Where do you get your ideas? That’s a question that everyone who fancies him or herself a writer is asked by someone at some point, with either a look of wonder or disgust on the questioner’s face (hopefully, it’ll always be the former). The Muse can be an elusive mistress; Lynda, my writing teacher, once advised that waiting around for her was an exercise in futility as she was more likely to dance just out of reach, laughing at you, and that you had to force her to the table by sitting down and starting without her. In that respect, schedules and deadlines certainly help a great deal, as we all know that the easiest thing to do in the world is not write.
Finding a subject for a blog post is not terribly difficult, even if the writing of said post is. There’s always lots going on in the world that we can comment on. I’m of the “more flies with honey” and “current or future employers might read this” mentality, so I’ll usually stop myself from venting about whatever is pissing me off lately and try to either write something positive or find an optimistic take on a particularly frustrating news item. (On a side note, my wife and I are watching the political drama House of Cards these past few nights and I’m finding it difficult to glom onto completely, for the singular reason that it is an utterly cynical program wallowing happily in the most selfish aspects of government service, and I’m much more drawn to the hopeful take offered by The West Wing. But Kevin Spacey is still awesome.) The blog, essentially, is a snapshot of how you’re feeling on any given day. A novel, by contrast, is a long term exercise in exploring an idea to its every possible limit. But which ideas are more deserving of the in depth treatment as opposed to the casual chat? How do you know which is which?
The summer after my mother died, I chained myself to my computer and started writing screenplays. That was what I was into at the time; for more on what led to this check out this previous post. Like many, my first ventures into serious writing were fan fiction, and in my case, Star Trek fan fiction. Although, I never managed to finish any of it – there’s an old hard drive rusting in a landfill somewhere full of the first chapters of stories about the crew of the Enterprise doing… well, not very much, actually. I couldn’t plot worth a damn at the time; I always figured I’d get to that part later on. What was more of a passion in the teenage years was drawing comic books, even though my artistic skill was minimal. And those were always James Bond stories, because they were easier to plot out. Bad guy doing bad thing, Bond must stop him, there’s a girl, a car chase, a gadget or two. For a high school creative project I wrote and drew a 007-Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover, where Bond is beamed aboard the Enterprise-D to help solve a Romulan conspiracy that involves his old adversaries SPECTRE, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher (although in a downbeat ending, they have to go their separate ways). My English teacher loved it, her only criticism that it was a shame that I wasn’t using my own original characters. My rationale (read: excuse) was that using established characters freed you from having to introduce and develop your own, and enabled you to get right into the story instead. I didn’t understand at the time that the key to solving my inability to plot was to instead let the story flow out of the characters themselves.
But back to that summer. By that point I was using original characters, even if the dialogue they were speaking was almost entirely borrowed. That was about the time Pulp Fiction had come out and, as a film student at UWO, you could not take two steps into your classroom without hearing someone invoke the mighty Tarantino. I’d like to think that I wasn’t as obviously pretentious as some of the goatee-stroking, beret-wearing pomposities I sat in lectures with, but my work was just as derivative. My first full screenplay was about a group of kids in film school, with exhaustive, profanity-laden monologues about the hidden sexual themes in Star Wars (which, if you’ve seen Clerks, sort of puts the lie to the idea that these were in any way original characters.) I was still convinced that someday, someone would make this movie and I’d be accepting my Best Original (heh) Screenplay Oscar for it (then again, I was 20, recently orphaned and extremely naïve). Once that one was done, I started another, and then another. But they weren’t anything of note or even interest. I began to realize that they had no lasting value – because they weren’t about anything; there was no there there. And they certainly weren’t in my own voice.
