Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Nurturing an idea from kernel to pop

Stay with me, because this is about to get girly. Those readers of the male persuasion are free to skip the italicized parts.

It starts with shoes. I tend to wake up knowing what pair of shoes I want to wear for the day. Maybe I'll be doing a lot of walking, so I know that I need to wear something comfortable. Or, I'll be meeting with important people, so the shoes need to look professional. Sometimes I'm just feeling a certain pair of shoes. They have bows and they're red and they're too amazing to be true. Those are the shoes I need to wear. Not the most convenient or comfortable, but the ones that inspire me.

The shoes are the kernel. They're the genre and the general feeling that I want to write a book about ghosts. Puppies. Professional thieves. Whatever. In this case, let's say that we want to write a fantasy book about.... mermaids.

Okay, so as soon as I put the shoes on, I realise that wearing these shoes means that I can't just put whatever I want on the top part of my body. Oh no. Wearing the red shiny shoes raises a few different issues that I'm going to keep in mind as I put together the rest of my outfit. For one thing, I've forgotten to shave. Definitely going to need tights, or pants. But I don't have any pants that look cute with these shoes. They all cover up the bows. Tights it is!

There are a lot of books out there about mermaids. How am I going to make sure that my book stands out from the pack? It needs to have something special to differentiate it from the five million mermaid stories that have been told throughout time. Well... maybe I can write about a merman. I mean, there aren't nearly as many stories about mermen. Come to think of it, maybe he's an old merman. Hmmm, but are there really millions of readers waiting to find out about an aging merman? Am I dying to write about an aging merman? Maybe. Maybe if he has some kind of link, or a connection to someone above ground. A deal. Aha!

Okay, because my legs look funny in shorts, I'm going to need a skirt to go with these tights. I own about eight different skirts, from prairie marm to sexy schoolgirl. The heels are already kind of sexy, so I should probably tone it down and stick with something knee-length. Because it's always about balance. You can't go full ooh'la la. Otherwise people will give you that look they reserve for the crazy people in their lives.

Okay, I've got an old, possibly dying merman who needs to uphold one end of a deal with someone above ground. Who is this someone? Well, preferably someone a bit younger with a little bit of spark to create contrast with my old dude. Wouldn't hurt if he was maybe a little bit smoldery. Because I like that.

Time to figure out what goes on top. At this point I usually throw on eight million different shirts to see what looks best. One will get discarded because I just wore it. Another is too fussy. Another draws too much attention to itself, and not in the good way. Another makes me look fat. Another makes me look like a five-year-old cartoon character. One has a stain on it. Another has a hole. Another, the one I kind of like, clashes with the shoes. OH HELP ME GOD, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO???!!!!

So my two characters have some kind of deal with each other. What is the deal?
Maybe the above-grounder wants the merman's daughter for his wife.
Maybe the merman wants the above-grounder to grant him access to a magical lake.
Maybe the above-grounder wants to find out the secret of his own birth from the merman.
Maybe the merman wants the above-grounder to return the secret of music he has stolen from the sirens.
Maybe the above-grounder wants power over the seas.
Maybe the merman wants power over the land.
Maybe the above-grounder wants freedom to fish in the sea without being harmed.
Maybe the merman wants the above-grounder to allow access to his lands once a year for a wild merpeople party where everyone gets to dance around on legs and chew gum and do other earth people things.

What follows is usually at least a half hour of trying and discarding options. Sometimes I end up needing to change other elements of the outfit in order to get everything to work together. But, usually, I am able to come up with something that isn't 100% horrific. Unless I'm going to dance. Because then all bets are off. (Homeless chic being the most popular attire for most dancers on their way to class).

Okay, you know what? The merman isn't that old. He's actually young enough to be the above-grounder's older brother. Hey! They are brothers! And, they both desire each others' lives, so, every year they switch places for a day. Okay. I think that works. I think I can do something with that. As a matter of fact, I'm starting to be able to imagine scenes....

Time for practical concerns. Questions such as, "does this outfit require a belt?" and "I don't have any underwear lines showing, do I?"

So, if they're brothers, then either their parents partook in an interspecies kind of relationship, or something strange happened to them when they were babies. Also, how are they able to switch places once a year? It seems like there's probably some kind of powerful character that has control over these things. Is this character morally neutral, or do they have a stake in the outcome? What's the potential problem with switching places? Well, usually problems occur when someone doesn't want to switch back. Hmmm... possible love story? Power struggle. Maybe one of the brothers falls in love on the one day spent switching and doesn't want to go back, because he wouldn't be able to carry on his love affair. Or, he spends that one day every year with his love interest, until he finally can't take it anymore and makes a deal to stay switched. A deal! Aha. Things start to churn.

Time for shiny, sparkly, happy stuff! Jewelry! Scarves! Fancy hair! Nothing is wrong and everything is right, though you have to make sure it doesn't clash. :) Oh, and less is probably more. :(

At this point (though sometimes earlier) I start thinking about mood and tone. Do I want this story to be bittersweet, completely depressing or uplifting? Where does it take place and what kind of culture quirks and local beliefs could affect the outcome of the story? What do people think about magic? What do they think about the underground/overground worlds? What themes do I want to play with? What do my characters want, what do they love and what do they need? How do they communicate? In truth, these questions are more than accessories. They can be the meat of the story, or, from them the meat can emerge.

And... coat!

At this point I'll start writing, either an outline, or some sample paragraphs to get me far enough along to start outlining.

In truth, there's no tried and true way to do it. You just have to keep trying stuff and keep moving it around in your head. I can't tell you how many people have told me that they want to write, but they don't have any ideas. Ideas are not magical. They're things you have to worry at, work at and pester. Just keep thinking and moving the pieces around. If you can get dressed in the morning, then you can bring an idea from kernel to pop. :)

Special note: Sometimes I'll get halfway through the day and realize that my outfit is completely stupid and I need to change.

You can probably guess what this means...


  1. Great analogy for writing. I never looked at it this way.

    1. Isn't it comforting to know that I can make writing just as shallow and easy as getting dressed? :p

  2. The puzzle of trying to figure it all out is more fun than dressing, in my opinion! But it's a great analogy, for sure. :)

    1. Much as I enjoy fashion from time to time, I'm going to have to agree with you on that one. :)

  3. Haha, love the end here. Great analogy! Fun to see the process as you thought it through for the story idea, too (and related wardrobe selection). ;o)

  4. "Ideas are not magical. They're things you have to worry at, work at and pester."

    I'm so glad you said this, because I sometimes feel like ideas should be magical, because they seem to be for other people. But they aren't for me. It's like getting dressed. How many times have I put on a carefully chosen outfit, only to change my mind right before I leave the house? Or actually left the house, only to wish that I had worn something else? I often will get 100 pages into a new story only to find it isn't working. Sucks, but I guess that's part of my process.