Ideas and Story Seeds

Every writer gets the question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

My usual answer is to laugh and tell them that I get a gazillion ideas in my breakfast cereal.

That’s not entirely true, but it’s not much of an exaggeration. Ideas are everywhere, because life happens which makes me ask questions (“Why did he do that?” “How did that happen?” “What would happen IF….”) and wonder about the possible answers. Or the glimpse of an interesting person, or a scene or any slice of life, or something I’ve read somewhere that makes me question or wonder.

Another thing writers often hears is “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a book!”

Listening to them, they’re often the same kinds of things I was just talking about. The problem is, though, that an idea isn’t enough to write a story from. At least, I’ve never found it to be enough.

To create a full story, you need characters, events, a world, at least one theme–tons of things that any idea just doesn’t contain. If I’m fortunate if I get one of those things out of an idea, something that excites me enough to ponder it, but ideas are tiny things. If they show some promise of spawning a lot of questions, then something might come of it. But a full story requires the answers to a slew of questions that the original idea can’t even dream of. This slew of questions spawns what I call a story seed–the basic things I need to grow a story out of.

So when I find an promising idea, I do the only thing I’ve learned to do to create a story seed–I forget it. I say I’m throwing it into the stew pot in the back of my mind, and I just forget about it consciously.

See, one thing I’ve learned about being creative is that I’ve got to trust whatever that creative force inside myself is to do its job and not consciously fuss about it.

It’s a very fertile place, my mental stewpot. And it burbles away constantly, merging all those little ideas that came out of my breakfast cereal, my walk to work, the book I’m reading, the myths and legends I’ve heard, the TV documentaries I’ve watched. Every now and again, something comes to the surface and knocks at my consciousness.

Different writers need different things in their story seeds. A friend of mine has to have a very strong character with a strong summary characteristic (she calls it the character’s “cheese”–long story for another post) that help define the theme, or society, or events, or something more. If she has that, she can write hundreds of thousands of words about that character. Another writer I know gets all her inspiration from drawing maps, and as she draws the map, she sees the societies living there, and that quickly builds the characters, their conflict, and the whole story.

Me, I need a seed that contains a character I give a crap about and some kind of event intrinsic to them to grow a successful story–whether or not that event actually happens in the book.

Even then, not all story seeds take root and grow into stories the first time. Sometimes I try to grow one and it goes a few thousand words, and it dies. So that seed goes back into the pot to stew for a while longer. At some point, it’ll burble to the surface again so I can take another look at it and give it another shot.

Most times, a story seed will burble up and it’s just from left field. I don’t remember throwing those ideas into the pot, but they mashed together and it just came out perfectly. My creative unconscious snatched a bunch of stuff from my experiences and observations and put it all together without my ever thinking about them. Even if I can’t use that seed, it’s always exciting to see what comes out.

When I’m actively writing on a project, I consciously put a “filter” on what can burble up into my consciousness. I don’t want to be distracted by another seed, so I only want things that will add to the cool factor of the present story. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve trained myself to do this, and my creative unconscious plays by the rules I set. I’m having problem with a scene, a plotline, a character, a whatever, something will burble up and be the perfect answer. Again, those are rarely seeds of a single idea, but things that will impact more than one level or part of the story. Things have to intertwine, after all, and these later story seeds are more like morning glory vines than oak trees.

So, that’s what happens to my ideas and where my stories come from. Others might not use the same images as I do, but I honestly think if we trust that unconscious part of ourselves, we’ll always get the answers we need.

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Confessions of an “unsuccessful” writer

There are some things in the writing community that seem to be a definite no-no. I don’t understand why it’s this way, but it seems it is. One of those things is not to mention how long you’ve been writing and remain unpublished. I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing, but that’s the reaction I’ve gotten more than once, around different sets of writers over the years.

But since I think it’s a stupid thing to think is wrong, I keep doing it. And I’ll do it now.

I got my first rejection letter in 1975. It was for a short story (and it really needed to be rejected for SO many reasons–especially since it wasn’t a short story, it was a first chapter) and came from Asimov’s magazine. If I remember rightly, it came before the end of the school year.

