I often wonder how much a writer knows about a book before she actually puts pen to paper. Sometimes when reading I get the sense that the writer is as surprised by what's happening as I am, but other books (Ian McEwan's) feel premeditated to a much greater degree. But what did, say, Moby Dick feel like inside Melville's head? Was it just a little fishing story that got out of hand, or did he conceive of it as an enormous, encyclopedic, epic thing?
And what constitutes an "idea"? The other day I was telling JRL that I wanted to write a story about some people who go to a place and do a thing, but then a different thing happens. And he laughed because, really, that's nothing -- it's not an idea; it's barely a structure. Other times I get ideas that are really just images, like: a witch's hat blows across a stubbled cornfield. Sometimes, an idea that skimpy can feel really important, and it might work as a driving motif, but it's not enough fuel for 300 pages.
A topic isn't an idea; an image isn't one; a plot isn't even one, because there are only a handful of those (at least that's what I'm told). So what does a good, compelling idea look like these days? Is it a plot plus a character? A character plus a dilemma? A plot with a hook?
Yeah, I'm trying to come up with something new to write. I feel like I have tons of material, endless crap I'd love to write about, but it's all an undifferentiated mass. How to tease an elegant little idea out of all that? Do I focus on developing a character, or a plot, or what?
One time when I was in this situation, having put aside one thing and fishing around for the next, all I had was a setting. I knew I wanted to write about a particular place. I had no idea what was going to happen in this place, but I was having fun taking notes about the objects and scenery there. Then one afternoon, walking around my apartment and listening to the radio, I heard a news story that gave me a rudimentary plot and a vague structure. That was enough! I had no characters yet, but I had the a setting with some interesting stuff in it and the basic building blocks of a story. The combination of the two was my idea -- the setting or story alone wasn't enough.
It's so weird -- every time I sit down to write something, I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. For some reason it doesn't matter that I've worked through this problem before. It's write, learn, forget, then write, learn, forget again.