Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Shape of Your Idea

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.


McQ said...

So start writing already and just see where it takes you. Maybe you're thinking about it too much? Can't wait to find out where you end up...have fun with it!

Oh, and about that gardening business: We harvested our first watermelon last night. This growing-your-own-stuff thing might not be so bad, once you get past whatever's eating the zukes, and peppers that flower but then won't set fruit. And bolting cilantro. I guess cracking tomatoes and sun-bleached peas aren't much fun, either. But hey...watermelon!

rmellis said...

Oh, mcq, you know I overthink everything. That is probably the crux of the problem.

Watermelon in June!! We have garlic scapes now -- I made a quiche. Slugs got the first strawberry, tragically.

myles said...

Overthinking! You wanna see my three exercise books full of notes for just two weeny little short stories! Too much cogitation and not enough creation, that's usually my problem.

But there is a weird alchemy somewhere. I start with a tiny vision, an image of something simple (a man walking his dog, an empty house in mid-afternoon, a crumpled train timetable) and drop in a little hypothesis about character and motive, and boom! I'm in. But it's character -- people -- that makes the spark. All those notes, they're just how I get inside someone's head. Once I'm there, all that background stuff is just compost.

Before that point, there's no real shape to the idea. It's just a big blobby something that has no edges and no handles.

Anonymous said...

When the movie "Kids" came out, I saw an interview with the then-nineteen-year-old (or thereabouts) writer Harmony Korine. He said when he first sat down to write the screenplay, he'd planned to write a Caddyshack movie, but then it came out like this.

Jon said...

I never know where a book is going to go exactly. But I have to have enough of an idea to get started. It's always a what-if scenario. What if scientists invented a pill that could accelerate human intelligence but when it breaks down in the blood makes people hallucinate scientific theories? Aristotle starts with plot. Characters are the kind of people who would plausibly act out the story. But i don't think plot and character can be separated so easily (Aristotle is The Great Separator, like Jahweh). Every writer is different. Elmore Leonard says he doesn't know how his books will end till he's about 2/3's of the way through. I think 'genre' writers like him or Stephen King have a lot more to teach people about writing than 'literary' writers. The only novel ideas I've ever been able to complete are the ones that won't let go, the ones that produce more and more matter: character, event, histories, images. The thing is to just start writing it out and follow the image or the idea where it goes. If it's fruitful it will multiply. There will probably be slugs though.

Anonymous said...

I usually think I know what I'm going to do, and make a plan, and then abandon the plan. But if I didn't have the plan to begin with, I wouldn't have had the confidence to abandon it. So it's a false plan, which I know from experience, even as I'm devising it, that it is false. Yet I manage to convince myself it's real every time.

bookfraud said...

very time i sit down to write something, i feel like i have no idea what i'm doing

well, that never stopped me.

you've probably heard the famous story about e.l. doctorow's case of writer's block -- desperate to write anything, he just started describing the interior of his home. and from that he spun out "ragtime."

the best advice i've ever gotten on writing a novel is that you may have a vague idea of where you're going, but no idea of how you'll get there.

overthinking has killed many a great novel (as have panic, fear, and laziness -- my killers), but once you start writing, and get into a groove, you'll stop thinking so much, and the story will take over itself.

bigscarygiraffe said...

"I think 'genre' writers like him or Stephen King have a lot more to teach people about writing than 'literary' writers."

whaaaa? Mr. Jon could you kindly clarify before I rebut?

Writer Reading said...

A fishing story that got out of hand? That is hilarious. I was going to say you've already written a novel so how did you do that, but then I got to the end of your post about forgetting. I'm the last one to know how this is done, but this was one of your best posts, for what that's worth. Great questions.

5 Red Pandas said...

Maybe you're not necessarily forgetting, but the solution for your next piece is different from the last one.

I don't worry about ideas (yet), but more so about how to carry out the ideas I have. I've been finding that the editing and revising part of writing are very much like solving a puzzle or problem since I'm often trying to figure out how to bring the piece up to the level I want it to go, or where it should be.

Randy said...

Here's a quote that isn't only appropriate for your situation, but it equally applies to the conversation JRL had on Tuesday at the Paris Review reading (Hey John. I'm the comedian-fan guy)
Here's the quote...
"Follow the accident and fear the fixed plan"