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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-09-08 20:50
Subject: [process] Ideas as matches
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
In a discussion elsewhere, I said something which I thought worth repeating in a public forum. Here it is, quoted with permission, with light edits for clarity.

For me, a story idea is like a match. It can be very small, but with a lot of potential. I can light it and go looking for something to make a bigger fire of. Sometimes I'm walking in fog and there's nothing to burn, and the match goes out. Sometimes I find a worm-eaten library where I can immolate the words of centuries in a blaze so bright it makes the pages smoke. Usually it's something in the middle, but I never know until after I've lit the match and started looking.

I'd like to say it takes a lot of courage for me to write the way I do, but I don't think it does,
for me. That's just what I do...trust my process and follow the headlights. But it might well take a lot of courage for you to write the way I do — light the tiny match and see where it goes.

I think the key "aha" here, at least potentially, is that the definition of what constitutes a viable story idea varies considerably from writer to writer. At one end of the spectrum, some people need a tight outline, character sheets, even charts and maps — they need to see the story before they set word to page. It's not an idea til its thoroughly worked out. At the other end of the spectrum, there's idiots like me bumping about in the dark, setting fire to our hair, failing a lot, but producing good work often enough that no one generally notices.

What does an idea look like to you?
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-09-09 03:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A seed. (I just posted about this to SF Novelists, in fact.) It's a fairly compact bit of something that I bury in the compost of my brain, and then one day it starts putting out leaves and roots and turning into something bigger. Some of them grow one leaf every year or so; others explode like kudzu. I generally don't start writing until the growing begins, though, and the germination happens in my subconscious. Consciously attempting to force-grow a seed tends to get me nowhere.
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User: desperance
Date: 2007-09-09 08:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm very much down your end of the garden, Jay - except that I tend to think that the best stories happen where two different ideas come together and generate friction between 'em. Which is why I tend to have a lot of unfinished stories sitting around, waiting for that second idea. Which is what I wanted to ask you, consequent on this post: do you find that you abandon or set aside a lot of stories half-done, because the match has gone out too soon? There doesn't seem to have been a story there after all, or it needs something more before you're ready to write it, or whatever? We know how much you publish, but how much do you bin, and how much do you hang on to in case you want to go back to it later?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-09-09 15:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
do you find that you abandon or set aside a lot of stories half-done, because the match has gone out too soon?

No. I finish virtually everything I start. Maybe 5% of starts get abandoned for some reason. (This is different for collabs, which move on a different schedule and process, but are never truly abandoned, even if they take years.) Even if there doesnt seem to be much of a story, or I know I'm going to ditch it when I'm done, one of my disciplines is to make a complete effort.

We know how much you publish, but how much do you bin, and how much do you hang on to in case you want to go back to it later?

Hmm. My recent glance at my statistics suggests 380 stories completed, 210 sold, about 50 in circulation or actively awaiting rewrite. That makes 120 of the 380 I've either binned or set aside for eventual rewrite.

I think the numbers I've thrown around before for first draft were an initial goal of 25% worthwhile/25% salvageable/50% junk. I believe I'm running more like 50% worthwhile/25% salvageable/25% junk these days.
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User: whafford
Date: 2007-09-09 09:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm exactly the same way, bumping around in the fog. And sometimes I feel as though my characters themselves are dragging me in some direction I never expected. If I laid out everything first, it would be harder for that to happen.

Most of the advice I've gotten has been against the bump method, so I'm glad to see that others do it too.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-09-09 15:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Most of the advice I've gotten has been against the bump method, so I'm glad to see that others do it too.

Yah. First time I realized I wasn't an idiot (there is little or no formal writing advice out there which endorses this method) was in a discussion with Nina Kiriki Hoffman, who writes the same way. I reasoned that if she did it, it was ok for me to do it.
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User: manmela
Date: 2007-09-09 11:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My ideas normally come to me when I'm driving (so much so that my sun visor now has a whiteboard for when I stop at lights / pull over). My brain is very visual so I'll see a scene as if it was out of a movie. This usually isn't enough for a story so I'll try and get lost in that scene. Out of that may come lines of prose or dialogue. I might ask questions which leads me onto further ideas.

Maybe it's the stage I'm at in my writing career, but I'll often want to subvert an idea. If the tone of the story is fairy, I'll want to make the story a horror.

If the idea isn't fully formed in my head, I'll leave it, let it boil. I'll replay the scrap of an idea over and over in my head, trying new dialogue and new plots. Some will stick, and I'll go "Oh that's exciting" and it'll take me off into another scene

Ideas have never been a problem for me... it's the reason I write, to try and get all these stories out of my head. I always say that creativity is a muscle and needs exercise, and I do a lot to keep my imagination active. I feel my creativity could win marathons (recently I couldn't go out in the car for fear of getting a great short story idea and now have a backlog). Unfortunately my wordsmithing gets worn out just walking up the stairs.
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User: ex_kaz_maho
Date: 2007-09-09 13:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is interesting because it's something I'm only just beginning to discover for myself. (Note: I'm always open to the possibility that I may be one of 'those' writers with a *different* way of stumbling upon and then developing ideas for *each* book. We'll see about that one.) But for the current project, the idea was a very strong image - which is unusual for me, anyway - and then three very clearly defined characters operating within that image/landscape. I'm just working from that central idea - the image, those characters - to see where this takes me.
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Mister Eclectic
User: howeird
Date: 2007-09-09 16:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
the definition of what constitutes a viable story idea varies considerably from writer to writer
And from reader to reader. The question is, I guess, will you be able to find an editor who will recognize that your story idea is one her readers will find viable?
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In a heaven of people only some want to fly
User: chipmunk_planet
Date: 2007-09-09 17:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like the match analogy a lot. More like a flare for me.

