Development

On September 23, 2016, Grace (The Girl Upstairs) wrote, How do you develop your writing ideas? When you first get an idea, what do you do first? I really struggle with what to do when I first get an idea.

It’s uncanny how often the next-up blog question touches on what’s going on in my work at the moment.

The manuscript for Ogre Enchanted is in my editor’s hands. She emailed me about a week ago that she was reading it and enjoying it. But I don’t know if she’d read three pages or fifty and I haven’t heard since. My fingernails are very short, and my fingers themselves are in danger.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking about what to do next, often the hardest part for me. So here is my process as I’m now living it.

The book that comes out in May, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, resolves its main problem but leaves a kingdom in disarray. In my next effort I’d like to deal with that, with reconciliation. Since I’m bad at making up plots out of nothing, I looked for historical models.

On a personal level, we reconcile all the time. The people we love most are often the ones who push our buttons hardest, but we find a way to work it out. For most of us, life isn’t littered with failed relationships.

But on a macro level, which is what I want, I’m coming up empty with examples of reconciliations between groups. I looked at the aftermath of our Civil War, but we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that struggle. I read about Scotland, where, if I have it right, the Lowlands became reconciled to England for economic reasons, but the Highlands were brought in only by military defeat. I read about South Africa, and there it seems that outside pressure brought about change, which I don’t want to use. Ancient Rome grew by conquest, though its practice of readily granting citizenship is interesting and possibly useful for my purposes. To decide whether or not I can use these, I write notes.

If any of you can cite a historical example of reconciliation, please weigh in.

When I’m hunting ideas I don’t always look to history, but I do look around for outside sources of assistance. And my usual go-to’s are myths and fairy tales. I read Lang’s Red Fairy Book, which I never had delved into before. (Lang’s color-titled fairy tale collections are great, because they’re in the public domain, so we can use them without worry. And there are so many books! A feast!)

I didn’t find anything there for this purpose, although a couple of stories jumped out as marvelous. I recommend “The Nettle Spinner,” which doesn’t repeat the formula of any other fairy tale I know. And there was a terribly sad one called “The Voice of Death” about a doomed search for eternal life.

Though not in the Red Fairy Book, I found myself thinking again about both the fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which seem to me to be in essence the same story, but I don’t know if I can mold either of them into the shape of a tale of reconciliation. Maybe I can. I’ve written lots of notes.

Another myth keeps coming to mind is the tragic “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which I may be able to use, minus the tragedy. In case you don’t know it, here are the bare bones of the story: Orpheus is a master musician. On their wedding day, his wife Eurydice is bitten by a viper and dies. Orpheus, grief-struck, goes to the underworld to play for Hades and persuade him to restore Eurydice. Hades, moved by the music, agrees that Orpheus can lead her up to the land of life so long as he doesn’t look back at her until they’re both fully out. However, he can’t resist a glance right at the end and loses her forever. The reconciliation that I’m writing notes about here is between the underworld and the world above, which can be any two opposing camps.

What I like about this story is its simplicity, the most important quality I look for when I pick a fairy tale to embroider around. My writing impulse is always to pile on complications. If I start with something straightforward, I have a chance of not losing my way.

(I’ve already used the myth of Orpheus in a poem, in a way that’s entirely different from the approach I’d use in a novel. For the poem, I researched the effects of a viper bite, which are horrifying. I imagined that Eurydice doesn’t want to return to life only to have to die again eventually, possibly by another viper, but Orpheus won’t listen to her, so she sets him up to look back.)

Let’s assume that I pick “Orpheus and Eurydice” to become a book. My next step is more notes. I’ll ask myself whether I’ll write in first person or third, and, if in first, who my POV character will be. If third, omniscient or close focus? I’ll wonder who my MC’s will be, what the events of the story will be.

I’ve been evolving from a pure pantser to a vague outliner, so I’ll start listing plot points and, most important for me, how the story might end. I won’t start writing until I have an end point in mind, though I may not know exactly what the outcome will be–whether it will be happy or sad.

My notes, even at this early point, will be scattered with lists–they are already, about how I might use this fairy tale or that myth, about the state of my world at the beginning of my story.

When I have a very basic outline, maybe a page, and I’m satisfied with it, I’ll think about an opening scene that will introduce my MC and may set up the events that will follow. When the scene takes shape I will be unable to resist writing. And I’m off.

