Friday, May 20, 2011

Brilliant Ideas

In keeping with the discussion earlier this week, I’ve been thinking about how I get started when nothing comes to mind. It occurred to me that the one thing that all my “false starts” for books and short stories had in common is that they began in a rush of self-satisfaction. With each, there was that moment when I said to myself “Good gosh, you’re brilliant!” With each I rushed to my computer . . . or grabbed a napkin. Often it was a napkin or a stray scrap of paper because these brilliant ideas seem to come to me when I’m away from my desk, sitting in a restaurant or in my car or standing in the shower. And I have to get them down or they disappear into thin air.

The thing about these ideas that fizzle out is that when I sit down at my computer, I’m at first carried away by momentum. The adrenaline flows as I peck away at the keys. But then after fifteen minutes or half an hour or even an hour or two, I begin to slow down. And then I stop. And I have nowhere else to go with my brilliant idea.

I’ve been thinking about why these ideas that I save in a special file on my computer are different from the ideas that I get that become the genesis of a book or a short story. I think the difference is that I don’t feel brilliant when I have a real idea.

I have struggled and wrestled and yelled at that real idea. I have turned it upside down and shook it until finally it begins to work. And the words are still a struggle. I have to write the first paragraph dozens of time before it begins to take shape. But I can feel it evolving in my head, fleshing out rather than drooping and dying the way those brilliant flashes do. A real idea speaks to me and hints at how it might match up with what I was dreaming about last night (and jotted down on the pad on my night stand). A real idea may be unkind and mock and laugh at my ability to tame it, but it waits to see if I will understand what it is trying to say to me.

And the people who this real idea conjures up arrive speaking. They have substance. Alas, my brilliant idea characters are often insubstantial beings who I try to get to rush through a flimsy plot before the holes appear.

When an idea is real, the setting has substance too. I know this is the place where this story must happen. And if I don’t know this place I must find out about it.

Right now I am hoping that the idea I have for a stand alone set in one of my favorite cities is real and not a brilliant flash of nothing. Maybe if I don’t rush to my computer . . . maybe if I let it come to me. . . because I really do want an excuse to go there. And brilliant ideas that fizzle out are not tax deductible.

Of course, the problem with this idea which may intend to stay is that the story is set in 1947. That means time in the library. A lot of time in the library and months of research.

Why is it that I never get an idea that doesn’t want me to spend time at a microfilm machine? I guess that’s how I know it’s real. Eyestrain and back ache.

3 comments:

Rick Blechta said...

Just wait 10 years. Microfilm will be so extinct. Great post!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks! If only they could figure out how to get all those faded, illegible newspapers and other documents into a form that would make it all easy.

carl brookins said...

Good, Donis. I've read all your books, of course, but either way, the last paragraph really hooked me.