27 February 2010

Ideas: Concepts and Generation

(or:- What would happen if the buttered toast landed edgewise down?)


Welcome to the literary crucible.

Today we consider one of the most basic elements of fiction writing—The Idea. The other basic elements being, The Plot, and The Writing.


First off let’s start with two definitions of Idea

Idea:- Conception, plan of thing to be aimed at, discovered.
Oxford English Dictionary

Idea:- That concept which, after indeterminable hours; gallons of coffee and
sleepless; sore-eyed; computer staring nights; still evades the probing
mind of the frustrated author.
Author unknown

The frustration of an elusive idea is intense. The need to create and produce a specific piece of work is tantamount to an author’s psyche. Plus it has been known in certain circumstances to provide the check to pay the bills. It is at these moments that the true nature of an author is refined, the literary crucible that will either forge a true all weather author or break the writer down into a motionless, staring mass of idealess jelly.

So how, as authors, can we keep up an almost endless supply of ideas to feed into our clicking keyboards. There are as many answers to this as there are authors on full time pay roll at Greasy Joe’s Sludge Bucket CafĂ©, and no one way is particularly right. As part of the nice, helpful guy that I am I’ve gathered together and expounded below a system that I developed over roughly forty years of writing. This system is guaranteed to, with a dose of tremendous luck (and an even healthier dose of stealing other people’s ideas,) to generate your own ideas for any given fictional situation.

Of course what it doesn’t guarantee is getting the ideas in time for that elusive contract…

I’ve concentrated my examples here for fantasy work, fantasy being my main love and my fascination. But the system is transmutable and can be adapted for practically any form of writing you choose. Even Non-Fiction—the system was used in the production of this article itself.

Also, although I tend to discuss the issue in terms of a new idea for a fresh story, the system can be equally applied to sections in the middle, and or end of novels and other long pieces.

I hope you find this process as useful, and as enjoyable, as I have over the years. And use of the system is entirely free provided you deposit in my bank roughly a million dollars per hour usage…


Spend some time in the mad cafe

Regardless of who you are the creative human brain works best when alert but relaxed. Music often helps as some people find it tunes in the creative nature of the brain, though this is indeed a personal thing. It is possible to find many authors who will listen to music as they write for just this reason.

A similar kind of tuning needs to be done for finding and creating ideas. It is very important to find somewhere where you feel relaxed. I've always found that being uptight and fighting through piles of words and papers and forcing myself to find an idea for a particular piece is the most counter-productive thing I can do. By focusing on the fact that I can't find an idea, the solution appears to rapidly become more and more distant.

Where to relax is a personal thing. An armchair in a small room is common, maybe in bed if you can resist the urge to watch TV or sleep. My personal favorite is to go to a local cafe or bar and amidst the bustle of people find a small corner table and sit. Armed with a hot brew or pint of beer, and a cheese Danish I sit and face the throngs. With a pad and paper ready I just let the atmosphere of the others around me draw out the tensions and open my mind to any incoming thoughts.

There are writers I know, who will sit with friends and chat freely about their ideas and plots. This kind of chatter can help tremendously but do take a pad and write the ideas down frequently. Otherwise the majority of the stuff spoken about will be forgotten by the time you've left the bar, kitchen or whatever. Be judicious though, one friend of mine was animatedly discussing various ways to kill off the husband in her companion’s novel whilst treating themselves to a pizza at the local restaurant. Half way through the exercise where they'd been through the list of poisons and found them boring, tried arranging an accident and found it too risky and were working on murdering him in his sleep when an elderly lady from a nearby table stood up and began speaking very loudly and angrily.

"You cold hearted bi...."

The object lesson is, if you will discuss techniques of murder in public it pays to either let your eavesdroppers know it is fictional now and then, or keep a loaded gun in a clearly visible place.

Wherever it is or whatever you do the universal factor seems to be the need to break away from the computer/typewriter and to let your mind clear from the physical act of writing. This spring clean of the mind allows new ideas to form where the old cobwebs used to grow.