I’ve gotten a lot of rejection letters since then. Starting in 1983, they were generally personalized rejection letters. That means that the editor or agent really wrote it and addressed certain problems, or that someone scribbled a handwritten note on a form rejection letter. Writers get all excited when they get personalized rejections. I know I used to. But it’s still a rejection letter. There’s rarely an invite to send something else. (Though I’ve gotten three of those.) It’s still a rejection. You’re still not really closer than you were before.

So it’s been almost 40 years since I started submitting, which is supposed to be a big step in a writer’s life. I haven’t submitted something every one of those 40 years, but I’ve pretty much been writing that entire time. Someone who does something like this for so long with “nothing to show for it” must either be crazy, so I’ve been told by a few relatives.

Which has got me thinking about why I keep doing this writing thing. I mean, what’s the point if you’re not getting published, you’re not raking in the moolah, you’re not getting all the big kudos?

Now, there was a time when I was desperate to be published. I was desperate to have that income, to be able to stay home and just write. In all honesty, my money-jobs have generally sucked vacuum and I’ve never been better off than working poor in my entire adult life. I bought into the myth that being a published writer was a panacea that would solve all those problems and give me a measure of respect among those people who scoff at my passion. Writing–publishing my writing–was my ticket out of all the hell and hassle that was my life.

Except it wasn’t. Yeah, I had a small press publication at the turn of the century (anyone else weirded out by being able to say that?), but that didn’t amount to a whisper in a windstorm. All those personalized rejections certainly didn’t help, even those I’ve been told that my writing was fine time and again. I won, placed or showed in several contests, and received praise from the judges, but that big dream of publication never happened.

So why keep beating my head against the wall? Wasn’t it obvious that I just wasn’t going to make it? When do I just give up and do something else that would be more profitable?

(Anyone else hear frustrating questions like that from loved ones, whenever you’re involved with something they just don’t understand. I hope they’re well-meaning, but oft-times it feels like they’re just plain mean, y’know? Why do they think I have to conform because they’re uncomfortable?)

Anyway, the question remains: Why keep beating my head against the publishing wall?

So that lead to a time of thinking and analyzing. This is not something that comes naturally to me (I think it might have something to do with my autism, I don’t know), but it takes a long time, like months. And what I came up with was kinda mind-blowing.

I let others define what “success” was supposed to be.

The only “validation” to be had from writing is to have a book published by a traditional (or trade or NYC or whatever it’s being called lately) published to the average joe on the street. (Among some writers, your “cred” goes up the better your agent is, if you’re still unpublished.)

Isn’t that silly?

How can that be the only reason for doing something personally demanding? Is the only “valid reason” for running to win the Boston Marathon or become an Olympian? Is the only “valid reason” for playing music or singing to win a Grammy or earn a platinum record? C’mon, really?

Writing is something that allows me to understand myself and the world I live in. Writing is something that fulfills some inner need for creativity for me. Writing is what has kept me alive through the deepest tiger pits of depression in my life (because no one could finish whatever I was writing the way I wanted it to be, I knew that instinctively). Writing is something that challenges me to do better every time I do it, where there are laurels to be gained but never to be rested upon. Writing is something that hope will make me a little more understandable to those around me, some of whom I’ll never meet any other way.

And I’ll tell you want writing is not, at least for me. It’s not something that defines me–I am many things besides being a writer. Writing is not something I do every day. I do not spend every minute thinking about it. Writing is something that frustrates me to no one, so when I finally do earn one of those laurels, I know I’ve really earned it.

Most of all, writing is not something that anyone else can define for me. It’s personal. It’s passionate. It’s satisfying.

In that analysis, I accepted that not everything I write will appeal to even a large percentage of the reading population. I will likely never write anything as popular as Harry Potter, or Anita Blake, or Middle Earth or Stephanie Plum. And that’s likely why I’ve had 40 years of rejections and am presently “unsuccessful” in other people’s eyes.

