The Idea File

I used to hear writers complain about the people who ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve been asked that, but not so much any more. Maybe it’s because the people I associate with, even if they aren’t writers, already know a version of the real answer. It’s not the snide put-off: There’s a shop in Poughkeepsie where, for ten dollars, you’ll get a list of five good story ideas, or its variations.

The real answers are different for each writer, but many of them are something like: It’s not where do I find them, it’s choosing the best one at the moment, out of all of those in my head. It’s recognizing a good idea when it comes along, because of the way it resonates, the way it won’t leave me alone, not because it’s clever.

I knew someone at college who had a card file of ideas. He had five of those green library boxes with drawers, which could each hold five hundred cards. I don’t see many of those any more either. He was so proud of them. Every time he got a story idea, he wrote it down on a card, with a key word at the top, and filed it away.

I don’t know how many idea cards he actually had, surely not as many as twenty five hundred. But he just hadn’t gotten around to actually writing a story yet. Too many ideas, not enough story.

Ideas come to me all the time. Most of them I forget about at once. Every so often, an idea just won’t go away. That one I write down so I can stop thinking about it. I have a few of those somewhere. But sometimes, an idea will grab me so hard, that I have to actually sit down and start developing the story right then, even if I’m already working on one. That happens only once every couple-three years or so. 

I am working on three books at the moment, code named The Empty House, Star Kings, and Soul Stone. When I run out of steam on one of them, I switch to another. I’m making progress on all three. 

Who needs another idea when you’re writing three novels simultaneously? I have all I can deal with at the moment.

A Sort of Success

I’m a storyteller. I am full of stories, usually novel length, that I want to write, for myself and for other people. I have published some of these the traditional way, but as I grew to know myself better, I became less marketable. My stories (novels) were too short, or too long, or with no clear genre, or too slow to start, or whatever, and checking a publisher’s guidelines suggested, too many times, that I shouldn’t even submit. Unless I twisted the story to suit what they wanted. Not what I wanted. 

I had stories that I really, really wanted to see in print, but unless I forced them to conform to editorial demands, — or, really, marketing department demands — then they would never get out there. One time it took three years for an editor to reject a novel. I was in my sixties then, and just didn’t have time for three-year rejections.

So I gave up traditional publishing — they didn’t want me anyway — and decided to learn how to publish for myself. Long slow stories, character growth and development, something between fantasy and horror and science fiction and real life.

I’ve sold a few. I’ll never be rich and famous. But I have fans, who really like my work, and who want more. So, I guess, in a strange way, I am a sort of success after all.

Every Book is Different

Every book is different. Not only the stories, the plots, the mood and tone, but even my working methods are different. Instead of sketching and drafting the whole novel, then going back to develop, simplify, tighten, expand, check continuity, consistency, and completeness, all the way through, then revision and corrections and polishes, as I usually do, this time I am hammering out each chapter of Soul Stone one at a time, every step up to a good clean draft. And I’m editing and revising and checking continuity as I write, instead of doing a clean pass all the way through. This is so different from the way I usually work, and I don’t know why I should be doing it this way.

But every book is different, in construction, form, atmosphere, demands, and even methods, as in this case. I have learned, the hard way, to work as my muse suggests, not according to somebody’s principles, even my own. This forging the story, chapter by chapter, is what’s working for me now. If I try to plan ahead (I do have an idea of what the ending is about — more or less), then I go off track, or stop cold, and can only throw those plans and pages away. And if I move ahead without finishing a chapter, when I go back to it I make changes that invalidate parts or all of the chapter following. For this book, forging this way works all the time.

One story at a time for Star Kings. One story-chapter at a time for The Empty House. Maybe I’m just evolving.

It’s been a while …

I have not been posting lately. I have been deep in my current project, working title Soul Stone, and by the time I quit for the day, I have no creative energy left.

Writing a blog post is not something I do ad hoc, off the cuff, one draft then post. I put as much effort into it, word for word, as I do into my stories: Sketch, developed rough, clean draft, revisions and edits, lots of polish. I try to devote Saturday mornings to it, but trips, health, social commitments, family obligations, demands of the current novel, and real life have been keeping me from it.

I don’t have as much creative energy as I used to, even ten years ago, and as I get older, there’s less and less. I start about 6:30 in the morning. If I’m lucky, I can do some work after lunch (which is at about 11:00). More usually, I stop just before lunch. Some days I run out of steam long before that. Some Saturdays I don’t have the energy to even put a final polish on a post I’ve already written.