You? How do you get started?

Depending on how you count, here are five prompts:

∙ Try my method. Read or reread ten fairy, folk, or tall tales. Jot down a few notes on the three that interest you most. List ways the stories might go, considering gaps in logic or failures in understanding about the way real people feel and behave–these cracks are spots you can exploit to make a fresh story. Write notes about the characters that are given to you by the story and how you might flesh them out. In your notes, consider who your MC’s may be, because they may not be obvious. For example, you may decide that the hunter in “Snow White” interests you most. Another factor that I haven’t mentioned is time period. Do you want this to be fairy-tale time or an actual historical period or contemporary or future. Explore the possibilities in notes. Write more notes about which point of view to use, first person or third (or even second), what tense. List possible plot developments. Create a short outline. Write notes about where to begin. Finally, write the first scene.

∙ There are several distinct chapters in the myth of Atalanta. These prompts are based on her story. Try out my idea-development method on one or more.

∙ Atalanta’s father wants a son. When he’s presented with a daughter, he dumps her on a mountainside to die of exposure, but she’s adopted and raised by a she-bear until hunters take her in.

∙ There are depictions on ancient Greek vases of Atalanta overcoming Peleus (Achilles’ father and a hero in his own right) in a wrestling match. That’s all there is, as far as I know, so this is a challenge, to build a story out of that image.

∙ This part of her story is the best known, I think. Atalanta’s father finally accepts her and wants her to get married. She’s not interested, so she says she’ll marry only the man who can outrun her in a footrace. She’s victorious time after time until a suitor, Hippomenes, asks Aphrodite for help, and the goddess gives him three golden apples to throw in front of Atalanta, one at a time, to slow her down. He wins; they marry.

∙ Use Atalanta’s story or any other myth or a fairy tale as the basis of a poem–there is a long tradition of doing this. For those of you who are at least high-school age, you might check out some of Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Idea overload

Before I start the post, I want to let you know I’m going to be at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival on March 16th. Details here: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/appears.html. I hope some of you can make it. If you come, please let me know that you read about the event on the blog. I’ll be delighted to meet you!

This is a continuation of questions from Ellie Mayerhofer that were the subject of last week’s post: Is it possible to be working on too many stories? I am working on several though there are two that I am mostly focused on (four that I am really trying to work with-there are some others but those four are what I usually work on, but there are two that I work on more than the other two). But then sometimes one of the stories I haven’t worked on in a while will pop a new idea and then there are more that I am working on. Or I will suddenly get a new idea and then leave off the others. I want to really focus on and finish some of my stories… Should I put some stories to the side and only focus on one or two? What happens if I do put everything but one or two to the side and then get another idea? Do I keep working on those, or do I work on my new idea and put off the others?

Idea overload comes up often on the blog. If I advise you to put new ideas on hold until you finish the work-in-progress, the WIP, you may not be able to. The new idea is an itch that desperately wants to be scratched.

Still, the WIP won’t ever be finished if you aren’t faithful to it. Your desire to bring a story to completion wars with the new idea. In this state, you’re a battlefield!

What I do when a new idea blasts in is to write it down in the ideas folder in my computer. I write a paragraph or so about the idea and what I might do with it and then go back to my current story, which usually takes the pressure off the itch. I suggest you try that as one strategy.

If you have more ideas than you’ll ever be able to develop and you’d like to annihilate the new one, try telling it to a friend. Explain it all, every single thing you can think of about it, all the characters, every plot point, exactly what you would do if you did write it. Rant about it. Then see what happens. For many writers, talking about a story kills off the desire to write it.

If you’re writing a blog, give any idea you don’t have time for to the world. Explain it and put it out there. If you’re interested, ask your readers to use the idea and show you the results.

It’s also possible that the new idea came along because the story you’re working on has gotten into trouble. What used to be fun and fascinating has turned into work and you’d rather dance off to something fresh.

This is a real choice. Unless you have a contract for a story, you’re not required to soldier on in misery. You can move on, and maybe the new idea will go better than the old one has. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it, too, will mire down and you’ll be gone, chasing another concept. There’s nothing wrong with this. You may need a year or two of story hopping before you figure out how to stay engaged. You’re going to learn about writing no matter whether you stick to one project or jump around.

The only true abandonment is to stop writing.

