Monday, February 19, 2007

Write, Written, Wrote

Well, my submission to Psicom Publishing has been completed; I managed to dream up a passable plot sometime after Valentines' Day, then spent the latter part of the week trying to write down the three thousand words that would extemporize it. I finally completed the story somewhere around two in the morning last night, and then rushed it off via e-mail because I didn't want to look at the thing anymore. Hopefully some good comes of it.

The previous week's tribulations have dredged up a few old questions that have haunted me for a while now, ever since I started writing after college. I figure, moreover, that each and every author eventually has to ask themselves these questions as well: How do we come up with story ideas, anyway? What kind of atmosphere or environment is most conducive to this sort of thinking? And how, for that matter, does one encounter and escape the dreaded "writer's block"?

Every writer has a different way of looking at these questions. I have my own personal take on them, of course, but I've observed that there are plenty of other people out there who have asked themselves the same things and have arrived at different answers depending on their experience, their repertoire, or even their current lifestyle. I'll even go as far as to note that peoples' answers to these questions may change with time; I suppose that this is one of those things that writers constantly ask themselves, something that gauges how far you've gotten since the time you first decided to put words to paper.

"How Do You Come Up With This Stuff?"

I think that anyone's facility with plot ideas will stem from a single word: "Why?"

For one, I know that I'm the kind of person who constantly asks how things work. Throw me a math problem and I'll concern myself with finding a logical route to the correct answer. Raise a particular tenet of game strategy and I'll try to break down the reasons as to why it can be consistently practiced. Show me a nice piece of technology and I'll probably be taking it apart sometime in the future when you're not looking. I simply try to establish a chain of logical causes and effects for everything I see and experience.

As you would probably expect, this was hell for my immediate family. You should try explaining a few cultural superstitions to a logic-minded five-year-old kid sometime. It's the kind of exercise that literally drives you up the wall and makes it impossible to convince the kid to do anything. (Yes, my childhood was weird. Ask my mother.)

More importantly, however, I believe that getting down to the fundamentals of things allows you to see how they function at their basest levels. This brings about a kind of general understanding of things: Being able to explain how people think and react, for example, allows you to map out some basic areas of human psychology. From there, you can move on to an analysis of historical events (which are the products of human interaction), political theory (which deals with human governance), and many more areas that touch on the same dynamic. Everything in the world tends to be dependent on pretty much everything else; Knowledge is a matter of finding the common threads that link them together.

It is usually at that point when we end up asking a second question: "What if...?"

A good part of speculative fiction hinges on the "what if" question: What if you had a spaceship tasked with exploring the unknown parts of the galaxy? What if there was this entire imaginary kingdom that existed in the back of an old wardrobe? What if you had an entire fantasy universe where all the women wore skimpy armor made out of tinfoil?

I feel that having a greater understanding of the world allows you to speculate on possible places, scenarios and events -- stuff that might not generally exist in our limited perceptions, but which should logically make sense under the right circumstances. In that sense, a plot idea is nothing more than the answer to a "what if" question, supported and given life by the answer to the inevitable "why" question.

In short, if one manages to conceive a scenario and then proceeds to back it up with a logical progression of events... then one has a story idea, plain and simple. I'm not certain if there's much more to it, really.

A Deadening of Minds

The fact that you could cook up a story idea from a general understanding of your surroundings implies that there aren't any specific environments that are conducive to creativity. I believe that anyone can literally come up with ideas under any circumstances; They may not always be good ideas, but they'll almost certainly be ideas.

I do feel, however, that there are some environments that aren't particularly receptive to new ideas; Either they suspend logic or force it to shut down, or simply don't welcome creative thought in the first place. These environments will, of course, vary from person to person -- different people will be able to glean flashes of inspiration from different places, after all.

On my part, I feel that anything that rewards "brainless" thought should be avoided. Menial repetitive work is probably my number one offender in this regard -- it encourages people to run on autopilot with nary a divergent thought, after all. Entertainment media has tended towards slapstick humor and overemotional drama at some points, and I figure that anything that makes us laugh and cry without allowing us time to figure out why should be given a wide berth. (This, of course, is relative. If you see comedy routines and soap operas as worthwhile avenues for logical thought, then they probably work better for you than for me.)

Likewise, any forum that doesn't tolerate open-minded thought tends to be a problem. Any place that requires you to think as part of a crowd presents an obstacle to creativity, unless you're willing to stand out in such an environment. Any place where you get jeered at, unnecessarily criticized or shouted down isn't much help in the first place, unless you're using it to analyze the relevant aspects of human behavior.

Otherwise, you've got quite an open selection out there. I will go as far as to say that anything that relaxes or comforts me provides adequate fodder for ideas and allows me to think out possible plotlines -- I often walk around malls, play computer games, or hold conversations over Yahoo! Messenger. I avoid stressful situations (because they force me to think about the stress instead of causing my mind to wander), popular novels (because the ideas I gain from them are usually acquired by the majority as well), and even headphone-based music (because when I listen to music, I like to do nothing but listen to music.)

