Monday, January 16, 2012

The Process of Writing, Part 1: Concept

In which the author discusses how one comes up with a book.

Writers always get asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" It's a really good question that, unfortunately, we all hate. Ideas are strange and mysterious things, you see. They can come from events that happened in your life, from dreams, from another book, from a random Wikipedia search.  Most writers, I think, have far more ideas than they will ever use. We go through scores a year, some so thin and wispy we can't make them work, some so bulky and meaty we don't dare try them at all, and some just perfect for consideration.

For me, at least, the best way to describe an idea before it's written is often with a question. "What if?" something is a good one, or something very similar, like "What would happen if?" Since I write mostly speculative fiction, what if questions are probably the best way to work. But such questions can work for mainstream fiction as well: "What if a white boy and a black slave escaped from their home and went on a journey?" (for example, that being the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

So for my books, the questions that could be asked to sum them up might be: What happened to the children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony? What would happen if Michael Darling from Peter Pan was a real person? What if God decided to end the world with a whimper not a bang?

I didn't really think of them in exactly that fashion. Ideas aren't often that neat and tidy. They slouch about in the head, sprawling over one's mental furniture and making nuisances of themselves and a mess of the place. But those questions adequately express something of what the books are about. I will say that in the case of Daughter of Cleopatra, the question of what happened to the children was in fact the cause of the novel. The other two came about a bit more vaguely, one from a notion of updating fairy tales, the other from one image: a snowbound house, and a girl inside it whose mother was dead under the kitchen table.

That's my experience, then.

As to another writer, a person who might think they could tell a story but isn't sure what story to tell or how to tell it, the question is a good way to go about it. Try to find that question that sums up the story: What if Queen Victoria had devoted the resources of her Empire to achieving immortality? What if D. W. Griffith had continued making films glorifying the KKK after Birth of a Nation and then ran for President on an overtly racist platform? What if two people met and fell in love on the day that one of them died; how would the other's life progress?

With varying degrees of difficulty and probabilities of success, any of those could be a book. And all three were conceptualized just this moment. Any idea, any question, can work. Even a thin slip of a question can turn into a novel, though there's more work to be done to get it to that point.

So now there's a concept. In the next post, I'll talk about ways to flesh out the concept by looking at things like setting, genre and style, and by thinking about outlining and doing your research.

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