Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Of Idea Babies and Rope Bridges

My Dear Reader,

So, you know how a month ago, I told you that things were going to go back to normal? Yeah, sorry about that. I feel awful. I've just been writing so much fiction lately that by the time I get to personal non-fiction, I'm little writing-ed out. Just ask PrimerGemelo, who has yet to receive a letter from me the whole time he's been a missionary. (If I've been a bad blogger, I've been an even worse sister. But worry not, Gentle Reader, for I am turning to repent.) Anyway, since this fiction I've been working on isn't quite ready yet, I thought that while you can't see what I'm writing, I'd share with you a little bit about how I write it.

There really is no right or wrong way to write, as long as whatever you're doing is working for you. That is, you spend more time putting words on the page than you do pulling out your own hair. I've heard of some published writers who always put on a playlist of orchestral background music, or who light a candle with a specific smell designed to tell the brain that it's Writing Time.* There are others who always write at certain times of the day, while others always write in certain places. These are all mechanisms that people use for consistency and motivation, but I don't really do any of that. Sometime I have music on, sometimes I don't. Sometimes it's four in the afternoon, sometimes it's four in the morning (lately, it's been more of the latter). Most of the time, I write at my computer desk, but sometimes I write in the kitchen, or while I'm waiting in the car, or I scribble down notes while I'm in church.** For me, it's not really about having a system as much as it is about having a good idea.

Whenever I get a good idea, and I mean a really good idea, it's kind of like how it feels when you've just eaten something really tasty, and then realize that you have to throw it up: this thing is awesome and it must needs come out of me! I usually try to find the closest writing instrument and put that thought down on paper. But normally, it doesn't come that easily. Most of the time, instead of coming to me like a lightning bolt, an idea will sting me in the back of the head like a small dose of static shock. Sometimes the sting is just a fragment of a plot, or maybe it's a single line of an unwritten argument. Whatever it is, it's really just an infant that needs a little mothering before it can stand on two feet. So, I find that I must do whatever it takes to help that baby grow. (Grow baby! Grow!)

This usually means a set of behaviors that kind of seem strange, because people don't know that when it comes to idea babies, the perfect baby food is drama, and plenty of it. How do you add drama to an idea, you ask? You act it out. Oh, yes. I do it all the time, and I am not ashamed. You have to do what works, and this helps somehow. I'm not exactly an Oscar winner or anything, but I find that if I say the dialogue fragment out loud, or I try to act out the partial scene, the rest of it just starts coming. Also, it's really fun. It's like I'm feeding my idea baby and my inner child all at the same time. That's what I call efficiency.

Eventually, the idea baby grows into an idea toddler, and when the idea toddler tells you that it's not a baby anymore and it wants to play with the big kids, then it's time to sit down at the keyboard and turn the idea toddler into a story.

Wow, that sounded a little barbaric. I'd change metaphors, but I thought that one was exceedingly clever, don't you?

Anyway, the old saying goes that it takes one idea baby to make you look like an idiot, but it takes an entire play group full of idea babies to create a story. The longer and more complex your story is, the more idea babies you need. But like real babies, I find that idea babies don't always come in the order you intended. It would make the most sense to start a story at the beginning and write it all the way through, but I find that it's pretty rare that I can do it that way. Most of the time, I get an idea baby that goes at the front of the line, and then one that goes halfway to the end, until I eventually have a word document that is more like a pile of boards, that if I strung together with rope, would turn into a very nice rope bridge.

Did we lose anybody on that train of thought? The idea babies just turned into a rope bridge. Yes. Full steam ahead.

You see, a rope bridge is kind of like a story in the sense that it's made up of a lot of different, distinct pieces that all need to be woven together in order to facilitate a journey.*** If you were trying to build a rope bridge out of a bunch of rope and a pile of boards, it may not be very obvious at first which part goes where. Sometimes, it may not even seem to matter which board goes at the beginning, and which goes at the middle or the end. After some experimenting, however, you figure out that even though there are limitless combinations, only one or two work the best. You then choose which of the better ways appeals to you personally, and voila! you have a nice, juicy story.

Are you confused about my writing process? Well, so am I. Half of the time I have no idea what the heck I'm doing. All I know is that most of the people who read my stories don't end up hating me forever, and that's all the encouragement I need.

So, in conclusion: when your brain gives birth to an idea baby, do whatever it takes to turn that baby into a rope bridge. Remember, you heard it here first.

Regards, best wishes, and scores upon scores of idea babies,

-Cecily Jane

*I tried that, by the way. Didn't work for me. I had a really hard time finding a scent that would be unique enough to signal my brain, and yet not annoy me. At the time, I was also limited to the candles sold anywhere within walking distance, so the selection at the dollar store was less than satisfactory.

** Yeah, still fell guilty about that. I try not to do it anymore, and sometimes it's a real struggle.

*** Oh yeah, I totally just wrote the awesomeness of that sentence.

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