though, going after little kids is definitely beyond morality even for vampires. If she'd turned one, remember how Claudia went nuts in The Vampire Lestat...
That leads to something my literature professors called The Literary Conversation.
Books answer other books. They make references to classical myths, which most authors in English at least got the short and simple version of those old stories. Name any character after someone in the Bible and you have a story behind the story. You can have fun with that. Same with ancient Greek myth. Some of the names are very common. What happens when Diana meets Samson?
You start getting recombinant story when that happens. You pull just the bits that have reference to your story. Readers, and eventually if you do it well, literature professors, nod knowingly and give points to the student who noticed that Samson Eldridge blew up the church after getting a headache while Lila Peterson gave him a bad haircut. You've made reference to a Bible story. Then turned it inside out. Samson Eldridge also mentions Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote inspiring black liberation works, and that just says "Race is part of his motives" - maybe he hated everything Eldridge Cleaver stood for and it was a black church and he was a white KKK terrorist.
You've said, with that story referencing other stories, that this bad man who blew up a church thought of himself as a hero when he did it. They do not have to turn out the same as the original stories. They can represent the influence the original story had on the character and his blockheaded misinterpretation of the sources.
And it can be tragedy if the headache was the first symptom of psychomotor epilepsy, a type in which seizures can make a person uncontrollably violent. Where did I first run into that interesting tidbit about psychomotor epilepsy?
Someone strung a whole novel on it and the bad man turned out to be a tragically sick man who could no more not be a killer than I could say, walk five miles every morning with my mismatched legs. Stories don't have to be simple and the bad man can have some sympathy. They work better when he does. They work best when he's human and there's something about him that we care about, some "if things were different I would have really liked him" thing.
It's the difference between a train wreck and a terrorist plot. When the terrorist plot is itself a train wreck, that says something about life and the human condition. Sometimes things do go exactly wrong, right down the line, like that old fable about the kingdom that got conquered for the lack of a horseshoe nail.
Those are all story seeds.
Someday I'm going to write a good fantasy novel with a blacksmith heroine because my daughter actually shoes horses. She'll stand against fate and by the time I'm done writing her, will no longer be a portrait of my daughter. I've just got my daughter's expertise as a source to get all the farrier stuff right so that anyone who's ever seen a horse get shod, let alone any horse owner, grins and laughs at the real little incidents tucked in around the story. Maybe my heroine will be good enough that the old singsong fable about the horseshoe nail won't happen this time. She might have to do more than a good job nailing the shoe on though. She might have to actually get on the horse and take the messenger's place, put on some armor and get into the battle, go right up the line until she's shouting sensible advice at the king because blacksmiths do not generally appreciate stupidity.
There's an entire novel synopsis based on something out of a nursery rhyme.
You can go ahead and do it too if you know a farrier. It's still vague enough to be subject to the Parrot Story Effect. I'll demonstrate that right now.
Here's the prompt. Write this story: A parrot learns to recite a magic spell so perfectly that the spell works.
A writer friend and I tried it in Westchester, New York. I wrote fantasy-comedy where the parrot succeeded in turning himself back into the forgetful old wizard who'd turned himself into a parrot and forgotten the "turn back" spell till the climax of the story, and was trying to prompt a younger wizard to research it. My friend's story was pure Lovecraft Mythos. The parrot was the only sane survivor, because it could happen all over again if the parrot did it again somewhere else.
I've been reading Terry Pratchett for the past two months. Reading Pratchett is like an artist spending two months roaming the Louvre in the Leonardo da Vinci section studying every stroke. The more often I read him, the more impressed I am with his craft and his message. He says hello to everything. Discworld is rooted in everything you've ever read. It's the place where those things happened.
But to anyone who lives there, it's just life and most of them have as good or as hard a time as we would. They take their wonders for granted just the way I use and wear and eat and do things everyday that would boggle anyone from Discworld. I'd be going "Oh wow, you have witches and wizards! You have magic!" The entire High Energy Magic Department would be going "Oh wow, you have a laptop!" The universe would cave in if I tried to digitize the Library of Unseen University.