Of course, different people will have different sources of ideas. What we should recognize, however, is the fact that we can usually get these ideas from anywhere. It's just a matter of being able to open up our minds to the possibilities.


Most experienced writers I know do not seem to encounter Writer's Block at all. They simply write stuff, then write some more stuff, and then think for a while and just continue writing stuff.

Nevertheless, Writer's Block appears to be a sizeable problem among younger writers. There are just some points in a person's existence, they say, when you just can't think of anything to write about. There are just some days where you can't squeeze out a single ounce of creative thought regardless of what you do.

Now, I don't want to compound the sufferings of younger writers by insisting that Writer's Block doesn't exist. Neither, for that matter, would I want to insult the more experienced authors by insisting that Writer's Block is a real and distinct problem. So I'll toe the line on this one and explain my take on the situation.

I believe that there is only one relevant, fundamental truth here: Sometimes you just can't think of anything worthwhile to write. Maybe you've been working all week and haven't had the time to consider any good topics. Maybe you've spent thrity-six hours in front of the computer without typing so much as a single letter. Maybe all the ideas you have in mind have already been conceived by other people and executed in much better ways than you think you can accomplish.

In such a case, the only thing you can do is relax. You have to put yourself in a position to be inspired; Stressing yourself out trying to squeeze water from a rock won't help matters in any way.

One good alternative to the situation (especially if you're working on a deadline) is to write in "white heat". This refers to a single session -- perhaps two to five minutes -- where you simply scribble down whatever happens to be running through your mind at the moment. You don't care about grammar or tone or consistency for this one session; It's only there to provide you with ideas, or at least the ones you were fast enough to write down before they disappeared from your head completely. Once you're done, you simply read through the resulting mess, pick out one or two potential topics, and work on those.

So in a sense, Writer's Block doesn't formally exist... but we have to admit that there are times when we simply can't write. The problem isn't insurmountable, though. In fact, most experienced writers will have gone through such periods as well -- they're just used to figuring out how to get around them, that's all.

These are, of course, only my current observations. Different people will have completely different takes on these questions, and that's fine -- we each have our own different styles, anyway. For that matter, I wouldn't even bet that I'd hold exactly the same set of beliefs and observations five or ten years from now. Like I said before, it's a question of how we look at our writing and how it changes our look at the rest of the world.

Chances are that you're a writer yourself, I think. Otherwise you wouldn't even be reading this blog, or any other blogs in the first place. If so, you're eventually going to have to ask yourself these questions as well. You don't have to ask them right now, though. But do keep them in mind for some point in the future.

Retrospection should be part of the craft, after all. If we're going to want to be familiar with the way we write, then we're going to have to be familiar with the way we live, too.


Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I've always liked the directive "write in white heat, revise in cold blood." Unfortunately (particularly for my students and their essays), I seem to do the latter far better than the former. There are days when I just feel more of an editor than a writer. It's also one reason I stopped writing fiction-- I could never sustain the "white heat" long enough to get anything good going. :)

Charles said...

How Do You Come Up With This Stuff?

Well Banzai Cat already pulled the "I order mine from eBay" joke last year I think and that's kind hard to top.

Sean said...

Ailee: Well, the White Heat method is just one alternative; Everybody's bound to have their own sources of inspiration. :)

Charles: I'll point out that, for all we know, he could really have gotten one or two plot ideas through eBay. It seems that you can get anything through eBay nowadays. :)

banzai cat said...

Nice one, Sean. I gotta admit this one really put me through a wringer. As for getting ideas from eBay... that and a number of conversations with Cthulu. Boy, is that guy weird. ;-)

Seriously, when I have an idea, I write it down on a notebook (or anywhere that's handy at the moment). Then when I need a story idea, I scrounge for the bloody thing and pick from there.

Likewise, I have a weird tendency of editing while writing. A bad idea but it helps that when I'm going back to a half-finished story (say, after a day at the office), I read and edit the stuff I've already done so that I can also imbibe the tone and lyricism of the story. Which helps when I'm in a bit of a rush.

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: Er... I actually do those, too. Of all the things to have in common...

The notebook's one of the better practices; I think I've gone through around four or five notebooks over the years for that specific purpose. My general habits only just happen to be different, however, because I keep losing my notebooks. :)

I also lose a lot of time editing while I write. This has more to do with my obsessive tendencies than anything else, though -- I can't read something without the urge to correct or rephrase certain passages. Have you ever managed to complete and submit a story that was formerly half-finished, though? I have yet to find a way to do that...

Charles said...

I use my cell-phone-with-lots-of-memory for jotting down ideas. It's harder to lose than a notebook (although admittedly more prone to theft).

I also salvaged blog entries for ideas. Like Banzai thinking we're all AI's. Or Sean's Teddy Bear horror story (ooops). =)

Sean said...

Charles: If you write a horror story involving teddy bears, then I definitely want to read it. :)