To see or not to see

This may have given you the impression that I'm advocating you do nothing to generate ideas. This is not true. I do believe though that ideas are all around us and what we need to do is to train ourselves to see them. Terry Pratchett, famous for his Discworld, was sitting in the airport lounge one day and saw what many of us would see. A tired and haggard tourist pulling one of those suitcases on wheels. This suitcase, like so many, kept going off in the wrong direction as if it had a life of its own.

On the strength of that observation the inimitable Luggage was born. That living travel chest known to eat wizards for breakfast…

So ideas surround us and we need to observe more. How many potential story ideas have we passed today but failed to see because we haven't actually looked to see if they were there.

For one poignant fantasy I remember driving the coast road close to my home. I drove this particular road every day to work and generally thought nothing of it. Yet on this unusual day they'd been an accident and I was forced with all the other drivers to slow the car to a walking pace. It was one of those particularly dreary cloud covered days which gave the sea a kind of grey hue. It occurred to me then that the sea looked lonely. Developing that idea led to my short story The Lonely Sea.

I am embarrassed to admit it took five years and an accident to make me observe, for the first time, the sea in that condition and to recognize that it had an emotion that could be used in a fiction tale. (The Lonely Sea was published years ago in a small press publication in England that I am now far too old to remember the name of.)

The thing is, we see so many things each day that are fuel for a writer’s imagination. And that is why taking a notebook with you and making copious notes is a godsend. Looking at my notes today, I saw the young couple having a tiff in the town mall with girl leaving rapidly, the young man following. There was a lost children's balloon scooting along in the wind under the eaves of town buildings. The strange, dragon shaped incense burner in a local store and the almost worshipful way that customers admired it.

Each of these have potentials for story ideas embedded in them. For example. The young man could chase his lover to apologize and they find themselves stepping through a portal to different parts of another world where they struggle to become reunited. The balloon is blown into the presence of evil and glares on the people below. The incense burner when wielded by the hand of the “faithful” becomes a creature of power and beauty, but little trust.
These germs of ideas would easily become short stories and possibly even novels.

Meet the media men

The media men can be the fantasy writer's greatest friends. Nine times out of ten if you are stuck for an idea for a fantasy story you need turn no further than your daily newspapers, news report or magazine.

Although any newspaper will do I tend to go for the ones which are less up-market. Tabloids would be wonderful if they didn’t appear to be mainly fiction from the get go. The newspapers I love are the ones which contain little paragraphs with snippets of information. These I regularly cut and stick into a scrapbook. Short pieces like:

'Police were baffled today when the missing housewife, XXXXX, was found drowned in her car on a bend off the A45, she had apparently driven through a hedge and trees into the river beyond. The reason that the search took so long [three days] to find the body was that the car had apparently passed through the hedges and trees without harming or breaking even a twig.'
—Now this is definitely fantasy stuff.


Then there's the not quite so obvious news item:

'Police today were praising the bravery of a young stranger who prevented the abduction of a child from the local play park. The assailant, described as in his late thirties, wearing a blue duffel coat and dark green trousers was scared off when the young man accosted him and refused to let him put the child in his car. Police are anxious to find the reluctant hero who disappeared soon after the assailant had driven off in a white....' Bingo! Ideas come tumbling down. Where did the young man come from? Where did he go? Why on earth did he confront the man who could have been the child's father?

I always look closely at everything, even the adverts can spark the odd crazy idea. Take this advert for example (the first one I found in a woman's magazine):

Advanced skincare with the Johnson's Touch.
Thanks to Johnson's you can now boost your skin's natural renewal
with new pH5.5 Healthy difference Cream.....

Advanced skincare? Skin renewal? Possibly a good starting place for a fantasy story and or science fiction. Perhaps even envisage a scifi/fantasy where the space ship is a huge intergalactic creature and a young energetic wizard-scientist discovers a cream which seals, heals and renews the flesh of the huge creatures. An aid to keep them alive in battles and sustain them in adverse space conditions.

