Making Connections

One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere.  The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.

I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use.  Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.

Why?  Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story.  It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.

The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style.  When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?”  Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with.  The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc.  It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.

Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy.  Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book.  As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources:  two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it.  Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them.  If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too.  Let’s hope, anyway – haha!

Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question.  A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?”  Go brainstorm.  It’s fun.  🙂

Pet Peeves – Amnesia Openings

All readers have pet peeves about storytelling.  There are some things that just irritate you when you see them in a story or a movie.  I think writers are even more prone to these kinds of tics than other readers, partly because we’re used to watching out for what does and doesn’t work in our own stories.

One of my own personal annoyances is with books that start out with a main character having amnesia.  Why does it bug me?  Well, partly because it strikes me as lazy writing, most of the time – like the character who always asks obvious questions for the sake of exposition via dialogue (*cough* Tasha Yar *cough* Next Generation Star Trek *cough*).  I don’t mind if the character develops amnesia later in the story, but to start out with it just seems like such a cheap way to get away with a long setup for your world and your characters, with an oh-so-obvious element of mystery.  The trouble is, it leaves me cold, and here’s the main reason:

99% of the amnesia beginnings I’ve read treat “amnesia” like it means “lack of personality”.  I’m sure that, without our memories, we’d all act somewhat different than usual, but we wouldn’t lose our personalities altogether.  You’d still think like yourself, you just wouldn’t know why you thought the way you did.  Aside from the fact that it makes no sense to equate loss of memory with loss of personality, there’s nothing duller, to me, than a book without good characters.  I latch onto characters quicker than any other story element, and so do many, many other readers.  Give me a lousy anchor, and I’m getting on a different boat, thanks all the same.

One thing I love, though, is finding stories that break my personal rules of reading and writing.  I’m delighted when a writer can do something I detest, and make me fall in love with his/her book anyway.  For one thing, it impresses me, and for another thing, I like to figure out why their book was different.  Why did this work, when dozens of other books didn’t (or at least, didn’t work for me)?

For my Amnesia Openings pet peeve, the book that shatters the rule is Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series.  Why does Zelazny get a free pass when the very first page of his series starts with the main character having no memory?  Because, also on the first page, he shows me his narrator has a great deal of personality.  Within half a page, the reader knows he’s suspicious, calculating, tricky, and funny.  The narrative voice, the questions and doubts that cross his mind, the decisions he makes, and the way he handles his lack of knowledge about himself or what happened to him, work together beautifully to establish what type of person he is and how he thinks, and to simultaneously set up the first inklings of conflict and danger.  There’s nothing lazy about writing that can do all that with half a page.

The best writing makes the most of each and every scene – not just because it makes the book richer, although it does, but also because that’s the kind of writing that grabs people.  It’s exciting to open a book and be in another place, but more exciting to open a book and be in another place with interesting questions to be answered, mysterious events on the horizon, and a fascinating main character to anchor you in the world of the story.  A narrative hook, by itself, isn’t enough.  You need some bait, too – if I may mix my nautical metaphors here in my blog (I would avoid doing so at all costs in a story!)  😉


So right now, I’m having huge problems balancing the tone in a scene – which means I’ve been thinking a lot about tone lately.  It’s one of those things that I usually don’t have problems with, so I usually don’t think much about how I approach it.  Of course, I make choices about which words I use, how my characters react both internally and externally, and so on, but generally once I’ve got my characters firmly in mind, consistency of tone just happens by itself.  It’s like going into a situation with people you know through and through – if you and your uber-neurotic, self-conscious pal are going to a meeting with the boss today, you KNOW it’s going to be a nerve-wracking experience, no matter how well things go.  If, on the other hand, you’re going in with your light-hearted, easy-going pal who doesn’t take anything too seriously, you’re figuring on a much more laid-back day, even if the meeting doesn’t go well.

So characters contribute to tone a great deal just by themselves, and that’s generally what gets me through the troublesome nebulousness that is atmosphere / mood / tone.

One thing I’m very intentional about with my writing environment (and which has everything to do with maintaining the right tone for whatever I’m working on) is what music I listen to.  There are times (especially while editing) when I can’t listen to anything while I work, other times when I can’t concentrate if there are any lyrics, and other times when I’m so in the zone or the music is so spot-on when it doesn’t even occur to me that the music isn’t part of what I’m putting on the page.

The book I’m working on has its sad times and its dark elements, but on the whole I wanted a sense of light-heartedness, fun even in the face of danger, and a pinch of irreverence for even the most serious situations.  So when I picked my music, I chose, primarily, jazz.  The playlist has evolved as the book has evolved, as I got to know characters better, and as new elements filtered into the story.  Now, it’s a mix of big band swing, instrumental surf tunes, and the occasional offbeat, funky song that just fit too well to be ignored.  Some of it is just great background music for working on the book, and some of it is so attached in my mind to specific scenes in the storyline that the music pops into my head anytime I work on the scene I associate it with.

For this book, it’s the perfect playlist to keep the tone consistent.  The music says, “Heartbreak is natural – everybody’s got troubles.  Now come on, let’s have our gin & tonics and enjoy ourselves anyway!”  And that’s so in line with my narrator.  If I’d listened to heavy metal while I wrote this book, or The Cure, or Mozart, or Disney songs, it would probably have been a very different book, even if I’d had the same original ideas about the characters and the story.

And a lot of the ideas I’ve had as I went along came directly from the influence of the music I listened to – it really helped me picture some of the events in a new way.

So here’s to you, Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke, Benny Goodman and the Squirrel Nut Zippers!

There’s a writing exercise for you:  Make a new playlist!  See what happens.