The Story of My Story – Where Does It All Come From?
One of the common questions that authors face – certainly authors of speculative fiction, at any rate (myself included) – is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ A similar, related inquiry is ‘How do you get your ideas down on paper (or computer, as the case may be) and get them to make sense?’
These are queries that most authors face at some point or other in their writing career (if they’re fortunate enough to have fans to ask them!), and there are as many answers to them as there are authors.
A rare few are able to state with absolute certainty the day, the hour, the minute, the second when the muse struck, and every source of inspiration for their story, having taken copious notes of each detail as it occurred, with further plans to publish these notes as appendices or even a companion volumn to their grand masterwork at some later date.
Others are perhaps less sure, but think it might possibly have been because of something their teacher/town gossip/maiden aunt/grandfather/second cousin once removed said to them once at the shops/school/carpark/in the cinema/during a marathon, or a dream they had or a holiday they took once or something on TV or a snatch of overheard conversation from their childhood – or all of the above… Vague, but still with some idea of what triggered the relentless march toward authorhood.
Many others simply have no idea whatsoever how they came by the initial spark that germinated the idea for their story. No amount of head-scratching, star-gazing, or belly-button-fluff removal can return them to that elusive moment when the great ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ moment snuck up behind them, quietly cleared it’s throat, and tapped them on the shoulder. (Some are eternally bothered by this and often seek unsuccessfully to rectify it. Some are not, and happily keep on writing, unperturbed.)
And perhaps others – like me – have stories that fall into all of those categories. Some of mine have very definite beginnings that I can remember and quote all sorts of details about. At the very least, I usually include the date when I write a new story idea down, and then date every new section of notes/ideas/writing until I have a final draft. Other of my stories have little more than the initial idea and the date it was conceived (I have quite a few files like this on my computer, pending time to work on them).
For me, work has rarely proceeded in an orderly manner, from initial idea to outline to first draft to final draft etc. For many years, I simply worked on a story until I got sick of it, or got stuck, or had a shiny brand new idea that demanded precedence. I used to jump around from this story idea to that, work on a story only when I felt like it, or spend months writing poetry instead. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad I wrote that poetry. Some of it was rather good, in my humble opinion.
But looking back, I can see why it took me so long to get to the stage where I was finally ready to knuckle down and treat my writing career seriously (which had always been my intention, but you know, the road to hell and all that…)
A lot of this may even be tied up with my style of writing. Most people who write (or know writers) have heard the terms ‘Planner’ and ‘Pantser’. A planner sits down and very consciously plots out their work in great detail before ever writing a word of it, in order to constrain the story to a very definite structure, control the character and story arcs to have pre-determined outcomes, and leave nothing up to chance (I tried this once and once only. It was a dismal failure, having leached all enjoyment from the story I was trying to write.)
A pantser might start writing with little or no idea at all, or only the very basic outline of an idea or character, and just write until things take shape and grow organically into the form of a story. This has its pitfalls, of course, in that you can write yourself into an impossible corner, or simply get stuck and not know where to take the story next. But it also keeps the adrenaline pumping, and gives you the freedom to explore other ideas, giving freshness and spontaneity to the writing. This was my default mode of writing up until recently.
George R.R. Martin described these styles of writing using the terms ‘Architect’ for a plotter, and ‘Gardener’ for a pantser, and saying that few – if any – writers are one hundred percent one or the other, but a combination of both. I had to agree. Recently a new term has come into usage – a ‘Plantser’, which, as Mr Martin pointed out, describes a combination of plotting and pantsing.
I have come to embrace this concept to describe my current mode of writing. I have found that instead of working from some vague ideas in my head that may or may not change as I go, it’s actually beneficial to jot down a more detailed outline, plot points, and character notes about five to ten thousand words into a novel, and keep adding to it as I go. Along with lots of research – one of my favourite parts of shaping my stories.
By the time I get to the final draft, I have carefully arranged files upon files of notes, research, images, maps, time-lines, family trees, and other related matter that I’ve drawn on, that tells the story of my story.
You know. Just in case I ever do create that compendium of background material as a companion volumn to my novels…
Keep a smile on your dial until next time, and peace and love in your heart
From Lana Lea and her time-travelling muse