Wednesday, November 10, 2010

If it's Wednesday, this must be Oakville, and my muse missed the train


Barbara here, just back from a day at the spa and feeling very mellow. Which is a good thing, because my writing life is somewhat hectic at the moment. I have a new book out, a launch to plan, book signings to set up, announcements to send out, and several blogs to write. Multiple demands, deadlines, long to-do lists and overflowing inboxes do not encourage the writing muse to visit. Just ask Vicki Delany.

On this week’s Monday blog, Vicki talked about her struggles to come up with an idea for her new standalone. After seven series novels in a row, had she lost the knack for creating a story from scratch? Was she dried up? Burnt out? In passing, she mentioned that she is in the middle of a huge publicity push for the release of her latest novel, Negative Image.

No writer wants to feel that our creativity has deserted us, and that we’re condemned to writing the same story over and over in thin disguises. We always want to improve our craft, explore new frontiers, experiment with new forms. But there is also this sneaking fear that those boundaries are finite and our well of ideas is shallower than our ambition.

We all write differently. Some of us strive mightily to come up with one decent idea every few years, others are bombarded with fresh ideas constantly. Some of us need hours of uninterrupted peace to get into our creative zone, others do their best “writing” while stuck in traffic on the expressway. Some of us find the looming shadow of a deadline galvanizing, others find it terrifying. I do know that there are endless possible stories out there, and endless intriguing characters, but when the mind is too distracted, overloaded or preoccupied, even the most faithful muse will desert us.

It says “You’re not listening. I’ll come back another time when you’re not so busy.” Without a doubt, Vicki’s muse will be back.

But her dilemma got me thinking. It casts a whole new light on that all-too-familiar question posed to authors. “Where do you get your ideas?” “From everywhere and anywhere” is our usual patient response. Ideas are in the old guy with the mismatched shoeslaces at the coffee shop, in the snatch of angry conversation overheard on the bus, in the small snippet of news on the back page of the paper. But how do we know they’re good ideas, and how do we grab hold of them and use them to launch a story?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my writing process and mentioned that all I need to get started is the theme I want to write about. Some authors commented that they never know the theme until the book is over, or that the theme emerges only gradually as the story unfolds. For many, the story seems to start with character. Who they are writing about, not what. Vicki herself is waiting for a character to emerge in vivid enough detail to start her story.

My experience is quite different. I don’t know my characters very well when I start out with them. I write scenes with them, I create journeys for them, and meet the other people in their lives, and over the course of the book, they develop and grow from their initial vague beginnings into vivid, unique characters. It is only once I have finished the book that their full character is revealed to me. Once I know who they are, I can flesh them out further in rewrites.

This is not to say that I know my theme in all its vivid detail either when I start my story. It is usually a vague idea, but one compelling enough that I want to explore it. War crimes. Post-traumatic stress in soldiers. In the latest book, the deadly power of love. I decide I want to write about XXX, I ask what characters I might need, and off I go. I usually don’t know what I want to say about XXX, and indeed sometimes I realize halfway through that I’m really writing about YYY. But the theme serves to focus me.

Perhaps this different approach stems from the fact I write a detective series. Thus, some of the main characters are already laid out for me. The question I ask is not so much “What is this character’s story?” but “What is Inspector Green’s case going to be about this time?” The only character who dictates the storyline from the outset is the victim. Once I ask “What is the story of this person’s death? What happened here?” then Inspector Green and I are off on the case. I may ask “Who is he, and why would someone want him dead?” but often that too unfolds maze-like as I follow the story. The character may not be who I thought he was, and the reasons for wanting him dead change with every twist.

Sometimes writers are asked “What’s more important in your writing – character or plot?” They are two sides of a circle, each incomplete without the other. A story is about characters doing something, and somewhere, hidden in that doing, lies the theme. Ideas, whether they be characters, plot points, snippets of news, or themes, are like the grain of sand in the oyster. They gets the muse working, and slowly bit by bit, a pearl is built around them. Perfect, multi-layered, and often bearing no resemblance to the original idea that started it all. I wonder where other authors find their grains of sand.

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