I’ve got two questions today. The first is, when did you know that you would like to be an author? The second is, where have some of your plot ideas come from?
Mmm, let’s take the easy one first.
Plot ideas? I don’t get those so much as I get story ideas. And so very many of these come from watching the news that I’d have to say that’s my main source of ideas, and has been for many years. I am a tremendous news junkie; a given day’s news will normally give me five or ten story ideas (most of which get thrown out because they either won’t interest me long enough to get written or won’t interest anybody else).
It’s after the story idea comes that the plot gets hung on it… mostly as part of the process of working out whether it’s worth pursuing. Normally the first stage of this process takes about five minutes (enough time to want some tea, to realize I don’t know where the tea mug is, to track it down, to find that it’s full of tea that’s gone cold since the last time I did this, and to microwave it again).
There are a few evaluations that have to be made. At least five potential characters have to suggest themselves to me. The arc of the story has to become apparent (in very broad strokes: somebody does something, somebody else reacts, drama, resolution). The idea has to be held up against a couple/few different theoretical yardsticks to see how it measures up (Aristotle’s Poetics and the “Hero’s Journey” paradigm would be a couple of these, but I have a whole rack of them). And the story has to be “weighed” in the mind to see what format it’s right for. (Something that might make a good graphic novel might not have enough meat on its bones to be a regular novel. Some stories will immediately make it apparent that they’d work better as film than as prose. Etc.)
By the time the tea’s done microwaving all this will have happened and it’ll be obvious how the story wants to be told and what needs to be done next. Any story idea that hasn’t produced this basic set of results in four to five minutes gets thrown out as intriguing-but-essentially-worthless-in-the-long-run.
Anything that does survive then goes to serious plotting. Potential novels get outlined: these can run from 20-50 pages depending on how much technical detail or action detail needs to be clarified. Screenplays go through a three-stage process, from a premise to a prose outline broken by acts to a treatment broken out scene by scene. These “extended plotting” mechanisms expose any weaknesses and let the story idea flesh itself out.
And then I do the book or the script or whatever.
The other question has to be split, as terms are an issue here.
I first knew I wanted to write when I was eight, because that’s when I started doing it: wrote my first novel then. In crayon. With illustrations and a cover with a picture, because I thought (as many small children did in those days) that the author had to do all that themselves. So many times, before the time of home computers and printers, when I’d go to speak at schools, kids of kindergarten age would ask me “How do you write so small?”…
So I wrote all through my childhood and adolescence and young adulthood, to entertain myself — both original stuff and fanfic (before I knew what fanfic was or that anyone else was doing it). It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, when I went to work for David Gerrold and had a chance to watch a writer at work, that I realized that (a) this was a thing you could do for a living, and (b) that I could do it too: could be a writer. (And an author, in terms of getting it sold, getting it made.) …So I did.
This distinction remains a touchstone for me, though, when talking to others about this line of work (or “the Work”, perhaps I should say, and I doubt my fellow Holmes fans would grudge me the usage). The people who say “I want to be a writer/author” are too often caught up in images of what they think the job should look like: the bestseller lists, the book tours, the potential fame and fortune, etc etc. But it’s the ones who say “I want to write” who’re the ones I pay more attention to, the ones to watch out for. And the most promising of all are the ones who are writing and just want to find out how to do it better. Those people, they’re the mother lode, our next generation — and there is always, always room for more good writers. It’s not like there’s a planetary quota or something. Earth Needs Writers. 🙂
Hope that answers the questions.