My stories are so important to me that, even when I can no longer write, they churn away in my mind, in the back of my head, and I have little interest in anything else. So this is not an excuse, it is just by way of explanation. I have not forgotten. I hope to have something more interesting to say next time.

Trust Your Muse

I am learning, once again, something I have always sort of known, but which I keep on forgetting. It is that, for me at least, writing from the head, guided by intellect, doesn’t work. Intellection has its place, in development, revisions, and corrections, after at least the first draft of the story is finished. 

What does work for me, is writing from the heart, or from the gut, from something inside, guided by feeling, not by thought. Some people might call it inspiration, and I have been struck by inspiration, one time, when I wrote The Planet Masters — seventy five thousand words in eight and a half days. 

I’ve always known that I can’t wait for inspiration to strike. I would wait forever. What I have to do is be receptive to the whisper in the back of my head, that which comes from my heart, my gut, the chill down my spine.

I first started what I call Soul Stone in 2010, and wrote three good chapters, just going with what came to me. Then I wrote sixty thousand words from my head and came to dead stop, a victim of intellectual ought-to and disregard of character. It took me eight years to figure out what I had done wrong. I kept the first three chapters, threw the rest away, and carried on from where I should have left off.

I created a new and marvelous and complex setting, with which I expected to have a lot of fun, and tried to explore it, but no matter how wonderful a setting is, it isn’t a story. The setting is still there, but I’m not using it. 

I wrote a series of chapter objectives, things that each chapter had to accomplish, and superficially they were right. But the story was a robot, it never came to life. I threw it all out. 

I tried other ideas, a but each was only an idea, none of them informed or supported a story. I had forgotten to listen for that whisper. Every attempt to anticipate future chapters failed. My character grows, discovers truths I didn’t know about, experiences events that come by surprise — to me as well as to him — and makes those future chapter ideas irrelevant. 

I think I know what the ending is about — one of three possible endings — but I’m not going to tell you. I did know was what my latest chapter was about, and I finished it, and now I have stopped for a while, to deal with a soul-crushing to-do list.

When I get back to the story, I will know from the gut or heart or spine what the next chapter will be about, and it will move forward when I pick it up again. This has happened several times already. But not now. I need a break, to let my unconscious work on it for a while. At least, that’s the whisper that I almost hear.

And I have to trust my muse, whatever a muse may be. What I write with that trust can be improved and shaped later, by applying acquired skill. But the story comes from somewhere else, and raises goosebumps all over my body. I can feel it working now.

The muse never strikes, except by surprise. But if you listen carefully, you can hear it whisper.

Work for Hire

Writers who do work for hire are sometimes considered to be rather marginal. I’ve done it, when I was asked to do it by an editor, and I was paid quite well for it at a time when I couldn’t seem to sell any fiction. Believe me, that work was not at all marginal. It was a text book on computers, not programming, and I revised half the chapters to bring them up to date. That was a long time ago. I’m proud of what I accomplished, but I don’t include it in my bibliography, and when I was asked some years later to do it again, I refused. That refusal ended my career as a non-fiction writer.

Writing fiction for pay — not the same as being paid for what you publish — is suspect. Are ghost writers really writers? Are lesser-known writers who are paid by famous authors to flesh out their outlines really writers? How about artists for paint for hire, like, say Michelangelo, or Joshua Reynolds? 

I was hired, in a way, to write three novels based on the “V” tv series. I did not enjoy doing them, but one of them turned out to be a best-seller. I was asked to contribute to the Elfquest anthologies, “Blood of Ten Chiefs,” which I did enjoy, and was included in all five of those which were published.

How about those who are under contract to magazines or newspapers to write fiction, such as Dickens or Dostoevsky? Are they working for hire? How about the writers who are contacted by a book editor, who wants stories based on an idea he had. I have several on my shelf. Were they working for hire? A number of writers were told by a magazine editor to write a story based the cover illustration he had. Where do they fit in?

I think you can see what I mean. The line grows blurry. I think it’s just a line in the sand. If you write, you are a writer.

