Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Ideas

In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #17 ‘Calliope’, Morpheus punishes a writer by overwhelming him with ideas for stories. ‘They’re coming so fast,’ gasps the writer, ‘swamping me, overwhelming me…’

Like most writers, I occasionally wonder what I’ve done to offend Morpheus.

Margaret Atwood seems to have the same problem. She recently responded to the question, ‘How do you generate ideas for stories?’ with the pithy comment ‘I have too many ideas – no need to generate them!’ (http://www.waterstones.com/blog/2014/08/ask-atwood-the-answers/)

newt in a fountainIt’s the classic clichéd reader-to-writer question: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ As if ideas are rare and precious things – diamonds – we must scratch and search and dig for, and hoard once we find them. Keith Johnstone, granddaddy of performance improvisation, points out that ideas are all around us, inside and out, flowing through us every minute of every day – we exist in a gushing torrent of ideas, like newts in a fountain. Being ‘stuck for an idea’, Keith says, means we’re blocking our own creativity: judging and rejecting perfectly good ideas before we’ve even let them into consciousness.

The real question is not ‘Where do you get ideas?’ but ‘What happens to turn ideas into stories?’ Well, a lot of things.

Capturing

John Gregory Dunne said the thing most necessary to being a writer is always having the means at hand to record an idea when it strikes you. Joan Diderot, in her 1996 essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, said her notebooks were full of ‘bits of the mind’s string too short to use’ – moments, impressions, that later might get woven into something substantial. I use the voice recorder function on my phone; I have friends who use Google Docs. Find tools that work for you, and catch those passing ideas.

Prioritising

I don’t know about you, but my time and energy are limited. Sometimes a story idea seizes my brain and won’t let go: it saves me the trouble of prioritising by insisting, ‘I go first!’ Unfortunately, the initial flush of energy rarely lasts long enough to finish the story before a new idea starts pushing and shoving, demanding attention. I do as much as I can with one idea – making sure it’s all written down or recorded – before I get distracted. That way at least I’ve got something to come back to when time and brainspace allow.

Sometimes, a particular competition or publication opportunity looms. That makes prioritisation easier: if you know one idea is more suitable than others for the length of story required, the theme, or the judges, you can focus on it.

Matching

You have an idea you really like. Now, what form will best serve the communication of this idea? Is it a poem? A prose poem or a sestina? Is it a song lyric? A rap or an anthem? A rap anthem? Maybe it’s a huge idea with lots of ramifications to unpack. A novel, then? Or is it a delicate, intricate, tiny but powerful idea, perfect for a piece of flash fiction? You might not be sure until you begin to write, but often the idea itself suggests certain forms and gives the thumbs-down to others.

Combining

One idea does not a story make. I have a colleague who won’t begin a story until he has three unrelated ‘elements’, or ideas, to combine. He writes about these elements with the aim of drawing them together, and the process of doing this generates new ideas.

This is where it’s useful to have lots of ideas sitting around in various stages of development. Maybe Idea X isn’t strong enough to drive a whole story on its own – but combined with Y and Z, it’s a winner.

Expanding and exploring

An idea just popped into your head – in the shower, at the theatre, over dinner with your in-laws. What is it about this idea that’s triggered your writerly instincts? Different writers explore ideas in different ways. I like to brainstorm a fresh idea, with pen and paper or onto the voice recorder, before trying to write about it. My writing buddy will mull the idea over while walking the dog, then sit down and begin slowly and thoughtfully writing the story. Whatever your process, what you’re doing at this point is exploring and expanding the idea – ‘extending’, in impro theatre terms. See where it goes. Investigate what other ideas it brings in its train. Decide where you want to put the limits around it, for the purposes of this particular tale. The process will continue as you write, rewrite and edit the story, but it’s nice to devote some serious time to ‘exploring the idea’ right at the start.

Expressing

Yup, the bit where the rubber meets the road. One of my uni lecturers memorably told the class, ‘Ideas are beautiful. They live in a beautiful place called Ideas-Land. As soon as you start trying to wrestle them through to the plane we live on, they inevitably get mangled. Your skill as a writer lies in your ability to unmangle them, and return them to a semblance of their original beauty.’ I was profoundly relieved to discover I was not the only idea-mangler.ideas land

You get a choice of exercises this week. Select freely, according to your current need.

