Good… Something. I believe evening for you. Question. Do you ever just start writing? In the sense that you just start a story with nothing in mind. If so, does it organically start to shape into a story going from a-z, or do you eventually have to start an organization of some sort? Thank you in advance for your answer.
Well, let’s tease this out one bit at a time.
If what you mean is “do you ever just sit down to write with nothing in mind”, then the answer is “Very rarely.” Partly because I’m not sure it’s possible for me to sit down to write with nothing in mind. There’s always something in mind. At the back of it, at the front of it, milling around in the middle…
There is also a simple matter of work logistics here, because while I do take pleasure in my writing (you’d better believe it: sometimes that personal pleasure is all you’re going to get…), this is my job and there’s a lot of it piled up waiting for me to get on with it. I keep a worksheet in Todoist (which I highly recommend to those who need highly organized and very feature-rich to-do lists: Todoist is the queen of them all, or possibly empress), and as of this morning there are twenty-five writing projects on it: seven film or TV projects, three short fiction projects, five science fiction novels, six fantasy novels, two historicals, one mainstream/magic realism novel and a big fat contemporary political thriller of the buy-it-at-the-airport-read-it-on-the-beach variety.
So you will understand that I don’t often have the luxury of sitting down with nothing in mind. All those projects stand up at the back of my head every time I sit down at the big computer, and start yelling “Mommy, me!” “No, you paid attention to him yesterday, me! Pick me!” …And then there’s always the question of which editor or producer has called or emailed most recently to noodge you. So there is always something I ought to be doing besides sit down at the computer with Scrivener open and stare into space. (Though staring into space is actually one of the more important parts of my workflow, closely tied up with shutting up the noisy busy process-obsessed writer’s-forebrain and letting the shadowier, more intuitive writer’s-hindbrain get on with fitting the pieces of story business and character interaction together.)
That said: if what you mean is “Do you sometimes get an idea and just sit down and start writing it”, then yeah, sometimes, because that’s often how the creative process goes for me. I get an image (C. S. Lewis got Aslan that way, he says in one of his memoirs: just a sudden lion out of nowhere…), or a flash of how a story might start, or (probably most frustrating) of how it’ll end. And then immediately it becomes necessary to drag it into the “real world” and start making it concrete, start setting down the details before they fly away.
I can’t say it strongly enough: when you get this kind of urge, the lightning-striking-the-sea moment, sit down and take notes immediately: do not assume you’ll remember all the details later. You can always come back to the notes, but if you don’t nail the basic concept to the paper or wrap it right up in electrons and put it somewhere safe, I promise you that you’ll be sorry later. The mind malfunctions in mysterious ways, and nothing afflicts the career writer (and others, I bet) with more midnight melancholy than the memory of the story that got away because you were too damn busy to make notes and now can’t remember the details that would have made it memorable when you finally did sit down to write.
Lewis Carroll had strong opinions about this issue too…
‘The horror of that moment,’ the King went on, ‘I shall never, NEVER forget!’
‘You will, though,’ the Queen said, ‘if you don’t make a memorandum of it.’
…In any case, when that fleeting image or concept arrives, once you’ve fastened it down – at least as conclusively as you can at such an early stage – that’s when the serious work begins, because now you have to work out what format it’s meant to be expressed in and how big or small it needs to be to be expressed perfectly; to become (as the overused phrase has it) “the best that it can be”. And generally I don’t allow a story to just wander along shaping itself without some guidance along the way. I’ve been at this a long time, and over thirty-plus years of work I’ve had stories that I allowed to wander about the landscape go completely wrong because they were not correctly assessed early for shape and size and their inherent creative possibilities. I can’t afford to waste time like that any more: that list is staring at me, and (as the slave would whisper into the ear of a triumphing general coming home to Rome) I have to remember that I’m mortal.
Anyway. From where I stand, allowing stories to organically shape themselves only works if you are (a) very skilled and (b) very lucky, in tandem. It only works if the story is exactly the right kind of story to be allowed to sprawl and wander and repeatedly run down blind alleys while you (and it) sort out its mission in life. (Also… I’m not sure the “organic” metaphor works perfectly here. For example, would you allow a climbing rose to grow “organically”, without supports, without guidance? Imagine what it’s going to look like in a few years. I really hope you like days and days of pruning…)
For me (and here I emphasize that there are probably as many ways to write as there are Names of God, and certainly as many as there are writers) the appearance of a premise for a story immediately implies the need to give it at least some kind of structure while working out what it’s going to be “when it grows up”. Is the subject matter better handled in prose or as a screenplay? And what length of either? Is it emotionally or in action detail hefty enough to stand up to the format you’re considering? (Simplest example of how this can go right, or horribly wrong: How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Perfect as a book, and justifiably a classic. Entirely workable as a short animation [as Chuck Jones proved: but it helps to be a genius who had the gift of making everything look easy, if not inevitable]. A complete disaster as a feature motion picture: stretched out of shape for length’s sake, not enough story scraped across too much celluloid. Millions of dollars could have been saved if somebody trusted and experienced at… was it Warner? I forget… had weighed that story in the hand of the mind and taken the production executives aside and said, “It’s not going to work: not even Jim Carrey can save this.” …Ah well.)
Once you’ve applied at least the minimal structuring that’s involved in the choice between (say) prose and screen format, there’s plenty of time to change your mind later: switch formats to one that works better. But that initial assessment of “What have I got here? What’s the best way to write it so that it moves everybody the way it’s moving me?” ( – and for the career writer, “What’s the best way to do that so it’ll also sell?”) – has to be made, and made actively, early on. Otherwise a precious thing, an idea out of nowhere, has way too good a chance to get wasted as it roams around the creative wilderness trying to find a niche.
Hope this helps. 🙂
(reposted from Tumblr: http://dduane.tumblr.com/post/122495611471/good-something-i-believe-evening-for-you )