Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Giving Birth to an Idea

I've been thinking of a story for a new book.  It's been bouncing around in my head for a while, but I've not really given it any serious thought.  As I started to the other night, the tragedy of life swarmed me under, and I got side-tracked.

The basic premise is pretty simple, but I do want to make sure I present it from a certain world view.  Mine, to be exact.  That means that, to be true to that view, I have to do a lot of things that make me uncomfortable, because all of them call to the fore one of my major weaknesses: laziness.

The central character is stationed in a position about which I know little or nothing.  So, there's research involved with finding out how to accurately portray that occupation.  In addition, I need to discover the methodologies, the equipment, the education and the characteristics of the people that do that sort of thing for a living.  Since I don't personally know any, it gets much harder to do.  Now I'm faced with either finding one who's willing to talk to me about what they do, how they do it, why they do it and what they need to know, or doing a lot of blind research on either the Internet or in some other informational repository and trying to make that look and feel real.  The latter sounds easier, but like most things in life, I bet it's not.  And if it is, it's probably not the best way to accomplish the task.

Secondly, I have to find out what the character is like.  Is it male, female; shy, outgoing, somewhere in between?  What about physical characteristics?  While those aren't as important as other aspects of the character, they're not something I can disregard, either.  Personality type, responses to crises and pressure, what are the stressors for the character -- I haven't the foggiest idea at this point.  There is only a rough, loosely assembled skeleton of a person with a job.  Pretty generic, but then, the idea's pretty new, too.

On the other hand, I'm not sure of the nature of my story just yet.  I don't have an outline put together, I don't have a synopsis of any general plot, I don't even have the whole story in a single sentence yet.  I have nothing but a spark, and while some sparks can grow to enormous infernos, they can also be snuffed out by the slightest breeze or tiniest raindrop, too.

So basically, I've got diddly.  Just an idea that popped into my head a few days ago.

With other fiction I've written, I had a general idea what I wanted to do.  I knew the voice that I wanted to tell the story with, I knew the players (because they're all actual people), I knew the setting (because they're all real places, or were at one time), and the characteristics of those elements are easy to put in place because the events are actual, historical accounts (to the best of my recall).  But with a completely fictional account -- and, in fact, with all completely fictional accounts I've attempted -- I end up running out of steam, or losing sight of the story, or changing the direction in the middle ... all because I lose the grip on the initial goal of the characters, the story or the conflict.

My first full-length novel was a joke of an attempt to tell the story of supernatural events as they inject themselves into the lives of people that have divergent beliefs.  It didn't work; I didn't have an underlying plot of any kind, my grasp of theology was at best poor, my understanding of the occult was weak and unsupported with research of any kind, and based primarily on ideas of people that were less than credible.  So the story didn't hold together very well, I had no idea how to write a book, what the processes involved were and the basic principles of fiction were outside my scope of knowledge, too.  I was writing the story on the fly each time I sat at the keyboard.  Every chapter was a cliff hanger, and the trail of events was implausible, and the characters were exaggerated archetypes of actual people I knew.  In short, it was a piece of feces.  I am ashamed to have written it, to have wasted so much of my time on it, and now that it's been lost forever I'm grateful.

In the second piece I wrote, I got through the whole thing.  I started with an idea to tell, in a fictionalized way, the story of events as my wife and I lived through them.  But I didn't get that far; about halfway through my goal word count, I got the idea that the book was boring and lagging.  I'd introduced some characters with one thing in mind, but no real idea of how I was going to make those things manifest themselves in the story.  I wasn't working from an outline, because my life was already laid out and I was just going to retell the tale in a story form.  When I got nervous about it, though, I changed horses mid-stream.  I took the story in a completely unrelated and unexpected direction.  It was an unplanned excursion, and it showed.  I had to go back and insert internal dialog for characters, I had things in it that were only there for fluff and filler (trying to make that magic word count), and the whole thing felt like two books mashed together using the same names.  It was, again, a chunk of steaming fecal matter, and while it has the bones to be something decent, I don't know if I'm a talented enough writer to salvage it.  If I did, I'd have to pick one story line or the other though, and start over from the beginning.

Now, I'm still not a great writer of fiction.  I can tell a funny story, or a poignant one, or a weird one, or a creepy one -- but I don't know about a long, consistent one that builds, slows, builds, slows, and crescendos.  So far, I haven't done it successfully.  I haven't got the skills and/or training to see an idea go from a loose outline to a full-blown novel.  There are so many methods for writing a book, I don't know which one works for me.  And I can't do it the way that I do short fiction.  I've proven that by repeatable processes ala the scientific method more than once.  So, now I've got a conundrum.

So, at this point, I analyze myself into "analysis paralysis."  I can't move forward, because I don't know how.  I can't get the idea out of my head, because I sort of like it, but can't determine how to make it come to life.  I can't do it in short form, because the story would probably require more than a few thousand words to tell.  At least, I think so.  What am I going to do, then?

Part of me thinks that, if I sit and think about it long enough, jot down any and all ideas, I can worry about coherency later.  I can then get a rough outline and see where the little things I've jotted can fit into the overall scheme.  I need a plot, plot points, scenes, and then some people swear by the index card thing wherein they move the index cards around to strengthen the story.

I don't know.  Like I said, I've never done any of that, and that really seems to take the wind out of the sails of the joy of writing.  On the other hand, that's how most good writers work, and I need to take my cues from them.  There's a reason they're good, and published, and I'm a loser that can't even hold the attention of the blog traffic I get.  (Every once in a while, I think Stranger sends people my way.  I can tell when she does it, because I get a big spike in traffic on my Wordpress blog.  She's sweet like that, and I don't know why, but I thank her for her kindness.)

So, how does one go about giving birth to an idea?  How do you nurture it along, massaging it from vague ambiguity to solidified story?  How long does it roll around in your head?  Should it?  Should I be getting it out on paper while it's in my mind's fore, instead of taking a chance that it's going to vanish into the ether or my so-called mind?  All questions that I've no idea how to answer.  It looks like I'm going to be spending some quality time with Google soon.

Meanwhile, I'm not doing anything creative lately.  I'm not sketching much, I'm not writing much, and I'm generally just being a couch potato.  On the upside, my car's repairs aren't going to be as bad as we thought financially.  There may still be a chance, according to my wife, that I can go get that Ph.D. in theology.  (I still say we can't afford it, she's trying to find excuses why we can.  THERE's a switch for you.  Normally, she's the one talking ME out of buying something while I'm the one trying to convince HER it should happen.)

Well, I guess I'll just keep kicking this around, but if anyone reading this has any suggestions about how to get an idea to either concrete itself or go away, I'm open to them.

As always, thanks for taking the time to wade through the tangle.


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