Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Look at Me and My Shiny Ideas! - The Creative Process: Part One

I don't know exactly what it is about writers that makes us all a little narcissistic. But I have yet to run into a writer who doesn't like to talk about how they write. I am no exception. I love to talk about not just what I write but how I get there. All the little tricks and motivators that keep me moving forward on a project.

I haven't yet gone through the whole creative process beginning to end. So, I figured now was as good a time as any and what better place to start than at the beginning or The Shiny Idea.

There are two main questions that beginning writers ask about ideas. 1) How/where do I get an idea from? 2) How do I turn my idea into a story?

The simple answer to the first question is: you get ideas from everything. And I mean everything. Every piece of music you listen to, every TV show or movie you watch, every book you read, every billboard you see, it all goes into your brain and gets stirred around by your creative self. Eventually something will spit itself out. Maybe it's an image or a piece of dialogue or a setting or a concept. These are all ideas and they are all formed when you absorb "stuff" from the world around you.

Some beginners fall into the trap of thinking that they must cut themselves off from outside influence in order to have "original" ideas. Here's the skinny on that concept: there are no "original" ideas. Every story has already been told a thousand times over. It's all about how it's told that makes one story unique compared to the next. Unless you want to shut yourself in a blank room with nothing to look at and nothing to listen to for the rest of your life then the world will impress "stuff" on your subconscious and you will eventually process that into an idea. Get over it and move on.

"But," you say. "Surely I should avoid anything that might be like the story I'm trying to write right now."

Wrong, cupcake. Avoiding similar material will only mean you don't understand the genre you're writing for, the strengths of the type of story you're writing, or the weaknesses and overdone elements.

"But I might absorb someone elses story and mine will just be a ripoff of theirs!"

No. Because your brain doesn't work the same way as any other persons. Period. You are unique. They are unique. Even if you latch on to something someone else has written by the time you filter that through your creative process and work it into your story it will be something different. (Not "new" or "original" because there isn't any such thing when it comes to telling stories, but certainly different.)

"All right," you say. "But how do I turn my idea into a story?"

This has a simple answer too. Ask questions. Last year I had an idea. Just a single line that popped into my head. First person POV, an opening line to what I thought might be a short story. It was this: The real drawback to being dead is the smell.

Right away I was interested. I don't know where the idea came from, why that line popped into my head but I was promptly hooked. So I started writing, trying to figure out what came next. And that meant asking questions. Who is thinking this? Why are they dead? How are they able to talk about it? The more I asked questions the more the idea grew. And grew. And grew. Until finally I had an idea for an entire novel.

"It can't be that simple. How do I know what questions to ask?" you splutter.

Ask questions about whatever you don't know about your idea. What time period is it in? Is the MC wealthy? Poor? An outcast? Is there magic? Are there gods? Is there a war going on? General conflict over a political movement? What does your MC want? What is preventing them from getting what they want? And so on.

Sometimes it takes asking questions, writing a bit, asking more questions, writing a bit before you really start to see the whole picture. With the example above I eventually wound up scrapping the line that started the idea in the first place. I replaced it with this one: They say dying's a bitch.

I then followed it with these:I can tell you right now they don't know what the hell they're talkin' about. In my experience dying is easy, even when you die messy like I did; the smell of gunpowder and hot dry dust in my nose as I tried to breathe through a chestful of blood. Painful? Fuck yeah. But easy. Like falling down.
It's the coming back that's the bitch.

Which brings me to my third point. No idea is so wonderful that it can't be better.

I liked my first idea, my first line. But once I really worked through all my questions, all the "What ifs?" implied by the initial idea, I came up with something better. (And yes, in my case "better" usually means darker, more violent and filled with swearing.) Ideas are wonderful things, but just like any other part of the creative process (rough draft, second draft, outline, whatever) they can almost always be made better.

Don't be afraid to kill off stuff that doesn't work. Even in the very beginning stages. Cut out the dead stuff and the rest will grow.


Jalisa said...

I love the last line of this. "Kill the dead stuff and the rest will grow." That's true, though terribly scary. I am so scared when I cut something, even though I've seen the truth of the positive effects. Just make the jump! That's the hard part. Good post! <3

Jaydee Morgan said...

I'm one who loves to hear other's writing processes. Thanks for sharing yours. You cut right to the chase and spell it out like it is. Good job!!

I definitely need to learn to ask more questions before I get too far into my work. It sure would save me a lot of time and scene revisions.

G.~ said...

Hi there Anna. New follower here.

What a great post! And I really, really mean that. What you have said may really help me. I'm going to get to work on that right now.

That is such a simple way to go about a story. I have a plethora of lines like that pop into me head in a single day but I never knew how to move them forward. Ask questions! What a novel frickin' idea!

I have been so stuck lately. My muse has left me. He's so sick of my shit he slammed the door when he left. But maybe now he'll come back. I can't wait to tell him.

Thank you.

A.G. Carpenter said...

Jalisa: If it were as simple as I make it sound developing ideas and editing drafts would be easy, right? But the principle is always true. Once the dead stuff is gone the rest will grow.

Jaydee: Me too. It just strikes me as a little funny how much writers love to talk about their process. I always find there are a few questions I should have asked but didn't (usually once I'm knee deep in the rough draft) but I develop all my ideas by questioning the heck out of my characters and story.

G.: Hi! Welcome! Glad you find something helpful there. Questions are the one consistent part of my process. So far they have never let me down.

Thanks for reading, folks! :)