Gimbling in the Wabe: Whence Cometh My Help

I would love to write a novel.  Not (necessarily) the Next Great American Novel, but something substantial, something tangible, something I can hold in my hands and say, “This is mine!”, something of which I can be selfish and proud.  A short story would work, too, or a novella, but A Novel is the pinnacle of literary achievement (isn’t it?) and is something to which I aspire.

Only one thing now keeps me from writing my novel:  an idea.  Alas, that is a pretty big thing.

Sometimes I think that ideas are available only in limited quantities, and that people like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King and Danielle Steele get more than their fair share (okay, maybe not that last one; a huge output does not necessarily equate multiple ideas) – ideas seem to come very easily, or develop very easily for these people, and scores – hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions – of others.  But that’s only when I am in a really pouty mood. I actually love (and am in awe of) those people who seem to be able to flow from project to project, and always seem to have stories at the tips of their fingers.

And I have to admit, it makes it even harder to see people who have written sub-par books become cause célèbre (can anyone say Twilight?  No?  Okay then, Fifty Shades of Grey?) – because at least they’ve had ideas that they have fleshed out, poorly perhaps, but realized, and all I’ve had are blinking cursors and blank pages.  I know I can write good fiction, because I have, but only when it’s been a collaborative effort with someone else setting the stage.  I can make that stage look awfully darned pretty, but I can’t seem to move the action forward even when the characters I am working with are vivid and the storyline is strong and vital.  (Click here if you want to read an example of how I’ve prettified the vehicle someone else is driving.)

Not that I’m looking for sympathy or casting around for compliments.  I think there’s a lot to be said for having the ability to embellish on a theme.  A lot of would-be authors, I think, tend to focus in on the action and forget that what’s playing in their head needs to become part of the reader’s landscape, too, and that’s not just describing the color of his/her/its eyes.  To bring a living, breathing, present world into focus for a reader is as important (to me, as a reader and a reviewer) as are a compelling course of action and intrinsic characters.

So I have one out of three – the descriptive world – down pat.  And I can kind of do characters. After all, I’ve been a long time role playing gamer in my lifetime, and building a backstory for a character is one of the best parts of that pastime, for me.  (Okay, so that’s simplistic, so be it.)  It’s the other thing – the action – that eludes me.  Big time.  I can get in the car, and tell you all about how it feels to be in the car, and how I came to be in the car, but I can’t put that damned car in drive, or see any road to drive it down.  Heck, I can’t even find the driveway.

My friend Brady Allen, who pens wonderfully creepy and magnificent short stories, once wrote:

I can’t plot out my short stories ahead of time; I like to discover them as I write. Just start with an image and see where it goes. That, for me, is what makes writing wondrous.”

I’ve heard other authors say much the same thing.  Neil Gaiman, bless him, says that ideas aren’t hard:

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

JK Rowling said the idea that became Harry Potter just popped into her head once while she was on a train; because she had no pen and was too shy to ask a stranger for one, she had four hours to daydream about it.  JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit based on a single sentence – “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  Charlie Stross says he trips over his ideas, “because they’re lying around in heaps.”

These responses tend to make me very blue.  I’ve spent my whole life daydreaming – I’m a great one for daydreaming – but still no story.  I checked, and even though there are lots of things lying around my house in heaps (like the laundry) none of them even comes close to resembling an interesting idea.  I can’t even get an idea for tonight’s dinner to “just come to me,” let alone a plot for a novel, and while I can come up with some great potential first lines, or final lines, or even in-between lines, I can’t seem to get any lines to fit on either side of those, at least none that lead anywhere.

But then, after allowing myself just a touch of blue, (isn’t melancholy a sign of artistry?), I get pissed.  Not at them, at myself.  Maybe I’m having kernels of ideas all over the place, but just am not forgiving enough, or patient enough – or simply enough enough – to allow those ideas to grow.  I mean, if I’m expecting full blown ideas to simply leap from my brain – or waiting for ideas to BE full blown – then perhaps I’m being at best naïve, and at worst, full of the nastiest kind of conceit.  Maybe I should just stick with a tiny, even inconsequential idea that intrigues me, and nurture it a bit.  Mull it over a while, let it grow, see if it goes anywhere.

No wait, I’ve done that.  More times than I can block the attempts out of my consciousness.  Still no novel.  Not even a Chapter One.

Ah, well.  Maybe that’s just not the kind of author I am, one who writes grand things.  Maybe the things I’m destined to write are smaller, more crystallized, less fancy or fanciful, but nevertheless honest and hopefully entertaining.   Maybe I’ll get the chance to do some nice embellishments here and there.  That would be okay, too.  At least I’m writing.  That’s a start.  And if it’s all there is, then so be it.

But maybe I’ll keep daydreaming, just in case.

~ Sharon Browning

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