  1. Review how you capture ideas. Do you have a system? Could it work better, perhaps by using different tools?
  2. Practise prioritising. Are you dithering around among too many projects, too many ideas? Pick one and make some real progress on it. Capture intrusive competing ideas and set them aside until you get a tangible outcome from Idea Number One.
  3. Go through your Random Ideas file and note down at least 3-4 different forms in which you could imagine this idea at home (e.g. flash fiction piece with a satirical tone, murder mystery, sit-com episode, sonnet, etc.) Cast your net wide. Which of these are you interested in writing? Note down one form you think definitely wouldn’t suit this idea. Why not? You might be surprised what you learn about the idea itself through doing this exercise.
  4. If you’re feeling playful, pick three ideas that seem completely unrelated. Give yourself a time limit (5 or 10 minutes). Write the first draft of a piece that brings those seemingly disparate ideas together.
  5. Take one idea and explore it in a way you normally wouldn’t. Go for a walk (or a bike-ride, drive, kayak etc.) and dedicate your brain to exploring that idea until you get back. Flip through magazines looking for images that illustrate the idea in some way, and create a collage. Use butcher’s paper and coloured pens to make a concept map. Assemble a soundtrack that explores various facets of the idea. Improvise an expressive dance. The point is to try something you haven’t tried before, and in doing so equip yourself with new techniques for creating the idea-to-story bridge. Feel free to Comment and share your own techniques. Happy writing!

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at http://fictionsoutheast.com

 

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Grab the reader

“But why?” I wailed. “Why won’t you read my book?”

My thirteen year-old son shrugged. “It just doesn’t grab me.”

I’ve drafted my first-ever children’s book, and I’m cajoling every child of my acquaintance to read it and tell me what they think. My very helpful nieces have done so, without the need for emotional blackmail, bribery or threats (thank you, Rhiannon and Briley!) But my own kids haven’t made it past the first three pages. Which is a pretty big red flag.

Every “How-to-Write-a-Book” book gives the same advice – grab the reader on the first page. Once she’s hooked, maybe you can let the pressure off a bit (unless you’re Matthew Reilly). But it’s fatal to let the reader get a few pages in and give up, because nothing exciting or intriguing has happened to “grab” her.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about this advice. Many of the books I love start with paragraphs of description – of a place, or a character – a bit of mood-setting, some information, even a philosophical rant. But I recognise, firstly, that such openings tend to be associated with older works (my editor friend Helena Bond has pointed out that most Georgette Heyer books begin with description rather than action or dialogue). And even a low-key opening must offer the reader something she wants, some promise she’s keen to see fulfilled.

I’m having a quick look at a random selection of books lying around my house at the moment, and the various techniques authors use to hook us in.

Teaser – a sneak peak at story’s climax

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (shut up, I’m loving it) begins with a scene you know must be from the climax – then goes back and narrates the events leading up to it. First line: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” That’s a grabber.

Similarly, Miranda Darling begins The Siren’s Sting with a dramatic event involving two characters, then starts the main story some time earlier. The protagonist is not one of the characters we’ve briefly glimpsed in the prologue, so the tension that pulls us into the story initially is the desire to know who these two people are, when the protagonist will meet them, and what the opening scene will turn out to mean in the larger context of the story.

Prologue – events that occur before the main story begins, and cast a shadow

An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, my favourite book ever, starts with a brief prologue introducing the two main characters on a kind of mythic level – appropriate for a book narrated by a poet. I remember being intrigued and wooed by the style, the mood and the mystery.

Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach is somewhat similar, beginning with a brief “Part One”/prologue referring to events which occur before the main story begins. The promise is that the significance of these events will be unfolded over the course of the story. Evelyn Waugh does the same in Brideshead Revisited. Kim Wilkins does it in The Resurrectionists, but in this case the Prologue occurs only a short time before the main story starts, and is the immediate catalyst for it.

Keri Hulme, in The Bone People, uses her prologue to introduce her main characters, but very cryptically. You know you’ll have to go back and re-read it, once you figure out what’s going on.

Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark introduces her protagonist as a child, seventeen years before the story begins, and her second main character as a young man three years before the story begins. At this stage we have no idea whether they know each other. Some of the expectation, therefore, is about when and how they’ll encounter each other story and what will be the result.

