In my last post, I likened story ideas to seeds. They start out as miniscule things with no real substance. They have to be watered and nurtured so they can grow into great, flowering plants. But what do I mean by that, really? Basically, I’m saying that you have to spend time with them. You have to pay attention to them. There’s one thing I can guarantee about ideas: nothing will ever come of them if you don’t think about them.
I know, that seems like common sense and it is to a degree. I’m just trying to make the point that writing is hard work. Ideas don’t just pop out. You have to really work with that little seed to get the actual idea to emerge. And thinking about them is the first step. I’ll think about my ideas in the shower or on the ride to work. A lot of times, I’ll bore my wife to tears with some idea that isn’t really baked yet. I’ll talk and talk but I don’t really know enough about it to say anything meaningful. But it’s a start. Like I said, if you’re not expending energy on your ideas, they aren’t going to grow.
But to tell you the infuriating truth, I don’t get much in the way of results when I think about them. I’ll just kind of spin in a circle, not quite knowing where to go. There are so many options and it is more rare than I’d like that one of them really sparks my imagination. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I just said you have to think about them before anything will happen and then I turned around and negated it, right? Wrong.
Louis Pasteur once said that chance only favors the prepared mind. Basically, no matter how much work you do, there are still the elements of chance and luck. But luck tends to favor those who are prepared for it – that is, people who are doing the work.
You see, when I was trying to develop the idea for The Timekeeper’s Son, I did a lot of churning. I thought about it a lot, but I had no idea where to go. I knew the story was about a man who travelled back in time as his nine-year-old self. That’s where my idea stopped. Now, I did know a few other things, like where he came from and where he went. That didn’t give me a story. It wasn’t until I was reading On Writing by Stephen King that inspiration hit me in a very unexpected way.
He made an innocuous mention of dogs and how two different people can look one and perceive it in two different ways based on their experience. That has nothing to do with a thirty-five-year-old man finding himself in a child’s body, right? Wrong again. It had everything to do with it. Instantly, I envisioned a scene that would be the catalyst for the rest of the story. I hadn’t felt like I was making any progress, but the logjam broke loose in an instant. And I had no idea it was going to happen.
You see, if I hadn’t been exerting so much energy trying to work through the story, that wouldn’t have happened. I would have read King’s comment and probably found it interesting, but that’s it. I would have just cruised right on by without ever noticing how important it was. The opportunity would have been lost.
So, that’s what I mean when I talk about nurturing an idea. You have to be digging at it, exposing it little by little. The way I’ve already mentioned is by thinking about it, but there are other ways too. I think the biggest one is free writing. Write everything you know about the story and don’t stop. A lot of it may not be helpful. But all you need is one sentence that is. Maybe even a word. Somehow, somewhere, there is going to be a spark that ignites your idea into something huge.
But it still isn’t a story. When my logjam broke and I knew where to go, I still didn’t have a story. I didn’t really know who the antagonist was. I didn’t know why Andy had travelled back. I didn’t know anything except that he had come back and someone didn’t want him changing stuff. That wasn’t enough for a story. But breaking the logjam cleared the way for more things to come. I kept thinking and I kept free writing and the little pieces started to congeal, bit by bit.
Some of you might be asking how long this took. Well, from the inception of the idea to the epiphany from King was about three weeks. It was still another couple weeks before I was even ready to think about starting a rough draft. And I still had no idea where I was going to end up. My next book has been rolling around in my head for two months and I haven’t made a whole lot of progress. But guess what? I also haven’t been devoting the kind of energy to it that I did with The Timekeeper’s Son. I’ve been too busy getting ready to publish.
Now there’s one other thing I should highlight. Did you notice that I wasn’t actually thinking about my story when inspiration struck? I was reading a book and my story was the farthest thing from my mind. Except that it wasn’t. I had been spending a lot of time with it, so it was still there, right under the surface. Once you really commit to the idea, you never stop thinking about it, really. Or at least I don’t.
That isn’t to say that you won’t have a great idea while you’re thinking about it. It only means that you may not and that’s ok. Go on with life. Whether that means reading, watching TV, eating dinner with your spouse and your children, or even taking an African safari, writing comes from life. The nutrients you need to make your seed grow can come from the most unexpected places, but only for the prepared mind.