Real After All

A friend of mine once insisted that people who who publish by other means than with a nationally recognized publisher aren’t really writers. His publisher is nationally recognized, and he is, by this definition, a real writer, and very successful. Small presses with limited distribution and small print runs are suspect. Vanity publishing isn’t really publishing, and doesn’t count by anybody’s definition. It is self-publishing which made my friend angry.

I can understand that. There is so much mediocre, poor, bad, and garbage writing out there, writing which has not been vetted by a professional editor, that it can be difficult to find something worth reading. There is, of course, bad writing and storytelling put out by traditional publishers too.

But think think about it. If traditional sales by traditional means are the only definition of being a writer, or poet, or artist, so many who are recognized today aren’t, “really,” what we think they are.

Emily Dickinson can hardly be thought a poet, as fewer than a dozen of her more than 1,800 poems, were published in her lifetime. We don’t think of her as being just a recluse and dilettante. Franz Kafka certainly couldn’t be considered a story writer, per se, since he instructed his literary executor to destroy all his work — which, fortunately, he didn’t do. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life, so you couldn’t really call him a painter. 

Which is silly, because they really are those things, aren’t they. And so are the rest of us.

Epiphany

One night, when I was in high school — in a kind of ranch school in Tucson — I had a dream. Actually I have dreams every night, but in that dream, I had somehow acquired sixty two million dollars. That exact sum. In the early sixties, that was a lot of money.

The dream stayed with me for weeks, always somewhere in the back of my mind, and sometimes not so far back. During that time I would — when not otherwise occupied with classes and friends and horses — fantasize about what I could do with such a fortune. I don’t remember what my thoughts were, except that they were not what someone my age might typically wish for. No cars, no boats, no big houses, no social power, no world travel. I don’t think I indulged in the same fantasy more than once.

But after a while I realized that, no matter what the fantasy, no matter how elaborate and detailed and extravagant, it always ended with, “…and then I’ll have time to write.” And that stopped me short. That was the real fantasy.

I had no more daydreams about wealth, just a longing for the kind of freedom to write which it might give me. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. While my school-mates were struggling to figure that out, I was sure. I didn’t know how I was going to accomplish it, that took me a while to work out. But I have been, in one way or another, whatever else my life was like, a writer ever since.

Storyteller

I’ve called myself a writer, mostly of fiction, for all my adult life. I’ve written some computer books, back in the day when computers were new and I could do most of my research in the ads in Byte magazine. I wrote columns for magazines whose market was those people who knew nothing about computers. But mostly I wrote fiction. There were short stories, two of which were published. And over time there were nine novels, traditionally published, because that was the only option, except for vanity press.

But during the last few years I’ve come to realize that a more accurate term for what I am is storyteller. It’s the story, not the writing, that motivates me. I write my stories, and try to do as good a job as I can. What I want, and need, is a story, with beginning and end, conflict and resolution, problems and solutions, characters who feel like real people, places I can see and feel, and a plot string which ties them all together in a developing sequence, hopefully with surprises along the way. When I’m doing my best, the words flow, whether by pen or by keyboard. Writing is fine, but telling a good story is what I really want to do.

The Verbal Brain

Some time ago, in the late ‘70s or early ’80s, I was transcribing a longhand draft by typewriter. There were no word processors then. Typically, one reads the original and types the copy simultaneously. Diane came in, and we had a brief conversation, which did not interrupt my transcription. Which, in turn, did not interfere with our conversation. I was engaged in four different verbal activities at the same time — reading and writing, and listening and speaking. When Diane left, I continued my transcription, and had the simultaneous thought that this was pretty neat.

I came across an article some years later, about the verbal areas of the brain, illustrated with brain scans, which showed that reading, writing, speaking, and listening were, indeed, in separate if closely connected areas. Each area had its own verbal function. So my observation of some years previously was validated.

It can be more complicated than the article showed. I have, on occasion, listened to two conversations at once, though neither with as much comprehension as if I were listening to just one. I have been able to respond to two (rarely three) different conversations in sequence without pausing, first this person, then that. But I am not (some people would think fortunately) actually able to say two different things at the same time.

I have not tried reading two books simultaneously. I can easily switch between three or four sequentially, without losing my place in any of them. I have always been a slow reader anyway. I read in real time, hearing the dialogue, seeing the scene, experiencing the atmosphere, and so on. Nor have I tried writing different things with each hand (though I can, with some illegibility, write with my off hand). But I do write and think at the same time, transcribing my thoughts while I have them. Everybody does that, I think.