Blog on Getting Started
I was recently asked how I get started on a story. As I thought about that process, including what music to listen to and how much preparation I need to do, it took me a second to formulate a response. The deeper meaning to the question was simple – where do you get your ideas from? Like most people, when I go to bed at night is when I’m bombarded by ideas. About ten percent of them are the ones that make you get up, go back to the desk, and write them down. Some of the stories that come from them are easy. The ideas fall neatly into place quickly. Others take time and a thunderclap of clarity to make them get out of my head. Still others gestate for years. I’ll use a couple of my works as examples.
“Shipminds and Ice Cream” was the very first short story I sold and is an example of things quickly falling into place. I’d been thinking about the premise of a retired military officer fighting Alzheimer’s disease and donating his body to military research. Within a couple of days, I had the characters and the scenes ready, except for something that would really pull the motivations of the story together. I needed an event and when the wheel of memory stopped on this particular one, the story wrote itself in a couple of days. After my wife’s grandmother’s funeral, we returned to the house and sat around the dining room table. Her grandfather poured an extra glass of scotch for his friend – who just happened to have been the undertaker. That event framed a major portion of the story and gave me the backstory necessary to make the story work with very little effort at all.
My forthcoming novel, Walkabout (working title), was originally a novelette. My friends wanted more and I fleshed it out to 40,000 words, but something wasn’t right. My original antagonist wasn’t committed in the story – the stakes were too low. Without giving you spoilers, I’ll simply say that my thunderclap of clarity was a simple “What If?” In my case, I asked what would happen if one of my characters, who was originally a good guy, was the antagonist? What happened? The story exploded (in a good way) and became a 90,000 word novel. The moment of clarity was a simple question with an astounding answer.
Finally, the long gestating idea. My story “Maelstrom” featured in the Extreme Planets anthology is a prime example of this. Driving across western Kansas in either 2004 or 2005, I looked at a developing thunderstorm and had the wild thought of “What would it be like to ride a tornado?” I envisioned the guys in the flying squirrel suits and getting picked up by a tornado. What a great idea! The trouble was that I had no context for the story, and the idea went into a forgotten file. Fast forward seven years and I was completing my original submission to Extreme Planets and the tornado riders came to mind. I wrote “The End” on the first story and immediately started writing “Maelstrom.” The way I wrote the original draft is about 95 percent still there. The idea was so clear after tumbling around in my head for so long that it was immediately accessible and powerful to write.
In all of these cases, I was still writing. What I wrote may not have been coherent stories, or I was working on other projects, but I kept writing until things aligned. Keep writing even when the ideas fail to materialize. Every shred of writing, ideas/notes, and errant lines of dialogue have a place and are worth something. When the time is right, your story will take shape. Thats when the real fun starts.