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23/31 Thought-balls

One day a couple of months ago a coworker of mine decided that she'd like to write a middle-grade novel (that is, a novel of interest to a "tween" readership--the coveted Harry Potter audience.) Ten vacation days later she had a first draft, and invited me to look it over.

I'm all "What? Ten days? What?" I'm lucky to write a chapter in ten days. I'm doing well to write anything at all in three years. Once I got over my speed-envy, I asked her about her moment of inspiration. She said she'd been reading a middle-grade novel to her kid and thought, "I should really write one of these." Then she read a bunch of other novels in the category, dissected them for their components (number and type of characters, types of conflict, number of scenes, acts or beats, etc.). Then she started constructing her own.

I just...gah! Does not compute. I work so differently. She has a box of Legos that she wants to put together. I start with a whole thought-ball, a story-sphere that have to find an opening in. I'm dependent on the damn thing falling on my head from the sky and have never figured out how to make more of them hit me.

How do you get your ideas? And how do you turn them into actual writing?

Crossposted from Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
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Oct. 26th, 2013 10:15 pm (UTC)
Interesting that you rough-draft in your head. I wonder if I do the same. I don't think so--I'm very keyboard-dependent for all my thoughts.

Do you feel like your flashes of scenes are isolated? Like, that's all there is until you embroider on it with back-story and forward plot motion? Or do you feel like the flash of a scene is more like the exposed tip of a whole story that you're just uncovering?

As far as I'm concerned, the beta process you describe is just one of a number of perfectly legitimate ways of using a beta reader. For me, the very prospect that someone is going to see what I've written tends to change it. It may turn out to be an alpha read. That seems okay to me.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 26th, 2013 10:47 pm (UTC)
I am very much a "let the characters tell you where they want to go" kind of writer.

And in the case of "Girl Trouble," it worked out splendidly!

The starting premise and the three images you mention really do form the whole skeleton of your story. From your descritpion, I think you and I probably work very similarly. I feel so much less isolated and weird now! :D
Oct. 26th, 2013 01:33 am (UTC)
So, was it any good???
Oct. 26th, 2013 10:19 pm (UTC)
As a matter of fact, it is. She's a semi-pro blogger and feature writer, so she has the tools to call herself a writer. She's smart enough to recognize that writing fiction (and this is her very first foray into fiction, which I find amazing) uses the same tools but is a totally different craft. She's approaching her fiction-writing training in a very direct, logical manner, and I'm 100% positive that her finished work, a couple of drafts from now, will be salable, and probably a success.
Oct. 26th, 2013 01:58 am (UTC)
First, Steal Two Chickens...
Lately I'm not writing much except for Yuletide and intoabar, So of course if you have a ficathon prompt you have to find some way to make that thing happen.

The as it were "independent" idea that's eating my head is a Blakes7 fic.
It's fairly common for people to write post-series fics where Blake has become President of Everything and Avon is his adviser. Given that they scarcely exchanged a civil word in the entire series, I wondered what would happen if Avon were in charge and Blake decided he had to stop being Avon's boyfriend what with being his political opponent. I also have a mild obsession with Blake/Tarrant, which is a rarepair that is by necessity AU.

For reasons that I don't really understand, almost every fictional idea I ever have is expressed almost entirely in dialogue, so I just kind of sit there and listen to the little people talking to each other and correct what they're saying.
Oct. 26th, 2013 09:50 pm (UTC)
Re: First, Steal Two Chickens...
I'm reading a novel right now in which dialogue figures almost not at all. This seems to be a trend in early 21st century "legit" fiction--narrative, narrative, narrative as far as the eye can see. Weird that it works at all, but it seems to in the right hands. (The hands in question today are those of Elizabeth Gilbert, in The Signature of All Things.)

Anyway, I like your procedure of listening in on the little people talking. It's a great way of entering a story.

I used to do much better with prompts. I like limits and boxes and definition--for me, they enhance creativity. Lately, though, I've stopped trusting what my imagination offers up in response to a prompt. I wonder what happened to it.
Oct. 26th, 2013 02:49 am (UTC)
First I get a idea. The best ones come just as I am waking up, that tiny window between dream and being conscious. Then I do an outline (I used to do entire story trees) and start writing from the beginning, filling in the blanks and try to get the words to express the visuals in my head. With the stories I dream, I did not have to outline (Duende in M7, Sock Monkey in H 5-0) I just sit down and write what I saw as best I can and they flow fast.

As to books, I have read in the genres I want to write in to try and get an idea of length of chapters and book, etc. Doing a bit of homework if you will.
Oct. 26th, 2013 10:24 pm (UTC)
Wow. I love the concept of writing from your not-quite-waking dreams. I won't swear to it, but I don't think I've ever actually woken up in the morning with a story idea. That's pretty cool.
Oct. 26th, 2013 02:53 am (UTC)
Generally, I get an image. I don't know where they come from. The last one I got involved a man who is unable to come without hearing the sound of breaking bone. Once I start asking myself questions ( why does he need this? Is he okay with it or does he want to break the conditioning? How would he find help, since mental health professionals have an affirmative duty to report planned criminal acts of their patients?) and, voila, I am 100 pages deep in a novel. I have these random, and usually violent images several times a month. Sometimes in dreams and sometimes in the middle of routine or boring activities. I've always had them. I just didn't have the courage or whatever to make something of them. The plots seem to spring into my head fully outlined.
Oct. 26th, 2013 10:32 pm (UTC)
If your images are all as powerful as that one, I can see why whole novels result! Do the answers to the questions that come up ever halt you completely? That's been a problem for me: the initial bolt-of-lightning poses logical problems that I can't answer.

