Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Plot? What Plot? You wanted a plot?!

It's inevitable to face this question, sooner or later, if you're a writer with a halfway decent booklist. "Where do your ideas come from?"

The truth is, I'm clueless about where my ideas originate. They seem to generate themselves and pop into my mind almost fully formed. I've heard other writers say they saw the whole thing in a dream, but this never happens to me. (Or, almost never ... I did get the inspiration for one very large, very dark and werid novel from a fever dream, about ten years ago. The dream was so pervasive and overpowering, the novel was actually written, in part just to get it out of my head and shut the characters up. But this was a singular fever dream, and can't possibly count toward answering the question of where the endless torrent of ideas come from.)

Other writers will tell you they sit down and laboriously thrash out their plots, and I've no doubt this suits some people. Some writers like to spend six or eight hours a day at the typewriter or computer, writing and rewriting segments until somehow the final draft comes together. I can grasp how this would work inside a computer; the prospect of making it happen on paper, with your actual typewriter, mystifies me. Still other writers claim to have the whole story in their minds before they sit down and type a word -- prose and all. (It might have been Harlan Ellison who works that way ... all well and good; but you'd need a virtually 'trick memory' to be able to make his system go.)

For myself, I suppose I work in a kind of gray zone in the middle. A scenario floats into my head -- from where, I know not. I don't write anything at once; I think about it for days, weeks, months, until a viable storyline comes together, complete with the ending. (There's nothing worse than having 75% of a plot written, and you can't find the ending for love or money. It represents a sheer waste of time -- and also a fair amount of discomfort suffered, if you're like me, and have a back and hands that have seen somewhat better days.)

If or when a coherent plot comes together, then I'll probably jot it down. I have notebooks filled with undecipherable scrawl. Daydreaming can make plots flow together quite quickly, but the result can be pretty tacky: daydreams also lend themselves to wish fulfilment, and improbable characters. As a writer, one of the first things you learn is how to filter out the dross, dump the krudd, detect the crap and chuck it, and then weave what's left into a viable story which would be enjoyed by other people. In fact, this ability is probably the first major skill a wannabe writer needs to learn. You can worry about your grammer later -- you can always pay a fully qualified drone to proofread and copy edit your prose; but if the subplots and character development underpinning the work have too high a krudd factor, a crap quotient beyond acceptable parameters, well, brilliant, flawless prose will be warped into something like satire, or spoof. The end result might easily be hilarious.

(Incidentally, no offense intended to paid copy editors and proofreaders: they also serve who groan in sheer disbelief and correct witless grammar. The point I'm making is simply that copy editing is a learned skill which will one day, very soon, be performed by machines, whereas plot wrangling, birthing characters, world building, are the province of a very small fraction of human minds who have the latent ability. Those born able to do this are as blessed as those others who can dance, paint, sculpt, sing, and so on.)

So the writing process is cumulative. The idea happens -- how, I don't know. It sloshes around inside my (or any writer's) head for weeks or months, and when it starts to make sense it's written down or typed in. By this stage, the characters will already be playing the key parts. They might not have names (sometimes a character's name can be changed over and over, right up to the final draft), but they'll surely have faces and voices.

This one reminds you of some actor or other; that one looks like the goal keeper from the 1982 Manchester United soccer team. (You think I'm joking, right? I'm dead searious, kids!) This character looks like a batsman from the 1984 West Indian cricket team ... that one reminds you of an actor from a 1953 movie. Their voices are the same ad hoc mish-mash -- timbre, accent, 'color,' all flowing together into new forms.

By now, the whole process is starting to get that certain feeling about it: you're restless to start writing the damned book. It's daunting, though; you're looking at 100 - 200 hours of work ahead of you, most of it staring at a screen. But one day the first sentence, even the first paragraph, will float into your mind from dimensions unknown, and -- that's it. You start writing.

But, all right, the original question was, where the hell do the ideas come from?

Now and then I allude to some dimension at right angles to this one, from which ideas just slip through. This might be hopelessly off-topic, but I recall reading in TIME Magazine about eighteen months ago, that recent research into human brain activity, using scanning methods that have only recently become available, show that the brain goes into overdrive as soon as the eyes are closed. There's a kind of 'dark neural net' which kicks in a soon as audovisual stimuli are closed out. The brain generates its own content, without pause. Hence, dreams, and daydreaming, trace-like states ... and maybe story ideas?

We have, essentially, no real idea where fictional material is 'made,' and it's also interesting (though absolutely off topic!) to note, the evidence to 'prove' that the mind and the brain are the same thing is as lace-curtain thin as the evidence to the contrary. The only fact is -- there are no facts. So if someone were to suggest that the 'dark' neural net which slams into high gear when you close your eyes, accesses some other, intersecting plane of existence, and ideas, stories, plots, leak through osmotically from somewhere, somewhen, else in an extremely quantum-driven spacetime ... don't be too quick to pooh-pooh the idea. (In fact, grab a copy of Brian Green's THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS, and swiftly unlearn everything you ever thought you understood about life, the universe and, uh, everything ...)

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