Well, it's just a thought....


The question's not in how to try but more in who, how, what and why?

Seeing things and making notes isn't the end of the exercise. I can collect and collate observations until they fill books and books fill boxes. Which they do until I throw them all out, then start again. That doesn't make them a fully fledged idea though. Once the basics have been collected they have to go through a kind of inquisition which will make them burgeon into an idea.

So what if you have a cream that will renew flesh, a balloon which reflects the image of some evil entity it temporarily meets. The next process which these observations undergo will mould them into a basic fantasy plot. The technique is very simple and one that any parent of young children will tell you they recognize with frustrating clarity. I simply ask myself the W questions. (Note How is a W question, it just happens to be written backwards!)

Take the balloon. How does that become a true story?

I’ve already undergone a few questions and answers to get to the image idea any way. So add a few more to flesh out the story idea. Straight forward questions like. What could make the balloon special to be noticed? Would it be the balloon or something else? Would it be something in the building it was clinging to? What could be in that building? Where did it come from? How does it live, feed, contact with humans? This obsrvation became the basis on my wip Red Dragon, Blue. It is a horror tale where a father sacrifices everything in order to summon five revengeful spirits to destroy those who have murdered his daughter.

And this wasn’t the only tale I could fabricate from one observation. As I sat with my handy lil’ notebook and asked myself all of these things. I wrote down all the following answers to my constant interrogation. (Always remember to work within your created, or real world, limitations as you do this)

The balloon is a child's toy. The 'spirit of evil' was attracted to the balloon because it was a child. The spirit is evil because it is in torment. It is in torment because the child it was, was beaten and tortured to death. It feeds off the fear and souls of the living. It seeks revenge. When the story ends it will be avenged. It uses what tools it is familiar with (e.g.. balloons and toys) to create fear and death (balloon taking horrific face. Skateboard placed at top of stairs for someone to step on and kill themselves.) The house it inhabits is a block of apartments and everyone within it lives in a kind of fear without knowing why. No one can move out because they trapped by something indefinable. The child spirit must be appeased and 'destroyed/removed' from this plane of existence. Use the 'Love conquers all' ploy. Who would love the child spirit. A child. How would that child meet him. Originally in his/her dreams....

I won't go any further as I hope this gives a full enough description of how the questioning process works. In fact it is essential to know when to stop the questioning. For a short story it is unnecessary to go into the detail that would be required for a novel. For something the length of this article I used about two 8” by 4” sides of sparsely handwritten notes taken from this process.

I find also that the questioning process helps to weed out story inconsistencies. For example, assume I'm writing a story where the unsung hero suddenly rises from herding his father's pigs to kingship and glorious victory as a famous warrior. The questions would remind me that a pig farmer wouldn't know how to use a sword. In fact all he would know is pig farming. The questions then teach me how to create a character from him that influences those he needs around him, and together they achieve the goals which the plot has set for him.

See the stranger with the glazed stare

This is the process I generally follow:

1. Allow steam from coffee cup to fog up my glasses.
2. Allow sighing waitress to remove yet another untouched coffee mug
3. Wonder if my butt’s been glued to the seat.
4. Is my pen frozen immovably to my hand?
5. Allow thoughts, observations and ideas to mix and meld.
6. Write them down!

Maybe it's a personal thing, perhaps observation/question method is one that only I can use. If that was the case I wonder what would have happened that day in the airport lounge if Terry Pratchett had said,

“Oh, another one of those hard to control suitcases...."

I believe it is the nature of an author to learn to ask questions. In the belief that eventually we’ll ask the right one which will produce that gem of an idea.

Whether you have trouble generating ideas or not, I hope that in the long, dark idea-blanked night of your soul this small monologue has been of some assistance to help speed you on your way.



S.J.'s Third novel Dante I, third in the PIACT undercover agent series will be out sometime in the summer.

Now isn't that exciting news! More details later.

S.J.
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