I've written a story for just about every one of my ideas so far. Whether any of them are any good is another matter ...
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User: steve_buchheit
Date: 2007-09-09 21:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
For me, it's more like Stephen King describes in "On Writing." It's like a found bone. One that you need to excavate out. And one bone usually leads to another. Then another pops out. How you put them together is a whole other thing. As the taxidermist in "Century" said on the stand when testifying about being given a shot-gunned Bald Eagle to mount, "I can make a bald eagle, or I can make a duck out of this. What do you want?"

Sometime I get a scene, some character doing something or some big happening (the later usually doesn't make for good story). About 45% of the time I get the words. They just start flowing, I write them down. More words come out after I have the first ones down. Eventually it all comes to hard work putting them all together and getting the story done and then finished. Sometimes the bone survives to the end, sometimes it doesn't. In either case it the start of writing for me.
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User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2007-09-10 00:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
To me an idea is a contrast, some kind of a surprise. "Pope Hecate Silvermoon." Two mis-matched things, and how they happen to combine.

You can take each end and stretch them further apart with a lot of twists in between, and have an epic novel that begins with a pagan girl and then there are some wars and social changes such that she ends up Pope. Or you can do a three-page thing with a royal Roman having a dream about conquering in the sign of Hecate instead of the sign of the Christian cross. Or you can give Pope H.C., elected 2007, a cameo throwaway bit in a story that's really about magic rocketships in an alternate reality where (for unspecified reasons) a pagan cult had the Vatican's power and encouraged magic research.

I wouldn't really get a story out of it, till somehow some actual dialog or action sort of spontaneously combined, though.
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User: cithra
Date: 2007-09-10 00:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Most often, the skeleton of an idea will show up and insist I clothe it in flesh. Or maybe a better analogy is the genotype-phenotype relationship. How do I recognize an idea when it arrives on my mental doorstep? Usually a phrase will have suggested itself, and will rattle around in my brain distracting me until I sit down and write something with/on it. The few times I've tried using an outline I've ended up going somewhere completely different, so I mostly don't bother any more unless it's something like a thesis with strict protocols.
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User: neutronjockey
Date: 2007-09-10 02:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
An idea is to me is a blank sheet of paper.
I collect troves of empty notebooks and reams of paper because...
each sheet represents and infinite amount of possibilities.
I just sit and stare at the paper and watch it happen. I don't hit the keyboard until the story is already written. I'll talk to myself, pantomime the actions, rock back and forth like a quasi-catatonic on thorazine...
It's all about the paper Jay...
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User: jedinemo
Date: 2007-09-10 05:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Often an idea is a vivid scene or interaction between characters. Sometimes these first imagined scenes are the heart of the story, but more often the best part is not revealed until I'm deep into writing the story, and is something I wouldn't have thought of at the start.

A high octane idea has enough energy that I can map out several chapters right away.

I have used complex outlines, but I've learned to have faith in the stumbling through the fog method.

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Jonathan Wood
User: thexmedic
Date: 2007-09-10 13:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Just write? Just go ahead and plunge in...?

Actually I used to do that a lot, but I found it lead to a lot of convolutions, a lot of dead ends, more flailing about the progress. Which would be fine if I liked editing, but I didn't. So I have come up with a long process which goes from initial seed idea (e.g. for current work-in-progress "super-detective") which then stews for a while until I come up with a theme to match it to and then I sit on my commute and write reams and reams about what I might think about these two, trying to find a middle ground, jotting down ideas and rejecting them, until I finally has out what is likely to be a workable plot.

I don't do anything with characters though. I really can't write anything 'til the voice pops into my head, and once I've got that I'm ready to go.

Bizarrely, this seems to have in no way cut down on the amount of editing I need to do.
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Leah Cutter: Castle
User: lrcutter
Date: 2007-09-10 15:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like the match analogy, but that isn't quite accurate for me.

For me, for novel ideas, it's more like I've stumbled into a castle or palace, and a brilliant flare lights. It illuminates the entrance way, a few rooms, maybe a couple of gardens and a dungeon room or two, and I can see all of them simultaneously. In other words, I know the beginning, one or two scenes in the middle, as well as the final climatic scene. I've learned that I have to be able to see that ending -- otherwise it isn't a viable story idea. I can't discover that ending halfway through. While I'm writing, I get to explore the rest of the building. Sometimes I go to rooms that turn out to be unimportant and need to be skipped, or I get to a room too quickly and I have to backtrack and figure out another, longer (more logical) route there.

For short stories, I generally see the beginning and the end, and I just have to figure out how to get there. Sometimes I can create a viable short story without knowing the ending -- maybe 1 time out of 5. But that's a recent development, as of last year. I guess I finally have a good enough innate sense of story to be able to do that.

As you know, I used to have to outline everything. Partly I think that was required because of the type of novels I was writing (historical fantasy.) Now, since I'm writing straight fantasy, where I get to make up everything, I'm outlining after I've written, and using the outline as a revisioning took, to make sure things are happening in the right order.
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