Conceiving

  • Where ideas come from:

The idea for a story can begin with most anything. A setting can so inspire us, we want to return there again and again, at least in our minds. A character we meet or imagine can invite us to learn more about her. An image can present us with questions we need to answer.

Novelist Don Winslow tells about the joy of a job that has him starting each day with the question What if … ?

Raymond Carver, a master of the short story, once found himself story-less and vacuuming when the telephone rang. Now he had a story, or at least the first line: “He was running the vacuum when the telephone rang.” Which raises the questions: Why is a man during a patriarchal era vacuuming? and Who is the caller and what does he want?

  • Finding the right idea:

Since the essence of a story is conflict and resolution, it stands to reason that no matter if you are writing fiction, biography or memoir, the more gnarly (pardon my vocab, I grew up on the California coast) the conflict the more potentially gripping the story.

But gnarly is of course a subjective concept. What’s gnarly for me may be a troubled romance, what’s gnarly for you may be a zombie apocalypse.

So the best advice I can give here is to choose the conflict you would be most satisfied to discover answers about. Even if you know the eventual outcome, say of a memoir, the idea of exploring the details of how that outcome was reached may light up your passion.

  • Where to go once you’ve settled on an idea:
  1. Scott Fitzgerald has been quoted as saying, “To write a short story, lock yourself in a hotel room with a bottle of whiskey. But for novels, sobriety is the ticket.”

A less witty version of the same advice might be, for short stories you can start anywhere, even with a sentence about a vacuum cleaner, and just follow the story where you feel led, word-by-word or line-by-line. But for novels, giving lots of forethought is a better strategy. Otherwise, you may get waylaid by ideas and wander off every which way.

Long ago, I began writing what I meant to be a short story of fifteen pages or so. When at last I put it aside, it was over fourteen hundred pages, and very little of that has yet seen publication.

So, most of us novelists outline, at some point and in one way or another.

  • How much and how to outline:

This may depend on how your brain works. Does your “right brain” dominate? Are you gifted with a wild and free-associating imagination? Then you probably need to outline. Or, are you more of a “left brain” linear thinker. Then you may need to free your imagination by just starting with a conflict and cutting loose.

If you’re going to outline, the question remains, what kind of outline will you use. A good one can be found in Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story, which you’ll read about a couple pages on.

Another scheme I like is to make your “outline” a very rough draft of your book. Just start writing, scene by scene. If the scene comes vividly to you, write it out. If it’s only a vague idea, jot down the main idea. And continue through the whole novel that way, in an extended brainstorming session.

  • What to know and do before you start writing:

Some authors do extensive research before they sit down to write the book. The advantage to this is obvious, but there’s also at least one disadvantage. Often the research becomes so exciting, we might want to include more of what we’ve learned than the story calls for.

Other writers don’t do much research until they’ve finished the first draft, relying on what they knew about the subject and on their imaginations. This allows the imagination to work without the restraint facts might impose upon it. But if we choose to go this way, once we’ve finished the draft and turned to the research, it can leave us realizing we’re not so informed as we thought, and now we need to revise extensively.

Still others do some research before, more during, and more after the first draft.  I use this method, largely because I get anxious to throw myself into the story and can’t bear to wait any longer. Also, once I have entered the world of the story, the research feels more vital, and I find myself more able to focus my reading or searching on what I can use.  And, after I complete a draft, when I go looking for specific details to enrich the story and give it more authenticity, I know better what I’m looking for, which saves time.