The final screenplay was about a group of four 20-somethings who lived in the same apartment building (cough… Friends… cough). I know, it sounds dreadful, but I really enjoyed spending time with these particular people. As bad as some of those other screenplays were, they were an opportunity to hone my skill; to develop dialogue and subtext, to cut the profanity, to shed the influence of His Holiness Pope Quentin. When I typed FADE TO CREDITS, I realized I hadn’t been able to develop the characters in the way I’d wanted – the screenplay was about 170 pages (most genuine ones top out at 120, maximum) and I hadn’t said everything I needed to with these people. I decided to abandon it at first draft and instead turn it into a novel. And for the next two years I labored on this thing on and off. A great deal of my days were spent thinking about the lives of these people: Bryson Reid, aspiring writer and perpetual smartass, Krista Piper, alcoholic figure skater, Scott Shipley, advertising executive on the rise, and Lauren Devaney, Irish barista homesick for her native land. Part of Bryson’s story involved him meeting an entrancing and successful fantasy author named Serena Lane. And interspersed between the chapters about Bryson, Krista, Scott and Lauren were meant to be “excerpts” of Serena’s bestselling novel. The whole enterprise was designed to lead to a “shocking” metaphysical twist (not in the earlier screenplay version) whereby Serena was the same person depicted in the fantasy portions, who had somehow managed to cross into the real world (and it was the Irish barista, Lauren, who had authored the book in the first place, only to have it stolen by a manipulative publisher who was herself the villainess from the fantasy story and had also escaped from page into reality. “Serena Lane” would turn out to be the name of the street on which Lauren grew up in Dublin.) Anyway, it got up to 350,000 words with no end in sight. As I was writing it, I found I was enjoying the fantasy portions significantly more than the real world stuff. Bryson, in particular, although ostensibly the hero, was fundamentally unlikable and there were times I just wanted to smack him upside the virtual head. But I still felt the need to finish it.
Then one summer, I signed up for a local adult education course called “Crafting a Novel.” Naturally I knew how to write a novel, this was just a chance to meet some people (i.e. attractive, single women) with a similar passion. The first night of that class was a smack to the head much larger than the one I had wanted to give my fictional hero – I knew nothing. And I was crestfallen when Lynda told us that even if we had a book we had been working on for years, we were to set it aside and start a new one. To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, this was the ensuing sound inside my head:
Surely she wasn’t serious? My epic of Proustian magnificence deserved nothing less than endless streams of voluminous praise followed by a seven-figure publishing deal and movie rights! How could anyone dare me to set it aside?
In retrospect, thank frickin’ Buddha, but we’ll get to that.
After picking my jaw up from the floor that night, I decided to think about things a little more rationally. I’d slowly developed this fantasy world and enjoyed playing around in it. Couldn’t I set another story in the same place? And since prequels were all the rage, why not one that took place fifty years prior – something that might serve as a setup to the brilliance that was to follow? That took care of the setting, but I still needed characters and a worthwhile story to tell.
A few days later, I’m in a video game store perusing the PlayStation titles, and I wander over to the PC rack. There’s a game there, probably a precursor to World of Warcraft or something similar, and on it is a bunch of sketches of the characters. One of them strikes me. It’s a beautiful woman holding a mystical staff. It’s nothing terribly original; do a Google Images search for “sorceress” and you’ll see thousands of variations on the theme – some gorgeous, half-dressed knockout hurling lightning from manicured fingers. But something about it strikes me. And I ask myself, what must it be like to be her? Truthfully, the magical babe is a pretty boring staple of fantasy stories, either as a love interest, a physically unattainable spirit guide, or a cackling villainess bent on total domination of both the world and the hero’s crotch. In anything I’d ever read or seen up until that point, she was always treated merely as an other to be conquered or otherwise overcome. (Remember the witch in the first Conan the Barbarian movie? Beautiful and exotic, as befits magical babes, but doesn’t get a name and is in the story for all of four minutes, three of which are spent rolling around on the floor with our favorite muscled Cimmerian.) But if what would go through your head if you actually were a creature like that – would you go around thinking to yourself, “I am so willowy and ethereal and mysterious”? Or would your head be occupied by the same mundane thoughts the rest of us have – what to wear tomorrow, whether you left the iron on, did you feed the cat? After appearing and disappearing at will and turning men into pigs for a few hundred years, would you eventually grow bored with your powers? What could the immortal sorceress who has everything possibly want? Anything at all? Or would she be subject to the same emotional needs and longings as the rest of us mere human beings?
And there was the seed of my new story.
Coming up in future posts – more on creating characters, developing the plot, struggling with description, crafting dialogue, the necessary pain of killing your darlings and how Aaron Sorkin helped me find my voice without even knowing I exist.