Now, a quick scan of virtually 100% of all scripted genre shows on television reveals that a talent for hand-waving and Wizard-of-Oz-ing is a necessity: hope the audience doesn't notice that giant plot hole we just rolled over with our massive tires of action and emotion.

I have to hand it to you for finding courage and making stories out of "unacceptable" thoughts and ideas. I truly believe that the best stories always arise out of that kind of allowing. "Dangerous fiction," I've heard it termed.

Is the bone-breaking story fanfic or original? Will it be something you'll publish?
Oct. 26th, 2013 07:01 am (UTC)
Is this the difference between those who plot and outline in detail beforehand (albeit carried to an extreme) and those who fly by the seat of their pants? I've never tried to write a book, but I suspect that I might try to make sure in the editing process that I'd hit all the elements she identified in her analysis of other books, rather than plotting it up front. Her approach is more logical, but it seems too cold-blooded somehow. Maybe compromise by writing the outline, checking that against the key elements and perhaps doing some re-ordering and identifying gaps, but still leave the final check to the editing stage.
Oct. 26th, 2013 10:44 pm (UTC)
Her process feels "cold-blooded" to me, too, though I admire it. There's no reason why a novel written from that kind of process can't be as emotional and satisfying as one that started out from a more inspired place--after all, 90% of the work of writing a novel is rewriting a novel. And the rewriting is where the differences in idea-origination are sanded, spackled, stitched or painted away.

To answer your question, I think those who fly by the seat of their pants are probably marginally less likely to do a finished rewrite than those who work in a more structured way. But I think almost all of us started out as seat-of-the-pants, passionate storytellers, and have gradually learned how to add discipline to the process.

That's what makes this woman seem so extraordinary to me: she's never written a word of fiction before, and is starting, as it were, from a spreadsheet. It will be interesting to see how many drafts it takes her to infuse the work with that inspired feeling that most of us seem to start with.
Oct. 27th, 2013 02:25 am (UTC)
I haven't actually finished anything in a really long time, so this approach definitely doesn't work, but: I tend to start from a scene or a fic summary that is somehow compelling to me. For example, I started a Supernatural / Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles crossover that started out as "five times saying 'christo' worked, and one time it didn't" before it spiraled out of control and never got finished. There was one scene in particular involving John Connor shoving an out-of-time Sam against a fridge which sprung to mind almost fully-formed, and I did manage to render it as text even, though I had a lot of trouble with getting the characters from canon to that place. My hockey RPF / BSG fic definitely started as "Jonny is not a Cylon, and Patrick will beat the frak out of anyone who says otherwise" before it too spiraled out of control and didn't get finished. I could use some of the Lego / structural approach, is what I'm saying here. :)
Oct. 27th, 2013 02:54 am (UTC)
Each of your scenarios is so compelling though! When you say "spiraled out of control" do you mean that you couldn't find the logical glue to hold the idea together? You mention "trouble getting the characters from canon to that place," and I think I know exactly what you mean.

I read or watch, and enjoy, all kinds of stories where logical handwaving is the order of the day; where plotholes are covered with the wallpaper of action and emotion. I've lost track of the number of Teen Wolf fics, for instance, that begin with the aftermath of some vague Beacon Hills menace which had no other purpose than to render Stiles bloody or angry or whatever the initial image called for.

But when I tried that ("Ooh, a riff on the Buffy episode 'Anne' where Stiles runs away to the big city but can't escape his magical destiny!"--I mean, damn, it was a good idea, and he ran to Portland, and there was a little bit of Grimm crossover because werewolves and blutbaden...) it fell apart on logical grounds. My Spock brain just wouldn't let me start with Stiles in the Jeep on I-5. It had to know exactly what made him run, and exactly what preceded that, and exactly how it all fit in with S2.

As a result, S3 is half over (and really bad) and my wonderful story idea languishes in the vaults of forever.
Oct. 27th, 2013 03:08 am (UTC)
My problem with writing is that I'm okay at the worldbuilding and the then-this-happened, but I'm not always so great at the characters' inner / emotional lives. In the Terminator/SPN fic, Dean was wildly OOC pretty quickly, for instance. So I guess what I mean by having "problems getting the characters from canon to that place" was more about the headspace than about the physical puppeteering. The relationships are what's getting handwaved, and that's kind of not what you want in a fanfic.

And in these two specific cases, it was as much "this fic cannot possibly be done in fewer than 50-100k words" as anything else. I've got 20k words of SPN/TSCC and 8k words of hockey/BSG, but neither is more than 20% of a story. I'm about ready to take another stab at them, though, now that things have settled down with my job relocation stuff a bit.

I would read the heck out of your Teen Wolf take on "Anne." (I'm also giving "Grimm" another look, now that all my conflicting Friday night shows have been cancelled. It's on the DVR, but I'd heard this was a two-parter so I might save it for next week.)
Oct. 27th, 2013 03:11 am (UTC)
Ooh! I'm delighted to hear that you might get back to some writing.

Grimm has improved significantly over its humble, rather dumb MOTW beginnings and is really developing some momentum and excitement. I only stuck with S1 because of the Portland locations, but I'm glad I did.
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