And that isn’t a tragedy either. Whether we’re kids or adults, we have a right to try things out. Writing may turn out not to be your calling. The theater may be, or particle physics, or the study of larks.

But if  you really want very much to finish a story, when a new idea comes along I suggest you look at your WIP and see if your enthusiasm for it has waned. Consider what the problem might be. Are you unsure of what should come next? Are you uncertain of what your MC should do in the latest situation? Does it all seem boring?

I recommend over and over on the blog that you go to your notes and write down ideas for your current story, for how to get it moving again. I still recommend that, but maybe there’s something else you can do. When we write our subconscious involves itself and sends our upper consciousness messages in code. A new idea may be a message for our WIP. Examine the newbie side by side with the WIP. Does it solve any of the old guy’s problems? Can you use the new idea in what you’re already doing? Can you incorporate aspects of your new MC into your current MC?

Suppose you’re working on more than one story right now and you also have a list of future ideas, plus three new projects are banging on your brain – step back and look at them whole. Maybe make a chart. List all your characters from all your stories. Write down very short summaries of your plots, like “a quest to find the cure to a dread disease” or “a struggle to prove herself in a friend’s eyes” – whatever. Maybe make each story into a few frames in a comic strip, using stick figures if you need to (I would!). Let it all stew inside you for an hour, a day, a week without much conscious thought. Then look at everything. Do you see new connections? Do you see ways that your new ideas can energize your old ones?

Do you notice that you stop in a similar place in all your old unfinished stories? Can you recruit a new, new idea to get you past that point?

Going in another direction, taking a break from a WIP to try something new may just be what the WIP needs.

Here are four prompts:

• Combine elements of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Aladdin” into a single story. If you think of another fairy tale that can go in too, go ahead.

• Four former winners of the lottery, each with his or her own backstory, whose lives post-lottery have not gone well, form a mutual aid society. Write what happens.

• Put these together in a story: a fairy tale prince, a despotic ruler, a fifteen year old modern girl, the killing of a unicorn in the despotic ruler’s herd, and the discovery of an ancient text. If you have a new idea, you have to put it in this story.

• Danielle has lots of friends. She’s a delight to be with, and she makes whichever friend she’s with feel like the most important, the most fascinating, the most charming person on earth. The problem is, she isn’t reliable. She’s late or doesn’t show up at all, although her apologies are irresistible works of performance art. She meets someone new, who falls for her hard. Trouble is, this new character, doesn’t know her history, is unprepared for her behavior. Put what happens in a story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Shifting Idea Sands

On April 7, 2011, Angie wrote, …While writing a first draft, I find myself constantly having new ideas for the plot that require me to go back and change several details. This becomes bothersome the further into the story I am, and it also worries me that I will lose some of the original integrity of the story the more I do this. What if, after changing a ton of details and scenes to accommodate a new idea, I realize that my grand new idea actually doesn’t work at all? Then I need to go back and change those scenes back, but will most likely lose a lot of my original work in the process.
    As much as I try to plan my plot out ahead of time, I am still at heart an organic sort of writer; I discover the story as I move along. How do I keep from ruining my story as I come up with fresh ideas?

I may have quoted this before from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

!!!

How I wish this weren’t true.

In hunting online for the above quotation, I found this on a blog I’d never visited before, but which you may all already know:
http://kendaturner.blogspot.com/2011/04/three-rules-for-writing-novel.html. More quotes, some funny too.

First to answer the easy part of the question, the only part that I can respond to definitively: You never have to lose original work if you start a new version and save your old one. You can name the old one something descriptive or you can write a note at the top of it that tells you what version it is and what made you start a new one. Then you can go back to the old if your new idea isn’t working out, or you can find those parts of the old that you want to re-insert.

I’m a make-it-up-as-I-go writer too, which makes me inefficient, very inefficient. Take the book I’m working on now, possibly the hardest ever for me. It’s a mystery, but it keeps wanting to be an adventure story, a form I’m more comfortable with, so it frequently veers the wrong way. I’ve mentioned before that I wrote many pages and then realized I’d forgotten to include any suspects. I went back to the beginning, putting in maybe too many suspects, but I made the mystery impossible to solve. In one instance, I don’t remember which, I wrote about 260 pages, in the other about 120. Then I wrote 90 new pages and felt lost, so I sent the thing to my editor, who said the problem was the book wasn’t compelling enough. Started again, and I’m now on page 72. It’s going better but very slowly.

