This is me working on a new book.
There’s a particular stage of writing that used to panic me slightly but, much like a disagreement with my husband, I’ve now learned that it’s all part of the process, and instead of picking a fight, I just need to be patient as that works itself through.
It’s called ‘beginning.’ Here’s how it works. I finish a book, I do the edits, I work with agents and editors, I finally get it ready. Then, at somewhere between six months and a year, I’m done.
I raise my head, stretch, look around and think, “I’m finished. Weird.” After months of focusing on one project and seeing it through with a single-minded stubbornness required exclusively by writers, professional athletes, and egomaniacs, I find myself saying, “I need a new idea. I need a concept for a new book.”
Let the palpitations begin. I take a few deep breaths, grab my water bottle, and head out for a two-hour hike.
I start by thinking of basic concepts, sometimes even single words that appeal to me, but everything is vague and slippery. Suggestions slither, eel-like, into and then out of my brain. Most of them are unstable shadows and others have a slight electric charge that sparks a sleeping section of creativity to stir restlessly, then return to napping. None of these brain babies are substantial enough to be grasped before they sink into the silty muck at the base of my cortex and lay in slumbering amniotic oblivion.
This stage, I know now, is important, and doubly important is to not get frustrated. This is where hiking, cleaning a closet, sorting through files, waxing your car, or just daydreaming come in. Yes, you can sit down at a computer and sketch out some ideas, name some characters, but you don’t know them yet, they haven’t come right out and said hello. How could they? They don’t have faces and histories, they’re unborn. Yet the idea, the plot, the concept, the people in the story are all in there some where. Once the ‘new idea’ process is started, it works almost without me. Wake some of the creatures, throw some food in the tank, and then do something else while they come out of hibernation. Watching and prodding won’t help, the process has already begun.
As this process goes on, my job is to focus it, throw out the unwanted visitors and narrow the tangents. As a couple weeks go by, one or two fish crawl up onto the land, they evolve, they begin to interact with the landscape around them. Some of these are ideas that were pre-mature or unsuitable for other stories and were ‘discarded’ to be re-animated and inserted in a more suitable environment. Other’s are new, they emerge wailing and mucus-covered through the creative birth canal.
There are books that start with an idea for a scene, like “Loaded.” I saw a news story about a man who was held up at gunpoint, he handed over his wallet and was shot anyway. I was so angry that I sat down a wrote a scene where the ‘victim’ pulls a gun of her own and takes out the would be robber. I thought that would be the climax of a book. It is, instead, the opening scene of “Loaded.”
Some books come from a concept idea. I noticed so many people in our society that seem forgotten, who are deemed ‘unimportant’ or ‘unworthy’ because of their appearance, job, or a variety of other socially imposed judgements, and I wanted to give one of those people a voice. And so, I have “Invisible Ellen,” the story of a woman so ignored by society that she is no longer even seen.
There are lots of exercises and tricks and formats that can help with plotting and structure, but basic ideas, giving birth to an entirely new set of characters and their world, that’s more organic, I think.
But what do I know? I’m just a gal with a head full of writhing concepts too slimy to grasp as of yet. But look there, a flash of an eye, a hand reaching out, an expression on the face of a lost soul, a secret pain, an amusing point of view, a fresh voice. The murmuring din is slowly separating into distinct thought and sounds.
And then a flash, a splash, and there’s an idea! A nice fat one. No, it’s gone again.
That’s okay. I’ll sort through my junk drawer and let it gestate a few more days. Before I know it, something solid will rise up from that primordial goo and I’ll snatch it. “Gotcha!”
And then the work begins.
A happy humming starts in my gut and fills the air around me as I introduce myself to this new life form. I take the kid to school, put some soup on the stove, kiss my husband, and sit down to meet the people and places that will fill my next few months.
If the writing process is the gestation period, then developing the concept is a mad spermicidal swim through muddy waters. Thousands, hundred of thousands, of little germ sized ideas frantically wagging their way toward the egg that will solidify their survival. Most of them get lost, give up, or just circle endlessly until they dissolve back into the mass from which they came.
But somewhere in there, one determined little guy is lashing his tail, muttering his mantra, determined to find the fertile land. He’ll get there, he’ll become something far more complex and grand than the few basic building blocks he is now.
Go little seed, go!
Now let’s give him some privacy, some things are best done in the dark.
I’m going back to bed.
Shari, November 25, 2012