Tuesday, September 7, 2010

So, where do you get your ideas?

This has got to be one of the age-old questions most authors dread. Writing’s a funny kind of business, especially when the bug bites you at a tender age, like it did with me. I must have been about twelve or so when I first figured I wanted to write novels, and it all started with getting excited about a story.

I remember that night all too well. It was December 28, and it was the year between me finishing primary school and starting high school. Don’t ask me which year, ’cos I’m not telling, okay? I watched Highlander for the first time and the movie blew my mind. It wasn’t the first movie that had excited me that much (that dubious pleasure belongs to Ladyhawke a year or so earlier) but the conflict between Connor McLeod and the Kurgan worked on my imagination on some primal level. Back then I was still very much concerned with dualistic good vs. evil scenarios and I quickly set about starting to write my very own tale.

Back then ordinary folk couldn’t afford computers, so I painstakingly started writing by hand and my dad’s secretary typed the piece out for me. I got about as far as chapter three. Thanks be to all the mercies I never finished, because what I was creating was thinly veiled fanfiction. I wanted to recapture that same sense of magic and excitement I felt the first time I watched Christopher Lambert in action.

After that I’d get very inspired by some of the authors I read, particularly Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern but then later also Poppy Z Brite’s Lost Souls, and I so wanted to write stories and I’d sometimes get these ideas of scenarios: a girl riding a horse across a desert plain; shape-shifting aliens embroiled in an ages-old battle; a young man who vanishes at sea; and so on and so forth. These occurrences were random. I’d be sitting in class and I’d “see” in my mind’s eye and “feel” what these characters were experiencing, and I’d want to tell their story. I’d have vivid, tactile images. It was a helluva lot more exciting than algebra, that much I can tell you.

I wasn’t a very successful story-teller until I reached my mid-twenties, however. It’s all fine and well to have great ideas but unless one is able to think them through and find a story’s conclusion, it’s like setting out on a treasure hunt without a map. That’s why so many of my notebooks had the first three chapters and nothing more. I didn’t possess much of a knack for following a story through to a conclusion.

For a while role-playing games ameliorated some of that itch, but I soon got frustrated at the turn some of the tales took in the hands of another story-teller. I started creating games of my own, but then the players would never quite do what I wanted them to. It was time to start writing novels.

But finding that idea that sparks a novel is a magical process, and it requires an author to be a “waking dreamer” while going about his or her daily business. Sometimes it’s a newspaper article, or a lunch hour spent browsing in a library, or a conversation with a friend. Whatever the source, a story kicks in when an author asks two words, “What if…” And it’s usually because some esoteric process has started deep within an author’s subconscious when identification has happened.

An author identifies with a situation, which resonates with likes/dislikes and an emotional hook occurs. An author, liking the idea will start asking more questions, thereby finding points of conflict for a character, who slowly gains a name, a face and an identity. At the end of the day, the characters that are born are fragments of an author’s psyche, who embark upon adventures an author may never experience. Or, perhaps these adventures are born from something that has occurred in an author’s past. No matter where the germ of an idea originates, writing a novel is a journey, a life-changing experience, which is highly personal.

And in a world full of restrictions, there is a certain magic about being able to shape a setting according to one’s personal whims, and being able to say how an idea can be nurtured then harvested. What’s even better is being able to share these stories with readers.

The worst part of my vocation is that I have more ideas floating about on my hard drive as twenty-word summaries than I can stab a ballpoint pen at.


Brynna Curry said...

Awesome post, Nerine!

Nerine Dorman said...

It was pretty much sparked off last night when a friend messaged me to tell me he had this great idea for a story he thought I should write... And I told him I had more than I could cope with right now...

Leatherdykeuk said...

Splendid. I have dozens of novel premises, too. I have to force myself to keep writing the one I'm working on.

Mind you, didn't we all cut our teeth on fanfiction? I still write a weekly Good Omens drabble

Nerine Dorman said...

Nothing wrong with fanfiction so long as it doesn't interfere with the original material intended for publication. I like having that option and generally just let the story flow with my favourite characters.

Tamsyn said...

Thank you for the post. It certainly shows me that authors really worked hard to get their ideas onto paper! I hope you'll be able to write all your stories.