Some writers get it right more quickly than I do, and even I do better on some books than on others. Some writers are even slower than I. This may be scant comfort, but writing is often difficult. I slog from confusion to confusion with clarity coming very gradually. Once, after visiting a school and speaking to the children there, I got a letter from one of them that said something like, I used to want to be a writer but since you came I don’t anymore. It’s too hard.

Of course I groaned. I probably shouldn’t have emphasized the problems to kindergartners. (Joke.) But the kids really were in elementary school, as some of you reading the blog may be. If you are, know that the rewards of writing are at least as great as the pain.

Patience is the first virtue a writer needs to cultivate. Skill won’t ever come if we don’t have the patience to develop it.

Don’t marry your first idea or your second, or your twelfth, but don’t divorce them either. They are each links to the final idea, the one that succeeds, which you couldn’t have gotten to without the others.

As for the ideas you abandon, which you’re now saving, they may be useful in another story or a germ from them may be. Our minds are deep lakes. Idea fish swim there and evolve, eat other fish or get eaten. When you catch your old idea that failed in one story and reel it in, it may have changed so much that you don’t recognize it, but the original is there in its belly, like the golden ring that appears in a fish’s stomach in more than one fairytale.

If you worry about running out of ideas, please don’t. We have new experiences, even when we think nothing is happening in our lives. Our brains are not only lakes but also soil, and new experiences are mulch, which our minds turn over and over and reshape, and ideas sprout.

I just reread a wonderful poem called “Skater” by Ted Kooser that captures this instant-by-instant change in us. Here’s a link to the poem: http://milan-poetry.blogspot.com/2007/01/skater-ted-kooser.html. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that one cannot step twice into the same river (because the water is always flowing). I’d add that the same person can’t step twice into any river because he is always changing.

This is very philosophical, but basically I mean that new ideas and then bungled new ideas and bungled old ideas are inevitable for some writers, like me. We just have to keep going.

Some writing advice urges the writer to write forward always and never go back. You can try this. If you can do it, great. This method worked for me on A Tale of Two Castles, but not on the new book. Write down your new ideas in your manuscript so you don’t lose them and march on. Then pick up what you had in mind in revision.

However, often the people who write this way hate revising because they’ve got such a mess on their hands by the time they type, The End. I love to revise because by the time I reach the last page I’ve worked out most of the kinks and all I have to do is polish – and usually cut.

A few prompts:

∙    Tessa is sitting in a classroom or studying at home when something happens that changes her forever. Write the scene and make it the occurrence that changes her a small moment, the change almost imperceptible but real. Then think again; put her back in the same place and make something different but equally significant happen. Repeat once more. Pick your favorite and turn it into a story.

∙    This can be fantasy or not. Ivan can be a modern boy or a prince who is buying a present for his dad’s birthday. They haven’t been getting along lately, and Ivan wants the present to bring them closer. Write the scene and its affect on the father-son relationship.

∙    Now let’s change it. Ivan wants the present to show his father how distant he feels they’ve grown, so he picks something emblematic of this. Write this scene.

∙    Bring a third character into the scene, Ivan’s older sister Yvette whose relationship with their father is unlike Ivan’s, maybe better, maybe worse. Write the gift giving again. Then think of yet another way to handle it and try that. Expand either one into a scene, a story, a novel, a seven-book series!

Have fun and save what you write!

Idea-ology

On February 19, 2010 Katie wrote, …how do you get… ideas? I really like to write, but I can never think of anything good to write about. How do you come up with such good ideas?
In Writing Magic there’s a chapter called “Eureka!” about getting ideas.  You may want to read that as well as this post.

In my opinion, the most important word in Katie’s question is good, which is a stifling word, especially when you’re in the idea stage.  My definition of a good idea is an idea that makes me think of more ideas.  It may feel stupid, for example, to write a story about a girl with an enormous left thumb.  So you abandon the idea and feel hopeless about ideas.  But suppose you don’t abandon that thumb and let your mind roam.  What would happen if you yourself had a big thumb?  Would you keep injuring it because it gets in the way?  Might you spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office at school?  And in the nurse’s office might you discover a boy who’s there almost constantly, a boy who’s been seen by hardly any other of the students?  What’s he like?  Why is he always sick?  This line of thought could get you started on a story.