Books do affect other books. We are all on this centuries-long forum thread or email group, writing our own posts to answer Shakespeare and Dickens, the ones that made the really good posts that nobody can resist answering even if everyone answered them before.
Sir Terry has something woven into the structure of magic on Discworld that describes something in real life. It's the basis of how Granny Weatherwax handles major magical mishaps. She knows story. She knows how the story goes.
We grow up on those stories and most people live them. Go to work or any club meeting and count the living cliches, the stereotypes in action. How many Gypsy Witches have you met? Have you dated any? How many iterations of Mr. Scrooge are running in the GOP primary this year? I can only hope one of them has some bad dreams around Christmas and gets sorted out, completing the story. Warren Buffett looks more like Mr. Fezziwig. I know which of them I'd rather go to their Christmas party, let alone work for.
The same stories are sloshing around in the news, in your high school gym, in your workplace, in your church, in your social clubs. But we're writers.
We make up new ones. Mostly the way Igors make up new people, a kidney here, a spare hand, a brain from that nice girl, Miss Abby Normal.
When you open up the Library inside yourself, where books rub against each other and whisper in the night, you're wise to pay attention to all the stories involving wizards and sorcerors' apprentices. It's good to stop and look in the mirror - just one mirror, not two - and ask honestly what story it is you're living.
I've got it easy. I'm disabled. I am pretty sure mine is one of those Chariots of Fire sort of things. The disabled guy who gets up and does something crazy wonderful because he wants it that much even though he can't pick up his own laundry or remember where the food is half the time. I'm getting there slow and steady like the Little Engine That Could. I'm happy as long as I'm puttering forward on it, happy when I cross a finish line, setting goals for the next one. Somehow I doubt that I will run out of finish lines to cross when I'm alive.
If only because the biggest-best finish line for that story is something that by definition I can't cross when I'm alive. I won't know if my works got remembered like Dickens or Sam Clemens or Will Shakespeare because that happens after I'm dead. It's something I can aim for by writing well and doing a lot of it, but I will not be able to tell in this life. I might find out in my next life, after I reincarnate.
But I might come back as someone who finds that out and stops believing in reincarnation because it's too egotistic and silly to think I had a past life as a famous writer. Come on, I'd believe it if I was an unknown stonemason or Random Viking Third on the Left attacking a Celtic village with my cousins but come on, famous writer? That's just wishful thinking.
I would have liked to have found out that I shared a birthday with a famous writer, especially someone whose books I loved. I should have had Robert E. Howard or Edgar Allen Poe or someone like that, instead I got a bunch of actors and musicians and other famous people who weren't famous writers and one lady poet whose works tended to irritate me as a child and look better now that I'm grown. No rip-roaring novelists, turns out I'm the one planting that on my birth date.
That's fine though. Eventually humanity will have been doing novels so long that you'll get Famous Writers Born Today on any date 365 days of the year, plus the ones born on Leap Day.
The stories are all around you.
Anything can remind you of one that needs to be written. The stories that haven't been written yet are infinite. Try the parrot prompt. Maybe in yours it's not even a magic spell, it's a line of code that solves the problem for a programmer who becomes a millionaire on it or a hacker who's trying to save lives cracking the terrorist hackers' site. Maybe a detective gets the killer's password to his digital souvenir collection from the parrot because the killer said it out loud too many times. You can do anything with the Parrot Prompt.
Or any other prompt you happen to see or hear or trip on during any day while doing anything else. Just jot them down. The good ones - the ones that absolutely must be told by you and no one else could do it right - they will keep coming up like that proverbial bad penny until you can't stand it and have to craft the final version.
Enjoy your subscription. They pile up fast, sometimes more than half a dozen a day get delivered.