Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Way In

Or maybe it's The Way Out or The Way Through... What I'm talking about is that leap from story idea to sense of story. Many times, I'll start with something that's just a kernel, a notion, an image, a bit of a scene, an emotional flash. There may be a character...or not. Or a place...or not. Just some bit of thought that perks itself up and says, "I'm going to be a story when I grow up."

There's never a shortage of such bits. If I pay attention, they're floating all around me, just waiting to land on my brain like sticky dust...fairy dust...alien dust, you name it dust. Or maybe pollen's a better image.

If I'm lucky, I can just noodle around daydreaming and the bit of dust will spontaneously start spinning itself into a sequence of actions. Or into a character who wants to do this and not that. Or a landscape. Once in a while, I can get a fair way into story planning this way, but usually that involves actual work. Over the years, I've accumulated a sort of tool chest of techniques.

My best and most-used technique is my notebook. I used to use beautiful hardbound journal books, but in recent years have switched to cheapo spiral bound notebooks. I find the flimsiness freeing. This is disposable, right, so I can scribble whatever I want and take as many pages as I want, cross out write over waste paper and ink... If it's something worth preserving (like a map), then I can copy it into my hardbound journal, thereby making many wonderful improvements at the same time.

So I get out my notebook and a clipboard (because the notebook isn't stiff enough to be a good writing surface) and curl up in the recliner chair next to the bay windows overlooking the garden, with the redwood-forested Bonny Doon Massif rising in the distance. And I write. I start anywhere.

"Dear Idea, this is what I know about you. Shall I stick a character in you? What does that character want? What's at stake? What can go wrong? What worse can go wrong? No, even worse than that.

Okay, it could be this or that or this other thing..." And pretty soon I'll find that as soon as I've written down one of those possibilities, it's running away with me, or maybe I've seized on it as a Yes, this works! moment.

Sometimes I think this part of writing stories is like those films of an ovum being fertilized. Gazillions of sperm flail around, little tails whipping madly, searching for The Way In. I feel like all of them at once. Let me in! Let me in! And then one of them -- one of those daydreamy scribbles -- actually makes it.

Ignition! Or rather, conception.

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