More than anything, this is a post to encourage you to pay attention to the care and feeding of the Girls and Boys in your Basement – the busy little muses who send up your ideas.
I find initial ideas to be easy. I think it’s because I consume so much information – I’m on the internet for at least two hours a day, and I spend a lot of time listening to music. I used to follow a few podcasts (writing, news, pop culture), and I used to read at least two to four books a week. The podcasts got replaced by music (my commute is usually 30 minutes each way, and that’s my main listening time), and the books got replaced by news articles, cultural pieces and YouTube clips of late night news shows. I do miss the books, but my information input is much faster, more timely and I’m able to squeeze odd bits of information-intake into little bits of time I never used before. I’d never pull out a novel while I was waiting in a long check-out line; I knew better. I knew I’d get to a good part, and then be interrupted by Real Life. But with my phone, a short article about forsythia pruning is enough to while away the minutes.
So my Girls in the Basement are fat and happy; absolutely replete with trivia and deep thoughts and societal systems. They send up five or six ideas, and I sort through them, and watch where they bump together. That’s what I mean about weird intersections of creativity – who else would care about why my forsythia bushes are only blooming at the bottom? And the closet of old Agatha Christie books I’ve got stored way in the back of my forebrain is the same stockpile any number of mystery fans have in theirs. But when those two ideas bump together, I get a gardener with a body underneath his forsythia.
Oh, and in the Arctic, the thawing of the permafrost is heaving up the dead from shallow graves (I think that was mentioned on The Daily Show). So, I see an arm coming up out of the ground. I reject the Zombie thing immediately – sorry Girls, I don’t like zombies. (“Aw, try them. You might like them,” They whisper. “No.” I reply. And I hope they’ll keep giving me ideas anyway. Apparently, they aren’t that crazy about zombies either, because they send up the next little message: he’s planting gladiolus bulbs. Mmm. Okay. I won’t reject that one out of hand.)
This part of the process just comes very naturally to me. The character rises up like magic. But everything else is hard. I used to write burbling little starts with my characters chatting happily away in a gym, exploring ideas and other little clever scenes and juxtapositions, but then I’d run out. “Gosh, this is boring,” I’d say. And the Girls would shut up.
One of the big breakthroughs for me is the idea of an inciting incident, and the conflict lock. As a writer, I could selfishly write on for ages about happy little picnics and experiments in living on a spaceship, but I was well aware that the reader wouldn’t put up with nothing but ideas. The next step is to introduce a problem, and someone to react against.
This takes more time. My gardener could be innocently planting bulbs, and have this dead body thrust upon him. There’s no one there except a dead body, a situation, and maybe his inner voices. There’s no doing with inner voices, though. Just chatting before doing. The gardener is not doing anything. He’s going to have to leave the garden and find an antagonist, or the antagonist is going to have to come into the garden and say, “Oi, oi, just what is going on here, Higgins?”
On the other hand, maybe my gardener had buried the body last fall, and is horrified to see it’s made a reappearance. Hmm. Maybe my story doesn’t start here. Does it start last fall? Was it a lover? An old lady with a lot of money and a death wish? Ooooh, the last fling with the gardener, and it end in death in his arms, and he panics and buries her? Oddly, enough, I’m feeling love story vibes from this – not a simple “old lady/gigolo out for her money” but something with a great deal of compassion and charity on the part of both characters. Now, this is something I could write about.
The third component is the problem I’m struggling with this week: plotting. And this is always where I fall down. It’s a matter of more consultations with The Girls in the Basement, and sifting through the ideas of what could happen and what would make sense to happen, and in what order. For me, this isn’t terribly fun because it doesn’t come naturally. I spend far too long discouraged in a fog, not knowing what will happen next. When the idea does come through, it’s great! But if it’s not in the right order (ie: linear), I get discouraged again. I prefer writing in linear order – I want to see this happen and that happen and the next thing logically happen from what comes before. I don’t want to write A, then D, then figure out what B and C are, and make them just as juicy and as spontaneous as A and D were.
I suppose I need a system or a trick for this. Some way to write D down, but in a way that is isn’t part of the “real” story yet. I’ve tried doing a “bits and pieces” document where I just write what’s juicy at the moment, no matter where I am in the “real story”, but I’m not sure it helps. I tend not to look back on those bits and pieces, or something new happens in the writing of B and C that makes D totally impossible – then I feel like I’ve wasted time and energy. Which is not true! I know it’s not true! But it feels true. Sigh.
In theory, though, saying “yes” to my Girls and writing what they send up makes them happy, and more likely to send up more story goodness. It’s just that my Inner Editor and my Inner Accountant become impossibly depressed, which isn’t a good thing, either.
Well, I suppose I’ll figure it out. Now, I’ve got to erase my gardener and his forsythia and his dead body off my slate. I want to work on something else (which actually is a detour from what I really want to finish, but the New Thing is probably a short story, which will provide faster gratification than the Old Things which are all at least novellas). If you’ve already got it figured out, do drop a line and let me know. Or feel free to commiserate.
Now, off to think about Fyer Cay, and rough tough Texans, and small town girls who’d like to be City Girls. Land crabs and swimming pigs and pink sands. Looks like rain here, and I’ve made up some dough for crumpets, so I think my afternoon is set. Writing with tea and snacks. (-: As long as I don’t look out the window at that poor forsythia that’s only blooming at the bottom.