Prologue-Epilogue frame – start with events that occur after the story has finished

David Malouf’s Johnno starts with a Prologue in which the narrator is going through his father’s effects after his death. The narrator finds a photograph, which triggers memories of his friend Johnno. The story proper explores the history of that relationship. What sucks me in on the first page is the situation – a man describing his father, his father’s death, his own reaction. It’s a situation at once so common and so unique, of course I care and of course I want to read more about it.

Beginning at the beginning – origin stories

Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes begins with an unnamed instrument-maker creating the accordion of the title. What grabs me is the close focalisation, the instrument-maker’s intense concentration and passion, and the rich vivid sensory depiction of details. The lacquer on the instrument is “gleaming like wet sap”. The maker is someone who hears harmonies “in the groan of hinges”. The promise of this opening is that the writer has constructed her story with the same fanatical care and attention to detail as the instrument-maker creating the accordion, with which we are about to pass a hundred years.

Humour

Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, of course, starts with a character who has a silly name, doing something intricately pointless but exquisitely linguistically funny. Solid Jackson is fishing for Curious Squid, “so called because, as well as being squid, they were curious”. Okay, I’m hooked.

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, begins with a “sublime to ridiculous” first page. There’s a kind of Biblical invocation, in which all of creation is sung into existence, before the narrator tells us chattily “There are other things you can do with songs. They do not only make worlds or recreate existence. Fat Charlie Nancy’s father, for example, was simply using them to have what he hoped and expected would be a marvellous night out”. Of course, as well as being slightly and pleasantly confused, we are now intensely curious about both Fat Charlie Nancy and his father.

A powerful emotion

William Golding’s The Spire opens with the protagonist laughing for joy – out loud, immoderately, and in the face of his companion’s misgivings. The imagery is also startling and initially confusing – “God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass”. We read on, gathering up the hints as the author drops them, desperate to know why a Dean in his cathedral just before Matins can’t help laughing uproariously with excitement. So it’s not just the expressed emotion that grabs us, but curiosity about its cause.

Instant drama

Tim Winton’s Breath begins with the first person narrator in an ambulance; he’s a paramedic rushing to an emergency, lights flashing and sirens blaring. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, he’s in a conflict with the young woman who’s driving, and we know we’re going to hear more about that. Grabbed. Cloudstreet is different – it’s more like The Spire, with lyricism and joyful energy sucking us in first. But the sense of imminent danger cuts in very quickly too – someone is rushing towards the river, someone who shouldn’t be. In Cloudstreet we know we won’t find out till the end what happens to this person – and that’s a lot of reading! – but the language and the characters are going to take us there.

Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, starts with someone sneaking around trying not to get caught. We’re told that she’s accompanied by her daemon, and we quickly realise she’s a child. Yes, I want to know what she’s up to. The single word “daemon” alerts me to the fact that she’s not in my world – from the start I’m working hard to compare and contrast her world with mine, reach some comprehension of her world in time and space as I know it. She’s grabbed me.

Intriguing characters

Wuthering Heights begins with an interesting juxtaposition – a first-person narrator jauntily describing himself as a misanthrope and rejoicing that he has come to live in such a bleak, unpeopled corner of England. He immediately embroils himself in an edgy social encounter with his landlord, Heathcliff, “a man who seemed even more exaggeratedly reserved than myself”. There’s a delightful energy about Lockwood’s determination to inflict his company on Heathcliff, who so patently doesn’t want it, that we read on to see what will fall out.

Begin with dialogue

Another technique, recommended by Craig Bolland from the School of Creative Writing at QUT, is beginning with dialogue. I didn’t find an example in my random book-snatching, but I think it’s a good way to hook the reader straight into the relationship between two characters.

A writing exercise? Write the opening paragraphs of your next ten stories (hypothetically!) Each opening paragraph should aim to use a different technique for “grabbing” the reader:

1. A sneak peak of the story’s climax, which is yet to come

2. An event that occurs before the main story begins, and promises to influence the main story

3. An event that occurs after the main story ends, and promises to be meaningful once the main story has been told

4. Begin the story “starting at the very beginning”, with a strong sense that this moment will have far-reaching effects

5. Start with humour

6. Start with a strong emotion

7. Start with instant drama/trouble/conflict, through which we are introduced to the characters

8. Start with an intriguing character

9. Begin with dialogue

10. Start with something that is consciously none of the above – maybe a piece of scene-setting. How can you “grab” the reader through this opening? What can you promise her, how can you intrigue her, what can you do to make her want to keep reading?

Good luck – let me know how you get on!

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