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!

The Challenge of Length

On 12/23/09, Asma posted this comment:  I was actually referring to the process of beginning to write, after an idea has formed in your mind. I have attempted your advice to start in the middle, but usually I don’t know where to go from there or where I’ve come from. If I try to begin at the beginning, I usually don’t know where to start, get bored, or become obsessed with perfection. I usually don’t have this problem with short stories (my reference to length) as the entire plot is so short as to have fully materialized in my mind, and all I have to do is write it down. Longer pieces are my real difficulty.

This is excellent timing, because I’m poised to start on a new book.  For me, writing a beginning is the end of the phase that I hate most, which is shaping in my mind and in notes enough of a story to get going with.  A non-writer friend was surprised that this stage wasn’t fun, more fun than anything else – fooling around, trying one plot notion after another, being creative.  Instead, I feel like I’m in a big empty house with no windows, and I whirl from room to room, facing only blank walls.

Eventually, an idea glows out of a white wall, and I write it down.  With maddening slowness, more ideas emerge.  I’ve called them forth, of course, but it doesn’t feel as if I’ve done anything.  It feels more like all the ideas in the world are off at a party, and occasionally one of them hears my plaintive voice from a hundred miles away, and it condescends to visit me.

Here’s how I’m getting started, in generalities:  I want to write another mystery with some of the same characters from the last one, and I want to associate it with a fairy tale.  So I reread a bunch of fairy tales and wrote notes about what I might do with some of them.  With each I reached a point of stuckness and couldn’t go any further in my imagination.

Finally I found a tale that fits the setting I have in mind and decided to write a mystery sequel.  By now I’ve written eight pages of notes, and I still don’t know who the villain will be and how the story will work itself out.  It’s not bad not to know who’s evil in a mystery, because I won’t telegraph the answer to the reader.  Still, I like to have a dim idea of an ending to aim toward.

Then I thought of a larger problem that I can wrap the tale in, and I know, more or less, how the larger problem should end, so I’m ready to begin, even though most of the story is a muddle.

I lost my way writing both Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and I wandered in notes and wrong directions for months or more before I found the story.  This was very painful.  I don’t want it to happen again, but it may, and it may on this next book, and if it does I will be miserable, probably for a long time.  So far in my writing career I haven’t gone astray enough to abandon a book before finishing it, but even that could happen.

This kind of misery is the lot of many writers.  We try beginning after beginning.  We start in the middle and then slowly figure out what went before.  We get bored (I do).  We get trapped trying to make a little piece perfect.  Then we slog on.

The most important quality for a writer to cultivate is patience.  A long piece of fiction is the work of months at the very least.  Sometimes a ten-page scene will take a ridiculous time to straighten itself out.  We put up with this because we belong to the insane writing branch of humanity.

The second most important quality is kindness to self.  Poor me (for example), suppose I need to write at least a page today, but nothing is happening.  Maybe I’ll feel better if I stare out the window or take a shower.  Poor me, I am so dumb that I made a mistake in Chapter Three that makes Chapters Four, Five, and Six impossible.  But I forgive myself, because otherwise I will have to leap out of my skin.

The third quality is doggedness.  I am going to finish this expletive-deleted story no matter what.

Specifically about story shape – I like compact ideas as the basis for long novels.  Simple plots don’t have to turn into short stories; they can become big books.  Robin McKinley wrote the novel Beauty and Donna Jo Napoli wrote the novel Beast, both based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” which is only fifteen pages long in the version I own.

I love to work with an uncomplicated tale, because then I can embroider and heap on details and twists.  My The Princess Test comes from “The Princess and the Pea,” which is one of the shortest of fairy tales.  I thought, Well, who could possibly feel a pea under all those mattresses?  And what was she doing, soaking wet at the castle door?  Why did the king and queen invent a pea-mattress test as proof of princess-ness?  How many other crazy tests can I add?  Answering these questions produced many pages of story.

So here’s a prompt.  Take a rudimentary story, like Rumpelstiltskin, or a nursery rhyme like this one:

    Little Miss Muffet
    Sat on a tuffet,
    Eating her curds and whey;
    Along came a spider,
    Who sat down beside her
    And frightened Miss Muffet away.

and write about it.  If these don’t interest you, pick your own.  I’m not saying you should write a novel, although it would be cool if you did.  Just write about how you might add depth to the stories and complicate them.  Take Miss Muffet for example.  The spider sits next to her.  Is it the same size she is?  Is the rhyme about an invasion of giant spiders?  Aaa!

Have fun and save what you write!