Or suppose the thumb belongs to your main character.  It’s a family trait that has skipped five generations.  The last one to have the thumb was a pirate who was hanged, and the queen herself came to the hanging.  But there’s a family legend that someone else was executed in his place, and he’s still sailing the high seas.

Or suppose the big thumb hurts at particular times–during family arguments or before earthquakes or whenever a political figure anywhere in the world is about to be assassinated.

If you decide too soon that an idea is rotten, you lose the chance to hop on its back and fly to all the follow-up ideas.  So I say relax.  When you’re fooling around with ideas, nothing is at stake but some thinking time.

Ideas come to you for a reason, often a reason you (and I) aren’t aware of.  Whatever the idea is, stupid or not, it has meaning.  You don’t ever have to find out what that meaning is, just know that it’s there and try not to judge your idea, because it’s part of you.  Conceivably it’s the goofy part, but goofy is playful, and playful is good.

Suppose you really are dreadful at coming up with initiating ideas, the ones that start a story.  Well, you can borrow someone else’s idea.  This is not theft.  As Maybeawriter commented on the last post, nobody owns an idea.  It’s the expression of an idea that becomes the writer’s intellectual property.  If you want to write about a maiden who’s strangely obedient, feel free.

Copyright law is complicated.  If you write about a character named Ella who is cursed with obedience by a fairy named Lucinda, you may be poaching on my work.  But just the bare bones idea is yours for the taking.  If the story you’re thinking about is very old, you can even borrow the characters including their names.  If you want to call a character Hansel or Gretel, you can.

People have built on stories forever.  Shakespeare did it.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw did it.  I do it (to put myself in exalted company) when I adapt fairy tales for my own use.

Once you pick up an established idea, obviously you have to make it your own, which calls for secondary ideas.  Even a short story needs lots of ideas.  Where is your story going to go?  What characters do you need to take it there?  What obstacles can you throw up to make it hard to reach the ending?  Staying with a goofy idea, you may want goofy obstacles and goofy characters.  The ideas in my series The Princess Tales are mostly goofy.  Goofy, not bad, not stupid.

Without drawing on a particular story, you can ask yourself the kind of story you want to tell:  fantasy, historical, romance, contemporary, mystery, whatever.  Write down your answer or answers.  Think about subcategories.  For example, if you love mysteries, do you especially enjoy the historical ones or the contemporary?  Hard-boiled or soft?  Do you like the emphasis to be on the puzzle or on the action?  Speculate about how you might write that kind of story, where it would take place, who would be in it.  Write notes.

Before I started my mystery novel, I remembered how much I loved the Nero Wolfe series (okay for middle school and above and maybe below, I think, but check with a parent or a librarian.  If you want to build up your vocabulary, these books are great.)  My favorite aspect of the series was the relationship between Nero Wolfe and his faithful assistant, Archie Goodwin.  (We named our first dog Archie.)  I wanted to do something similar, create a detecting duo, in my case a girl and a dragon.

For what to do when no ideas come, when you are utterly empty of ideas, try notes.  If idea emptiness describes you, look at the chapter in Writing Magic, because I have a bunch of suggestions there, which I don’t want to repeat. 

Here are a few idea-priming prompts:

•    Pick an object, something in your house, anything, the stove, your violin, your uncle’s needlepoint.  Separate it in your mind from its real history and invent a history for it.  Think of the drama, the tragedy, the comedy that went into its creation, its passage from owner to owner, its effect on the lives of its owners.  Write a story about it.

•    Pick an emotion:  anger, joy, sadness, fear.  Remember the last time you felt that emotion or you watched someone else experience it.  Now move that feeling to a new setting.  Suppose your brother was mad at you for hogging the computer.  Put a character who stands in for him on a rowboat, and make him be the one who wants to row.  What happens?  Or move him to archery practice in Sherwood Forest, and he thinks it’s his turn next.  Think of situations that have built-in tension (possible drowning, arrow wounds).

    If the emotion you pick is joy, you need to make the feeling short-lived.  What will destroy your character’s happiness?

•    Pick two characters from stories you know and put them together in a tight situation, a sinking ship, for example.  Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Captain Hook and the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.”  Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk” and Snow White.  What would they make of each other?  Would they understand each other?   How can you make them join forces?

Have fun, and save what you write!