Even more, I’m good with that. I’m convinced that, somewhere out there, there’s a niche of readers who will enjoy the stories I want to tell. Nowadays, I don’t need a big publisher to reach them. Forty years ago, this option wasn’t available, y’know. If I hadn’t “beat my head against the wall” all this time, my stories would’ve had zero chance to find that readership.  Even better, I don’t have to deal with anyone else’s definitions of success and have that chance ended before it had a chance to really begin.

So, maybe I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t really beating my head against a wall. I wasn’t wasting my time and energy. I was just keeping my engines running so I can have my shot at “success”–how I define it.

Playing nice with others

Because of my autism, I don’t always play nice with others, I have to admit. I won’t play unless I understand and accept the rules as fair. I will only play by the rules (so if the rules change, I have to be OK with that up front) and I will call anyone not playing by the rules on it every time. I’m hardwired to be a spoilsport–and it doesn’t matter if I’m “winning” or “losing”. Rules are rules and are there to make the playing field more level and keep the game honest.

The writing world is usually a solo game. It’s my world, my story, my characters, my rules. I don’t have to think anything about anyone else wanting to play, because there won’t be anyone else who does. Period. No discussion. So my characters can be as kick-ass as I can dream. The world can be as wild, goofy, cool, whatever. The only limitations lie in what I can sell the reader on and how well I can write it.

And then there’s things like Children of the Vortex. It was created specifically to play nice with others. There’s other writers involved even if I’m the only one writing the story because the world interconnects everyone’s characters. What I write will ripple out and affect a lot of other characters. Nothing here happens in a vacuum. Not that I have to get everyone’s approval for whatever I want to write, mind you, but we all need to be aware and we all can kibitz–and some of that kibitzing has to be considered in the story building process.

So when creating a story line for COTV, even creating a character, that has to be considered. We want big, dramatic stories for the series, events that will redefine life as the characters know it. We want characters who will face the challenges of those stories and be interesting whether they succeed or fail. But there’s a balance to doing that, and that takes a very different mindset than when I know I’m just going to be (pardon the expression) playing with myself.

 In my novel, Legend’s End, Drais is one of the heroes. He is the son of two gods and is slowly becoming a god in his own right. Drais is the legendary Immortal Warrior. He’s a master of every form of combat, every weapon ever devised, and he will not stay dead long. He has a magical talent that no one can counter and is absolutely devastating to opponents. Gods will answer his call for aid. Drais is a BAMF, pure and simple, and he carries a good portion of Legend’s End‘s story and conflict.

 However a character like Drais would completely overshadow everything in COTV. There’s a war brewing, and if our heroes in Florant have Drais on their side–why would anyone else need to fight? I mean, seriously. All other characters become sidebar sidekicks and, frankly, that’s no fun to write for anyone. A character like that makes the entire series unwriteable.

 So when creating characters for COTV, it’s not that they can’t be superlative in some way. They can. I love superlative characters, however it’s a single, smaller, thing they’re superlative in, not something overarching that spoils that general thing for everyone else.

For instance, Riccavier Fleureaux is counted as one of the best swordsmen in the Ducal Lands at the age of 21. Doesn’t mean you can’t beat him in a swordfight, but your odds of doing so aren’t great. However, give the man a pistol or a musket or even challenge him to a game of cards, and he’s kinda average. LLucin, the terex (think dragon-bird) who Claims Riccavier’s sister, has been studying magic his entire life and is one of the best scholars on general magic in Florant, however his practical experience is pretty much nil at this point. Guion Laurens is, hands-down, the luckiest SOB to have been born in a century. The man could fall in a sewer and not only come up smelling of roses, but bottle it to sell for a hefty profit (as my grandmother would say).

That doesn’t just go for characters. While most of us like to write serious, dramatic stories, there’s got to be room for completely over-the-top comedy too. The first issue has a story where Riccavier judges a cook-off between a visiting chef and his father’s favorite horse, for instance. There’s a barony in Florant where magic doesn’t work at all, the baronial colors are rainbow (with sequins!) and well, let’s just say that if anyone is losing their mind, they’re on the way to Arc–it’s the most insane place in the Ducal Lands. And yet, it totally fits that Arc is the way it is, it belongs and everyone can have fun with it (or just laugh from a safe distance).

