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Putting the sting in the story

March 16, 2011

It’s funny… I rarely think about my internal writing process. Oh, I think about the external process a lot–which computer to write on, what writing software to use, where to write, when to write, the small notebook vs. the big notebook, the mechanical pencil loaded with 0.5 mm lead (for when I’m feeling precise and editorial) vs. the mechanical pencil loaded with 0.7 mm lead (for when I want the words to flow in an uncontrolled rush) vs. the mechanical pencil loaded with 0.9 mm lead (for sex scenes), etc., etc.

But the internal process? Where ideas come from? How they take shape?

Forget it. As a poet once said,

Seekest thou not the headwaters of creativity
For when too deeply dost thou look into the plotting pool,
Sapphire waters vanish, revealing only the universal wellbottom slime;
Thy font of ideas exists to flow, not to be diverted and dammed

Plumb the depths at thy peril

Since I just wrote that poem, I had the option of tacking on an extra line about the font not being dammed to well, but overly curious writers being damned too well. Aren’t you glad I didn’t?

But seriously, where do ideas come from? A more important question is, why ask? Why not just let them come? The only time it matters is when you don’t have any ideas, when you’ve run dry. This is more liable to occur when you’re tired, overworked, deadline-stressed, distracted, drunk or otherwise impaired. Then, you care deeply, because you need an idea, quick, and that’s the time you’re least likely to have a good one. Why is that?

It could be that, because the emotional stakes are high, your standards go up, too. Ideas march through your mind, only to be rejected as too silly, too thin, too weak, too hackneyed, too Twilight/Star Wars/Jane Austen. Story seeds that you would cheerfully nurture and grow for your own amusement are suddenly not good enough when they are to be cultivated for some other, defined purpose. It’s not that you don’t have any ideas… you just don’t have any good ideas.

Believe me, I sympathize. I’ve been stuck for ideas before, stuck so badly I wondered if I’d run dry completely, if I’d had the last good idea of my life a week ago and didn’t realize it at the time. What to do in such situations? I don’t know about you, but I force the hand of fate. I’m not going to sit idly by while there are stories to be written.

In short, I write up my crappy ideas. The good ideas may have fled, but I never lack for crappy ones. Scenes where nothing happens, characters who are thin and uninteresting, settings that are at once boring and overstuffed. The classic example of bad writing is the “more tea, vicar?” scene, where the author uses 500 words to describe–in loving detail–something that doesn’t need to be described at all: a hostess pouring a cup of tea for the vicar. All the details come out, such as the picking up of the tea cup, the setting onto a saucer, the lifting of the pot, the tipping of the pot, the pouring of the tea, the stopping pouring of the tea, and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

Wasp leg - how to put a stinger in the story

Wasp leg - how to put a stinger in the story

All of that crap, I write. Then, I ask myself, what would jar this situation? What would be a shock, would heighten this scene, these characters, this plot? If nothing else comes to mind, I consider the old standby for drama, WASP LEG: wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony. Which of the Seven Deadly Sins could I drop in? How much? On whom? Why? Even if the character doesn’t overtly display evidence of one of these, once you know that it’s the driving force behind their actions, the story improves immensely with the character’s efforts to hide it.

There are other mechanical things you can do to shake the jar and make the fireflies glow. Change the POV of the story, change the tense, give the ending first, move the setting from a classroom to a courtroom (or a space station, or a dank basement), change the gender of the MC.

All of these are tricks, nothing more. They don’t lead to inquiry into the depths of the creative process. They merely facilitate the mechanicals of writing by creating conditions conducive for creativity. When it comes to ideas, the wellspring itself is a mystery, but the sides of the well? That’s just brick and mortar, rebar and concrete, applied systematically.

A writer’s mind is predisposed to find the drama; once you give it a nudge in the right direction, the ideas come by themselves, don’t they?

14 Comments
  1. March 16, 2011 7:10 pm

    @ Rob: Being stuck in the doldrums is no fun. Even when you get a bit of something that’s OK, it’s hard to take pleasure in it. Peace, my friend, and may the WASP LEG deliver you.

    @ Jacqui: I’m glad you liked it! A complex fantasy life requires a conceptual understanding (as opposed to a purely experiential understanding) of the way things ARE. That’s how I see human intelligence differing from the more complex forms of animal intelligence.

    @ GP Ching: Let me know how the WASP LEG works out for you.

    @ C Michael: Thank you! They are the ultimate conflict drivers. Protag against antag, protag against himself, against God, against nature… WASP LEG incorporates about every kind of human weakness. And in THAT is drama.

    @ Kittie: You’re very welcome – thanks for reading!

    @ Ezzy: Thank you, Ezzy! WASP LEG can be the hidden motivator behind any action. Every time I consider it, ala “which one applies here?”, my characters are suddenly fleshed out in my mind. As for the leads, yes, I have 0.5mm, 0.7mm and 0.9 mm pencils. The narrow ones give a precise, fussy feel to the writing. The middle gauge is looser, freer. The thick gauge is just lush and indulgent, sloppy and slippery, almost sensual in how extravagant of a line it makes.

  2. March 16, 2011 8:27 pm

    I really enjoyed your post (and the impromptu poetry)! I’m always convincing myself that if I find a new way to write, say, a new physical medium (pencil? blue pen?), I’ll somehow start writing more productively/creatively/etc. This usually fails.

    As far as the internal process, however, I usually get struck by a scene. Maybe something I see in a movie, or read in another book, and I think, “You know, if they just change this one thing…” or “If she had opened that door instead…” and suddenly I feel alive with the narrative. Problem is, I never seem to write them down.

  3. March 17, 2011 3:36 am

    Like others I love the wasp leg. But then, there are so many other sins that could be thrown in. And I’m not sure they’re any less deadly.

  4. March 17, 2011 8:33 am

    Wasp leg – what a cool way to remember them. I’ve never heard that term. Great post, Tony!

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