Where do you get your ideas?

Glass half full - Guenette photo

Recently, I was asked this question – How do you come up with the ideas for your books? The person asking was sincere in a desire to understand the inner workings of a novelist’s process. My first thought was that ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere, free for the taking. As Amy Tan wrote, “It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.”

Neil Gaimon talks of how every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors are asked for medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting their profession must be before the subject is quickly changed. Writers must bear the burden of being asked where we get our ideas from.

I scrambled to pull my thoughts together and make an adequate reply. I considered answering as Hemingway would. “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” From there all will flow. I rejected that idea. By quoting Hemingway I ran the risk of sounding like a literary snob and such an answer would have been unsatisfying to a sincere questioner.

Instead, I talked of how I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. They are the ones who have all the ideas. I’m with Stephen King when he says that the best stories always end up being about the people, not the events. The only problem with this answer is that it begged the next question. Where do the characters come from?

Where indeed? Even after five forays into creating characters and stories that fill whole books, the process is as much a mystery to me as it might be to someone who has never done it. Fair to say, as Chuck Palahniuk notes, “My writing process isn’t a very organized thing.”

The more I think about how the books came to be, the more the indefinable nature of the work strikes me. It’s almost as if I have fallen victim to a strange reflective amnesia. Where on earth did those first characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight come from? I just don’t know. E.L Doctorow tells us, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” He might have been wise to add that when looking in the rear-view mirror, one can see nothing at all.

The writing process is a hard thing to discuss. Virginia Wolfe had it right when she reflected that, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of … life, every quality of … mind is written large in his [or her] words.”

All I know for sure is that all my life I’ve wondered about people. I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been prone to wild bouts of speculation. Questions of ‘what if’ have often driven my thoughts.

Maybe George Orwell has the answer. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one weren’t driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Orwell could have also noted that having to talk about such a process is worse than going through it!

A new bird in town - Guenette photo

Content Editor, Anyone?

Storyboard - Guenette photo

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. – Arthur Plotnik

Since I self-published and began to read widely across genres in the self-publishing world, I cannot count the number of times I’ve said, “I wish I could have had a crack at this book before the author published it.” I realize that sounds egotistical but I cannot help myself.

You see, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a gifted content editor in my own writing. After taking apart four novels and reconstructing them to be as sleek as I ever thought my writing could be. Comments such as – jarring, unnecessary, redundant, unclear, doesn’t make sense, loose construction etc. etc. – have pushed me to more hours of rewriting than I care to count. But thank goodness!

I suppose the number one piece of advice that should be written in huge letters on a poster over a writer’s desk, is this: DO NOT PISS OFF THE READER.

Here is just a short list of the things that get my reading goat:

Jarring point-of-view (POV) shifting among characters. Many call this head-hopping. Once I’m firmly in the head of the POV character, don’t dump me into the head of another character without clear cut signage. I’m not against multiple points of view – far from it. Just beware of confusing the reader because that very quickly leads to pissing the reader off.

Being placed in the head of a character that I have not been adequately introduced to. Come on – we’ve barely met. I don’t want to know his or her thoughts. Not yet, anyway. At least let us get acquainted first.

Stretching my suspension of reality far beyond the breaking point. Entering into any story, regardless of form (a novel, a movie, a TV show, a theatre production), requires pushing back the real world to a certain extent. But don’t ask me to give up common sense and believe things that simply could not happen – not in this world or any other. Once you have lost credibility with a reader, it will take quite a herculean effort to get it back.

Taking the easy way out. You’ve written yourself into a corner and there doesn’t seem to be any way that your good guy (or gal) is going to come out on top. We’ve all been there. So, go back and rewrite. Don’t take the easy way out by having the bad guy up and drop dead or any of the other equally hack ways of getting out of a jam.

Don’t make me think your main character is a shallow fool. We all have human foibles and letting the reader see your characters as fully formed, capable of good and bad, smart thoughts and the occasional off-base notion – all that is great. What gets to me are the characters that continually spout off judgements about others and the world that indicate said character is a one-dimensional idiot who dwells in a world of stereotypes and ill-thought out ideas. Now, if this is your objective – to have your reader think ill of your main character – I advise caution. Readers want to bond with main characters. No one wants to bond with a fool. I’ll take a serial killer over a fool any day.

An out of the blue, drop into the voice of an omniscient narrator. This is so jarring as to be a deal breaker. Let me explain. I am reading your book and understanding the story through the eyes of the various POV characters. I know what they know. Then suddenly, a character say something like, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Think about the implications of this little throw away comment. All dramatic tension disappears. I now know this particular character will survive whatever is to come as the telling of this story is taking place after the fact. I am no longer moving along with the characters. A huge distance has been created between the reader and the story. The writer who decides to plunk this voice on the reader without warning does so at his or her own risk.

Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. Don’t get me wrong, I love dialogue. The things people say to one another reveal worlds an author could never adequately describe. Beware of wasting this valuable tool on going nowhere, adding-nothing-to-the-story drivel. The same could be said of endless descriptions of what characters are doing or wearing. Broad brush strokes work so much more effectively. Remember the wise words of Dr. Seuss.

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

So, there you have it – my rant on the need for thorough and effective content editing. If you have followed my blog for any length of time, you know I go on a rant like this about once a year. Maybe I should hang out a shingle.

Let me at your work before you publish. I can help you. Fee negotiable.

I’m only half joking.

Statues near Mt. Shasta, CA - Bruce Witzel photo