Each of these things (and not all of those are mine, mind you–though I wish Arc was–I adore Arc) are superlative without casting such a huge shadow that no other writer can have fun with what they want to do. Shavonet can be a talented Flame cavalier (fire wizard), but that doesn’t impede on Sevien being the BAMF Stone cavalier, or Anjounette having a different talent in Flame spectrum. And they all have their own foibles and weaknesses that allow strong teams and friendships–and rivalries–to form.

It’s one of the problems I’ve always had with DC’s Justice League, y’know? If you’ve got Superman, why do you need any of the rest of them? Superman is just so blasted good at everything, why bother with Batman, Wonder Woman, or any of the rest of them? Give me a team like the X-men where they all have something they’re really great at, but none of them–not even Wolverine (and I do adore him) can stand alone better than he can with everyone around him.

That’s pretty much what we’re shooting for–that teamwork, both in the story and in the writing. Those of us involved in COTV all bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. Theoretically, we can all write to our strengths, and the strengths of our fellows will help shadow our vulnerabilities. In theory, it’s a win-win situation for us and readers. But like any situation, we all have to remember our manners and play nice with others.

This kind of writing isn’t natural for a lot of writers–this writing novel-sized big stories with “smaller than novel” characters. Or the flip side, those writers accustomed to “smaller than novel” characters (short story or fanfic writers) having to scale up the stories is equally difficult. But that’s part of the object of this project, though–finding that middle ground and having fun with it.’

We’re still trying to find the right rules to help us do it, since we’re just starting out. We’re still figuring out what will play fair for everyone. And that’s a little frightening for this rule-bound mind of mine. But these are my very good friends. I’ve known all of them for well over 15 years each and I want COTV to last for a very, very long time. We’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work. After all, it’s our game and our rules.

A really bad fortnight

As anyone reading this blog has probably realized, I’m not really good at making regular posts. I do apologize, however I’m also at a loss sometimes what to post or, more than likely, real life has exploded in some way so my thinking isn’t on writing.

This last couple of weeks have exploded and I spent most of October so far an emotional wreck. Writing has been the last thing on my mind.

I won’t get into details, but the events revolved around ill news about the health of kith and kin and the final stripping away of any loyalty to the company I worked for–all on the same day. Fear, anger and guilt is a volatile mix and really doesn’t make me creative. It doesn’t make me want to communicate with anyone else, because until I deal with my own emotions, I can’t deal with being social or informative in any way. I was lucky not to get written up at work. For that, I can’t really apologize. It’s the way I’m wired and when I try to get around it, it gets worse.

There’s an adage among writers that one much write every day to consider oneself a writer. I’ve always thought that was a giant crock of horse-hockey. If a story burns in your soul, then taking a few days or weeks to deal with a real life problem isn’t going to dampen it. The story will be there when my ducks are back in their row (well, as well as they ever are).

And, frankly, if it isn’t when I’m steady again, then it probably wasn’t a story I was truly interested in telling. Ah, well. It’s happened before, it’ll likely happen again. It’s just something I accept about myself.

For instance, this book I’m trying to finish (when I’m not writing Children of the Vortex stories)–I’ve had to put it aside many times–at least ten that I can remember easily–because my life bounced between Limbo, Purgatory and Hell and back again. Yet, I always came back to Legend’s End. The story still burned in my soul. I wanted to figure out the mythic question I’d posed myself (What happens if the Reborn King is murdered on the eve of battle?). For the first time in a very long time, I really like all the characters, even the villains. I might have to read everything I have to remember all the details, but the lust for the storytelling is still there.

So there may be time between blog posts. I don’t have a whole host of them stockpiled to be posted when I hit one of these dry periods. I see this blog more as a (somewhat one-sided) discussion born of what’s happening in my writing life at the moment. I suppose I could wax poetic about what I’m working on, and maybe I will. But not tonight.

  • The Bag of Holding

  • Pigeon Holes